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Strategies for Countering Terrorism – Lessons from the Israeli Experience

June 4, 2008

reprinted from the Homeland Security site

Jonathan B. Tucker, Ph.D., is a policy analyst specializing in chemical and biological weapons proliferation and control. He is a 2002–03 senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, DC, on leave from the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Before joining the center in 1996, he served for six years in U.S. government positions at the Department of State, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. In 1995, he was a UN biological weapons inspector in Iraq. He holds a B.S. in biology from Yale and a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition to numerous papers and reports, he is the author of Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox and the editor of Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons.


Ever since its founding in 1948, the state of Israel has faced the threat of terror attacks from rejectionist organizations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hizbollah.2 Because these groups cannot defeat the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on the battlefield, they target Israeli citizens in an attempt to subvert the national will. According to Boaz Ganor, executive director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliyya, terrorist violence aims “to undermine the personal security of civilians, to sow fear and trepidation, and to sap public morale” in order to pressure decision makers to make political concessions.3

Over the past 50 years, the Israeli government has developed a variety of measures to prevent terrorist attacks or mitigate their effects. Israel has also made a virtue of necessity by creating a cutting-edge security industry that markets counterterrorism technologies, products, and services throughout the world.4 The primary goals of Israeli counterterrorism strategy are to prevent terrorists from influencing the national agenda and preserve the psychological resilience of the civilian population. According to Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, chairman of the Israel National Security Council, the government’s campaign against terror involves striking back against terrorist cells to protect the homeland, expanding the campaign against terrorist organizations and their state sponsors, and delegitimating terrorism in internationally.5

Because Israel and the United States both face threats from Islamic extremists who are prepared to sacrifice their lives in carrying out attacks, many of the lessons learned by Israeli counterterrorism experts over the past 50 years are relevant to the current U.S. campaign against al-Qaeda. At the same time, the two countries face distinct security challenges. Whereas Israel’s psychological and even physical survival is at stake in its war on terrorism, the risks for the United States are substantial but not existential. Moreover, whereas Palestinian terrorists narrowly focus on nationalist-separatist objectives, al-Qaeda is a global network with broader political and ideological ambitions.

Israel’s Experience With Terror

Israel has learned over the years that terrorism is a stubborn phenomenon and that, in contrast to conventional warfare, decisive victory over terrorism is rare. When countermeasures block one avenue of attack, terrorists often improvise some new means of inflicting damage. After a series of aircraft hijackings in the 1960s forced Israel to improve aviation security, terrorists began to target Israeli embassies overseas. When security at embassies was strengthened, terrorists responded by attacking markets, buses, and pedestrians in Israeli cities.6 Accordingly, counterterrorism strategies must continually adapt to—and preferably anticipate—changing terrorist tactics. General Meir Dagan, head of the Bureau for Counterterrorism in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, observes that “fighting terrorism is like boxing—you usually win by points.”7

Palestinian terrorism against Israel has escalated dramatically since the second intifada (“uprising”) began in September 2000; it has included the use of mortars and Qassam II rockets (with a range of 4 to 6 miles) against Jewish settlements and military bases in the Gaza Strip.8 Particularly damaging to the morale of the Israeli population has been a wave of suicide bombings by Palestinian terrorists in crowded buses, markets, restaurants, and nightclubs. These attacks, which occur essentially at random, pose a serious threat to the psychological and economic well-being of Israeli society.

The crude but effective tactic of suicide terrorism was invented by Hizbollah and used for the first time on 23 October 1983, to destroy the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut with a truck bomb killing 241 American soldiers. Eleven years later, on 6 April 1994, Raed Zakarne, a 25-year-old member of Hamas, blew himself up in a car next to a crowded Israeli bus in the town of Afula, killing eight Israelis (including a female Arab passenger) and wounding 44.9 Since then, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and more recently the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of Tanzim, the Fatah militia, have recruited, indoctrinated, and equipped scores of suicide bombers.

At first, suicide terrorists were all religious, militant young men recruited from Palestinian universities or mosques. In early 2002, however, the profile began to change as secular Palestinians, women, and even teenage girls volunteered for suicide missions. On 29 March 2002, Ayat Akhras, an 18-year-old Palestinian girl from Bethlehem who looked European and spoke Hebrew, blew herself up in a West Jerusalem supermarket, killing two Israelis.10 Suicide bombers have also sought to foil profiling efforts by shaving their beards, dyeing their hair blond, and wearing Israeli uniforms or even the traditional clothing of orthodox Jews.11

Given the high motivation of suicide bombers and the relative simplicity and low cost of the explosives they use, deterrence is impossible and prevention is far from certain.12 Although Israeli counterterrorism authorities interdict more than 85% of attempted suicide attacks, the small number of bombers who penetrate the security net can still wreak considerable death and destruction. The arguable “success” of suicide terrorism in derailing the Oslo peace process and inflicting serious wounds on Israeli society may inspire other militant groups to adopt this tactic.13 Indeed, FBI director Robert S. Mueller III warned in May 2002 that suicide bombings like the ones that have terrorized Israeli civilians are “inevitable” in the United States.14 Any insights that Israel can provide into combating suicide terrorism are therefore of great interest to American officials. Israeli counterterrorism strategy comprises five elements:

