Six ways to thwart a terrorist attack

Lonewolf-style attacks have presented a new - but not unpreventable - threat.

Police work near the scene where French soliders were hit and injured by a vehicle in the western Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret, France (photo credit: REUTERS/BENOIT TESSIER)
Police work near the scene where French soliders were hit and injured by a vehicle in the western Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret, France
Many opinions have been expressed over the last few weeks and months about the rise of terrorism in Europe and the Europeans’ inability to thwart terrorist attacks and prevent the escalation of tension. Is it really inevitable for people to be forced to live under the fear of constant terrorist attacks? Or is it possible to prevent some or most of these attacks? Over the last few years, and especially this past year, a large number of terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist jihadist groups have taken place in Europe, including in France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Finland, Russia, Turkey and the UK to name just a few.
A large percentage of these were lonewolf attacks, carried out by individuals without prior planning and without a network of collaborators or using advanced weapons. These lone-wolf attackers aren’t in communication with any kind of headquarters, and often they don’t even have a clear mission.
Usually lone-wolf attacks are carried out by young people who’ve been brainwashed and influenced by incitement, and oftentimes suffer from personal frustrations as they receive inspiration from Islamist jihad and ISIS websites.
For the most part, lone-wolf attackers strike without any planning employing improvised weapons – knives, axes or vehicles.
Intelligence forces have a hard time detecting or thwarting this type of attack, because there are no signs to alert the suspicions of the authorities.
Security agents usually follow leads, such as calls by family members to the authorities, or living wills posted by potential attackers on social media. Even when such clues are available, it is still incredibly difficult to ascertain the specific details of an attack.
Attacks such as those that took place in Paris over the last couple of years, and in Barcelona three weeks ago, should have been identified ahead of time and thwarted, since they were carried out by large terrorist cells and were planned over a number of months.
Members of terrorist cells need to gather weapons, use various forms of communication, and coordinate among each other. A proper intelligence network has an established network of agents who gather intelligence among target populations from which terrorists come. They know how to identify signs and situations that indicate terrorist activity. So, why did the Spanish and French intelligence organizations fail at these tasks? In order to carry out successful intelligence gathering, agents must have an extremely advanced familiarity with the area and communities they’re dealing with. They need to know what the problematic aspects are, and which areas have the potential to become problematic and become breeding grounds for terrorism.
Security agents need to be able to accurately map out populations, to recruit and handle agents as well technological surveillance equipment, to arrest and interrogate suspects and monitor suspicious Internet activity.
All of this human and technological activity must be approved as legal before it can be carried out. Huge amounts of information are constantly being transmitted and technological systems are always being updated. This information is then examined by a number of different security agencies so that it can be crosschecked and verified before being used.
The main problem intelligence organizations in Europe are up against is a lack of professional manpower and necessary technological resources. A number of countries have been involved in intense struggles with terrorist organizations.
The British have struggled against the Irish Republican Army; the Spanish fought against the Basque resistance; the French dealt with the Algerian underground; and the Russians were threatened by a number of groups throughout the former Soviet Union. This more recent type of threat, however, is quite different than the struggles these countries faced in previous decades.
Modern day terrorism is not a national struggle for independence, but a murderous struggle carried out by religious fanatics who are fighting and willing to die for their principles. The European security establishment does not have a strong system set in place to counter these security threats in population centers that are becoming more and more densely populated with Muslims.
In the absence of appropriate legislation and supportive information systems, it’s almost impossible to manage this type of struggle.
It is important to understand that most of the Muslims living in Europe are completely focused on just surviving; they go to work so that they can provide for their families. The few extremist terrorist cells that do exist are scattered around the continent.
If the EU authorities and their intelligence gathering agencies are interested in preventing the acceleration of organized terrorist cells and thwarting attacks, they must carry out a number of actions.
The first is understanding that the enemy lives and operates from within the Muslim population centers of Europe. These communities for the most part are composed of extremely poor families, which makes them the ideal breeding grounds for radical Islamist groups to recruit new operatives to join their subversive activity. Therefore, anti-terrorist intelligence organizations must identify and map out these dangerous population centers.
The second action that is necessary for the authorities to take is effecting legislative change, which would allow law enforcement to carry out acts of counterterrorism that would enable them both to successfully thwart attacks and prevent terrorist cells from forming and carrying out subversive activity.
The third is constructing a working security plan that combines basic intelligence gathering among at-risk groups in problematic areas with sending security agents out into the field with the appropriate technological tools necessary to acquire an accurate picture subversive activity and receive real-time alerts.
The fourth is to create organizational and computerized platforms that are appropriate for operating these intelligence and technological systems based on professional work theory.
The fifth is increasing cooperation and coordination regarding intelligence issues and transparency among the security agencies of the EU.
The sixth is understanding that there is a difference between lone-wolf attacks and large-scale, organized terrorist attacks. The former are carried out by individuals with personal motives, such as frustration or revenge without serious weapons or training, whereas the latter are carried out by organized terrorist cells that are run by operatives trained by Islamist jihad organizations.
It’s much easier to track these cells by using a combination of technological and human surveillance.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.