First Signs Emerge of ISIS-inspired Lone-wolf Terrorism in Israel

Israel's significant role in the struggle against ISIS is recognized by neighboring countries and could be one of the reasons for the improved regional relations, despite differences over the Palestinian issue.

Emergency personnel operate at the site of a terror attack at Sarona Market in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, June 8, 2016.
Moti Milrod

The Shin Bet security service announcement on Monday that the terrorists who murdered four people at a popular Tel Aviv tourist attraction last month were inspired by the Islamic State group confirms the assessment made by Palestinian security services on the night of the attack.

This was not a cell organized by Islamic State that received instructions or assistance from the group. However, one of the terrorists had publicly supported the organization when he studied in Jordan, and the two men clearly committed the attack at Sarona Market out of solidarity with the jihadist group, photographing themselves with an ISIS flag in the background before setting out on their murderous rampage.

A similar explanation was given when Israeli-Arab terrorist Nashat Melhem murdered three Israelis in Tel Aviv on New Year’s Day. Then, too, it was reported that Melhem had been radicalized by internet sites connected to ISIS.

It’s possible that these are the first signs of a phenomenon already seen in other countries: lone-wolf attackers or small cells of young people planning and executing attacks based on the general guidelines that ISIS disseminates online, without having any real connection to the group’s command structure or local operatives.

They operate separately from ISIS’ organized cells, which rely on better-trained operatives and veterans from its fighting in Syria, and who have actually sworn allegiance to ISIS and receive funding and instructions from it.

The admiration ISIS inspires among radical Islamists throughout the world allows it to take credit for all kinds of attacks, even those with which it has only a marginal connection. In the past year, ISIS or its adherents have been implicated in serious attacks in the United States (San Bernardino and Orlando), Iraq (up to 200 people killed in the latest bombing in Baghdad this week), Bangladesh (20 dead in a café in Dhaka over the weekend, in which Westerners – including nine Italians and seven Japanese – were separated from locals and murdered), and other places.

ISIS’ interest in these attacks is clear: It is able to signal that it has expanded its sphere of influence, even as it has lost 40 percent of the territory it controlled in Iraq and some 20 percent of what it held in Syria. The U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has started to show results.

Israel plays a significant role in the Western struggle against ISIS, though most of it is conducted behind the scenes. According to Western intelligence sources, Israel has supplied more intelligence to its allies than any other intelligence organization.

This contribution is also recognized by neighboring countries, whose appreciation is also appropriately expressed. It’s possible to assess that this is one of the reasons for their improved relations with Israel during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reign, despite differences over the Palestinian issue.

Trying to keep the lid on terror

Israel is hunting for the West Bank terror cell that gunned down Michael “Miki” Mark in the South Hebron Hills last Friday and is trying to prevent copycat attacks.

The gunmen in the drive-by shooting on Route 60 appear to have been quite well organized, making it possible that they are part of an Islamic terror group. The manhunt may find the killers, but it might also push the cell to carry out another attack or trigger a confrontation with the security forces before they can be caught.

The Israeli army’s closure of Hebron is not being stringently enforced. If there are no more attacks, we can assume that it will be removed soon, even as the security establishment takes other measures – like demolishing terrorists’ homes and approving construction plans in the settlements. The differing approaches to collective punishment by the government and military will become sharper if the attacks continue.

Another risk of escalation could come from the intra-Palestinian struggle over who will succeed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas’ hold on the territories is weakening, as evidenced by the intensive debate in the West Bank over who might succeed him, as well as the extreme declarations by senior Fatah members in support of the terror attacks.

The weaker Abbas gets, the weaker the Palestinians’ security cooperation is likely to get. Until last week, the army had attributed much of the success in halting the string of terror attacks to this cooperation.

Even as Netanyahu competes with his ministers over who can condemn terror and the PA leadership more strongly, he seems willing to consider changes in his government’s approach to the Gaza Strip. The National Security Council, the army and the coordinator of government activities in the territories have been studying the increasingly harsh living conditions in the Strip and deterioration of the infrastructure there.

They are working with an eye on 2020 – the year cited by various international reports as the year in which a humanitarian catastrophe is liable to occur in Gaza. Even now, though, the Strip is battling a lack of drinking water, electricity shortages and poor sanitation, as well as 38 percent unemployment.