How Do You Fight Off a Pack of 'Lone Wolf' Terrorists?

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Not only do 'lone wolf' terrorists present a grave new threat, but so too do they risk hardening our hearts with fear and thus weakening the cause of co-existence and tolerance in Israel.Credit: Dreamstime

Like any good American citizen living in Israel, I’m officially registered at the U.S. embassy and so receive their emails on a regular basis. When there’s any form of unrest, terrorism or war, it’s become a matter of routine to find specific, authoritative warnings from the embassy regarding where it’s considered dangerous to tread occupying my inbox.

Emergency personnel evacuate a body at the scene of the Jerusalem synagogue terror attack, Tues, Nov. 18, 2014. Credit: Reuters

For example, when the missiles were falling intensely on southern Israel, I was told not to head south, when the Syrian border was heating up, I was told to stay away from the Golan, and periodically, I am told to stay out of the West Bank or away from the Temple Mount area. Since the recent car attacks on people waiting for the light rail urban trains in Jerusalem began, the embassy has told Americans to stay away from certain stations.

But following Tuesday’s horrific attack on the Har Nof synagogue, which killed five people including three American-Israeli dual citizens, I received a different kind of email from the embassy. It was far less certain, less declarative of how and where it would be best to stay safe. The missive did its best to maintain an authoritative tone, but there was a subtext of uncertainty - an admission it wasn’t quite sure any more how to advise people to stay safe.

The email read: “Today’s incident differs from recent attacks, potentially demonstrating low-level coordination to attack a pre-identified soft target as opposed to an opportunistic random act of violence... The current dynamic security environment underscores the importance of situational awareness, especially in crowded public places that may have minimal overt police presence.”

It then offered the official State Department definition of “soft targets” and advice for “making yourself a harder target.”

“The State Department considers soft targets to include places where people live, congregate, shop or visit, including hotels, clubs, restaurants, shopping centers, identifiable Western businesses, housing compounds, transportation systems, places of worship, schools, or public recreation events, often with little or no security presence... We advise taking steps to make yourself a "harder target" and raise your situational awareness when frequenting these areas; make your routes, arrival and departure times unpredictable, ensure a colleague, friend or family member is aware of your travel, and report suspicious activity to local authorities.”

Maybe I’ve been watching too much “Homeland” but when I read this advice, it made me feel like Carrie Mathison slinking through the alleyways of Islamabad, always looking out of the corner of my eye for trouble, unable to relax unless safely within the walls of the U.S. Embassy compound (and anybody watching this season knows she’s not even safe there).

It’s not just Americans that are nervous. The new wave of terror has come from the “lone wolf” next door. The man who shot Yehuda Glick worked at the restaurant of the museum where the attack took place. One of the assailants at the synagogue was reportedly employed at the grocery store next door. The recent attacks are taking place in the comfort zones of the attacker, in locations where they don’t look out of place, no matter how high one’s “situational awareness” may be.

Following these attacks, there are some Israelis who see the Arab citizens or Palestinians who work at their local grocery stores and butcher shops and pharmacies, or in construction building the streets and roads across the street from their homes or their children’s preschools, and wonder what is in their hearts and minds.

“Lone-wolf terrorists have rammed their cars into crowds and stabbed young commuters at bus stops. The Israeli security forces, expert in disrupting networks and intercepting infiltrations, have found themselves helpless to stop it. How do you predict an attack by a single local resident armed only with a car and a kitchen knife?” writes Yishai Schwartz in “The New Republic.”

The Israeli security forces can’t always predict it - neither can police in the United States or Europe, which is why having the Islamic State penetrating the hearts and minds of young Muslims living in the heart of London or Paris or Detroit is so daunting.

And just as frightening - perhaps more so - as the security threat, is the extent to which fearing the lone wolf terrorist next door unravels the fabric of a society that aspires to tolerance and co-existence and does its best to battle racism.

How in the world can we protect “soft targets” without hardening our hearts?

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