1. Intelligence collection and analysis
2. Military and paramilitary operations to disrupt terrorist infrastructure
3. Commercial aviation security
4. Defense against chemical and biological attacks
5. Efforts to strengthen the psychological endurance of the civilian population

The Role of Intelligence

The vigilance of the Israeli public plays a key role in preventing terrorism. According to security experts, the average Israeli is highly aware of suspicious packages, individuals, and actions that could pose a threat to public safety and does not hesitate to notify the police. As a result, ordinary citizens foil more than 80% of attempted terrorist attacks in Israel, including time bombs left by terrorists.15

Israeli experts contend that beyond a vigilant citizenry, intelligence is the essential foundation of any systematic effort to combat terrorism. According to Gen. Dagan, “Investments in intelligence are invisible, whereas increased security is visible but often wasteful. The first priority must be placed on intelligence, then on counterterrorism operations, and finally on defense and protection.”16 To support its war on terrorism, Israel has developed a highly coordinated and efficient intelligence apparatus. Drawing on human and technical means, Israeli government agencies work continually to identify terrorist operatives and cells. Threats are categorized into those that appear imminent and require immediate attention, those that are less probable but could emerge later on, and those that are unlikely but still possible.17

In contrast to the infamous rivalry between the CIA and the FBI, Israeli foreign and domestic intelligence agencies cooperate well in collecting and sharing terrorism-related information. The Israel Security Agency, known as Shin Bet, reports directly to the Prime Minister and is responsible for domestic intelligence, counterespionage, internal security, and the prevention of terrorist acts. The Arab Affairs Division of Shin Bet conducts political subversion and surveillance of Arab terrorists, while the Protection and Security Division safeguards Israeli government buildings and embassies, defense contractors, scientific installations, key industrial plants, and the national airline El Al.18 Israel also has a foreign intelligence agency, Mossad (Hebrew for “institute”), and a military intelligence service, Aman. Shin Bet works closely with Mossad and Aman to prepare an annual terrorism threat assessment for the Prime Minister.

Israeli government agencies gather human intelligence on terrorism by deploying undercover agents in the Palestinian-controlled areas and by recruiting local informants inside or close to terrorist organizations. Several factors may lead Palestinians to collaborate with the Israeli authorities: cash incentives, non-monetary benefits such as a building permit or a cab license, and psychological factors such as a desire for revenge, ideology, or adventure.19 (Still, spying for Israel is extremely risky, and suspected collaborators are often executed or lynched by Palestinian mobs.) Israel also engages in frequent police operations in which large numbers of suspected Palestinian militants are rounded up and interrogated. Only rarely do such operations yield tactical warning of an imminent terrorist attack, however, and apparent tips obtained during interrogation may be disinformation designed to deflect attention from the real target.

In addition to human intelligence, Israel has developed sophisticated technologies for detecting explosives and arms at a distance, electronic eavesdropping and signals intelligence, and visual intelligence with unmanned aerial vehicles. Nevertheless, Israeli intelligence agencies give priority to human intelligence over high-tech methods and contend that the United States has placed too much emphasis on the latter at the expense of the former. Although a satellite image can reveal the location of a terrorist training camp, it cannot provide insights into the thinking of operatives planning an attack.

Lessons for U.S. Policy

The failure of the U.S. Intelligence Community to provide early warning of the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York City and near Washington, DC, exposed systemic problems with intelligence collection and analysis. Both the CIA and the FBI came under fire for not sharing information that might have enabled analysts to connect the dots and prevent the devastating attacks. Moreover, the National Security Agency reportedly failed to detect a warning intercepted the day before 11 September because the message was not translated and analyzed in a timely manner.20

The main lessons for the United States from the Israeli experience are (1) the fundamental role of intelligence in the fight against terrorism; (2) the need for close coordination and cooperation between foreign and domestic intelligence agencies, particularly in the case of terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda that operate both inside and outside the United States; (3) the importance of human intelligence as a complement to technical collection systems; and (4) the need to improve the timeliness with which raw intelligence data are translated and analyzed.

Counterterrorism Operations

Israeli counterterrorism operations are designed to disrupt the “terrorist infrastructure” in the West Bank and Gaza by attacking bomb factories and safe houses, gathering intelligence, and arresting or killing key terrorist leaders and bombmakers. Several organizations and units are involved in such operations. Shin Bet detachments work with Aman undercover units to counter Palestinian terrorists, including the military wing of Hamas. In addition, an elite IDF commando unit called Sayeret Matkal is Israel’s premier counterterrorism organization, the equivalent of Delta Force or the British SAS. The Hebrew word sayeret means “reconnaissance or commando force”; matkal is the Hebrew acronym for “general headquarters” and signifies that this unit is under the direct command of the Army chief of staff. Sayeret Matkal has been involved in almost every major counterterrorist operation conducted by Israel, as well as hostage rescue operations.21 In April 1973, a Sayeret Matkal team led by Ehud Barak, a future prime minister of Israel, avenged the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics by killing three of the surviving terrorists in Beruit.22 More recently, the IDF and the Frontier Police, a military organization under police control, have created new counterterrorism units, including Duvdevan (Hebrew for “cherry”) and Shimshon.23 The Israeli Police Force’s Yamam professional antiterror unit, established in 1974, specializes in hostage rescue. Yamam operatives have the advantage of long experience, whereas the members of Sayeret Matkal and other IDF counterterrorism units do two years of basic training and then serve three years as commandos.24

