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Lessons from the Fight against Terrorism

Lessons from the Fight against Terrorism

Munich and the morality of Israel's counterterrorist measures.


In December 2005, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Moshe Yaalon, Avi Dichter, and Ambassador Dennis Ross addressed The Washington Institute's Special Policy Forum. The following is an excerpt of Yaalon and Dichter's remarks.

Moshe Yaalon

Successful counterterrorism efforts must satisfy moral imperatives and strategic objectives. Prior to analyzing responses to terrorism, however, legal considerations are at the forefront.

Israel considers the morality of counterterrorist measures within the framework of three tests: the "mirror" test, in which the counterterrorist executor asks whether the policy meets his own ethical standards; the "our own society" test, in which a policymaker must consider whether the policy meets the moral standards of his broader society; and the "international" test, which considers whether the policy satisfies internationally recognized moral standards, as well as what would be the response of the international community.

Strategic considerations in counterterrorist operations must account for the absence of an exclusively military "knockout" option against terrorism. Policymakers must therefore operate on two fronts against terrorism: the short-term battle against the terrorists, and the long-term battle to win the hearts and minds of their constituents.

The best defense is a good offense. Secondly, never to surrender to terrorism.

The short-term battle against the terrorists is ultimately a cost-benefit analysis of lives lost versus lives saved by a given operation. Preventing collateral damage while targeting terrorists is therefore essential; during the past five years of conflict, Israel often declined to attack terrorist leaders when they were in densely populated areas for fear of inflicting collateral damage. Terrorism can be fought surgically -- focusing exclusively on the terrorists -- by achieving three advantages: intelligence dominance, which includes the capability to intercept terrorists, foil their financial support systems, and prevent the smuggling of weapons; information dominance, which includes the ability to deliver the intelligence to decision makers, so intelligence can be used effectively and quickly; and operational flexibility and creativity, which include the ability of all arms of the military to arrest or kill terrorists on short notice.

In the fight against Palestinian terrorism, the consequence for not acting against terrorists due to concern for civilian casualties was often more terrorist attacks and Israeli deaths. This complicated the cost-benefit analysis of lives lost versus lives saved. The attention given to minimizing civilian casualties and civilian hardships during a war against terrorism, however, is the driving force behind the long-term battle for the hearts and minds. Decision makers must always be cognizant of implications of counterterrorism for the terrorists' constituents; measures that do not adequately consider the hardships imposed on civilians will neither create greater security nor advance the long-term vision of peaceful coexistence in the region.

Effective counterterrorism should be based on two guiding principles. The first of these is that the best defense is a good offense. Israeli counterstrikes on Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) bases in Syria and Lebanon following the Munich Olympics attacks, which disrupted PLO capabilities, were effective uses of force and deterred future terrorist incidents. Israel has further exemplified this principle since the April 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, when the IDF moved from the defensive to the offensive, including the use of targeted killings as an offensive tool. It should be emphasized that the targeted killings in the aftermath of Munich and those since April 2002 serve different purposes: while both deterred future attacks, the former were additionally intended to punish, while the latter were intended to preempt, terrorist attacks.

The second key principle of counterterrorism is the imperative never to surrender to terrorism. Following the Munich attacks, the Israeli government refused to surrender to the terrorists' demands; this was in contrast to the actions of the German government, which released three of the terrorists it had arrested after the Black September organization hijacked a Lufthansa airliner.

Avi Dichter

The major goal of counterterrorism must be to thwart terrorist attacks before they happen. The preferable method of thwarting terrorism is to arrest terrorist leaders and operatives, both of whom can be excellent sources of intelligence regarding future attacks. However, when terrorists are threatening to attack and cannot be apprehended, Israel has undertaken a policy of targeted killings. In contrast to the portrayal of counterterrorism in Steven Spielberg's Munich, targeted killings are not executed to punish terrorists who are no longer considered to be threats.

Targeted killings have served two purposes in Israel's fight against terrorism. First, targeted killings have been effective in creating disarray within terrorist organizations, thereby significantly undermining their ability to organize and attack. The current tahdiya -- period of calm -- unilaterally declared by Hamas in January 2005 is an example of the success of targeting terrorist leaders: Hamas's leadership in the West Bank was demolished, much of its leadership in Gaza had fled as fugitives, and, as a result, Hamas was no longer an effective terrorist organization.

The movie Munich makes terrorism and counterterrorism look like a child's game.

Targeted killings have served a second purpose by effectively creating a deterrent for future attacks. Israeli counterstrikes against the Black September terrorists in the wake of the Munich attacks, for example, succeeded in sharply curbing Palestinian terrorism during the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, with terrorist threats against Israel emanating from regional terrorist hosts -- mainly Iran, Syria, and Lebanon -- targeting terrorists serves to undermine their sense of security.

