I don’t have a panacea to prevent terrorism, but amid all the hand-wringing and mud-slinging in the wake of Sunday’s massacre in Orlando, what’s striking — and unforgivable — is the absence of a strategic, international, coordinated bid to so much as try.
We can all spend the next few days and weeks arguing about whether US President Barack Obama should have called the mass killing a case of Islamist terror, or whether that would have been a rush to judgment; and, for that matter, whether Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai should have invoked the occupation when discussing last Wednesday’s terrorist attack in Sarona Market, or whether that risked affording untenable legitimacy to the killings of four Israeli innocents. We can exercise ourselves, dominate the airwaves, and spend fortunes fighting and determining elections over what people are saying about terrorism. But wouldn’t it be smarter — and wouldn’t it be better for our prospects of staying alive — if we expended rather more serious thought, and budget, on the practical task of stopping the death cult extremists?
Specifically, that means a great deal more focus on each of three key areas: defending more effectively against the killers; taking the battle to them where necessary and feasible; and preventing the creation of the next waves.
Israel, though manifestly imperfect, has much to teach the world about defending against terrorism. As the Sarona attack bitterly underlined we have not halted it completely, but we have gradually improved techniques to make it harder for the killers to achieve their goals. The construction of the West Bank security barrier, relentless intelligence work, military operations to arrest would-be bombers and those who arm and inspire them, security coordination with the Palestinian Authority, the deployment of security guards at places where people gather in large numbers — all these and other steps gradually defeated the Second Intifada in the early years of this century, when our buses and our malls and our restaurants were being blown up on a weekly basis, and prevented a resurgence on a similar scale ever since.
Again, we are emphatically imperfect: Better intelligence, more security guards at Sarona, and a completed security fence would likely have averted last Wednesday’s killings. It is beyond scandalous that, more than a decade on, the West Bank barrier is still not finished, and the two Palestinian terrorists were thus able to enter Israel through one of the gaps.
Israeli security forces at the scene of a deadly shooting attack at the Sarona Market shopping center in Tel Aviv, June 8, 2016. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
But Israel has learned, bloodily, a great deal about keeping terrorists at bay, and when politicians around the Western world wailed, in the wake of last November’s terrorist onslaught in Paris, that they simply could not deploy security guards at every concert arena, soccer stadium, restaurant, etc., we Israelis said to ourselves, Well, actually, you can. And, tragically, you may have to.
Omar Mateen, who killed dozens of people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday, June 12, 2016. (MySpace via AP)
Get serious about defensive action, allocate the necessary resources, and you self-evidently raise your prospects of thwarting the killers. Reading about how Omar Mateen, the Orlando mass murderer, had twice been questioned by the FBI but then slipped off the radar after those interviews proved inconclusive, I was reminded of what Malcolm Hoenlein, the veteran head of US Jewry’s Conference of Presidents, said to me in an interview in February. The head of a “major security agency” in France, said Hoenlein, had told him that French intelligence had the Charlie Hebdo killers under surveillance until the Friday before that attack, but the agents were then redeployed to what was deemed to be a more pressing case, and thus brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi were not being tracked when, on January 7, they forced their way into the Paris offices of the satirical magazine and gunned down 11 people.
If France had budgeted more resources to its security agencies, it might have prevented that attack and the massacres that followed 10 months later. If the overstretched American security agencies are similarly bolstered, maybe the next Omar Mateen will not be able to slide away from the authorities and return with horrifying consequences.
Orlando police officers seen outside of Pulse nightclub after a fatal shooting and hostage situation on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Gerardo Mora/Getty Images/AFP)
When it comes to taking the offensive, again, Israel has more experience than we would have wished, and much of the world has been loath to learn from it. It was the notably Israel-empathetic George W. Bush, not Barack Obama, who told Israel to get out of the West Bank, and do so right away, when prime minister Ariel Sharon was stewarding Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 — destroying the Hamas and Fatah terror networks that were building bombs and training and dispatching suicide bombers. “I expect there to be withdrawal without delay,” Bush said that April, following a dreadful, bloody March in which over 100 Israeli civilians had been killed in terror attacks that culminated in the Netanya Passover eve massacre. Had Sharon heeded Bush, let there be no doubt, the bombings would have continued. Had Israel ceased its intermittent incursions into Palestinian cities ever since, Israel would now be in the midst of another full-fledged intifada, rather than what by our standards is a “low-level” terror war.
In considering when a more proactive stance might be appropriate, it seems to me that failing to support Iranians’ efforts to stand up to their regime, doing one’s best to ignore an escalating civil war in Syria for years, and now watching unhelpfully from the side as Egypt’s president attempts to marginalize Islamic extremism, are not the smartest approaches. Not when Tehran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, when the Syrian civil war has prompted a vast river of refugees with who knows how many killers hiding among them, and when Egypt could so easily fall again into the grip of the Muslim Brotherhood. The West cannot afford to try to disengage from the Middle East. Its extremists bite back. Sometimes, the enemy has to be tackled at source — prudently, cool-headedly, but tackled, nonetheless.
Finally, and most importantly, the leaderships of those countries that delight in the gift of being alive need to focus strategic attention, and resources, on fighting extremism at its root — where tomorrow’s killers are being imbued with hatred, and are attaining the skills and means to make that hatred fatally plain. We may hear in the coming days, as we have in the wake of previous attacks, how it was that the Orlando killer was radicalized. Which spiritual leaders he heeded. Which websites he frequented. Where he gained practical information in preparing to carry out his devastating crime.
The political leaders, the spiritual leaders, the conventional and social media outlets, the educational frameworks that are breeding tomorrow’s killers continue to disseminate their toxins with near-impunity. Some of this dissemination of hatred can be tackled by the free world in the free world. Where, for instance, are the potent partnerships between politicians, jurists, intelligence agencies and internet platforms to grapple with the spread of murderous expertise online? And where is the concerted international effort to ban, defund and marginalize extremist leaders and teachers the world over, using every ounce of diplomatic and economic leverage that can be mustered?
Right now, untold numbers of would-be killers are honing their capabilities, seeking their targets, preparing to strike. Worse still, countless more potential death cult recruits are gradually being wooed to follow them. Shrill and contemptuous mud-slinging might provide a vent for fear and frustration. But it’s not going to win the war against terrorism.