Combating terror in Israel: A look at what’s being done, and what needs to be done

HOW SHOULD we cope with the current wave of terror in Israel?

A child pays homage at the site in Jerusalem’s Old City where Rabbi Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Banita were stabbed to death on October 3 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A child pays homage at the site in Jerusalem’s Old City where Rabbi Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Banita were stabbed to death on October 3
Many titles and nicknames have been given to the wave of terrorist attacks that Israel has faced since October 2015: third intifada, knife intifada, children’s intifada, al-Aksa intifada, popular terrorism, knife terrorism, lone-wolf attacks and more. Journalists, commentators and terrorism pundits are all willing to swear that their definition is the one that correctly reflects the phenomenon.
Defining the phenomenon is not only a theoretical question of terminology.
Answering the following questions will not only help to correctly define the phenomenon, but will also enable the identification of the parameters required to deal with it effectively.
Are we dealing with an intifada or a wave of terror? Are the terrorists independent lone wolves or is it an organized phenomenon? Is the background for the attacks related to events at al-Aksa Mosque or are they the result of popular protests stemming from despair over the economic or national situation? In Israel, there has been a tendency for many years to describe terrorist attacks in escalating and frightening terms.
This trend is reflected in the media coverage of terrorist attacks and often gets a boost from the opposition, which uses terrorism as a comfortable cushion from which to attack the government (regardless of which party is in power).
In addition, every now and then, we are exposed to the media’s determination that a terrorist attack or a wave of terror constitutes an “escalation.” We have experienced so many escalations in recent decades that we seem to have already reached the summit of Mount Olympus. In any event, when the next wave of terror strikes, we will again be told that it is an escalation.
TERRORISM IS a dynamic phenomenon.
Both sides – terrorists and security officials – are constantly in a learning competition, processing and internalizing the enemy’s methods of operation.
They try to pinpoint the enemy’s “underbelly” and match it with effective methods. Therefore, not every change in terrorism’s modus operandi constitutes an escalation. The fervor surrounding the wave of terror only serves the interests of the terrorists, who want to maximize the resonance of their attacks and increase anxiety.
The wave of terror that Israel has been facing in recent months is not, and has never been, an “intifada.” An intifada is a popular uprising. The first intifada, which began at the end of 1987, included demonstrations and violent incidents in which tens of thousands of Palestinians participated throughout the territories. The second intifada, which began in 2000, was also a mass uprising, but unlike the first one, it was armed with firearms, and Palestinian terrorist organizations joined the masses in carrying out a series of major terrorist attacks.
The phenomenon that Israel is currently facing is a severe wave of terrorist attacks, a wave with clear characteristics that differ from previous waves of terror that mainly consists of cold-weapon attacks – stabbings, vehicular attacks and, recently, even small-arms fire. The number of people taking part is small compared with the number of Palestinians who took part in the intifadas.
Fewer than 300 terrorists have taken part in the current wave of terror, not thousands or tens of thousands. This is not to downplay the severity of the current wave or the challenge it presents to security agencies and Israeli society, but we should not ascribe to it apocalyptic dimensions.
With all of the deep grief and pain felt for the victims of the current wave, their number is very small compared to previous waves of terror, such as the suicide attacks during 1992-1994 (which, incidentally, were not called an intifada).
The total number of victims from the past six months is lower than the number of victims from one or two suicide attacks in the 1990s or 2000s.(It is important to reemphasize that these arguments do not indicate a disregard for the severity of the current wave of terror or a willingness to tolerate it. On the contrary. However, if we do not succeed in correctly defining and distinguishing the characteristics and dimensions of the current phenomenon, we will not know how to cope with it effectively.) From the moment that we defined the terrorist attacks of the past six months as a wave of terror, several important questions derived from this definition have required answers:
• Is this wave initiated by terrorist organizations or is it an authentic phenomenon without the operative involvement of terrorist organizations?
• Are these terrorist attacks the result of a top-down or bottom-up approach?
• Is the background to the eruption and continuation of this wave religious tension surrounding al-Aksa Mosque; despair stemming from an economic, social or generational crisis in Palestinian society; a lack of governability; or personal circumstances that are channeled into violence and terror?
• Are these terrorist attacks the result of a rational decision by the terrorists or an uncontrollable emotional outburst?
• To what extent is it an authentic process unique to Palestinian society, or are the events in Israel related to the global wave of lone-wolf terrorist attacks influenced by the “Arab Spring” and Islamic State? Israel’s security agencies and decision makers must provide an answer to these questions and determine accordingly the most effective means of prevention as well as the operational steps necessary to deal with the phenomenon.
IN GENERAL, one must distinguish between two types of terrorist attacks – “self-initiated” or “locally initiated” attacks, and “organized” attacks. This distinction concerns the involvement of terrorist organizations in the initiation, planning, preparation and execution of the attacks.