A major focus of Israeli counterterrorism operations is to prevent Palestinian terrorists from the West Bank from infiltrating Israel to stage attacks. Because recent suicide bombers do not fit a standard profile, they are difficult to identify and intercept in advance. Accordingly, Israel has sought to prevent suicide operations by disrupting them at the organizational, training, and planning stages, before the shahid (“martyr”) is on his way to the target. IDF operations to eliminate the “terrorist infrastructure” are directed against the activists who recruit and train the suicide bombers, manufacture the explosive belts, gather operational intelligence, drive the shahid to the target, and otherwise provide logistical and moral support.25 Because terror organizations continually recruit new operatives and require a large network of supporters, aggressive counterterrorism campaigns can weaken the morale of the terrorists, hamper enlistment efforts, and deter collaborators. Military operations against terrorism also reassure the Israeli public that the initiative in the war against terror is on the side of the government.26

One particularly controversial Israeli tactic involves the assassination of terrorist leaders and bombmakers by undercover units of the IDF and Mossad.27 Advocates of this policy argue that in addition to interdicting imminent attacks, targeted killings undermine the terrorist groups’ stability and morale, increase tensions and rivalries among would-be successors, and force the terrorists to devote resources to hiding and protecting their leaders.28 Targeted assassination also puts terrorist kingpins under severe psychological stress. Nevertheless, the Israeli policy of targeted killings raises complex issues of legality and cost-effectiveness. Under what conditions does national self-defense justify the summary execution of terrorists? Most countries view terrorism as a crime and believe that retribution for terrorist acts should be pursued through the legal process. Israel, in contrast, views terrorism as a form of warfare and claims that the laws of war apply, including the right of preemptive action. In early 2002, an IDF judge advocate-general ruled that the assassination of terrorists is legal when (1) well-supported information exists that the suspect has organized terror attacks in the past and is planning to carry out another one in the near future; (2) appeals to the Palestinian Authority to arrest the terrorist have been ignored; (3) attempts by Israeli troops to arrest the suspect have failed; and (4) the killing is not intended as retribution for past acts of terror but is designed to prevent an incipient attack that is likely to inflict multiple casualties.29

Subsequent to the judge advocate-general’s ruling, Israel’s High Court of Justice considered petitions against the targeted killing policy brought by an Arab member of parliament, the widow of a Fatah activist in Nablus, and two local human rights organizations. The High Court supported the Israeli government’s claim that the Palestinian intifada is no longer a popular uprising but an armed confrontation and that terrorists are illegal fighters not entitled to the protection of international law. Other Israeli legal experts disagreed with this opinion, however, arguing that because the Israeli army is an occupying force, extrajudicial killings are justified only under conditions of immediate self-defense.30

Aside from questions of legality, the strategy of targeted killings has several practical drawbacks. First, it imposes diplomatic costs for Israel’s international reputation by tarnishing its image as a moral nation, particularly when family members or other innocent persons are killed along with a known terrorist. Second, targeted killings impose intelligence costs because each assassination requires precise, real-time information, the use of which may compromise intelligence sources and methods. Third, the benefits of targeted killings may be only temporary. During Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, Israeli military forces arrested or killed all Hamas terrorists in the West Bank who had mastered the formula for making homemade explosives, dealing a serious blow to the organization. But Hamas bombmakers from the Gaza Strip soon infiltrated the West Bank and began producing explosives, revitalizing the organization.31 The worst-case outcome is when an assassination attempt fails. On 24 September 1997, Mossad operatives carrying forged Canadian passports entered Jordan and injected Hamas political leader Khalid Mashaal with poison, but he survived. In the aftermath of this botched operation, the government of Jordan was able to extract political concessions from Israel, including the release from an Israeli prison of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin.32

A fourth drawback of targeted killings is that they increase the motivation of terrorist groups to retaliate, resulting in what Boaz Ganor of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism has termed the “boomerang effect.” The risk of retaliation depends on the motivation of the targeted organization and its operational capabilities. In some cases, such as the West German Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Peruvian Shining Path, the arrest or killing of the top leadership effectively neutralized the organization. But because Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizbollah have a large pool of operatives and potential recruits, assassinating a few prominent individuals may be counterproductive. For example, the assassination of Hamas bombmaker Yihya Ayash (“The Engineer”) in Gaza on January 6, 1996, provoked four suicide attacks against Israel in eight days, killing 60 civilians and injuring hundreds.33

Lessons for U.S. Policy

The United States should emulate the Israeli approach of trying to prevent terrorist attacks by disrupting the broader infrastructure involved in the recruitment, indoctrination, training, and logistical support of terrorist operatives. At the same time, for the reasons described above, it would be unwise to adopt the Israeli policy of assassinating terrorist leaders, except in the context of active combat operations such as the war in Afghanistan. Assassination tactics would almost certainly provoke retaliation in kind, including potential reprisals against senior U.S. political leaders.

