HERZLIYA, Israel Ñ Al Qaida planned to hijack a Saudi F-15E
fighter-jet and crash it into a major office tower in Israel, the Israeli Chief of Staff said yesterday.
Israeli officials said U.S. intelligence
agencies relayed this information based on their interrogation of Al Qaida suspects during the past 18
months. They said Al Qaida was trying to recruit a Saudi air force pilot to
fly his F-15E from the Tabuk air base and carry out a suicide attack in
Israel about 200 kilometers away.
The Al Qaida plot has been cited by Israel in its arguments to the
United States for the immediate removal of Saudi Arabia's F-15E fleet from
the King Faisal Air Base in Tabuk. About 50 F-15Es were flown to Tabuk in
March 2003 and Riyad has refused to return them to their bases in eastern
and central Saudi Arabia.
On Tuesday, Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon became the
first Israeli public figure to cite the F-15Es at Tabuk. Ya'alon said Israel
has raised the issue with the United States, which sold the F-15s in 1982
"The deployment of the Saudi F-15s at Tabuk is a new phenomenon,"
Ya'alon said. "We worry about it. We found from interrogators, not from
Israel, that Al Qaida thinks to recruit a Saudi pilot to use either the
F-15s or a civilian plane for a suicide strike Ñ like in the Twin Towers Ñ
The reference was to Al Qaida's suicide attacks on New York and
Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Al Qaida hijackers crashed two airliners into
the World Trade Center and the Defense Department in an attack that killed
Ya'alon said Israel could not tolerate the continued presence in Tabuk.
He would not elaborate.
"We worry about this and we demand that it [F-15 deployment] be
changed," Ya'alon told an international conference in Herzliya sponsored by
the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
The United States has not acknowledged that the Saudi F-15E fleet has
been transferred to Tabuk. Neither the State Department nor Pentagon
spokesperson has discussed the issue.
In 1978, then-Defense Secretary Harold Brown pledged to Congress that
Saudi Arabia will base the F-15 aircraft at Dhahran and Taif. Brown said
Tabuk was not equipped to serve as an operating base for the F-15's.