Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Mega-terror and the threat to Israel

I've been meaning to comment on the horrific terrorist assault on the school in Beslan, Russia.

Set aside for now the inconceivable brutality of the Chechen terrorists, and questions about the Russian authorities' handling of the situation. What's most striking about the attack is the complex planning it required.

Dozens of terrorists, precisely coordinated, stashed massive quantities of weaponry and explosives in a school complex, and then, on the busiest day of the year, took over the building and held over a thousand children and adults hostage.

This is far from the first operation of such complexity. There was the 2002 Moscow theatre siege, the March 2004 Madrid bombings of four trains with ten bombs, and, of course, the September 11 attacks themselves. These operations and others like them have displayed detailed planning and disciplined training.

Which makes me wonder: If I'm a Palestinian terrorist, how does that make me feel? While they surely should not be belittled, the Palestinian gangs look like rank amateurs compared with their Chechen or al-Qaeda counterparts. When you're bombing the occasional bus or cafe, or shooting at targets of opportunity, how do you feel about the Beslan operation? Awe? Envy? Frustration? Inspiration?

So why hasn't Israel seen attacks on this scale, what the security services call "megaterror"? I can suggest a few answers:

1. They've tried and failed, thank God. The May 2002 Pi Gelilot attack, if successful, could have sent the whole fuel depot up in a massive fireball, endangering hundreds or even thousands of area residents. Other terror plots have been foiled by security services.

2. Most of the Palestinian terror gangs, despite cooperation and training from Hizbullah, really are opportunistic amateurs who lack the discipline to pull off what their fellow global terrorists have accomplished. Let's hope this is true, at least for the most part.

3. There's a cost-benefit calculation at work, at least implicitly.

With the large number of hostile Palestinian Arabs living side by side with Israelis, and in many places intermingled with us, it's relatively easy to find targets and carry out large numbers of small-scale attacks.

For al-Qaeda, by contrast, attacking the United States is a logistical challenge. To be worth the investment, the attacks should be spectacular - especially since they'll be relatively rare. Consider the list: WTC (I & II), African embassies, Khobar Towers, USS Cole, and foiled plots against airliners over the Pacific and New York's bridges and tunnels. If you're going to attack a target the size of the US, let alone run sleeper cells there, attending flight school and risking deportation, the end target better be worth it.

The larger the target country and the greater the effort needed to hit it, the more it makes sense to focus on smaller numbers of mega-attacks. In Israel, the reverse calculation holds; an intense campaign of frequent, though smaller, attacks can be more effective.

4. Finally: Who says they're not still working on it? Could it be that the recent "lull" - though punctuated by many foiled and a few successful attacks - is in fact being expoited by Hamas to regroup for a megaterror attack?

The strategic question: Does Israel's construction of a security fence, which is gradually making it more difficult for individual terrorists to infiltrate into Israeli cities, shift the cost-benefit balance in favor of mega-attacks? The harder it is to carry out "small" attacks, the greater the incentive to think strategically and plan carefully for mega-attacks. I hope our security services understand this too.

May all of Israel merit a year of peace, prosperity, health and happiness.

1 comment:

A.B. said...

Your thought that the construction of the fence on the west bank is a valid one indeed. This could very well lead to the terrorists to plot a large scale attack. The fence, although it is a logical fix for now, enivitably it is a bandaid on a major wound and will have to be replaced by a much broader reaching solution to the problem. What is that solution?? ahh! the 10 thousand dollar question! Your guess is as good as mine.
Great blog, by the way!