Commercial Aviation Security

Israel’s expertise in aviation security is legendary, and this area remains a top priority because the stakes are so high. Large passenger aircraft are attractive targets for terrorists because once in the air, they are extremely vulnerable. A small explosion that might kill only a few people on the ground can bring down a jumbo jet, killing hundreds. Such a disaster would also attract extensive media coverage, magnifying its psychological, political, and economic impact.

El Al, the Israeli national airline, has a security budget of roughly $80 million, covering Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv and the airliners themselves. Terminal security has been a major concern for Israel since 1985, when Palestinian terrorists attacked the check-in counters at the airports in Rome and Vienna with guns and grenades, killing 18 people. Ben Gurion airport is protected by a defense in depth that begins with a checkpoint on the single access road, where armed guards examine vehicles and question suspicious-looking drivers or passengers. Additional plainclothes security officials monitor the entrances to the terminal, continually scan the crowds inside, and frequently check wastebaskets for explosive devices.

El Al’s passenger screening system, established in the early 1970s, relies on psychological profiling techniques backed up with high-technology equipment. This system has been highly effective: the last successful hijacking of an El Al jet was in 1968, when Palestinian terrorists diverted a flight from Rome to Algiers.34 Whereas the United States gives priority to screening baggage rather than people, Israel’s security model aims at ferreting out individuals with terrorist intentions. This profiling process relies on access to intelligence and careful observation of would-be passengers.

The main reason for Israel’s primary emphasis on human factors is that advances in explosives technology have made it increasingly difficult to find bombs hidden in luggage. Plastic explosives can now be disguised in almost every conceivable form, including shoe soles, toys, cell phones, and clothing. Moreover, the 11 September terrorists did not carry guns or explosive devices but used small, easily concealed weapons (box-cutters) to hijack four airliners and transform them into flying bombs. Although scissors and box-cutters are now banned from carry-on bags, determined terrorists could employ seemingly benign objects, such as the stiletto heel of a woman’s shoe or a man’s belt, to seize control of an aircraft in flight.

According to David Harel, an aviation security specialist with Shin Bet, some type of profiling system is essential because it is impractical to subject every passenger to a high level of scrutiny. Travelers on El Al are told to arrive at the airport three hours before a flight to go through preliminary screening. Passengers are categorized at the outset as to whether they are Israeli Jews, foreign-born Jews, and so forth, with Arabs and certain other foreigners most likely to be profiled. The fact that the El Al security system is owned and operated by the Israeli government facilitates the use of intelligence and law-enforcement databases to help identify the small minority of passengers who may have criminal or terrorist intent.35

In addition to searching government watch lists, interviewers ask each traveler a detailed set of questions that takes several minutes. Based on this initial screening, the great majority of El Al passengers are classified as low risk and subjected to a routine level of security. About 1%, however, are flagged as high risk because they are on a government watch list or appear nervous at the checkpoint, or because their answers or behavior arouse suspicion. These individuals are diverted into a more intensive screening that takes an average of 57 minutes per person.36 The process involves a lengthy personal interview, a complete search of all carry-on bags, and the use of sophisticated explosives detection equipment. For example, when Richard Reid (the future “shoe bomber”) decided to fly in July 2001 from Amsterdam to Israel, allegedly to check out terrorist targets, El Al security personnel selected him for profiling and subjected him to a full security check from head to toe (including an X-ray scan of his shoes) that showed he carried no bomb or weapon. Although Reid was allowed to board the plane, El Al remained suspicious and made sure he was sitting near an armed sky marshal, who was instructed to keep a close watch on him.37 American Airlines was not as careful, however, and allowed Reid to board a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001. This time the al-Qaeda operative carried an explosive device, concealed in a shoe, and he attempted to detonate the explosive in mid-flight. Only timely intervention by the other passengers and crew prevented a major disaster.

Another situation in which profiling has proven effective is in the case of a “duped passenger”—a naïve individual who has been manipulated by terrorists to carry an explosive device on board an aircraft. In 1986, Anne-Marie Murphy, a 32-year-old Irish woman, was interviewed at Heathrow Airport before boarding an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv. When asked the purpose of her trip, she said that she was traveling to Israel to see her Jordanian fiancé, the father of her unborn child. Two factors made the interviewer suspicious: it was unusual for a pregnant young woman to travel alone, and although Ms. Murphy said she planned to stay in Israel for a week, she did not check any luggage and had only one carry-on bag. Further questioning revealed that she planned to stay at the Tel Aviv Hilton and to pay with a credit card. When the card was examined, it proved to be an ID that allowed her only to cash checks in the United Kingdom. At this point, Ms. Murphy was declared a suspicious traveler and subjected to greater scrutiny. Her carry-on bag was emptied, weighed, and found to be unusually heavy. X-ray examination revealed a false bottom containing a grayish material that proved to be plastic explosive. Unbeknownst to Ms. Murphy, her fiancé was a Palestinian terrorist who had concealed in her bag a bomb designed to detonate in flight, with the intent of killing all 375 passengers on board.38

