Analysis |

'Revenge of the Rejects': The Real Reason Young Palestinians Commit Lone-wolf Attacks

An analysis of the backgrounds of 80 terrorists reveals a number of key differences compared to the previous generation of assailants

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli border police detains a Palestinian at Qalandiah checkpoint, near the West Bank city of Ramallah June 16, 2017.
Israeli border police detains a Palestinian at Qalandiah checkpoint, near the West Bank city of Ramallah June 16, 2017. Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The resolution reached on the Temple Mount security measures last week restored the situation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to the somewhat sleepy mid-summer mood that prevailed in the weeks preceding the escalation concerning the holy site. After the Palestinian victory celebrations last weekend when the metal detectors were removed, the riots subsided. Prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque resumed as usual. The lone-wolf terror attacks that became common over the past couple of years are continuing off and on. On Wednesday, a Palestinian stabbed and critically wounded an Israeli in the Tel Aviv suburb of Yavneh. At the Gush Etzion junction, soldiers arrested a Palestinian woman with a knife who approached the checkpoint.

The impact of the upheaval surrounding the Temple Mount and the crisis with Jordan will likely be felt for some time to come. One of its many effects is the emergence of a more realistic perspective on the part of the Trump administration. Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and the man tasked by him with forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians, was recorded admitting in a private conversation that there currently doesn’t appear to be any way to resolve the conflict. To be sure, very few people had any illusions about Trump’s highly chaotic administration being able to deliver on this. Still, Kushner’s remarks seem to signal that further American disengagement from the Middle East is in the offing – not a positive development, from Israel’s standpoint.

In the midst of the Temple Mount crisis, the Palestinian Authority announced that it was halting security cooperation with Israel. In reality, the coordination continued via phone calls, while the heads of the security organizations declined to hold any direct meetings. Among the Palestinian leadership, there is concern over Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ health. Last Saturday, Abbas was taken to the hospital in Ramallah, supposedly due to exhaustion from dealing with the crisis, but Israeli officials suspect his medical problems may be more serious. In his speech to the Herzliya Conference last June, the Israeli army’s chief of staff spoke of the importance of security coordination with the PA. The relationship is important to both sides. The reining in of lone-wolf attacks, which reached a peak in late 2015, was attained in part thanks to the counter-terrorism efforts of the Palestinian security organizations. This happened when the security chiefs saw that the young stabbers were sacrificing themselves to no real end and endangering the PA’s stability at the same time.

Since October 2015, there have been more than 300 lone-wolf terror attacks and copycat attacks, as they are termed by the intelligence organizations. The initial eruption of these attacks caught the army and the Shin Bet security service unprepared. “We were having five attacks a day,” says one official who was heavily involved in combating the wave of stabbings and car-ramming attacks. “And all we could come up with was the most basic information about where the terrorist came from and how old he was. We had zero information about the terrorists’ background – and zero warnings, of course.” It was at this point that that Israel began to develop a response based on deep and comprehensive intelligence monitoring of Palestinian social media.

For this purpose, major data analysis was required. It started with an Excel sheet in which all the available information on the first 80 terrorists was entered. Clear patterns were spotted, with imitation the most prominent: 40 percent of the terrorists who struck in those first months came from the same seven West Bank villages and neighborhoods. Half of the attacks occurred at a small number of locations, with one attacker following in the footsteps of another. Based on this information, the Central Command tailored special security arrangements for the attack-prone sites, with the Gush Etzion junction being number one.

The analysis of these 80 terrorists’ backgrounds revealed a number of key differences compared to the terrorists of the previous generation. The new attackers were not very religiously devout, most had no history of active involvement in a terrorist organization and they mostly fell in the middle of the socioeconomic spectrum, with only a few coming from refugee camps. Another noticeable common denominator was that many suffered from personal problems: Young men and, especially, young women, who suffered abuse at home, family crises, or were relative outsiders in their society. They viewed attacking Israelis, and possibly dying as a shahid, as a way to escape their plight. Many of the terrorists who were arrested told interrogators that they set out to commit the attack on a sudden impulse. In one case, the stabber went out to attack after getting into a big fight with his father, who broke his iPad. In another case, the son of a wealthy businessman set out to run over Israelis with his father’s Mercedes after learning that his parents meant to hand the reins of the family business to his brother and not him.

