ATbar Israel, Europe and the converging terror threat

Israel, Europe and the converging terror threat

08/03/2015 | by ICT Researchers  

First published in Fathom

Author: Dr. Amichai Magen

Not long ago, the sensible commuter in an average European city could reasonably assume that she was generally immune from the kind of security threats faced regularly by her friend living in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

By the beginning of 2015, the security ecosystem affecting Israelis and Europeans had converged dramatically and negatively. In the coming years, possibly decades, making sure that Europeans can go about their normal business in safety will necessitate a concerted effort to understand the ideology and modus operandi of jihadist terrorism, to contain and ultimately reduce the capacity and motivation of terrorists to attack, and to strengthen resilience in European societies. Indeed, the counter-terrorism posture required to protect civilians, whether in European or Israeli cities, while not identical, will depend on the intelligent and determined application of common guiding tenets and so will greatly benefit from intimate European-Israeli dialogue, cooperation, and learning.


In approaching the new security ecosystem it is important to distinguish between three ideological movements animating contemporary jihadist activity – Salafist, Shia, and Muslim Brotherhood led – as well as between three concentric circles of jihadist threats: local, European, and (broadly) Middle Eastern. Each ideological stream and concentric circle impacts both European and Israeli security, albeit to different degrees.

Salafist jihadism: the rising threat to Europe

Salafist jihadism represents the most serious and immediate terrorist threat to Europe, and is fast rising in the hierarchy of threats to Israel. Salafist jihadism – to which Al-Qaeda, its affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, and Islamic State (IS) all subscribe – is a compound ideology: it mixes a highly puritanical reading of Sunni Islam – one which strives to emulate the ‘pious ancestors’ (Salaf) by rejecting apostate (Kuffar) regimes and seeking to establish a Sharia-based Caliphate – with a virulent interpretation of the concept of jihad – one that downplays the non-violent, spiritual reading of the notion in favour of a proclaimed duty of every Muslim to fight for the realisation of the Caliphate.

This violent utopianism inspires Salafist jihadism’s vision of conflict, society, and politics. To their mind, the Ummah (or ‘community of believers’) is in a state of total war with the West, ‘the Jews’, and other non-believers, including apostate Arab regimes and Shia Muslims. This war not only justifies acts of extreme violence against those who have conspired to ‘suppress the true faith’ – beheadings, crucifixions, mass executions and rape – but involves the rejection of all forms of man-made law, democracy, and the Westphalian international system. Indeed, Salafist jihadism is contesting the essential values and institutions of modern liberal societies in a manner not experienced by the West since the defeat of Nazism.

With the disintegration of Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and large parts of the Sahel region (Mali, Niger, northern Nigeria, Chad, and Sudan) the geographical epicentre of global jihad has shifted away from Afghanistan-Pakistan towards the Levant and North Africa. The most active sources of Salafist jihadism are now on Israel’s borders and at Europe’s gates. In the coming years Libya, in particular, may become to southern Europe what Gaza is now to Israel – a terrorist safe haven controlled by violent extremists and used by them to launch cross-border attacks while shielded by a captive civilian population.

Europe is increasingly in the cross-hairs of Salafist jihadist organisations. In late January 2015, for example, a spokesman for Al-Qaeda in Yemen – the group claiming to be behind the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in Paris – stated that with the ‘weakening’ of the US in recent years, France has surpassed America to become the ‘main enemy of Islam.’

The hundreds of European Muslims who have travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq since 2011 are almost exclusively followers of the Salafist brand of Islam. Austria, Belgium, France and the Netherlands have all supplied higher per capita numbers of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, but the estimated 600 British fighters is, jointly with Germany, the highest absolute number in Europe. Of these, a significant number are known to have returned to European shores and to remain active in extremist circles.

As the campaign of the international coalition against IS puts growing pressure on the organisation in Syria and Iraq, the number of European returnees is likely to grow, raising the probability of both ‘Lone Wolf’ attacks – typically involving stabbings, shootings, car-rampage attacks, or Boston-Marathon style bombings – as well as more organised strikes by sleeper-cells.

There is evidence that Salafist networks cross European borders. The Millatu Ibrahim group, banned in Germany in 2012, for example, is known to have not only recruited German jihadists but also served to connect them to extremist networks in Austria, Belgium, and France. Similarly, the 16 January 2015 Berlin police raid on 11 addresses and arrest of two men suspected of recruiting fighters, arms and finance for IS, came a day after the thwarting of a terrorist plot in Belgium and appears to have been part of a wider effort to disrupt a European network of Salafist extremists.

Israel too is experiencing a foreign-fighters problem, although a remarkably smaller one than Europe’s. Some 40 Israeli Arab citizens have travelled to Syria to fight or have attempted to do so, and more have travelled from Palestinian Authority (PA) areas. The social-media outlets of Salafist jihadi groups invest a considerable amount of their energy inciting Israeli Arabs and Palestinians to carry out acts of ‘spontaneous jihad’ against soft (civilian) targets in Israel and Jewish communities in Europe.