Israel has found that skilled profilers are essential for conducting passenger interviews. Although El Al security workers are not all civil servants, the government sets and enforces rigorous standards of training and performance. Aviation security jobs in Israel are relatively well paid, and many members of the airport security staff are college students who find the part-time work interesting and challenging. To keep the screeners at a high state of vigilance, a unit within Shin Bet’s Protection and Security Division carries out surprise drills with dummy bombs.39

Despite its strengths, the El Al profiling system has potential pitfalls, including human error. Personal rapport between the interviewer and a charming passenger can have a “blinding” effect, so that the interviewer does not detect suspicious signs. In addition, because of co-sharing agreements between El Al and other carriers, some transiting passengers (mainly business people) arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport only one hour before a flight. This brief layover does not provide enough time for profilers to verify passengers’ stories without delaying takeoffs. Fortunately, only a few international passengers transit through Ben Gurion airport.

Because of the limitations of profiling and the fact that even the best intelligence database may not include every terrorist, El Al has found that a defense in depth is essential. Second-tier measures include luggage conciliation (matching bags to passengers who board an aircraft) and the processing of baggage and cargo through explosives-detection devices such as InVision scanners and chemical sniffers. Screened luggage that appears suspicious is diverted to an on-site laboratory at Ben Gurion airport for detailed chemical sampling and analysis. In addition, a compression chamber is used to check bags for bombs that have air-pressure fuzes. As a third line of defense, El Al employs on-aircraft protective measures, including at least one armed sky marshal per flight, reinforced and bulletproof cockpit doors, and explosion-resistant cargo holds.

Another threat to Israeli aviation derives from the possible terrorist use of shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles, such as Stingers. Ben Gurion airport is situated only a few miles from the West Bank, so the threat of a missile attack is real. Because installing antimissile countermeasures on every plane would be prohibitively costly, Israel relies on enhanced perimeter security. Ground services such as cleaning, catering, and refueling also present potential vulnerabilities and necessitate the careful vetting of personnel. Shin Bet strives to remain one step ahead of the terrorist enemy, who may devise new tactics to circumvent the existing security systems. To this end, Israeli security specialists continually analyze “possible ways of action” for attacking passenger aircraft, collect operational information, and try to spot and correct weak links in the security system.40

Lessons for U.S. Policy

In at least some areas, the United States would do well to emulate the Israeli model of aviation security. One example is to improve airport terminal security by means of concentric rings of professionally trained security guards (both uniformed and plain-clothed) who can respond promptly to a terrorist attack. The shootings at the El Al ticket counter in Los Angeles International Airport on 4 July 2002, in which two people and the attacker were killed, illustrate the need for improved terminal security before passengers enter the screening checkpoints.

Shortly after the 11 September terrorist attacks, Raphael Ron, the former director of security at El Al, received a four-month contract worth $500,000 to recommend security upgrades at Logan International Airport in Boston, where two of the hijacked flights had originated.41 Ron proposed improvements costing roughly $100 million, including technology, construction work, and training and deployment of personnel. He also recommended that all U.S. airports adopt uniform security standards, which would reduce costs because airports would not have to rescreen transiting passengers who had already been screened elsewhere.42

Should the United States adopt the Israeli approach and place primary emphasis on profiling passengers rather than on screening luggage? Given the finite resources available for aviation security, it makes sense to identify the small number of passengers who pose the greatest potential threat. The Federal Aviation Administration has developed computerized profiling software called the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS), which serves as the basis for “random” searches of passengers in the gate area, but this system is much more limited than the one used in Israel, and the criteria used to identify suspicious passengers have been criticized as overly simplistic. Reportedly, CAPPS gives each traveler a risk profile based on factors such as the purchase of a one-way ticket, paying in cash, traveling alone, and buying tickets for passengers with different last names on the same credit card.43 Although CAPPS has recently been upgraded, it still lacks input from federal databases and does not draw on information from personal interviews.

The applicability to the United States of the Israeli approach to passenger profiling is constrained by several factors: the much larger volume of U.S. commercial air traffic, the multi-ethnic nature of American society, the large number of passengers transiting through “hub” cities who catch connecting flights with short layovers, and the fact that personal interviews would be too time-consuming for most Americans to tolerate. In the aftermath of 11 September, U.S. travelers are prepared to accept somewhat longer delays during the passenger screening process in return for greater security and peace of mind. Even so, the hassles associated with heightened security have caused many frequent business travelers to drive rather than fly, costing the airlines major losses in revenue. Moreover, passenger profiling based on racial or ethnic criteria would be legally and culturally unacceptable in the United States.

