As arson wildfires consumed nearly 200,000 acres in Southern California, destroying 850 homes and killing at least 13, the inevitable question arises: Who started the fires?
While firefighters focus on containing the blazes rather than the detective work necessary to prosecute arsonists, many are wondering about a possible connection with terrorism.
In August, Australian authorities launched an investigation into reports al-Qaida planned to spark bushfires in a new wave of devastating terror attacks.
A June 25 FBI memo to United States law enforcement agencies revealed a senior al-Qaida detainee claimed to have developed a plan to start midsummer forest fires in the U.S.
The terrorist hoped to mimic the destruction that devastated Canberra last summer, killing four people and destroying more than 500 homes, as well as in other parts of Australia.
The memo, obtained by the Arizona Republic newspaper, said an unidentified detainee revealed he hoped to create several large, catastrophic wildfires at once.
“The detainee believed that significant damage to the U.S. economy would result and once it was realized that the fires were terrorist acts, U.S. citizens would put pressure on the U.S. government to change its policies,” the memo said.
The detainee told investigators his plan called for three or four operatives to travel to the U.S. and set timed explosive devices in forests and grasslands.
“Australian security authorities are aware of reports that al-Qaida has considered starting bushfires in the U.S. as a form of terrorist attack,” said a spokeswoman Australian Attorney General Daryl Williams. “Arson attacks are just one of a wide range of scenarios which have been considered as part of our investigations into al-Qaida’s ability to conduct attacks in Australia.”
In fact, Arab terrorists in Israel have started dozens of major forest fires over the years. And al-Qaida has been known to learn from and take inspiration from the activities of Palestinian Arab terrorists – who, for instance, first pioneered airline hijackings.
As far back as 1988, Israeli police caught more than a dozen Palestinian adults in the act of setting fires, while other Arabs confessed to arson after arrest. Some fires followed specific calls by underground Arab terrorists. A leaflet issued by the Palestinian uprising’s underground leadership called for ”the destruction and burning of the enemy’s properties, industry and agriculture.”
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said at the time: ”The need to set fires, which also leads to murders, is in my eyes worse than fundamentalism.”
Israeli nature reserve authorities said 408 fires in May and June of 1988 destroyed 400,000 acres of land, nearly seven times the acreage burned from 1974 to 1986.
Last year, Gilad “Gidi” Mastai, chief ranger in the Galilee region of Israel, told the Jerusalem Post: “It’s extremely hard to find arsonists, just like it’s hard to close off the Green Line to terrorists. The forests here are on the front line.”
But, he said, the vast majority of deliberate fires are started by Arabs with political motives.
Forest rangers often need the help of the Israel Defense Forces to battle the terror blazes.
Arson cases account for one-third of Israeli forest fires. “Political” arsonists cause the most with negligent hikers a close second.