A history of Israeli counterterrorism offers some CT lessons for Washington

A history of Israeli counterterrorism offers some CT lessons for Washington

By Matthew Irvine
Best Defense directorate of Delta force activities

After a decade of counterterrorism, the United States still doesn’t quite seem to have the right formula. As we look back on a decade of lessons learned, it is useful to also study what our allies and partners have been up to in their own fights with terrorism.

Daniel Byman’s new book, A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism, tells the story of Israel’s seven decades of counterterrorism. Byman overcomes the potential minefield subject of Israel/Palestine by tracing the arc of contemporary Israeli policies and challenges to their historical roots, often dating back to the British Mandate period and the 1967 war.

What struck me when reading Byman’s book?

The Israeli military and politics are truly familial. Many of Israel’s political and security officials today have worked together for decades, starting as soldiers in the IDF. Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak served on the same commando team that freed a hijacked El Al plane in 1972. Somberly, Bibi’s brother Yonatan Netanyahu was killed in the famous Entebbe raid in 1976. These intimate relationships and the country’s close ties to its military forces make the use of force, especially commandos, a very personal affair for those in power.

The long learning curve of countering terrorism. Israeli intelligence was forced to adapt as Black September emerged in the 1970s, as the PLO built a mini-state in Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority took power after Oslo and amidst the Second Intifada and the rise of Hamas. These required a relatively small cadre of counterterror specialists to constantly look for new openings in collection, new avenues of disruption and better ways to harden defenses. Israel still hasn’t perfected its methods to say the least but has established an impressive record to versatility in a persistent irregular conflict. The United States should take note as we enter a second decade of war: retaining top level talent and constantly learning is key to long-term success.

The dangers of sanctuary. According to Byman, “Israel’s history shows that no factor is more important to the success of a terrorist group than sanctuary.” This argument is supported by studies of insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well. Israel has focused much of its historical efforts on eliminating these sanctuaries both within and outside its borders. However it is important to note that as one safe haven closed, inevitably another appeared, whether in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria or Gaza.

Counterterrorism cannot be removed from counterinsurgency. As the debate over the Biden CT+ option in Afghanistan continues in DC, the Israel example highlights the need for wider strategies than simply killing bad guys. Byman wisely notes that “most of the groups Israel has faced, particularly the most dangerous ones, are involved in much more than terrorism…. When thinking beyond terrorism and in terms of political policy, the Israeli government should draw lessons from counterinsurgency, which addresses not only the military dimensions but also the political, economic, and social ones as well.”

The threat of domestic terrorism looms large. Jewish terrorism is nothing new in Israel. Leaders such as Menachem Begin led pre-independence terrorist groups such as Irgun and the Stern Gang. This thread continues today with the fringes of contemporary settlers. As great as the threat from outside seems, problems at home always demand attention.

The book chooses breadth over depth in its attempt to cover seven decades of conflict and evolution and may leave those with their own libraries on Israel/Palestine wanting for more. Nonetheless, A High Price is a great introduction to Israeli counterterrorism.

Matthew Irvine is a research assistant at the Center for a New American Security, where he works on the Terrorism, Irregular Warfare and Crime Project. He is a co-author of “Beyond Afghanistan: A Regional Security Strategy for South and Central Asia.