In the medium to long-run, the highest threat to Israel emanating from Salafist jihadism comes from the Islamist group that constitutes Al-Qaeda’s ‘official franchise’ in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and, to a lesser extent, the Sinai-based Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. IS and its gruesome activities further east continue to dominate Western media attention, yet in north-western Syria, in Lebanon and on the immediate border with Israel in the northern Golan, it is Jabhat al-Nusra that has become the main Sunni jihadi force on the ground.

While al-Nusra is guided by an uncompromising jihadist ideology, its leader Abu Mohammed Al Jolani has so far demonstrated impressive tactical legerdemain; focusing on winning hearts and minds among Sunni Arabs in Syria and Lebanon, rather than terrorising them into submission, and preserving his gains by avoiding targeting westerners or provoking Israel. Still, as Jonathan Spyer observes, Jabhat al-Nusra appears determined to emerge as a kind of Sunni mirror-image of the Shia Hezbollah – establishing an Al-Qaeda shadow-state in Syria and Lebanon with which to attack Israel and the West.

Iranian backed terror: an old foe

Iran – whose leaders routinely call for Israel’s destruction – is fighting an escalating shadow-war against the Jewish state and is now, for all intents and purposes, sitting on Israel’s northern borders in the form of its proxy Hezbollah, whose manifesto proclaims: ’our struggle will end only when this entity [Israel] is obliterated.’

Iran has been the primary beneficiary of the Syrian Civil War and the disintegration of Iraq and Yemen. The hegemon-by-proxy in Lebanon for decades, Iran is now methodically enlarging and deepening its influence across the region by simultaneously agitating the Shia-Sunni conflict, portraying itself as protector and benefactor of the Shia populations in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, and ruthlessly exploiting power vacuums wherever it finds them. By February 2015, for example, the Iran-backed Houthis rebel group completed a takeover of Yemen capital, establishing a de facto Iranian protectorate in a key geopolitical spot in the Arabian Peninsula.

In the face of the Assad regime’s total dependence on Iran and Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah forces are now actively pursuing the establishment of missile bases within Syrian territory with which to strike Israel, while minimising the risk of an all-out Israeli retaliation against Hezbollah in Lebanon. When Israel and Hezbollah next go to war – and it is a question of when rather than if – the battlefront will likely extend to Lebanon, the Golan, and Syria, and will almost certainly involve Iranian soldiers as well as Hezbollah militiamen.

Trained, supplied and financed by Iran, Hezbollah today poses the most serious and immediate danger to Israeli national security, but is also a rising threat to Europe. Hezbollah is now the world’s largest, wealthiest, most militarily capable terrorist organisation, with operations spanning Europe, Africa, the Americas and parts of Asia. Hezbollah has also become an archetype and model for other jihadist groups, Shia and Sunni alike, ready to share its tactical knowledge with groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Gaza.

Currently bogged down in fighting for Assad’s survival Syria and hesitant to open a full second-front against Israel, Hezbollah has, in the last three years, opted to strike at Israeli and Jewish targets in India, Georgia, Cyprus, and Bulgaria – where in July 2012 a Hezbollah bomber killed five Israeli tourists and wounded 32 in the seaside resort of Burgas. As tensions between the West and Iran rise around the deadline for the conclusion of nuclear talks, and as Israel seeks to prevent Hezbollah attacks on its northern border or the transfer of sophisticated weaponry to the hands of the Shia militia, the risk of Hezbollah strikes on European soil grows. Indeed, an Iranian/Hezbollah attack on a Jewish or Israeli target in London, Paris or Berlin – one mirroring perhaps the 1994 bombing of a Jewish Community Centre in Buenos Aires – would come as no surprise.

Hamas and Sunni Islamism targeting Europe?

The logic whereby thwarting terrorist activity in the Middle East may increase the risk of its eruption in Europe also extends to Muslim Brotherhood-aligned organisations, especially Hamas. Like Hezbollah, Hamas – which has fought three rounds of major hostilities with Israel in the past five years from the Gaza Strip – depends on violent struggle against Israel for its legitimacy and funding, yet is currently reluctant to provoke the Israeli Army into a further round.

Having emulated Hezbollah’s military organisation, infrastructure build-up (notably the construction of underground bunkers and terror-tunnels), and fighting doctrine, it is not inconceivable Hamas will mimic Hezbollah and Salafists by striking soft targets on European soil, where it has an extensive fundraising network, as well as a limited recruitment operation. The terror-traffic between Europe and the Middle East goes both ways in fact. In April 2003, for instance, Hamas claimed responsibility for a suicide-bombing carried out by two British Muslims in Tel-Aviv, killing three civilians and wounding 50.

