Following the (near) bus bombing this week in Bat Yam, many people feel like the sweep of terrorist attacks against Israelis is once again growing. The bag of explosives that left on a crowded bus was the final step in a complicated, multi-level plan prepared by terrorists. Israeli intelligence’s job is to prevent these bombs from reaching Israel in the first place.
Why did I write that people “feel” this way? Because the public is not privy to most of the information connected to the prevention of attacks. The number of attacks that Israeli intelligence succeeds in thwarting well before they reach public places has been steadily growing for several months now. In November alone, more than 20 bombs were discovered in transit to Israel. In addition, dozens of Molotov cocktails were thrown, a male soldier was murdered and a female soldier was stabbed.
So how is that even after hearing about all of these incidents, most Israeli citizens say that they feel secure? The answer lies in people’s trust in the Shin Bet. People truly believe that the agency will succeed in procuring the necessary information about terrorist networks and possible attacks and will be able to prevent all incidents before they happen. The Shin Bet has the means and has developed a variety of methods to carry out its work. It plants deep-cover agents in hostile communities, installs wiretaps, carries out surveillance, watches for behavioral patterns of suspicious individuals and uses technological devices. This is just a short list of the methods used to locate and neutralize terrorists. In recent years, terrorist organizations use the Internet and encrypted software more and more and to combat this, Israeli intelligence has developed extremely sophisticated defense and cyber warfare systems.
The Shin Bet naturally looks out for suspicious or unusual behavior that might be indicative of malicious intent.
It is extremely difficult to thwart a terrorist attack that is planned and carried out by a single individual, since it is very difficult to gather intelligence when the perpetrator is keeping all of the information inside his head. The more people who are involved, who may discuss the details of a plan, the easier it is to find out about the planned attack.
Most of the incidents that have occurred over the past few months were carried out by people working on their own. There has been an increase in these types of attacks for a number of reasons: frustration stemming from lack of progress in peace negotiations; difficult living conditions; and a desire to avenge family members who were injured by the IDF. In addition, following a bombing, there are always people who are encouraged by this success and decide to carry out an attack they’ve been planning for some time.
Some of the attacks that were recently prevented advanced all the way to the last stage before they were thwarted, such as the Bat Yam bus bombing. It is very rare, though, for incidents to reach this advanced stage. In these cases, the intelligence gathering is carried out only after the attack. The Shin Bet views this kind of case as a complete failure on its part, the failure to prevent the attack in the first place. And yet it is extremely important to the Shin Bet to get its hands on the specific intelligence information connected with the incident fast to learn about groups and movements, which helps it prepare for and prevent more attacks.
And this is exactly what happened after the bus bombing on Tel Aviv’s King Saul Street in November 2012: The terrorist was arrested just a few hours after the attack at his place of work in the city of Modi’in.
In the past, communication between heads of terrorist organizations usually took place during face-to-face meetings, via telephone calls and through hiding notes in secret places to be picked up by messengers. Today, however, terrorist organizations transfer encrypted messages by using simple software programs that are readily available, as well as disposable cellphones. Pursuing this type of communication requires constant vigilance. Terrorist organizations are preparing more attacks than ever before, and the numbers are continually rising.
Palestinian security forces are not very effective and they rarely succeed in gathering any useful information or using the information they have in a sophisticated manner.
Of course Israeli intelligence aims to thwart attacks before they can be carried out, but even if it doesn’t succeed in this, it can gather significant information afterward and use it to lead it to the responsible organization and thereby prevent future attacks. The Shin Bet excels in these situations and should be commended for its actions.
Unfortunately, it only takes one case that slips through its fingers for innocent people to be killed and for morale to plummet.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.