Learning To Live With Terrorism: A Lesson From Israel’s Finest

By Assaf Heffetz and Dov Shiloah

Published July 29, 2005, issue of July 29, 2005.
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If there had been any doubts before, the recent attacks in London, the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and the Turkish beach town of Kusadasi have made clear that terrorism is here to stay. Periods of quiet, it is becoming obvious, are nothing more than intermissions between terrorist acts.

Since September 11, 2001, there have been more than a dozen major suicide terrorist attacks — and that is excluding Iraq, Chechnya and Israel, where the number of attacks is almost too numerous to count. These attacks in Indonesia, Kenya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Spain and elsewhere, most, if not all, perpetrated either by Al Qaeda or by groups affiliated with it, have already killed nearly 300 and wounded more than 2,000.

As the terrorists notch each successive success, we must ask ourselves: How, if at all, can local and national authorities foil these perpetrators bent on dismantling Western culture?

Today, we can no longer afford to disregard or eliminate any scenario involving terrorist attacks. An attack on an underground transportation system has always been the nightmare of security officials. Now that London’s Tube has been hit, the threat against “soft” targets such as hotels, shopping centers and restaurants is both real and imminent. Local authorities and businesses have no choice but to take these scenarios seriously.

The London attacks proved once again that “simple” bombs can create extensive damage and havoc. There is no need to mount a chemical attack on the underground system — regular bombs work just as well, they are easier to handle and operate, and above all, the terrorists have extensive experience in their activation.

What, then, can be done on the local and national levels?

As a starting point, authorities should analyze the planning and execution structure of terrorist activities. Such analysis can provide the ability to identify the terrorists’ weak points, which in turn can enable intelligence organizations worldwide to infiltrate terrorist organizations and take the necessary actions to foil their plans.

Since the September 11 attacks, the nature and shape of radical Islamic terrorism has changed from what we had known in the past. In order to enable an effective basis for a counterattack, there are three practical aspects of the new terrorist threat that must be understood.

The first is that modern terrorism is stateless. There is no sovereign state behind the terrorists’ actions, and therefore they operate totally free from all conventional rules and laws.

The second major change is that terrorists now use local populations in the target countries. Although the attacks are usually organized by leaders from outside the community, locals supply the needed manpower and infrastructure.

Third, terrorism exploits the host countries’ global infrastructures, gaining free access to communications, logistics and technology and exploiting the openness and freedom of modern democratic societies.

These tactics are the terrorists’ strengths — but each of them can be turned against them.

To begin with, the terrorists’ lack of a national base or safe haven means they are deprived of a base for developing infrastructure. It also means they lack a “protected” communications system, such as diplomatic mail. These weaknesses can be exploited, given that the terrorists must set up and run relatively heavy logistic systems due to the complexity of their operations.

All of their planned attacks require long setup times, and are therefore vulnerable to effective and coordinated intelligence penetration. The use of local populations means that terrorist networks can be infiltrated relatively easily. Furthermore, the global infrastructures they use are usually public, large and complex, and can be monitored and penetrated by law enforcement agencies.

Every terrorist operation has three stages: the concept stage, the planning and set-up stage, and the execution stage. Each of these stages may take anywhere from several months to several years to implement.

During the concept stage, the terrorist leaders decide the location and scope of the attack. The leaders carry out initial intelligence-gathering operations and set up the administrative and operational arms of the planned act of terrorism. At this stage, intelligence agencies are very limited in their capabilities to plant human sources at headquarter levels of the perpetrators, and there is little to do for the counter-intelligence agencies.

During the planning and setup stage, however, the terrorist group is more vulnerable to counter-intelligence initiatives because of its intense activity on all levels. Due to the long setup times and the large number of people involved, effective counter-intelligence actions can uncover, preempt and stop the planned attack.

In the planning stage, the administrative and operation arms work in parallel, but without knowing of the other’s existence. The administrative arm recruits the local administrative staff in the target country, sets up the support infrastructure, and smuggles in, purchases, organizes and stores the explosives and warfare materiel. The operational arm recruits and organizes the specialist hit team, trains on simulated models while continuing detailed intelligence gathering, transports the hit team to the attack location fully ready for action, and plans escape routes in cases where it is not a suicide attack.