In the longer term, Hamas’s deeper threat lies in its continued control of Gaza and ambitions for taking over the West Bank and destabilising Jordan. As long as Gaza’s 1.8 million civilians live under Hamas rule, Gaza’s huge child population will continue to be systematically indoctrinated into a radical Islamist, anti-Western and anti-Semitic ideology – raising successive generations of jihadists and undermining any prospect of Palestinian-Israeli co-existence. Although nominally in a unity government with Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, Hamas remains committed to expanding its rule to the West Bank, and eventually Israel.

Hamas’s ambitions challenge not only Israel, Jordan, and the PA, but European interests also. For the foreseeable future, should Israel be forced to withdraw its security presence from the West Bank, Hamas is poised to challenge the rule of the weak and corrupt PA in Ramallah, spark an intra-Palestinian civil war, boost the Islamist threat to the survival of the neighbouring Jordanian monarchy, and turn the West Bank into a missile launching pad against Israel’s largest and most densely populated civilian centres. Avoiding this nightmarish ‘Gaza II scenario’ is at the heart of Israeli security concerns and must be the top priority of anyone concerned to preserve stability in Jordan and keep alive the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace: both vital European strategic concerns.


Whilst this picture looks ominous, it is worth recalling that terrorists only win when they manage to paralyse targeted societies into submission or get them to grossly overreact and therefore stoke the fires of insurgency or civil war. Otherwise they always lose, the only question is at what cost?

No functioning democratic state has ever been overrun by a terrorist organisation and that record will not change as long as Western societies pursue determined and sensible counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation policies in a level-headed manner. There are no magic-bullet solutions. An effective strategy must be multi-layered, grounded in sound values which protect the sanctity of human life, based on broad international cooperation, and open-ended. All brands of Islamic radicalism – Salafist, Shia, and Muslim Brotherhood-led – think in terms of grand historical processes. Containing, countering, and eventually defeating their malicious ideas require that Western democracies be normatively and institutionally prepared for a long struggle.


Overcoming denial, building societal awareness, and pursuing evidence-based understanding of jihadi extremism in a rational and systematic way, is the most important – and perhaps most psychologically and culturally difficult – first step. Whether it is because of misplaced ‘political correctness’, fear that it will be the messenger who is shot, or concern that acknowledging the existence of a problem will actually exacerbate it – many European leaders and publics still invest considerable time and energy in self-deception; ignoring the severity, even existence, of jihadist threats, or dismissing the topic as illegitimate Islamophobia.

Denial perpetuates ignorance, and ignorance borne of denial tends to breed paralysis, suspicion, conspiracy theories, xenophobia, or just plain bad policy. Where denial and ignorance persist, the shock of a major terrorist attack, when it comes, almost inevitably propels public opinion and elected politicians toward knee-jerk reactions which are typically ill-informed and can be enormously costly (think invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the US Patriot Act). Even without such an overt shock, lack of informed understanding of the sources and nature of the threat is pernicious. It undermines healthy prevention, harms efforts to build responsible social resilience to political violence, and plays into the hands of Islamist and far-right extremists alike.

To avoid the ‘denial-overreaction trap’, Britain and other European societies, must be free to conduct an open, honest, and clear-headed public discussion about the nature, causes, and dangers of Islamist extremism – Salafi, Shia, and Muslim Brotherhood-led. Then it can ensure they have the knowledge, institutions, technologies, and policies to face these threats; to reliably assess their trends and relative danger; to decide on the level of risk it is prepared to tolerate; to debate the democratic, legal, and economic dilemmas; and to maximise the national and international resources available. In each of these realms, Israel’s hard-gained experience – its failures as well as successes – is of profound value, as are those of other like-minded nations, such as Australia, Canada, France, India, and the United States.


Acts of terrorism, as Boaz Ganor aptly observes, result from the convergence of two variables: motivation and operational capacity. Terrorist attacks can be limited or prevented entirely by reducing motivation of the perpetrators, lessening the organisation or individual attacker’s capabilities, or both.

In a globalised world – where travel, weapon-smuggling and even bomb-construction knowhow are readily available – reducing terrorist capabilities is first and foremost about intelligence. Collecting, analysing and operationalising information about terrorist organisations and terrorism-enabling activities – radicalisation, money-laundering, procurement, training – ought to be a key focus of European-Israeli cooperation. This should not only be at the level of clandestine security organisations (where it is already quite developed) but in other relevant fora where it is currently weaker: between banks, aviation authorities, and in open-source intelligence for example. Similarly, Israel’s expertise – particularly the know-how of its counter-terrorism, police, and border-control units – represents a treasure trove of experience that ought to be closely studied to save European lives.

