Dec 08, 2005 -


Upcoming Event

Fighting Islamist Terrorists

Thursday, December 08 -
The Brookings Institution
Falk Auditorium

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

Avi Dicter, Charles and Andrea Bronfman visiting fellow at the Saban Center, and former head of the Shin Bet and Dan Byman, nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center and director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, addressed the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution on the topic of “Fighting Islamist Terrorism”. Their remarks will be part of a forthcoming Saban Center Analysis paper A Comprehensive Strategy Against Terrorists.

Basic Assumptions

Dicter presented six basic assumptions in fighting terrorism:

There is a bottom to the barrel of terrorists. To adequately fight terrorism, policymakers must recognize that there is a finite number of effective terrorists. If, however, policymakers and intelligence officials believe that there is no bottom to the barrel of terrorists, then they will never defeat terrorists nor render them ineffective. For example, Israel was plagued by aircraft hijackings during the 1960s to 1980s. By enlisting the help of the superpowers, Israel was able to crack down on hijackings and empty that barrel of terrorists. When emptying the barrels of terrorists, it is not essential to capture or kill every last terrorist. Rather, the focus should be on arch-terrorists, or the main generators of terror. By cracking down on the upper echelons of a terrorist group, the authorities can immobilize the group and render it ineffective.

Dicter said that there can be a problem when a terrorist is not considered “elite enough” to be targeted. That person may, in fact, have significant influence and continue to carry out attacks. However, arch terrorists are essential for the terrorist group and therefore also as targets for the authorities. The period of calm that was announced by Hamas in January 2005 came into being because Israel had succeeded in destroying Hamas’ infrastructure.

One participant argued that it is also important to worry about root causes of terrorism and how terrorist groups generate recruits. Byman noted that there is a distinction between solving the problem of terrorism and managing it. Far fewer people die by containing and managing terrorism, but people still die. To solve the problem of terrorism, you need to reach a political solution.

Any government by definition is stronger than any terrorist group. Many states use weakness as an excuse to not eliminate terrorism within their borders, such as Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority (PA). A state can fake weakness for a short time, as an excuse, but when it fakes weakness for too long, then it becomes weak. A weak authority or state looks out first for the interests of the individual, family or tribe, and only then is able to safeguard the interests of the state or authority. As a result, it becomes much more vulnerable to terrorism. This is what has happened to the PA.

A question was raised as to why Israel places more emphasis on defensive measures than offensive ones. Dicter explained that a state must use both defensive and offensive measures to fight terrorism, but there is a hierarchy. The first ring of defense against terrorists is intelligence. If intelligence fails, then the second ring, security guards, bodyguards, airport screeners, comes into play. The third ring, air marshals, only applies to aircraft because of the nature of the platform. The danger posed by terrorists seizing control of an aircraft is extremely high, as was demonstrated by September 11. Dicter asked the audience to imagine September 11 with air marshals.

Effective local government forces are essential for global success in cracking down on terrorists. Local forces are always stronger than those coming in from the outside. Domestic forces need to be determined to fight terrorism and need to be able to assist external forces in fighting within their own state. For example, in the 1970s King Hussein of Jordan decided to crack down on terrorists and agreed to accept Israeli assistance in blocking terrorists coming from Syria and Lebanon into Jordan. Although the Israeli forces did not work within the borders of Jordan, they had to be able to cooperate with Jordanian forces.

A question was raised as to why Israel was able to get Arafat to help crack down on terrorists in 1996 but not in 2000. Dicter explained that it was not a decision by Arafat but by the security apparatus in Gaza. 1996 was three years post-Oslo and shortly after Rabin’s assassination. The security apparatus recognized that if they did not do something to curb Hamas’ activities in Gaza, Israel forces would enter the Gaza Strip and thus it was in their best interest to prevent that from happening.

Terrorists make many mistakes. The security agencies must be able to take advantage of them. States have an advantage over terrorist groups in that states control the border crossing points and can use these crossings to prevent terrorists from traveling and carrying out attacks. States also have access to many different types of communication and technology that give them additional advantages against the terrorists.

Arrests are preferable to targeted killings (“Wanted: Alive or Dead”). An interrogation is the best way to get information out of a suspect about other terrorists and terrorist plans. As it is impossible to interrogate a dead person, it is preferable to capture a suspect alive.