One possible solution to these problems would be a modified profiling system, implemented by the airlines with oversight by the Transportation Security Administration. This system would be based on the principle of reverse profiling. When someone purchased a ticket, the airline would ask the Transportation Security Administration to run the passenger’s name through a computerized, government-wide terrorism watch list containing data collected by the FBI, CIA, and other agencies. (Such an integrated database does not yet exist.) Persons assessed to be low risk would then be directed to a less rigorous screening process, enabling the screeners to focus on the small minority of travelers about whom the initial security check has raised suspicions or revealed a lack of information. These individuals, selected not because of their racial or ethnic background but because of a possible association with terrorist organizations, would be directed to a more rigorous screening process and questioned closely. If their answers or behavior aroused additional concerns, their carry-on bags and checked luggage would be carefully searched.44 A complementary approach would be for frequent business flyers to undergo a voluntary background check and obtain a “trusted traveler” card, including biometric identifiers, that enables them to bypass the more rigorous screening. Alternatively, the names and identifiers of trusted travelers could be stored in the airlines’ computer data banks.

Defense Against Chemical and Biological Attacks

Another area of terrorism prevention in which Israel is a world leader is passive defenses against military or terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons. Not only do Israeli civilians face a direct threat of chemical or biological attack from countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Iran, but Palestinian terrorists have shown a growing interest in these weapons. In December 2001, the Israeli police revealed that a Hamas suicide bomber in Haifa had used an explosive charge containing a toxic pesticide, although most of it was consumed in the explosion.45 Although the chemical warfare capabilities of Hamas are still rudimentary, Israeli security officials are concerned that the group appears determined to acquire or produce more advanced chemical agents.46 In May 2002, a Hamas agent, Abbas Sayed, was arrested and later acknowledged that he had obtained assistance from Hizbollah in attempting to produce cyanide and nerve gas.47

In view of this threat, Israel has implemented the world’s most sophisticated civil defense program against chemical and biological attack. In the mid-1980s, the Israeli government began to provide each citizen with a free kit consisting of an individually fitted gas mask and an auto-injector containing nerve-agent antidotes. Special masks are issued for infants, children, and individuals with respiratory problems. The IDF’s Home Front Command (Pekood ha-Orref) operates a nationwide network of distribution centers, including a computerized record of everyone who has received a kit and the date of issue. Notices are mailed out reminding citizens to replace the mask, air filter, and auto-injector when the equipment’s operational life has expired.48

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein threatened Israel with a chemical attack, the IDF developed the doctrine of “a sealed body in a sealed room.” Each household was instructed to prepare a special shelter against chemical or biological attack: an interior room that has few if any windows and can be sealed with plastic sheeting and tape to render it airtight. In response to air-raid sirens, warnings broadcast on radio and TV, or the sound of a nearby explosion, Israeli citizens were told to enter the special room, seal the door with tape or cloth, don their gas masks (creating the “sealed body”), and keep them on until the “all clear” is given.

Since 1992, the government of Israel has required all newly constructed public buildings, apartment complexes, and single-family homes to incorporate a “protective room” that is both bomb-resistant and capable of being sealed airtight. Most protective rooms are equipped with electricity and a telephone hookup; the more elaborate ones have water, a bathroom, and a TV connection. Another lesson of the Gulf War was that not everyone could hear the air-raid sirens. To address this problem, Israeli citizens were told to turn on the radio before going to sleep and tune it to a special station that broadcast only static. In the event of a chemical attack, the station would commence a live broadcast to wake people and tell them to enter the sealed room.49 Israeli public health authorities are also aware of the threat of bioterrorism and have stockpiled vaccines and antibiotics. In late 2001, the Israeli government placed an order for 6 million additional doses of smallpox vaccine, enough to vaccinate the entire population.50

Lessons for U.S. Policy

Surrounded by hostile countries armed with chemical and biological weapons, Israel faces a much more immediate threat than does the United States. Israel is also a small country, making it economically feasible to issue and maintain gas masks and antidote kits for the entire civilian population free of charge. Nevertheless, the United States should do far more to improve its domestic preparedness for chemical and biological terrorism and to educate the public about these potential threats. Although distributing a gas mask and an antidote kit to every American would not be practical, centralized stocks of masks and antidotes should be available for rapid distribution and use in the event of a chemical attack.

Bioterrorism preparedness requires a different set of measures. Because the release of a biological agent such as anthrax would take a few days to produce symptoms in those exposed, the victims of a bioterrorist attack would disperse widely and the first responders would be emergency room doctors and clinicians in private practice. These individuals require training in the diagnosis of exotic infections such as anthrax and smallpox, which they would never encounter in their routine medical practice. They also need to know how to report unusual disease outbreaks to the public health authorities, so that the appropriate treatment and containment measures can be brought to bear rapidly. Finally, it would be desirable to reduce the vulnerability to chemical or biological attack of certain high-risk buildings (such as federal government offices) by making air-intake vents less accessible and by installing high-efficiency particulate air filters and activated-charcoal filters in the ventilation systems to screen out toxic agents.