Reducing terrorist motivation involves both short-term deployment of sticks and carrots and deeper, societal counter-radicalisation efforts. Although their values and conduct are abhorrent, terrorists are rarely psychopaths. Most terrorists calculate their action based on the dual logics of consequentialism and appropriateness. Accordingly, the motivation of would-be perpetrators can be greatly reduced where intelligence makes the likelihood of early detection high, the chances of escaping an attack low, legal sanctions against involvement in terrorist activity of any kind tough and, at the same time, the benefits of lawful citizenship and integration into society are visible and attractive.

The best way to deal with a terrorist threat is to prevent its emergence or spread. Understanding processes of radicalisation and developing effective de-radicalisation policies ought therefore to be at the heart of European-Israeli dialogue about prevention of Islamist political violence.

Studies of Islamic groups in Europe are somewhat encouraging in this area, finding that although young Muslim men in many European communities often feel frustration and humiliation they have to be actively radicalised by others to cross the line into terrorist activity. Contrary to popular myths about spontaneous internet-based radicalisation of lonely and unhinged individuals, the process of radicalisation is almost always a social one. Peer-pressure, systematic indoctrination, separation from general society and repetitive training – which can more readily occur in prisons, secluded religious centres, remote training camps, or in fighting abroad – are typically preconditions for getting vulnerable recruits to cross the line into terrorist activity.

These barriers provide state and civil society organisations with real opportunities for preventing and reversing radicalisation. As Omar Ashour’s extensive study, The Deradicalization of Jihadists, demonstrates, combining determined state repression of Islamist radicalisation with the nurturing of alternative, moderate religious leadership, breaking up insular-group indoctrination, and using economic and social incentives to draw would-be recruits towards other activities, can reduce terrorist motivation and shrink the pool of recruits.


Deterring and deradicalising existing and would-be terrorists, while a top priority and challenge for Western democracies, constitutes only a limited, shallow response to the problem. Tackling the root causes will require a far deeper strategic alignment in the West and, eventually, liberal transformations in Iran, Turkey, and the Arab world. We are today in the midst of a profound historic struggle not only between the free world and radical Islam, but within Islam itself – between those who wish to reconcile Islamic civilization with life-affirming values, and those who hijack Islam and torn Muslim countries to the cause of life-destroying barbarism. Ensuring that liberal progressivism triumphs over fundamentalist malevolence necessitates both the reinvigoration of the West (not least NATO) and the formation of new ties with those in the Muslim world – and they are many – who wish to be part of the liberal international order.

In thinking about this grand struggle, Europeans and Israelis can begin to stem the tide of extremism and enhance regional security and peace. First, we must remain united around the central liberal truth about the foundations of true peace and security in the international system. To paraphrase the European Security Strategy, adopted by European Union members in 2003: the quality of international society depends on the quality of states and governments that are its foundation. The best protection for our own security is a world of well-governed states that can provide for their own citizens and behave responsibly in the international system. This is as true for Lebanon and the Palestinians as it is for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ukraine.

Second, Western democracies must resist the tendency to compartmentalise violent flare-outs in the Middle East and see them as self-contained. It is essential to connect the dots and address the animating agents of violence in the region. Most importantly, it is vital to understand Iran’s methodical guiding hand across the region – from Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, to Yemen and Gaza – and to develop an integrated regional strategy to counter Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions. In particular, reaching a nuclear and sanctions-relief deal with Iran must also address its ongoing support for global terror, especially Hezbollah and PIJ.

Third, we must work together to roll back those areas of chaos in North Africa and the Middle East which have come under the sway of Salafist jihadism, Iranian-backed Shia militancy, and radical Muslim Brotherhood groups. If Islamist Non-State Armed Governors (INSAG’s) such as IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Iraq and Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis in Sinai, Hamas and PIJ in Gaza, and Boko Haram in Nigeria are permitted to continue their territorial gains and entrenchment among the local populations, they will indoctrinate millions of children, gradually acquire state-like military and financial assets, and increasingly challenge the existing international order. A ‘contain and counter’ strategy will necessarily involve military action, but of equal importance in the long run will be civilian capacity building, economic development, and governance improvement. Here, Europe can learn from Israel’s hard-power expertise while Israel learns from Europe’s soft-power capabilities.

Finally, it is essential to safeguard those states in North Africa and the Middle East that are either fledgling democracies (Tunisia) or islands of relative stability interested in maintaining the state-based order and prepared to work with Western partners to increase security, prosperity and peace. In particular, Israel and Europe should do more to nurture the development of an axis of stability to contain and counter armed groups and Iranian encroachment. Such an axis of stability should involve Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia and relatively moderate Gulf monarchies.

Israel itself is living proof that a human society can survive, indeed thrive, in the face of near constant security threats. In the years and possibly decades to come providing security to our respective populations will require that we communicate, cooperate, and learn from each other as never before.