Fighting terror, a decade after 9/11

Israel is capable of teaching the world a few things in this area, but we cannot lose our sense of proportion.

Breaking news (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Breaking news
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
“The bastards changed the program,” the American representative told us as he received us at the airport in New York. This was in mid-September 2001, just a few days after the worst terrorist attack on American soil in history. I was heading a delegation of high-ranking Israel Police officers which had been scheduled to travel across the US speaking to human rights organizations.
According to the original program, we were supposed to present ways of preserving security without infringing on the human rights and the rights of the individual guaranteed by the American Constitution.
But following 9/11, the purpose of the trip changed overnight. In the aftermath of a trauma that had shocked a nation out of its tranquility and confidence, there was no more talk of human rights. From then on, we found ourselves talking solely about terror, and how to prevent it. It seemed that in those first days, any and all means were acceptable in pursuit of that goal.
We had been supposed to speak about how, one year before, 13 Arab-Israelis were killed during the October riots, but the topic never came up. Instead, we were asked, indeed questioned at length, about how to fight and defeat terror. Israel is well-schooled in terrorism and considered a trailblazer in anything related to this type of warfare.
OUR VISIT made the front pages; we were given lofty honors, received applause and accolades and, in one instance, even the key to the city.
None of which however prevented us from having to undergo, at every airport and before every flight, the experience of being treated by security personnel as if we were potential terrorists. The Americans claimed these were random checks, coincidental, as if we were just part of a theoretical survey sample. But the reality was clearly different. We were from the Middle East, and America’s rigidity and panic following the attacks transformed every flight into a nightmare that we accepted without argument.
Naturally, we arranged a visit to Ground Zero, which was still covered in dust and rubble.
We tried to help and to lend our collective experience to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which was to spearhead the American effort in the struggle against terror. Even today, I’m not convinced we succeeded in our efforts there.
The first and most significant decision the US made after 9/11 was to establish the Department of Homeland Security, now the second-largest department in the federal government after the Defense Department.
It has a budget of between $60-70 billion and employs 400,000 people. These numbers are enormous, even when taken in the American context. This department was meant to be the central agency for establishing, coordinating, integrating and putting into operation policies for the war on terror.
Despite the formidable resources invested, however, there remains a large gap between the vision and the reality on the ground. In the US, there are 19,000 separate bodies responsible for law enforcement.
Yes, you read that correctly. Furthermore, there is no definite hierarchy and there are no clear-cut definitions of jurisdiction.
For example, when my daughter called the police after a thief tried to break into my car in a small Washington suburb, four different agencies arrived on the scene – local police, state police, the marshals and the sheriff’s department.
The Washington Post recently published research on the various US intelligence agencies responsible for fighting terror. It turns out that there are many different agencies, each acting on its own and without any coordination with the others.
There is no central, unifying agency that can create a comprehensive understanding of the intelligence gathered by these agencies.
Since the days of J. Edgar Hoover, there has been an unyielding rule in the US that the power of these agencies not be gathered together into one official body, but for them to be acting in parallel but not in tandem is not a healthy situation either.
As an example of just how complicated and ungainly the US system is, consider the American intelligence community’s numerous contradictory estimations concerning Iran’s nuclear capabilities over the past decade.
With regard to field operations, the situation is even more complicated. In every city and state, the marshals, sheriff’s department, traffic police, local police and subway police all operate separately – all of these official bodies are still incapable of synchronizing their actions in the field.
Compare this to our situation; when there is, heaven forbid, a terror attack in Tel Aviv, the question of who runs the scene doesn’t even arise. We have only one national police force – there’s no other alternative. The highest-ranking officer on the scene runs the scene. Period. It is this method of field operations has led to efficiency and success.
THE US continues to struggle to find a balance between the need to prevent acts of terror and gather information to that end on the one hand, and the need to uphold the US Constitution on the other. The Americans have no idea what to do with the system known as “profiling”: the identification of potential terrorists based on personal details such as place of birth, origin, religion or skin color. So they invented what they call “random checks” in an effort to fool themselves and circumvent the Constitution. These “random” security checks are absolutely systematic. Because there is no other choice. That certain groups pose more of a threat than others is a fact that cannot be ignored. It doesn’t make sense to perform a stringent security check on a four-year-old boy, and yet allow the three Pakistanis behind him to pass freely.
It is impossible to keep track of everyone everywhere; there is a need to narrow the focus. Without that focus, terrorists will slip through the net again and again.
Intelligence gathering is the first and most critical step in preventing terrorism.
Next comes operational ability; the ability to act on that intelligence and carry out precise missions, as well as preventative measures such as the use of checkpoints, helicopters and other, specialized tools.
Finally, the use of security measures in the field. Whoever makes light of this last should recall the terror attack on the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv. While the outcome of that attack was horiffic, it could have been far worse – the security check at the entrance to the nightclub reduced what could have been 250 casualties to 25.
Without the foundation, that is to say the strategic intelligence, the whole security apparatus topples, and intelligence cannot be obtained with huge waves of deployment. There must be a listing of priorities and a reduction in the amount of orders.