Strengthening Psychological Coping Skills

The Israeli government has made a deliberate effort to counter the demoralizing effects of terrorism by strengthening the psychological coping skills of ordinary citizens. Terrorists seek to invoke a pervasive fear in the civilian population by personalizing the threat so that everyone feels vulnerable, regardless of the statistical probability that a given individual will be affected. In an effort to counter this form of psychological warfare, Israeli terrorism experts from the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism visit schools throughout the country and provide educational programs tailored to students of different age groups. These lectures describe the motives and operational strategy of terrorists, with the aim of immunizing students against the personalization of terror. According to institute executive director Ganor, “Education directed towards familiarity with the phenomenon [of terrorism], in all its aspects, will lower the level of anxiety and foil one of the terrorists’ principal aims: to instill fear and undermine the personal security of civilians.”51

Lessons for U.S. Policy

The U.S. government should develop a more effective strategy for communicating terrorist threats to the public in order to promote vigilance without arousing undue alarm and anxiety. Recent warnings issued by U.S. government officials have been poorly coordinated and overly vague and have often appeared motivated more by bureaucratic interests than by real security needs. For example, the color-coded threat-level system developed by the Office of Homeland Security has become a target of ridicule.

Ideally, a single government representative who appears trustworthy, knowledgeable, and disinterested should be charged with conveying threat information to the general public. (In the case of a bioterrorist attack, the Surgeon General would be the most appropriate spokesperson.) Terrorist threats should be publicized only when they appear imminent and the supporting intelligence is reliable and specific. Such warnings should also be accompanied by recommendations to the public for prudent action. In all cases, information about terrorist threats, particularly those involving unconventional weapons, should be conveyed in a clear but non-alarmist manner to offset the sensationalistic tendencies of the mass media. Finally, programs—similar to that organized by the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel—in which academic terrorism experts travel around the United States giving talks on terrorism to elementary, high school, and college classes and community groups would help ordinary Americans cope psychologically with the pervasive yet amorphous threat they now face.


What can the United States learn from the Israeli experience with preventing terrorism? The main lessons appear to be

1. The importance of an alert and motivated citizenry for helping to prevent terrorist attacks
2. The key role of intelligence collection and analysis, which provide the foundation for all counterterrorism efforts
3. The need for close cooperation and coordination between foreign and domestic intelligence agencies in collecting and analyzing information on terrorist threats
4. The limited utility of assassination as a counterterrorism tool, including the risks of the boomerang effect
5. The value of basing aviation security primarily on an assessment of human factors, backed up with a variety of screening technologies and steps to “harden” passenger aircraft against hijacking and explosives
6. The importance of educational campaigns to bolster the psychological resilience of the civilian population against the demoralizing effects of terrorism

To date, both Israel and the United States have focused narrowly on military actions against terrorism while neglecting its root causes. Although brutal violence against innocent civilians is unacceptable and can never be justified, terrorism is a symptom of deeper political, religious, or social problems that cannot be solved by military means alone. An effective campaign to prevent terrorism must therefore treat the disease as well as the symptoms by addressing the political and social conditions that give rise to extremism and violence. Because Palestinian terrorism is in part a response to the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, steps that make the occupation harsher are unlikely to improve the security situation. Yet even the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories would not appease rejectionist groups such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad, which aim to destroy the Jewish state. A realistic middle ground would be for Israel to reach out to Palestinian moderates while continuing to pursue aggressive police actions against the extremist fringe.

In much the same way, the United States needs to address the roots of Islamic terrorism, which lie in the chronic lack of political freedom and economic opportunity in the Arab world, while aggressively pursuing those extremists who seek to kill Americans. Israel’s long experience demonstrates that a variety of policy tools—military, political, economic, and diplomatic—will be required over a protracted period. As Yoram Schweitzer, a senior researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, has observed, “The fight against terrorism resembles a marathon race and not a sprint.”52


Click on an end note number to return to the article.

1. Much of the research for this article took place during a study tour of Israel for counterterrorism experts on 2–10 February 2002, sponsored by Project Interchange, an institute of the American Jewish Committee.

2. Serge Schmemann, “In the Arabs’ Struggle Against Israel, There Are Many Players,” New York Times, 30 March 2002.

3. Boaz Ganor, “A New Strategy Against the New Terror,” Policy View (Shalem Center, National Policy Institute), No. 10, January 1995.

4. Hanan Sher and Erik Schechter, “Israeli Ingenuity Takes on Global Terror,” Jerusalem Report, 17 December 2001, pp. 34–40.

5. Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, Chairman of the Israel National Security Council, briefing on “Strategic Planning for Dealing With the Threat of Terror,” Tel Aviv, 5 February 2002.

6. Ina Friedman, “Strategies for a Long and Bitter War,” Jerusalem Report, 5 November 2001, p. 14.

7. Gen. Meir Dagan, head of the Bureau for Counter-Terrorism, Prime Minister’s Office, briefing on “The Status of the State of Israel in the Confrontation Between Israel and the Palestinians,” Jerusalem, 6 February 2002.

8. Joshua Sinai, “Aggressive Measures: Assessing the Effectiveness of Israel’s Combating-Terrorism Campaign,” Armed Forces Journal International, May 2002, p. 80.