By the time the final, execution stage is reached, it is often too late for counter-terrorism action. At this stage, the two parallel planning arms come together by bringing the hit team and the materiel together, giving the final green light for the operation, and providing an escape route for the participants in the target country. But even at this stage, it may be possible to delay or prevent the action by deploying massive local forces.

Even after an attack, an integrated intelligence effort can still record important achievements by discovering the network, exposing its local people and its modus operandi, and preventing future acts of terrorism.

Beyond theoretical arguments, there are several concrete steps that can be taken on a worldwide scale in order to try to foil these terrorist operations.

The use of biometric identification technologies can effectively control the major infrastructures employed by terrorists, such as transportation, border crossings and money transfers. Legal procedures for electronic surveillance can be simplified. And cooperation between intelligence and terrorism-fighting agencies, on both a local and an international level, can be improved.

Lastly, anti-terrorism activities must be given the highest priority, on a global scale, by moving into a proactive mode of thinking, planning and activity. The lack of a proactive approach has been one of the main obstacles in the fight against terrorism. Each new attack brings with it a flurry of frantic activity: bags get searched at the entrances to New York’s subways, and “suspicious” individuals get questioned, and even shot and killed, as happened in London.

Are these the answers? Will they rid the world of the plague of the urban suicide terrorist? The answer is definitely no.

Today, the solution is in technology. Today’s equipment can be installed at the entrance to every subway station and at the entrances to crowded bus and other transportation terminals. Today’s equipment can “sniff” and survey thousands of people per day in each and every station, and together with a security presence, can prevent the entry of any explosive device into a city’s transportation system.

True, such a system would be expensive — but so is the airline security system. What makes an airplane a more important target to protect than that of a passenger train? A plane explosion would cause all passengers to die, but how many would die in an underground train explosion? How many more passengers are there in a train?

All these questions require a new paradigm of security and a new setting of priorities as to where the latest state-of-the-art security systems should be installed. This should be food for thought for our national and municipal leaders if they are serious about securing their transportation systems in today’s world.

Difficult as it may be to accept, terrorism is here to stay. It is now a fact of life. Once we digest this fact and learn how to live with terrorism, the chances of preventing it and limiting it become greater.

Assaf Heffetz, a former commissioner of Israel’s National Police, founded the police’s Yamam counter-terrorism tactical unit. Dov Shiloah is a former senior member of Israel’s intelligence community. Heffetz and Shiloah are co-founders of the TIX (The Israel Experience in Homeland Security) Group, an Israeli homeland security consultancy.

If there had been any doubts, the recent attacks in London, the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and the Turkish beach town of Kusadasi have made clear that terrorism is here to stay. Periods of quiet, it is becoming obvious, are nothing more than intermissions between terrorist acts.

Since September 11, 2001, there have been more than a dozen major suicide terrorist attacks — and that is excluding Iraq, Chechnya and Israel, where the number of attacks is almost too large to count. These attacks in Indonesia, Kenya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Spain and elsewhere — most, if not all, perpetrated either by Al Qaeda or by groups affiliated with it — have killed almost 300 and wounded more than 2,000.

As the terrorists notch each new success, we must ask ourselves: How, if at all, can local and national authorities foil these perpetrators bent on dismantling Western culture?

Today, we can no longer afford to disregard or eliminate any scenario involving terrorist attacks. An attack on an underground transportation system has always been the nightmare of security offi-

cials. Now that London’s Tube has been hit, the threat against “soft” targets such as hotels, shopping centers and restaurants is both real and imminent. Local authorities and businesses have no choice but to take these scenarios seriously.

The London attacks proved once again that “simple” bombs can create extensive damage and havoc. There is no need to mount a chemical attack on the underground system — regular bombs work just as well, they are easier to handle and operate, and above all, the terrorists have extensive experience in their activation.

What, then, can be done on the local and national levels?

As a starting point, authorities should analyze the planning and execution structure of terrorist activities. Such analysis can provide the ability to identify the terrorists’ weak points, which in turn can enable intelligence organizations worldwide to infiltrate terrorist organizations and take the necessary actions to foil their plans.

Since the September 11 attacks, the nature and shape of radical Islamic terrorism has changed from what we had known in the past. In order to enable an effective basis for a counterattack, there are three practical aspects of the new terrorist threat that must be understood.

The first is that modern terrorism is stateless. There is no sovereign state behind the terrorists’ actions, and therefore they operate totally free from all conventional rules and laws.