The Americans are aware of this problem, and I am convinced that they will find a solution. I believe and hope that in the future the US will find a way to continue to honor the principles of equality and human rights without compromising too much on the needs inherent in the war on terror and the prevention of deadly attacks.
Just as critical as the gathering of intelligence, however, is its distribution. Intelligence that is not used is wasted. The police officer in the field needs to know, in real time, if there is a threat in the area. For this to happen, the information coming into the various agencies from all levels has to be unified into a comprehensive understanding of the situation, while at the same time addressing the need, shared by all intelligence agencies, to minimize the exposure of their sources.
This level of cooperation still does not exist in the US. Even with us, a small country in the midst of many, it took time to achieve this. Though many improvements have been made in America in this regard since 9/11, it is still far from being able to distribute intelligence at an Israeli level.
HOWEVER, WHAT’S true of America isn’t necessarily true of New York. Because New York is, in a sense, another America. The city, which bore the brunt of the 9/11 attacks, is not “just another place” but rather a unique city, a symbol of a greater America, in the living spirit and soul of the American nation. New Yorkers understood that the best thing to do would be to take matters into their own hands. The leaders of the city decided that in addition to there being a permanent representative of the FBI in Israel, there would also be a permanent member of the NYPD in the Holy Land as well. And not just in Israel. New York has a representative of its police force in 38 countries around the world. The Israeli representative travels around to every possible location, arranges meetings, visits the scenes of terror attacks, and learns from open, secret, governmental and nongovernmental sources before sending anything of interest back to the headquarters in Manhattan. The NYPD has established, in effect, an independent intelligence network, headed by a former CIA deputy of general staff.
The results can be seen in the field, and with an unexpected side effect in the struggle against crime. When there is good intelligence in matters of terrorism, it spills over into other areas as well.
The change that began in the US in the last decade is prominent and decisive, but the results are not conclusive yet. The US is like a giant aircraft carrier – turning it around takes time. We currently find ourselves in the middle of that turn. When it needs to address a problem, the US can invest an incredible amount of resources due to the strength of its economy.
Though everything still operates on a level of efficiency that is far too low and the coordination between the various agencies is still far too insubstantial, the US has succeeded in preventing another largescale act of terrorism on its soil, and that’s the bottom line. They still need to internalize a few important principles and this will take time. They need to be efficient yet flexible, to focus on the essential and relax when it comes to the unimportant.
During my visit, the Holocaust Museum in Washington was attacked. Someone shot and killed the guard on duty. A small attack in a strategic location. I was surprised to discover that, following the attack, the street was closed for five days.
Why? Close it for two hours, for half a day, even a full day. We’re not talking about a coordinated attack by al-Qaida, we’re talking about a local assailant, an amateur who was caught immediately. So why all this extra effort? WITH ALL this, there is the need to touch upon the issue of the US’s cooperation with Israel. Israel is an American strategic asset of the first order. Israel’s experience in these matters, its cumulative know-how and methods of operation, its location at the front line of the war against terrorism, close to central hotbeds of terrorist activity – all of these make Israel an asset worth its weight in gold to the US. It’s been said that Israel shouldn’t hold anything back from the US, for its own sake. Full cooperation, intelligence transferred over in its entirety, without any “ifs” “ands,” “buts, or “maybes.”
We live in an age when pivotal countries, specifically in our region, are disintegrating into various groups and tribes. The next world war will be against terrorism, in the midst of terrorism. According to several definitions, this is already happening today. Iran, which is attempting to duplicate itself throughout the Middle East, is a prime example. The Iranian octopus is extending its tentacles in all directions, while the Muslim Brotherhood is undermining traditional regimes, some of which have already fallen and some of which are on the way. Africa is unstable, and already contains quite a few potential terrorist groups acting on the basis of religion.
All of these fuel the flourishing of terrorism, which seeks to go beyond conventional means and attain the capability for mass murder.
This is a significant challenge for the US and for the West in general. It is not a war between nations, but rather one between values, between cultures. In this context, Israel is a flexible, efficient commando unit on the front line that is capable of making the difference between victory and defeat. Israel is capable of moving the world toward victory. There is a need to make the war on terror more effective and efficient. It should be smaller, smarter, more flexible and more sophisticated, rather than enormous, expensive and unwieldy. This is not just a budgetary matter; it is more about a point of view. There is a need to teach the world how to conduct its daily routine while dealing with terrorism, how not to lose a sense of proportion, how to get the street open three hours after a terror attack and to go on as normal, because there is no other alternative.

The world needs to start using a biometric identification system in all areas, instead of IDs and documents that can easily be forged. The biometric system is a trailblazer that allows for efficient tracking in real time, and needs to become a world standard. All of the democracies across the globe need to work together in the war on terror, to synchronize their intelligencegathering efforts and their methods of fighting. If we don’t hang together, we will all hang separately.
We need to start preparing for the coming war instead of for the wars we’ve already fought. We are in a new age, one entirely different and more dangerous than the last. We cannot afford to flinch in the face of this new reality. Israel is capable of teaching the world a few things in this regard, but we cannot lose our sense of proportion.
The leader of the free world is the US.
Both before 9/11 and after. The US is the seat of power and all roads pass through it.
At the end of the day, the aircraft carrier will turn around, and head off in the right direction at full steam.
The writer served most recently as the Israel Police and Public Security Attaché in North America and is considered an international expert on fighting terrorism.