An organized attack is an attack that is operationally organized by a terrorist organization. The results of these attacks are usually more severe and fatal than terrorist attacks carried out without organizational operational involvement.
A self-initiated attack is carried out by a lone wolf. The initiative and planning begin and end in the mind of a single person who underwent a process of radicalization and decided to carry out an attack independently and alone. A locally initiated attack is carried out by a small group (two or three) of terrorists.
The groups can be made up of siblings, couples, relatives or friends who agree that they want to carry out an attack together.
The number of casualties in self-initiated or locally initiated attacks is usually smaller than in organized attacks. The level of planning is low. Most are carried out using cold or improvised weapons, and the number of victims is limited.
Self-initiated attacks are likely to be inspired or incited by a terrorist organization but the organization is not operationally involved in their execution.
In certain cases, the terrorists might see themselves as agents of the terrorist organization with which they identify (such as Hamas or Islamic State), but they are not members. They did not undergo basic training and they did not receive assistance from the organization in carrying out the attack.
Sometimes, lone wolves who carry out self-initiated attacks openly, and sometimes defiantly, distinguish themselves from terrorist organizations and stress their independence. For instance, Baha Alyan, who carried out a terrorist attack in Jerusalem in October 2015, wrote on his Facebook page: “I call on organizations not to claim responsibility for my martyrdom. My death is for the homeland, not for you.”
In the current wave of terror, we are dealing with self-initiated and locally initiated attacks. The term “lone wolf” is too narrow to include the characteristics of the phenomenon, as is the term “attacks of the individuals.” “Knife intifada” and “popular terror” are too wide and broaden the scope of the phenomenon.
There are those who try to point to a direct or indirect connection between the terrorists in the current wave of terror and terrorist organizations led by Hamas. They link the attacks to the targeted incitement of organizations that mainly call on Palestinian youth to carry out attacks.
Indeed, in many cases, terrorist organizations do try to “ride the tiger” and ascribe these attacks to themselves.
They use the media outlets at their disposal to publish instructions on how to prepare and carry out an effective attack (what type of weapon to choose, how to turn it into a more deadly weapon, what modus operandi to adopt, etc.). However, this alone does not turn self-initiated or locally initiated attacks into organizational attacks. Similarly, expressions of support or sympathy by the terrorist for a particular terrorist organization is not enough to support the assumption that the terrorist is operating as an emissary of that organization.
WHAT ARE the motives behind the execution of these attacks, and are they the result of a rational decision by the terrorists or an uncontrollable emotional outburst? Despite the diversity among the terrorists in the current wave – men, women and children who come from different areas and use different methods of attack (mostly stabbings) – it is still possible to isolate the characteristics unique to the current wave that distinguish it from previous waves.
The first characteristic is, as previously stated, the nature of the attacks as self-initiated or locally initiated, and not organizational. Another characteristic is the young age of the terrorists, including many children. Also, a significant number of the terrorists express their desire and intention to carry out an attack via social media.
In some cases, the decision to carry out an attack stems from a traumatic personal or familial event, for example a relative who was killed in an attack or a family feud. Sometimes the attack is carried out to show solidarity with a role model (a previous terrorist) or in revenge for a humiliation suffered – disrespect shown to the terrorist himself or to a relative or acquaintance – or comes against the backdrop of events that were perceived as national or religious degradation (for instance, an offense against al-Aksa Mosque).
The explosive material at the base of these triggers is composed of a deep hatred of Israel; personal and social frustration; despair over the national and economic situation; or a generational crisis (a blow to parental authority in general, or to the father’s authority in particular).
All of these are channeled at a particular moment and under the influence of deliberate and prolonged incitement into an act considered by the terrorists themselves and many members of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim society to be an admirable expression of altruism, patriotism and religious devotion.
In most cases, it is not a momentary whim or crazy emotional outburst, but rather an informed personal or group decision to carry out an attack that crystallizes over time. In many cases, the decision is the result of subjective cost-benefit considerations. In other cases, it is a response to an urge for adventure wrapped in an attractive cloak of altruism and patriotism.
The terrorists are not necessarily different from young Muslims in the West who undergo a process of radicalization and decide to join a group of foreign fighters in conflict zones or carry out self-initiated or locally initiated terrorist attacks in their own country (such as the couple Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who carried out the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, in 2015).
This phenomenon, which is referred to as “homegrown terrorism” in Europe and Western countries, is essentially a combination of self-initiated and locally initiated attacks inspired by ISIS. It is a growing wave that currently threatens the entire world. The wave of terrorist attacks in Israel does not fundamentally differ from the global trend, though its intensity is greater and it is motivated by, among other things, Palestinian nationalism.
HOW SHOULD we cope with the current wave of terror in Israel? Doing so requires preventive measures to drain the murky swamp from which extremism, violence and terrorism grow; thwarting measures, which are aimed at foiling terrorist attacks before they are carried out; and operative measures designed to bring terrorist attacks to an end quickly and minimize their damage.