Despite their success, targeted killings are not the most effective means of cracking down on terrorism. More effective counterterrorism requires cooperation with the terrorist organization's host government. In pursuit of this policy, during the early stages of the intifada, the Israeli Security Agency opted to keep its communication channels with Palestinian security services open. On occasions when the ISA informed Palestinian security services regarding the locations of known terrorists poising to strike, however, Palestinian security officials declined to arrest the terrorists, fearing retribution from the terrorist organizations against their own families. Before the security situation in Israel improves, the Palestinians must put the priorities of the state above their families. Currently, the Palestinian Authority is stronger than Hamas in Gaza, but lacks the will to fight.

The movie Munich makes terrorism and counterterrorism look like a child's game. The distinction of principle between terrorism and counterterrorism must therefore be emphasized: where terrorists take a panoramic view of their targets -- seeking to kill as many Israelis as possible, even if it means killing Palestinian civilians in the process -- counterterrorism policymakers focus precisely on their targets and work to minimize all other casualties.

This rapporteur's summary was prepared by Eric Trager.

Courtesy of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

January 14, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Stephen Geller, February 26, 2006 12:00 AM

good article; thoughtful.

good article; thoughtful.

(4) Sam, January 24, 2006 12:00 AM

I don't agree....

I don't agree with most of what's said in this article , but as I believe in freedom of opinions , I have to comment here :

" Effective counterterrorism should be based on two guiding principles. The first of these is that the best defense is a good offense. "

That's absolutely wrong....By offense , you are creating more potential terrorists...This would create the desire of " RETALIATION "....So , we'll go to an endless circle of violence....
Offence can prevent terrorism in the short run , but on the long term , it'll just create more terrorism.....

I also would like to ask everyone who wants to talk about Munich events to read the details first.....With all my condemnation of taking innocent hostages , I know that the hostage takers wanted the release of some Palestinean prisoners in Israel....Golda Mayer refused to negotiate them even to reach a compromise , instead , the German police used violence trying to free the hostages which caused the massacre....

The next day , the Israeli airforce attacked Palestinean refugee camps in Lebanon and killed 150 civilians....

Now , do you think that this stopped terrorism ?? NO....And it'll NOT...

The only thing which will stop violence in the middle east is " PEACE " and Negotiations....Violence from both sides will not solve the problem , believe me....What we need , is to teach people there " the culture of peace and co existence ".....

I know many will not agree with me , but I hope everyone can think about this....May be we can create better future....

And I strongly believe that what will help Israel for the long run is peace with all of its neighbors....I hope !!!

(3) Margarita, January 20, 2006 12:00 AM

great article

great article. Now we have to think how to reach the wider audiance with it.

(2) Anonymous, January 16, 2006 12:00 AM

The Steven Spielberg Film Munich by its very provocation among Jews be a wake-up call

The Steven Spielberg film "Munich" may in fact by the very nature of the slaughter of innocent Jews at an international arena during the 1972 Olympics by first hostage taking and then being blown up by Arab terrorists as the subject for entertainment, vicarious reliving via the route of Hollywood bespeaks far more important issues of our day then the film itself. The fact remains as far as Hollywood is concerned, or would have the rest of us believe, Islamic terrorism is a controlled substance whose target when mainly Jews, the wider target, the West, as an issue, can be put on ignore!
What is it that makes for safekeeping in a world endangered by jihad, Iran's eminent gathering of nuclear weaponry and delivery systems posing the greatest threat since the advent of Hitler and his cohort minions put the entire globe to the torch?
I postulate the notion the threat is so greatly ignored because of a belief that as long as Israel is the main target, other Jews remain safer! As long as its on the movie screen, we in our seats when the film is done, are safe. Camouflaged, submerged, allied with those in a world mutually evolved under the rubric of "Judaic/Christian" culture so-called upon which our safety pivots we remain safe! What in fact does constitute a safety hatch?

To my mind such safe covering constitutes a kind of anti-Semitism by disassociation, if not pursuit of disappearance itself! An eternal nation, a contract we Jews have long, long standing with HaShem, can not abide such a lie! Our greater contract does not abide our disappearance! Our destiny is home, Mr. Spielberg, it truly is about home! And we Jews must see ourselves and one another as the beloved, Israel as the way to redemption! The love and applause by non-Jews is not guaranteed through escape but by embrace of our destiny predicated on the Torah that our choice is to live!

(1) morgan, January 15, 2006 12:00 AM


Israil minimizes deaths is praiseworthy. May I srail and Palestine both fluorish!Long live Sharon!

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