By BRUNO NOTA, ALEXANDER MARQUARDT and LEE FERRAN
Israeli security services have arrested three men they say were in the "initial stages" of an al Qaeda-linked plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv as well as the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, according to the Israeli Prime Minister and local news reports.
The three men were arrested on Christmas Day and are alleged to have been recruited over the internet by "a member of one of the al Qaeda-linked global jihad groups operating in Gaza," according to Haaretz, which cited a high level official at Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service. The Jerusalem Post reported that Shin Bet sources said the recruiter received his orders directly from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man who took over the leadership of al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden's death in May 2011.
A statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the basic elements of the purported plot and said the group's goal was "hard terror attacks in Israel."
The Post said other potential targets included a local bus as well as emergency responders who would have been called to the aftermath of the initial blasts.
In the case of the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Ynet News reported two "al Qaeda operatives" planned to detonate suicide belts at the entrance to the diplomatic facility. Netanyahu's office said one of the suspects had already scoped out the Embassy for a potential attack.
"We are talking about a serious plan that was now in initial stages of coming together," a senior Shin Bet source told Ynet. "During the investigation we updated the relevant parties in the U.S. and elsewhere."
Though all three men were arrested weeks ago, Jerusalem's Magistrate Court lifted a gag order on the case today, Ynet said. Ynet also said five "foreign operatives" expected to participate in the attacks were apprehended by "alert border control forces."
The three main suspects were reportedly recruited separately through social media, including Facebook and Skype, and did not know about each other's plans.
A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said the department was aware of the reports and has been "in contact" with the Israeli government about the case.