Analysis |

‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorists Remain Biggest Threat in West Bank, Jerusalem

Shin Bet security service and Military Intelligence still struggling to combat killers acting independently or in small local units.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Border Police troops secure the location of a 'lone wolf' stabbing in East Jerusalem, May 20, 2015.
Border Police troops secure the location of a 'lone wolf' stabbing in East Jerusalem, May 20, 2015.Credit: Tali Meyer
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Palestinian man who murdered Danny Gonen and wounded his friend in a shooting attack on Friday, near the West Bank settlement of Dolev, managed to escape the area. Over the next few weeks, the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service will conduct a massive manhunt in order to apprehend the killer. Based on past experiences over the past decade, chances are high he will eventually be caught. The critical question is whether it will happen before or after he strikes again.

After the second intifada petered out about a decade ago, and even more so since 2007-2008 – when security coordination between Israel and Palestinian security forces grew tighter – there has been a reduction in the number of attacks orchestrated by organized terror groups such as the military wing of Hamas (which claimed responsibility for Friday’s murder).

In recent years, two prevalent attack modes have emerged: Attacks by “lone-wolf” terrorists who are out to kill on their own initiative, with no organizational background and, usually, without prior warning; or attacks by local units, based on a handful of terrorists who, even if they have some organizational links, are not part of an orderly hierarchy.

Of all the serious attacks over the last year in the West Bank and, mainly, East Jerusalem, only one – the kidnaping and murder of three teenage boys in Gush Etzion a year ago – was carried out by a Hamas unit. Even then, this was a local cell that, although receiving funds from Gaza, didn’t share detailed plans with commanders outside the West Bank. The two terrorists who murdered five people at a synagogue in Jerusalem last November acted on their own, despite ideological links with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. And the perpetrators of a series of stabbings and vehicular attacks on pedestrians, in Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, were mainly lone wolves with no organizational affiliation.

The prevalent modus operandi in recent years was based on exploiting sudden opportunities: rapid planning; identification of a momentary soft spot (unarmed hikers going to a spring; teenagers hitchhiking after dark); and launching the attack.

The avoidance of suicide attacks by Hamas in recent years – although some sporadic attempts were prevented – can be partly explained by the realization that these did nothing to advance the Palestinian cause and only antagonized people in Western countries. However, the main reason for the cessation of such attacks is apparently the tight intelligence surveillance by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which makes it difficult for the required prolonged organization and preparation to proceed.

As far as is known, the military wing of Hamas in the West Bank is currently leaderless, and only a few of its remaining free members know how to assemble the deadly explosive vests that killed so many Israelis during the second intifada between 2000 and 2006. Thus, the nature of the terror threat is changing. However, as noted before, this leads to a correlated problem in intelligence-gathering. It is far more difficult to locate a lone attacker, or a small group with no previous record, in order to foil their plans.

The Shin Bet and Military Intelligence have been struggling to combat this for several years, so far with little success. One possible solution is a closer monitoring of social networks in the West Bank – some previous attacks, for example, were preceded by hints in different forums, including on Facebook. This will only partly address the problem, however.

Despite intense international preoccupation with the diplomatic freeze and notwithstanding concerns about a confrontation with the Palestinians over their upcoming moves at the United Nations and other international bodies, it’s hard to identify an upswing in terror attacks or a warning of impending ones. The biggest current risks are further shootings, stabbings or vehicular attacks on pedestrians by lone attackers or local units, or a kidnapping. This is the favored option of terror organizations and has the support of Palestinian society, which wishes to see the release of more security detainees held by Israel.

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