• Preventive measures – The current wave of terror is the spoiled fruit of continuous incitement by Palestinian terrorist organizations, Palestinian Authority officials and parties external to the Palestinian arena. The political stagnation is a comfortable cushion for the increased national, social and economic despair among Palestinian society, as well as a sense of lack of origin. All of this gets channeled into the release of feelings of hate and revenge through terrorist attacks.
Israel’s policies have the ability to influence these processes by creating a political horizon and hope, undertaking economic reforms and building frameworks of cooperation with various elements in Palestinian society and the Palestinian Authority. Israel cannot actually stop Palestinian incitement by terrorist organizations or by the PA itself; it needs Palestinian partners who will operate within Palestinian society out of desire and conviction rather than coercion.
Once the wave of terror turns into an intifada, which “infects” new terrorists via social networks, it will no longer be possible to stop it through the prevention of institutionalized incitement. It will require intensive counteraction by opinion shapers in the Palestinian arena to undermine incitement to terrorism – a type of deliberate and planned counterincitement.
Given the murky relationship that exists between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, we cannot expect that this process will actually take place. The Israeli government is not sympathetic to the preventive steps needed to dry the swamp of Palestinian terrorism, and Israeli society cannot agree to economic reforms or policies toward the Palestinians when there are terrorist attacks on a daily basis. From the Palestinian perspective, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership crisis, as well as the absence of heirs or alternative, moderate leaders with political power and public legitimacy, also make it difficult to implement the necessary steps to prevent the current wave of terror.
Even if Palestinian decision-makers understand that these attacks carry no benefit, and that the damage they cause to Palestinian society and the Palestinian national interest is greater than their worth, they will not risk taking this message to their people.
• Thwarting measures – In the absence of preventive measures, Israel has no choice but to rely on thwarting measures.
However, while Israeli security agencies, led by the Shin Bet, have already proved their strong effectiveness in thwarting organized terrorist attacks, this ability is cast in doubt when it comes to facing the current wave of terror.
Accurate and timely intelligence has always been a central component of Israel’s ability to thwart terrorist attacks.
Security agencies have managed to thwart terrorist attacks through the intelligence penetration of terrorist organizations by using HUMINT (human intelligence) or COMINT (communications intelligence). In self-initiated or locally initiated terrorist attacks, these intelligence capabilities become less relevant. When there are no confidants in the planning or execution of the attack, the ability of intelligence agencies to warn of an intended attack is very low.
Nevertheless, an analysis of the characteristics defining the current wave of attacks reveals that HUMINT and COMINT can be replaced by OSINT (opensource intelligence) or SOCMINT (social media intelligence).
A significant number of young terrorists express their intention to carry out an attack on social networks hours or days before the attack itself. For instance, Fadi Alloun, who carried out a stabbing attack in Jerusalem in October 2015, wrote on Facebook: “In the name of Allah, I have decided today to carry out martyrdom and victory for Allah....” Shorouq Dwayyat, the 18-year-old who carried out an attack in Jerusalem in the same month, wrote to her mother: “Don’t cry about me when I become a martyr.”
The development of advanced technology for data processing based on big data, combined with the development of a new military doctrine that will enable the rapid use of open-source intelligence to arrest suspects before they carry out their plans, could meet this need.
Israel’s thwarting efforts are focused on deterrence (demolishing homes, expelling families, denying work permits, etc.). In certain cases, these steps can be effective in achieving the desired goal, but in other cases they might only serve to strengthen the terrorists’ support base.
Israel might improve its thwarting efforts if it can find a way to enlist the help of a potential terrorist’s inner circle – parents, relatives and even friends – to locate him early and neutralize him. The way to achieve this goal would likely require the use of carrots, not only sticks.
• Operational measures – Israel has already taken numerous operative measures to treat and reduce the damage caused by terrorist attacks, including easing licensing for weapons: increasing deployment of police officers in areas prone to calamity: imposing restrictions on Palestinian movement and employment in Israel: and enforcing stricter penalties on employers of illegal workers.
It seems that these measures have met with limited success, but they have not brought the wave of terror to an end or even reduced it. Israel can take additional operative measures. One is to relaunch the Civil Guard in the format of the late 1970s as a means of counterterrorism. In this framework, many civilians would be recruited to the ranks to carry out armed patrols in their neighborhoods in a type of district policing that uses volunteers who undergo training designed for this mission.
These volunteers would multiply the police force and be deployed throughout the country.
It is reasonable to assume that this step would not bring an end to the current wave of terror, but it could be very effective in dealing with self-initiated and locally initiated terrorist attacks.
The new civil guard would strengthen the deterrence effect, enable rapid and professional intervention in the event of an attack, and, most importantly, increase the public’s sense of security and reduce its anxiety.
Prof. Boaz Ganor is dean and the Ronald Lauder Chair in Counter-Terrorism at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, and founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya.