Days before New York and New Jersey were targeted by a jihadi bomber, a group of world experts on counter-terrorism sat on a stage in a large conference room in Herzliya and simulated an incident that could, in the future, represent the next stage of international terrorism: a chemical terrorist attack on a European city.
By chance, the simulation was held a day after the US bombed an Islamic State chemical weapons production center, destroying a converted pharmaceutical factory. Days after the simulation ended, reports began streaming in of a mustard gas attack on a US base in Iraq.
The simulation formed a key event during the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism’s annual conference, which attracted security practitioners, diplomats and terrorism experts from around the world.
Founded in 1996 by Prof. Boaz Ganor, the ICT, which is currently marking its 20th anniversary, has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to deciphering future terrorist trends and threats. Ganor, together with Shabtai Shavit, who had only recently completed his term as head of the Mossad in 1996, as well as other senior former security and intelligence community figures, came to the conclusion that “terrorism is here to stay, not only in Israel, and it will grow,” Ganor told The Jerusalem Post
earlier this month.
Back in the 1990s, Ganor faced resistance to setting up the ICT, and was told that counterterrorism is a practical field, not an academic one, but he overcame that hurdle by blending a range of fields and disciplines to set up the world’s first institute dedicated to the study of terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. Ganor’s recipe was to merge a range of academic knowledge areas with the study of practical security techniques.
Throughout his career, Ganor has briefed the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, the US Congress, US Army, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and many defense and intelligence officials around the world. He has traveled to universities the world over to deliver guest lectures on how to understand combat terrorism.
Twenty years after setting up the ICT, on September 15, 2016, Ganor stood before a packed conference room and explained to the audience why senior security experts were about to simulate a chemical terrorist attack on a German city.
“Simulation is a very important tool. It helps us to forecast. It helps up to identify and analyze,” he said. “It is very relevant in order to identify intelligence gaps.”
This exercise is a “blue team” type simulation, he added, designed to create “certain circumstances in which decision-makers need to solve the dilemmas. This is the operative side,” he added. “The scenario today will deal with a future threat and hopefully it will stay a future trend,” Ganor said.
In the exercise, the German chancellor was played by Brian M. Jenkins, who in real life is a decorated American combat veteran with decades of security expertise, and who is currently a senior adviser to the president at the RAND Corporation, a major American policy and decision-making research center.
The simulation began with a series of events that could face real decision-makers in the future.
Jenkins took part in a simulated meeting of NATO chiefs and suddenly received a mock intelligence alert specifying indications of an unprecedented chemical attack by jihadi terrorists.
Islamic State has created a “new unconventional department,” according to the alert, and a building in Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa, Syria, is storing the weapons. Satellite images and street views of the building were projected on a screen before the participants.
Jenkins and his colleagues pored over the intelligence and went through their options, before ordering NATO military planners to draw up strike plans.
Next, Jenkins headed a German government meeting, during which his cabinet learned that events were moving fast: A chemical terrorist threat inside Germany was developing, and an Islamic State cell was on the loose.
Islamic State had issued an ultimatum for Germany to withdraw from the international coalition fighting it in Syria and Iraq. Soon afterward, a truck packed with chlorine went missing in Germany.
“We are setting in mode preparations for a chemical emergency. Recover this truck and begin to move in on known suspects and do everything that we can to disrupt whatever networks we know about. We can circulate... pictures of these individuals,” Jenkins said in one simulated directive.
After going through a long sequence of responses that appeared highly realistic, including mass mobilization of police, alerting allied nations and taking a decision not to declare a state of emergency at this time, instead using existing laws to round up and detain terrorist suspects, Jenkins said, “Before I address the public, I want to be able to say that we have taken steps.”
As this stage in the simulation, a mock truck bomb with chlorine on board detonated, killing 36 civilians and wounding hundreds, sparking chaos. Islamic State claimed responsibility in a video that was broadcast in the conference room. “This is just the beginning. The soldiers of the caliphate are coming,” a masked man said in a video statement, in Arabic and English, adding to the realism.
Jenkins and his team scrambled several responses, declaring a state of emergency, increasing security at all chemical sites, and mobilizing police and the intelligence services to disrupt potential additional plots.
During this remarkable simulation, Bulgaria’s Ambassador to Israel Dimitar Mihaylov played the foreign minister. Mihaylov urged Jenkins in the exercise to convene an immediate UN Security Council meeting to call on allies to support Germany’s response strategy, saying the need for international cooperation was essential.
Speaking to the Post after the simulation, Jenkins said that any Western government faced with such an emergency would have to appear strong to avoid civil strife.
“The government has to look strong and competent. If it looks weak and incompetent, not only is it going to add to public alarm, but it is going to allow this other dynamic – civil strife – to take hold. Whatever we do, we must remain on top of this thing. We must be tough.... And that doesn’t mean that we overreact,” Jenkins said.
Within the US, he added, the levels of preparedness for a chemical attack are high, and the Department of Homeland Security has forged relationships with key sectors and private infrastructure companies in the petrochemical industry to enforce “very strict safety regulations on this.”
Ultimately, he said, in addition to robust responses to mitigate and deal with such a severe threat, the public always expects political leaders to “have a cool head.”
Mihaylov speaks Arabic and Hebrew, and served as Bulgaria’s envoy to Damascus from 2011 to 2012, before he became persona non grata in the eyes of the Assad regime.
“In the asymmetric world of post modernism... every scenario is possible,” he said, discussing the threat of unconventional terrorism after the attack. “Precisely when you have the shrinking of ISIS, they may practically be thinking about retaliating and throwing the ball back [in the West’s court]. The logic developed here is correct. It is scary and not pleasant but welcome to the world we live in,” said Mihaylov.
“This is reality. As Boaz [Ganor] said, we should be aware, but not panic. This is simply a matter of fact. We should not exaggerate things or take them to the irrational side. Israel, in that regard, is an excellent teacher,” he added.
Bulgaria, a part of the EU, is a frontier European state, much like an outpost, and it is the first line of defense for the EU, the ambassador noted. In recent weeks, the EU has given Bulgaria commitments for staff and equipment to boost security and screening in the midst of migrant flows from next-door Turkey, he said.
“From the first day the ICT was founded, our approach has been that terrorism is a global phenomenon,” Ganor said, speaking in his office a few weeks before the conference and simulation occurred.
As the Islamic State threat unfolded, Ganor’s institute received calls from the deputy chief of staff of a European country, and his institute has been sought after for advice by foreign ministers, deputy heads of state, security chiefs and diplomats, all of whom want advice on how to deal with Islamic State.
“We are a bridge between academic knowledge and practical know-how,” Ganor said.
The ICT has around 40 members on its academic staff, as well as research fellows, associates and interns that include students from around the world. Around 100 former senior members of the Israeli defense establishment make up the associates, who are happy for the opportunity to volunteer to carry out tasks related to their previous professional lives, according to Ganor.
In 2011, the ICT became the first academic center outside of the US that was chosen by the American military for a fellowship program, with an American lieutenant-colonel arriving in Herzliya each year to study at the center.
Five years after the ICT was founded, the 9/11 attacks shook the world, and on that same day Ganor was giving a lecture headlined “Stopping suicide terrorism – Israel’s challenge.”
“After 9/11, that stopped being Israel’s challenge alone,” Ganor said.