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May 06, 2003

Tel Aviv bombing trail leads to Damascus

Here is the non-subscribers portion of Jane' [intelligence]

At around 1.00am local time on April 30, Asif Mohammed Hanif, 21, detonated an explosive suicide belt at the entrance to the popular Tel Aviv waterfront café, 'Mike's Place', killing himself and three Israelis. His alleged accomplice, Omar Khan Sharif, 27, is said to have fled the scene after failing to activate another explosive-packed vest. Israeli police immediately launched a nationwide manhunt for Sharif, who at the time of writing remains at large. However, Israeli security sources who spoke to JTIC this weekend have acknowledged that Sharif may already have left the country. Both Hanif and Sharif are almost certainly UK nationals.

The attack was the first time a non-Palestinian has carried out a suicide bombing in Israel.

"Sharif appears to be quite resourceful for a someone planning to commit suicide and who had no getaway plan," a senior Israeli security source said. "After realising that there was a malfunction in his explosive charge he immediately dropped the belt and while running away from the scene he managed to snatch a purse from a citizen, probably to obtain some cash. This is the behavior of a well-trained person, rather than a naive ideologist, who managed to hide and escape in a foreign country," the source claimed.

Israeli Intelligence sources allege that Hanif and Sharif first met one another in Damascus. Hanif, believed to have been activated there, arrived in Damascus for the last time five months ago, while Sharif was alleged to have been activated in the UK and traveled to Syria in March. The men were met in Damascus by Hamas representatives, Israeli intelligence claims, but received training from another group, possibly Hizbullah or Al-Qaeda.

The explosives used in the bombing were also prepared in Syria, Israeli intelligence believes, but were probably brought into Israel by a third party. JTIC has learned that the explosive content of the devices was a rare form of plastic explosive nicknamed 'datasheet'. When flattened into thin leaves and disguised as pages of a book, this form of explosive is completely undetectable by X-ray machines and is difficult to identify even with a trained eye.

The Tel Aviv attack, if shown to have been planned and directed out of Damascus, comes at an inconvenient time for the Syrian government, which is trying to soothe damaged relations with the US. While US Secretary of State Colin Powell has stated that the Syrians have reported shutting down the offices of some terrorist organisations, Israeli intelligence sources have long argued that no such action has in fact been taken.

The traditional Syrian position is that Damascus hosts only the political offices of a number of groups which they deem to be legitimate 'resistance' organisations. However Israel has claimed that Syria's involvement extends to the hosting of offices and training camps for at least six terrorist outfits both on Syrian soil and in Lebanon.