Israeli security forces claimed Wednesday to have foiled an al-Qaeda plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem's convention center, but U.S. officials told NBC News they couldn't confirm the threat.
Shin Bet, the usually secretive Israeli internal security service, went public Wednesday with the arrests of three Palestinians who were captured on Christmas Day last year. The Israelis said the suspects had been recruited by al-Qaeda over the Internet by an operative working for Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over al-Qaeda after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
Several U.S. officials, however, told NBC News they hadn't been able to verify the Israeli report — particularly the purported link to al-Qaeda — even though U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies communicate closely and frequently.
They noted that the arrests came three weeks ago and were only now being made public, for unknown reasons.
Referring to the Israeli government, a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "We don't have a reason to doubt that it's information that they've been given."
The question is whether the information is true, this official said, adding, "The validity is something we're still looking at."
At a briefing for reporters in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf also wouldn't confirm the Israeli report, saying there were no plans to evacuate the Tel Aviv embassy because there was already "fairly high security at our facilities there."
Shin Bet said one of the men it arrested disclosed plans to simultaneously bomb the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv but also the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, where President Barack delivered address last March.
In the alleged plot, other conspirators would lie in waiting to pick off rescue personnel responding to the explosions, Shin Bet said.
It identified the alleged al-Qaeda recruiter as Ariv Al-Sham, operating out of Gaza on the orders of al-Zawahiri.
U.S. officials especially questioned the alleged link to al-Qaeda, telling NBC News the plot may merely have been "inspired" by the terrorist group.
But Western officials have said that since the death of bin Laden, al-Qaeda and associated groups have made inroads beyond Afghanistan, Iraq and northern Africa and were carving out new havens in Middle Eastern countries closer to Israel, notably Libya and Syria.
Andrea Mitchell and Catherine Chomiak of NBC News contributed to this report.