JERUSALEM -- Israeli intelligence officials said Wednesday that they had arrested three Palestinians with links to Al Qaeda who were planning a campaign of terrorist attacks across Israel, including a plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
The cell also planned attacks on the International Convention Center in Jerusalem and a bus line that connects that city with a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, officials said.
In a statement released in Hebrew, the intelligence agency Shin Bet announced that it arrested two members of the cell, both residents of East Jerusalem, on Dec. 25. A third suspect, from the West Bank city of Jenin, was arrested Jan. 6.
Officials said the three were recruited several months ago via Facebook and Skype by an Al Qaeda operative in the Gaza Strip named Ariv Sham. The recruiter allegedly told the men that he worked for Ayman Zawahiri, who took over leadership of Al Qaeda in 2011 after U.S. commandos killed the group's founder, Osama bin Laden.
Officials said the plan in the most advanced stage was the plot to blow up the convention center, with suspect Iyad Abu Saara agreeing to help a group of foreign terrorists posing as Russian tourists carry out the attack.
Saara, 24, of East Jerusalem, allegedly agreed to build bombs that he and the foreign terrorists would detonate at the site. He was preparing a trip to Syria to learn how to make bombs, officials said.
The other men arrested were Alaa Ranem, 22, of Jenin and Roubeen Najma, a 31-year-old from East Jerusalem who allegedly agreed to kidnap a soldier from a bus stop and to bomb a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem.
The statement did not say whether the suspects had lawyers or would be tried in open court.
The U.S. State Department said it was just beginning efforts to understand the alleged plot, and referred questions to Israeli authorities.
"Our folks are still looking at it," spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "I'll let the Israelis speak for what evidence they have."
[Updated at 1:45 p.m.: Harf said U.S. officials had not yet corroborated some of the Israeli information, including that there was an Al Qaeda link.]
Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem bureau and Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times