The second major change is that terrorists now use local populations in the target countries. Although the attacks are usually organized by leaders from outside the community, locals supply the needed manpower and infrastructure.

Third, terrorism exploits the host countries’ global infrastructures, gaining free access to communications, logistics and technology and exploiting the openness and freedom of modern democratic societies.

These tactics are the terrorists’ strengths — but each of them can be turned against them.

To begin with, the terrorists’ lack of a national base or safe haven means they are deprived of a base for developing infrastructure. It also means they lack a “protected” communications system, such as diplomatic mail. These weaknesses can be exploited, given that the terrorists must set up and run relatively heavy logistic systems due to the complexity of their operations.

All of their planned attacks require long setup times, and are therefore vulnerable to effective and coordinated intelligence penetration. The use of local populations means that terrorist networks can be infiltrated relatively easily. Furthermore, the global infrastructures they use are usually public, large and complex, and can be monitored and penetrated by law enforcement agencies.

Every terrorist operation has three stages: the concept stage, the planning and setup stage, and the execution stage. Each of these stages may take anywhere from several months to several years to implement.

During the concept stage, the terrorist leaders decide the location and scope of the attack. The leaders carry out initial intelligence-gathering operations and set up the administrative and operational arms of the planned act of terrorism. At this stage, intelligence agencies are very limited in their capabilities to plant human sources at headquarter levels of the perpetrators, and there is little to do for the counter-intelligence agencies.

During the planning and setup stage, however, the terrorist group is more vulnerable to counter-intelligence initiatives because of its intense activity on all levels. Due to the long setup times and the large number of people involved, effective counter-intelligence actions can uncover, preempt and stop the planned attack.

In the planning stage, the administrative and operation arms work in parallel, but without knowing of the other’s existence. The administrative arm recruits the local administrative staff in the target country, sets up the support infrastructure, and smuggles in, purchases, organizes and stores the explosives and warfare materiel. The operational arm recruits and organizes the specialist hit team, trains on simulated models while continuing detailed intelligence gathering, transports the hit team to the attack location fully ready for action, and plans escape routes in cases where it is not a suicide attack.

By the time the final, execution stage is reached, it is often too late for counter-terrorism action. At this stage, the two parallel planning arms come together by bringing the hit team and the materiel together, giving the final green light for the operation, and providing an escape route for the participants in the target country. But even at this stage, it may be possible to delay or prevent the action by deploying massive local forces.

Even after an attack, an integrated intelligence effort can still record important achievements by discovering the network, exposing its local people and its modus operandi, and preventing future acts of terrorism.

Beyond theoretical arguments, there are several concrete steps that can be taken on a worldwide scale in order to try to foil these terrorist operations.

The use of biometric identification technologies can effectively control the major infrastructures employed by terrorists, such as transportation, border crossings and money transfers. Legal procedures for electronic surveillance can be simplified. And cooperation between intelligence and terrorism-fighting agencies, on both a local and an international level, can be improved.

Lastly, anti-terrorism activities must be given the highest priority, on a global scale, by moving into a proactive mode of thinking, planning and activity. The lack of a proactive approach has been one of the main obstacles in the fight against terrorism. Each new attack brings with it a flurry of frantic activity: Bags get searched at the entrances to New York’s subways, and “suspicious” individuals get questioned, and even shot and killed, as happened in London.

Are these the answers? Will they rid the world of the plague of the urban suicide terrorist? The answer is definitely no.

Today, the solution is in technology. Today’s equipment can be installed at the entrance to every subway station and at the entrances to crowded bus and other transportation terminals. Today’s equipment can “sniff” and survey thousands of people per day in each and every station, and together with a security presence, can prevent the entry of any explosive device into a city’s transportation system.

True, such a system would be expensive — but so is the airline security system. What makes an airplane a more important target to protect than that of a passenger train? A plane explosion would cause all passengers to die, but how many would die in an underground train explosion? How many more passengers are there in a train?

All these questions require a new paradigm of security and a new setting of priorities as to where the latest state-of-the-art security systems should be installed. This should be food for thought for our national and municipal leaders if they are serious about securing their transportation systems in today’s world.

Difficult as it may be to accept, terrorism is here to stay. It is now a fact of life. Once we digest this fact and learn how to live with terrorism, the chances of preventing it and limiting it become greater.






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