9. BBC News Online, “Israel’s History of Bomb Blasts,” 11 June 2002.

10. Christopher Dickey, “Inside Suicide, Inc.,” Newsweek, 15 April 2002, p. 30.

11. Sinai, “Aggressive Measures,” p. 84.

12. Matt Rees, “The Terror That Will Not Quit,” Time, 1 July 2002, p. 24.

13. Gal Luft, “The Palestinian H-Bomb: Terror’s Winning Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 4 (July/August 2002), p. 5.

14. Dan Eggen, “FBI Warns of Suicide Bombs,” Washington Post, 21 May 2002.

15. Jennifer Barrett, “How Safe Are America’s Skies?” (interview with Raphael Ron), Newsweek Online, accessed 20 February 2002.

16. Briefing by Gen. Meir Dagan.

17. U.S. General Accounting Office, Combating Terrorism: How Five Countries Are Organized to Combat Terrorism, GAO/NSIAD-00-85, April 2000, p. 11.

18. Federation of American Scientists, Intelligence Resource Program, “Shin Bet.”

19. Friedman, “Strategies for a Long and Bitter War,” p. 12.

20. Walter Pincus and Dana Priest, “NSA Intercepts on Eve of 9/11 Sent a Warning; Messages Translated After Attacks,” Washington Post, 20 June 2002.

21. “Sayerot Mat’kal,” Jewish Virtual Library.

22. Simon Reeve, One Day in September: The Story of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), pp. 145–152.

23. Ely Karmon, International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, personal communication, 12 July 2002.

24. David Rubin, TIX Group, Herzliyya, Israel, personal communication, 3 May 2002.

25. Boaz Ganor, “Suicide Attacks in Israel,” in International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Countering Suicide Terrorism: An International Conference, 20–23 February 2000 (Herzliyya, Israel: ICT, 2000), pp. 142–143.

26. Boaz Ganor, “Background—The Components of Counter-Terrorism,” International Policy Center for Counter-Terrorism.

27. Rees, “The Terror That Will Not Quit,” p. 25.

28. Ganor, “Background—The Components of Counter-Terrorism.”

29. Amos Harel and Gideon Alon, “IDF Lawyers Set ‘Conditions’ for Assassination Policy,” Ha’aretz (English edition), 11 February 2002.

30. Moshe Gorali, “Easier to Kill, Harder to Judge,” Ha’aretz, 1 February 2002.

31. Rees, “The Terror That Will Not Quit,” p. 25.

32. Federation of American Scientists, Intelligence Resource Program, “Mossad.”

33. David Rudge, “Assassination Also Carries Risks to the Assassin,” Jerusalem Post, 14 February 2001.

34. Rick Lyman, “An Attack Where Security Is Probably the World’s Tightest,” New York Times, 5 July 2002.

35. John Croft, “Israeli Security Experts: Technology Not the Answer,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, 26 November 2001.

36. David Harel, head of the Liaison Branch for the Protection and Security Division of the Israel Security Agency, briefing on “Aviation Security,” Ben Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv, 4 February 2002.

37. Barrett, “How Safe Are America’s Skies?”

38. David Armstrong, “Flight Risks: Nation’s Airlines Adopt Aggressive Measures for Passenger Profiling,” Wall Street Journal, 25 October 2001.

39. Briefing by David Harel.

40. Ibid.

41. Associated Press, “Counterterrorism Experts at Logan,” 1 November 2001.

42. Barrett, “How Safe Are America’s Skies?”

43. Armstrong, “Flight Risks.”

44. Fareed Zakaria, “Freedom vs. Security: The Case for ‘Smart Profiling’ as a Weapon in the War on Terror,” Newsweek, Vol. CXL, No. 2 (8 July 2002), p. 31.

45. “News Chronology: November 2001–January 2002,” CBW Conventions Bulletin, No. 55, March 2002, p. 21.

46. Ron Leshem, “HAMAS Lab: Mustard Gas and Rat Poison,” Yedi’ot Aharonot (in Hebrew), 22 January 2002, p. 4.

47. “News Chronology, May–July 2002,” CBW Conventions Bulletin, No. 57, September 2002, p. 38.

48. David Stone, “Israeli Civilian NBC Doctrine: Preparing for the Coming Chemical Catastrophe,” Soldier of Fortune, Vol. 27, No. 2 (February 2002), pp. 41–42.

49. Ibid., p. 42.

50. Sarit Rosenblum, “Israel Has Manufactured Smallpox Vaccine,” Ma’ariv (in Hebrew), 10 July 2002.

51. Ganor, “A New Strategy Against the New Terror.”

52. Yoram Schweitzer, “The Case of the ‘Shoe Bomber’: Lessons in Counter-terrorism—This Time at No Cost,” International Policy Center for Counter-Terrorism, 4 January 2002.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2016 10:06 pm

    Thank you for the material shared.
    At War on Terrorism: Few Notes on Rationality: Supplementary Materials to ‘To Kill Hope? In Search of a Reliable Strategy to Fight Terrorism’ – more data and cases on the issue.


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