Armed Conflict Intelligence Terrorism & Extremism

The Tel Aviv Plot

Bruce Riedel
Wednesday, September 8, 2021, 8:01 AM

Newly declassified information reveals that a 2002 al-Qaeda attack in Israel was thwarted at the last minute. The plot was kept secret for nearly two decades.

The skyline of Tel Aviv, Israel. (Eduard Marmet,; CC BY-SA 2.0,

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Recently declassified information from the first-ever interrogation of someone presumed to be a senior al-Qaeda operative captured after 9/11 provides dramatic new insights into Osama bin Laden’s plans for a follow-up attack to Sept. 11. Specifically, bin Laden was plotting a major attack in Israel, a move consistent with his obsession with the Arab-Israeli conflict and U.S. support for Israel. The attack was thwarted at the last minute. So why is this coming to light only 20 years later?

Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, also known as Abu Zubaydah, was captured in Pakistan in March 2002. Abu Zubaydah is a Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia who was allegedly involved in preparing the travel and documentation of many al-Qaeda operatives. Not technically a member of the group, he had access to much information about its planning.

In the opening minute of the first interrogation meeting after his capture, Abu Zubaydah blurted out that he was working on a plot to conduct simultaneous attacks on multiple dance clubs in Tel Aviv with the goal of killing hundreds of Israelis. It was all news to the U.S. intelligence community.

The lead interrogator was FBI agent Ali Soufan, a Lebanese American who speaks fluent Arabic. He wrote about the interrogation in his book “The Black Banners: How Torture Derailed the War on Terror After 9/11.” Soufan believes Abu Zubaydah may have been under the misimpression that Soufan was from the Mossad because of his native fluency in Arabic. In the book, the target country of the attack plan is concealed at the request of the national security pre-publication review process. It is identified only as a country “closely allied with the United States.”

It is now clear that country is Israel. According to Abu Zubaydah, the operation was very much bin Laden’s project, which he was very excited about. It was begun before 9/11 after al-Qaeda got a donation from a Saudi source of $100,000 to carry out an attack in Israel with the likelihood of more to come if it was successful. Soufan does not know more about the money. Ironically a key al-Qaeda operative in the plot was captured in Iran after 9/11 fleeing Afghanistan, but the plotting went on. The actual suicide bombers were Palestinians, and the attack was imminent.

In March 2002, Israel was in the midst of the second intifada. On the 27th of the month, Hamas carried out a suicide bombing in Netanya that killed 30 Israeli civilians. If al-Qaeda had pulled off multiple simultaneous attacks, the already-explosive situation in the region would have been even more dire.

The intelligence was shared immediately with the Israelis, who wrapped up the team in the territories who were intended to pull it off. Abu Zubaydah may have been under the impression that they had already been arrested before his capture and had outed him to the CIA.

The plot was likely kept a secret for years because it showed that the FBI was getting results from the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah without waterboarding and other torture methods. That, of course, would undermine Vice President Dick Cheney’s argument that torture was essential to getting information. The coverup was about protecting the use of torture. The Israelis had their own interest in silence since they did not want to highlight publicly the linkages between al-Qaeda and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In fact, the Palestinian conflict and American support for Israel were and are still the driving force behind al-Qaeda leadership. Bin Laden and his deputy and successor Ayman Zawahri laid that out repeatedly before and after 9/11, as I wrote in my book “The Search for Al Qaeda.” Indeed, bin Laden had wanted the attacks in the United States to take place when then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was visiting the White House in June 2001 to dramatize the Israeli connection. The hijackers were not ready, however, and the date slipped to September.

The details of the Tel Aviv plot were classified until a recent court order in New York. Soufan recently spoke about them to an Israeli newspaper. Evidently, the change in administration from the pro-torture Trump team to President Biden and CIA Director William Burns has helped get the truth out.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, part of the Brookings Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. In addition, Riedel serves as a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy.

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