Analysis

After San Diego Synagogue Shooting, U.S. Will Have to Increase Online Tracking to Stop the Next Murderer

Former cyber chief says sooner or later U.S. will have to take page out of Israel's playbook regarding monitoring and vetting

Members of a militia organization walk down the street near the site of the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual meeting, in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S., April 27, 2019.
\ BRYAN WOOLSTON/ REUTERS

Terror attacks by white racists in the United States and other countries may be the work of lone wolves, but these wolves are already part of a pack. There’s a direct line between the attack on a synagogue near San Diego Saturday morning and the earlier attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh exactly six months ago.

Moreover, the terrorists who attack synagogues in America draw their inspiration from far-right extremists in other countries. The San Diego terrorist voiced admiration for the murderer who slaughtered dozens of Muslim worshippers in New Zealand last month. And all these terrorists have an older hero, far-right extremist Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in Norway in a well-planned attack eight years ago.

Not surprisingly, the media coverage of Saturday’s attack in both the United States and Israel devoted considerable attention to the question of the Trump effect – i.e., to what extent the current occupant of the White House has influenced the tense political atmosphere in America and what effect this atmosphere has had on acts of extremism. But this debate seems to have exhausted itself.

A San Diego Sheriff’s Deputy walks near the scene of a shooting incident at the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego, California, U.S. April 27, 2019.
\ JOHN GASTALDO/ REUTERS

The U.S. president is no anti-Semite and doesn’t want attacks on Israelis and Jews. Nevertheless, Donald Trump’s electoral victory and the violent political discourse which he both reflects and actively encourages have let the genies of extremism out of the bottle in the United States. Under these circumstances, even the San Diego murderer – whose published remarks just before he embarked on his attack harshly criticized Trump and depicted him as a puppet of the Jews – have found the ideological ground more fertile for action.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 25Haaretz

The more practical question relates to America’s irrational gun laws, which allowed the latest murderers to acquire automatic or semi-automatic rifles with no difficulty. This situation surely won’t change while Trump remains in office, just as it didn’t change under his predecessor, Barack Obama, though he at least tried to make it harder to buy guns.

Trump, in contrast, praises having people with guns at the scenes of terror attacks to serve as first responders and stop the attackers. And just last weekend, he appeared at the convention of the National Rifle Association, the powerful lobby of gun owners and arms manufacturers. This political alliance won’t be easily broken.

After Saturday’s attack, security at the attacked synagogue and at other Jewish community sites throughout America will undoubtedly be beefed up. “The automatic response to such an attack is to build more walls and install more guards and cameras,” Arik Brabbing, who until recently was a senior Shin Bet official, told Haaretz on Sunday.

San Diego county sheriff deputies stand in front of the Chabad of Poway synagogue, April 28, 2019.
Denis Poroy,AP
Hundreds attend vigil in Poway after synagogue shootingHaaretz

But he warned that relying solely on additional defensive measures will be effective only for a short while. Eventually, these measures will be breached by the next attackers.

>> Read more: For Trump and Netanyahu, San Diego synagogue attack is an inconvenience best sidelined and ignored | Analysis ■ America is now a perfect bipartisan incubator for pathological anti-Semitism | Opinion

Brabbing, who has served as head of the Shin Bet’s cyber division and was in charge of the Jerusalem and West Bank district during a wave of lone-wolf Palestinian attacks in late 2015, thinks American security agencies will ultimately have no choice but to monitor violent extremists on social media more thoroughly, despite the inherent difficulty of employing such means in a democratic society.

The Shin Bet and Military Intelligence have taken far-reaching steps to monitor social media. Israel’s suppression of that wave of Palestinian stabbing and car-ramming attacks was attributed mainly to its use of these measures, which didn’t spark any public debate and were subject to almost no limitations by the legal system because they generally weren’t being used against Israeli citizens. The defense establishment also relied on the Counterterrorism Law, which enables it to take aggressive steps even against people who merely voice support for inflammatory content on social media.

According to Brabbing, it became clear in retrospect that the vast majority of the lone-wolf Palestinian attackers, most of whom were fairly young, had left warnings of their intentions on social media in the form of extremist statements and even hints about planned violence.

“Terrorism, including by white racists, is a global phenomenon whose impact links far-flung geographic areas,” he said. “The methodology used by those who fight it – some of which was developed here a few years ago – is largely familiar to the Americans. Thus if they decide the time has come, it won’t be too difficult to start thwarting it in advance, including by holding warning conversations with extremists who post statements about their murderous plans in advance or summoning them for interrogation.”

The internet has made it much easier to disseminate messages encouraging terrorism around the world, Brabbing continued. But using it leaves a “digital signature” that exposes the people who spread these messages.

“The Americans can improve their monitoring of violent extremists with relatively little infringement of privacy,” he argued. “Monitoring or gathering information about a large population isn’t necessary. But when you integrate and cross-reference different types of information – for instance, a person preaching violence with that person’s violent past – warning signs accumulate that require monitoring.

“I’m not talking about waves of arrests over speech, but about better monitoring and filtering of possible terrorists,” he added. “Sooner or later, the Americans will do this. And in the U.S., such monitoring is even easier, because a sizable proportion of statements calling for terrorism against Muslims and Jews is made in open forums rather than closed chat rooms.”