When it was asked to profile the terrorists, the Central Command intelligence team described the phenomenon as “Revenge of the Rejects.” Picking up a knife temporarily transformed these shunned youths into superheroes, into Palestinian Supermen and Superwomen. By committing an attack, the lone wolf connected to a narrative larger than himself or herself, one that imbued the attacker with bravery, with no need for any kind of organizational umbrella. Terrorists killed in the course of their attacks were especially lauded on social media, regardless of how much damage they managed to inflict. A flattering Facebook profile photo was enough.

These kinds of personal issues as motivators became wedded to the very powerful engine of incitement. The formal Palestinian media is less relevant here than the social networks and online news sites. The PA, which had softened the tone of some of its media during 2016, let loose once more in recent weeks against the backdrop of the fury surrounding the Temple Mount. The claim that “Al-Aqsa is in danger,” pushed by the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, also took hold in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This has been the main motivation cited by all the terrorists of the last few weeks. Israeli intelligence has also found that the number of declarations of readiness to commit terror attacks has risen by hundreds of percentage points. The Israeli response relies to a large extent on monitoring the internet and requires close coordination with the forces in the field, who are responsible for making arrests. Recently, a new record was set: Just 24 minutes passed between the time an alert was declared and when the terrorist was arrested en route to the attack. In many other cases, arrests are made within an hour or two. This method necessitates that the intelligence services streamline the usual processes so as to relay the alert right away to the force at the vanguard, to the commander of the company assigned to carry out the arrest. Other times, the alert is relayed to the PA security organizations, which call the young person in for a cautionary talk. The bottom line is that these moves have helped to intercept 90 percent of the lone wolf attacks.

Pension for prison

What will deter a young person who’s fed up with life and wants to die or be arrested? Israel believes the terrorists hesitate when they think their family will pay a price. Hence, the return to the policy of home demolitions (still a subject of fierce debate among security professionals), but also to a wider effort to confiscate funds and illegal vehicles – cars that were stolen or taken off the road in Israel due to technical faults. At the same time, however, there are tremendous economic incentives for the terrorists’ families. A junior Palestinian police officer earns an average of 1,700-2,000 shekels (around $500) per month; a young terrorist will receive a little more than that from the PA, from the very first day of his arrest in Israel. A long-term prisoner can receive about 12,000 shekels (around $3400) a month, a fortune in West Bank terms. Anyone who serves five years in prison is also eligible for a pension – and the army has already arrested some Palestinians who showed up at checkpoints with knives, and later explained that they were six months of prison time away from obtaining the coveted pension. The United States is pressing the PA leadership to cease paying out this money, and the PA is searching for less direct ways to make the payments in order to more easily rebuff the Americans.

As sometimes happened in the days when suicide bombings were rampant, there have been cases in the last months in which relatives or others who transported a terrorist hastened to report them to the PA and even to Israel, for fear that they would be punished too. The improvement in soldiers’ training and their preparedness to deal with stabbing attacks has also led to fewer people being wounded at checkpoints. Consequently, Palestinians have been looking for alternative modes of attack, such as small local cells armed with rudimentary “Carlo” (Carl Gustav) submachine guns. The three terrorists who killed four Israelis at Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market in June of last year purchased their three weapons and accompanying gear for a total of just 6,000 shekels (around $1700). The nice suits they wore cost them more. This was the incident which belatedly prompted the army and Shin Bet to try to tackle the Carlo epidemic. Since then, more than 70 small factories producing the weapons have been shut down and hundreds of the guns have been confiscated. The price of a Carlo submachine gun has jumped accordingly, with a single weapon now selling for close to 8,000 shekels (around $2300).

The planning and execution of these attacks are still somewhat amateur, and display a lack of experience. The terrorist who wounded several Israelis when he blew himself up in a bus in Jerusalem during Passover 2016 set out with a bomb whose materials cost just 70 shekels ($20). Given the intensity of their motivation, the results achieved by these scattered terrorist cells have been fairly modest. But the second intifada taught us that such gaps can be rapidly closed. Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials in Gaza are prepared to deliver large sums of money to the West Bank cells to aid them in carrying out major attacks. And as happened sometimes during the early part of the last decade, when Hezbollah in Lebanon propped up similar cells in the territories, today, too, there are cases where Palestinians dupe their would-be financers and collect money for attacks they have no intention of committing.

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