Long before the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Qaeda was planning terrorist attacks against Israeli and American Jewish sites.
That, at least, is one conclusion of the 9/11 Commission Report, which was released Thursday.
The report shows that American intelligence agencies received signals that Al Qaeda was looking to attack Israel or U.S. Jewish sites in the months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
It also shows that several of the hijackers, as well as Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, were motivated in part by hatred of Israel and anger over the support it receives from the United States.
While much of the information already had been released through public testimony and media stories, the report emphasizes the ties between the terrorist attacks in the United States and U.S. policy in the Middle East.
It also paints a chilling portrait of what might have been, by detailing Al Qaeda proposals to attack Israeli and U.S. Jewish sites that the group either rejected or postponed.
The report shows that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, considered the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, was motivated by his "violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel," according to his own admission after being captured in March 2003. Mohammed was interested in attacking Jewish sites in New York City, and sent an Al Qaeda operative to New York early in 2001 to scout possible locations.
He also brought a plan to bin Laden to attack the Israeli city of Eilat by recruiting a Saudi air force pilot who would commandeer a Saudi jet.
Bin Laden supported the proposals, but they were put on hold while the group concentrated on the Sept. 11 plan.
American intelligence officials believed throughout the spring and summer of 2001 that Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian member of Al Qaeda, planned to attack Israel.
The terrorist leaders also considered playing off developments in the Middle East. Mohammed told investigators that bin Laden had wanted to expedite attacks after Ariel Sharon, then leader of Israel’s opposition, visited Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in September 2000, and later when Sharon, who by then had become Israel’s prime minister, met with President Bush at the White House.
Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said the report doesn’t provide information that is new to Israeli intelligence officials.
"There’s very good intelligence cooperation between the two countries," Regev said, noting that counter-terrorism communication is particularly good.
He said that while Israel is used to facing terrorism, it has been spared the type of "mega-terrorist attack" the United States suffered on Sept. 11.
The report is being viewed in the American Jewish community as confirmation of what they’ve been hearing privately for years.
"We didn’t need this report to tell us that Jews were and are a target," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Throughout the years there were evidence and alerts and knowledge of specific times and threats."
The report comes as some Jewish leaders are working to secure federal dollars to make security improvements for Jewish sites. Charles Konigsberg, the United Jewish Communities’ vice president for public policy, said the report will "absolutely help us to make the case" for federal funding.
Other Jewish groups and some lawmakers fear that giving federal aid to houses of worship at risk of terror attacks would violate the separation of church and state.
The report reaffirms what many who follow the issue have believed, that anti-Semitic views were a key motivation for the Sept. 11 plotters.
"In his interactions with other students," the leader of the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, "voiced virulently anti-Semitic and anti-American opinions, ranging from condemnations of what he described as a global Jewish movement centered in New York City that supposedly controlled the financial world and the media, to polemics against governments of the Arab world," the report says.
In original plans for the attack, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was to hijack a plane himself, land it, kill all the male passengers and then deliver a speech that would include criticism of U.S. support for Israel, the report says. However, that plan was scaled down, and Mohammed did not participate in the Sept. 11 hijackings.
In their report, commission members say U.S. support for Israel, as well as the war in Iraq, has fed anti-American sentiment among Muslims. While not critiquing U.S. policy, the report suggests the United States must do more to justify its actions and communicate with the Arab world.
"Neither Israel nor the new Iraq will be safer if worldwide Islamist terrorism grows stronger," the report says.
The report recommends changing the U.S. relationship with Arab states with the goal of improving America’s image. While acknowledging that those who become terrorists likely are impervious to persuasion, bettering America’s image among the general Arab public could minimize support for terrorists.
It also recommends a closer examination of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. Commission members suggest political and economic reform must be stressed, as well as greater tolerance and cultural respect.
"Among Saudis, the United States is seen as aligned with Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, with whom Saudis ardently sympathize," the report said. "Although Saudi Arabia’s cooperation against terrorism improved to some extent after the Sept. 11 attacks, significant problems remained."
JTA intern Alana B. Elias Kornfeld contributed to this report from New York.