There must be no grey zone in the battle against terrorists. Transparency is vital in dealing with terrorists. That does not mean that the authorities must share their tools, methods, and systems of fighting terrorism with the people and other government agencies. What they have to do is to share their principles of fighting terrorism, so that the public understands what they are doing, even if they do not agree with them on every point.

In the past there was a grey zone in Israel, but in September 1999 the Israeli High Court ruled on specific procedures for interrogation and practices in dealing with terrorists or suspected terrorists. Interrogations can only be conducted by the Shin Bet. The head of the Shin Bet works with the Attorney General very closely to determine how to proceed on specific cases. Targeted killings have to be confirmed by the prime sinister in every instance. If there is a change in the plan on a targeted killing, the head of the Shin Bet must go back to the prime minister and have the operation approved once more. In the case of “ticking time bombs”, the head of the Shin Bet has sole responsibility to decide if a suspect is a ticking time bomb.

Lessons from Israel and Implications for the United States

Byman examined the Israel experience and extracted implications for the U.S. fight against “global jihad.” Byman explained that “global jihad” is a term used to distinguish one form of terrorist group from al-Qa’ida. “Global jihad” encompasses a range of groups from large groups of insurgents to small groups of 4-5 people who are angry at the United States for whatever reason. These groups all share the same anti-Western agenda and are willing to act on it. Byman argued that Bin Laden had succeeded in taking a fractured discourse in the Muslim world and had successfully turned it against the United States.

Looking back ten years, to before the second intifada, Israel had various methods to fight terrorism: direct action, such as targeted killings, building defenses such as checkpoints and the fence, and pressure on the PA. The biggest difficulty for Israel in fighting terrorists has been the failure of the PA to act. The United States does not have this same dilemma. Most U.S. allies are willing make arrests and assist the United States in this fight. Thus, Byman argued, the United States cannot import Israeli lessons wholesale, but there are some things that can be applied to the United States.

The issue of targeted killings is controversial. Critics say that targeted killings cost innocent lives; it is better to interrogate suspects than to kill them; and there are diplomatic costs to this method. Additionally, targeted killings alone will not end the conflict. However, Byman’s view is that most criticisms of targeted killings are inaccurate. The criticism that terrorists will always retaliate against a targeted killing has been proven false. While there have been some retaliatory attacks following a targeted killing, there has been no increase in number of deaths. Additionally, the number of skilled operatives is relatively limited. While a terrorist group can have large numbers of untrained recruits, they are useless if they do not know how to successfully carry out attacks. The martyrdom criticism is also unfounded. Take, for example, the targeted killing of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Many critics of the attack feared that his death would create an army of prospective martyrs, however there were very few attacks following his demise. Finally, targeted killings work. In the case of Israel, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of deaths from terrorist attacks. Not all terrorists are equal. While people’s anger levels tend to rise after an attack, their ability to do something is drastically weakened by the death of one of their leaders.

One of the main concerns for any group fighting terrorism is to figure out how to bring the terrorist groups to the negotiating table. This is done by changing their relative position and strength as well as changing their leadership. Targeted killing has a positive affect on both of these.

One of Israel’s most effective strategies for fighting terrorism has been a combination of an effective intelligence network, expertise, and rapid strike capabilities. The United States cannot have a constant strike presence on call around the world even in the smaller countries in which it is fighting the war against terrorists. The one exception is possibly Anbar Province of Iraq, where such a capability might be desirable at some point.

Another difference between the United States and Israel is that the United State can, and does, work with other governments to fight the “global jihad.” The exceptions here are Yemen and Afghanistan where the governments are weak and lack counterterrorism capabilities, but in most other countries where jihadists are engaging in terrorism, the state is willing, and trustworthy enough, to work with the Untied States in a joint effort. Additionally, the United States cares more about international opinion than Israel.

On the issue of transparency, the United States is grappling with this issue at present. There must be a robust debate within U.S. society and a transparent process. Regardless of whether or not the public agrees with the present administration’s policies, they must be made aware of them, so that the policies do not come to light in a negative way.

The United States should follow the lesson of Israel and pay intense attention to checkpoints and documents. Byman argued that biometrics can significantly cut down on terrorists crossing borders. The exception is that if the authorities do not know who the terrorists are, then biometrics will be of no use in preventing the terrorists from traveling.