How to Reduce Terrorism

The Islamic State group has struck again. In a matter of days, there were major terrorist attacks in Barcelona and stabbings in Siberia and Finland and a few other incidents that remain murky. The headlines are screaming and the analysts explain how little the Europeans know about fighting terrorism, and some even see these events as the beginning of the end of Europe. Another example of blowing things out of proportion.

“ISIS” is an anachronistic name. It is an acronym for “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” but those aspects of the name have faded away or are about to. The “Islamic State” has ceased to exist. It no longer controls contiguous territory or civil systems. It is in the process of being wiped out across the Middle East; it has lost almost all of its former holdings in Iraq and Syria, and its people are fighting for their lives in the few places they have kept a hold of. From now on, the organization is yet another version of a Sunni terrorist group, like al-Qaida, whose only advantage is that the volunteers who fought for it in the Middle East have returned to their home countries and now have an easier time planning and carrying out terrorist attacks against foreigners.

It’s true that the idea of an Islamic caliphate will continue to echo for many Muslims after ISIS brought it to the forefront of the collective consciousness when it was as the height of its power. It’s also true that the Sunnis — who feel like the entire world is against them (reasons for that include the cooperation between Russia and Iran in Syria and the U.S. accepting the Shiite-Alawite victory in Iraq and Syria), will keep looking for ways in which to vent their frustration, and ISIS can provide an answer for that — but ultimately, the Islamic State is an organization that has been defeated. Once again, it turns out that strong armies in conjunction with determined local forces can beat a guerilla group, even if that group’s fighters are fired up and willing to die for their cause.

This analysis makes it clear that the group will keep trying to execute terrorist attacks worldwide. It will be motivated by a desire to settle historic scores — such as its claim that Spain is a Muslim country that was conquered by the Catholics at the end of the 15th century — but the organization will work wherever it can, all across the globe. It will be based on well-organized, long-standing cells, making its actions more “effective” — meaning they will have the potential to murder more people — but will also keep up attempts to recruit individuals online, “lone wolves” who can carry out bad attacks but who are limited in the extent of the terrorism they can cause. So it’s ridiculous to think that global terrorism can be reduced to zero. Israel didn’t manage to do that in Jerusalem, and there is no reason to think that any other country will be more successful. But by no means should we conclude that there is nothing to be done, since it is possible to drastically reduce both the amount of terrorism and its efficacy if we are prepared to pay the political and cultural price. The expression “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” applies to counterterrorism, as well, and to succeed, we must invest and take risks. The truth is that the world has racked up many successes in containing terrorism.

Many improvements have been made, but most countries — mainly in Europe, where there are a lot of terrorists, relatively speaking — have a long way to go. There are three areas that must be addressed to see major gains in the ability to battle terrorism: first, how the legal system views terrorism — particularly approaching terrorism like crime, which plays into terrorists’ hands — must change. This is an enormous political and cultural change, but administrative arrests, defining intelligence gathering goals based on ethnicity and religion and the ability to detain for questioning and even punish people who still haven’t committed the act, with the understanding that even considering the idea of terrorism is a punishable offense, are the three major but necessary changes. Implementing them is conditional on the political echelon telling itself and its citizens the truth, even though it gives up a small part of citizens’ personal freedom.

The second effort needed is to focus intelligence work on the relevant communities. It appears that a lot has already been done in this field in recent years, but international cooperation must be improved and more aggressive interrogations must be permitted based on intelligence, before an act is carried out. Remember, even good intelligence can’t prevent “lone wolves” from appearing. They present a real challenge and intelligence agencies are finding it difficult to handle them.

The third effort is more complicated and centers on causing ordinary citizens to respond quickly and aggressively when any terrorist action takes place. Israel has a clear advantage when it comes to this, because there are many citizens who are licensed to carry firearms who can take action even before the police and the security forces arrive. Civilians carrying firearms is extremely unusual in many countries, so it will be difficult for their civilians to respond quickly, thus containing the damage of a terrorist act underway, whether it is a stabbing or drivers who use their vehicles as weapons of mass murder.

Again, none of these methods can completely wipe out terrorism, but they can significantly reduce the number of acts that terrorists manage to commit, as well as the lethality of the attacks that are carried out. It is a Sisyphean battle, one that is crucial but exhausting. There is no magic solution to Islamist terrorism. It stems from historic and cultural frustrations and cannot be prevented by the Muslim immigrants’ improved economic conditions.

After Israel created the necessary conditions to cut down terrorism in the spring of 2002 [Operative Defensive Shield] by retaking Judea and Samaria, terrorism has been simmering away on a relatively low flame (the number of deaths has dropped to 1% of the number of people killed when terrorism was at its height in the Second Intifada!) but it has not dramatically affected Israelis’ day-to-day lives.

Even the al-Qaida terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, the deadliest terrorist event in history, affected mainly flight regulations, but not the U.S. political culture. Europe is no different. It won’t change dramatically because of terrorism, either. The mass migration to Europe from Muslim countries could turn out to be what decides the continent’s fate, and its response to terrorism can contain the immigration, particularly because most of the attackers are first- or second-generation Muslim immigrants. We must hope that Europe will use every means at its disposal to fight terrorism, but it’s a mistake to hope that terror will cause the continent to change its character and its approach to the problems of the world, including its relations with Israel.

Originally appeared in Israel Hayom on September 1, 2017