ISIS and Europe: briefing with Professor Boaz Ganor

Professor Boaz Ganor is a renowned expert on counter-terrorism. He has briefed BICOM on policy proposals for European leaders to combat ISIS and the threat from global terrorism. Professor Ganor has published numerous articles, and the books The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide to Decision-Makers as well as Global Alert: The Rationality of Modern Islamist Terrorism and the Challenge to the Liberal Democratic World. He is also the founder and Executive Director at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), the Ronald Lauder Chair for Counter-Terrorism , and Dean of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. Below is an edited transcript.

What is a terrorist?

When I am talking about the phenomenon of terrorism, and more specifically when I’m talking about countering terrorism, I refer to that subject matter as an art. Counter-terrorists are in my view a certain type of an artist. Why? Because they need to find very fragile balances within very deep and generic dilemmas that have to do with countering this threat of terrorism. I would like to refer to two or three generic dilemmas that needed to be clarified to the decision makers in Europe and the Western countries altogether, and then to refer to one or two specific that Europe has to deal with.

One of the first dilemmas has to do with the question of who is the enemy. How do we identify the enemy? How do we identify the threat? How do we classify between different types of enemies? This, of course goes back to the question of what is terrorism. What is the definition of terrorism? I wrote extensively on that subject, and I’m probably one of the few scholars in the world who claim for a few decades already, not only that there is not one objective definition of terrorism, but also that there is a need to develop one. Because this is the baseline for the international cooperation which needs to be taken, facing this level of threat that we are all facing today. I believe it’s possible to agree on one definition, I believe it’s necessary to agree on one definition. I believe without agreeing on a definition of terrorism, we would never reach the efficiency that’s needed in counter-terrorism.

Just in a nutshell, the definition that I use is that terrorism is the deliberate use of violence aimed against civilians or civilian targets in order to achieve political ends. I differ between attacks which are aimed against military targets and attacks against civilian targets, but I’ll leave this aside. I don’t want to get too deep into that unless we discuss this in the Q&A.

Who are the terrorists, and what types of attacks do they use?

From the discussion of what is terrorism, we need to go to the question of “who are the terrorists?”. Who are the enemies? What’s the difference between this and the other type of perpetrators of terrorist attacks? I would like to differ between three types of perpetrators of terrorism nowadays. The first type is what is commonly known as the lone wolf attack. The lone wolf attack, I refer to that as the “personal initiative” attack. It’s being conducted by one person, who doesn’t have operational ties to a terrorist organisation. I’m emphasising operational ties because it means that this person might have been inspired by a terrorist organisation. By ISIS, by Al Qaeda or any other organisation but it doesn’t have any operational ties [with them]. The attack is not being initiated, planned, prepared, and executed by a terrorist organisation. The attack starts with the mind of one person, that have been radicalised and one day decides he wants to do something about it and conduct the attack. To mention an example of this “personal initiative” type of an attack, it would be Mehdi Nemmouche, the attacker of the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014. Or Mohammed Merah that attacked in Toulouse the Jewish school in March 2012.

The second types of perpetrators are what I refer to as the “local initiative attack”. Unlike the “personal initiative attack” we are talking here about more than one person. Usually it’s a couple. It could be family members like the San Bernardino attack in California, in December 2015 – a husband and wife conducted the attack, it could be brothers, it could be a few friends. The common denominator between the “local initiative attack” and the “personal initiative attack” is in those two cases people might have been inspired by the organisation, but they don’t have operational ties with the organisation.

The third type of an attack is the “organised attack”.  Attacks like 9/11 or the November 2015 Paris attack. Here we are talking about an attack that has been either initiated, planned, prepared or executed by a terrorist, or all of the above together.

I have good news and bad news in reference to the “personal initiative attack”, the “lone wolf attack” compared to the “organised attack”. The good news is the lone wolf attack, the “personal initiative attack”, is usually less lethal, with fewer casualties than you have in organised attacks. The bad news isin most cases it’s very difficult to thwart the attack, to prevent the attack, because you don’t have an intelligence warning, because there are not many people that are engaged in all the stages of the attack – the initiation, the planning, the preparation, the execution. It’s only one person, or in the local initiative attack it’s the couple or a few friends.[makes it] very difficult for an intelligence service to infiltrate into their mind and to know what they are planning.

Unlike that is the organised attack. Here you have the planners, the people that manufacture the explosives, the intelligence collectors, the recruiters, and the perpetrators, and the intelligence services have a much better opportunity to infiltrate.

By the way, when we analysed the recent wave of personal initiative in Israel, the lone wolf attack, which is mainly stabbing and cold weapon attacks, we maybe first time found that there is a compensation for the lack of intelligence in those cases. The human sources, HUMINT, of intelligence and the COMMINT, communication intelligence, which is almost useless in those attacks, is being replaced by OSINT, open source intelligence. We have found that in many cases the lone wolves, who are usually youngsters; give some kind of a warning in their social network prior to conducting the attack. So the first challenge is to comprehend which type of enemy, which type of perpetrators you’re facing. And this, by the way, will dictate which [action] is immediately needed to be conducted after a terrorist attack occurs.

The second generic understanding, which I think is important to mention, in most cases, almost in all cases, as weird as it sounds, are rational actors. When I say rational actors, terrorists, like other human beings, calculate costs and benefits in choosing the alternative that they believe is more beneficial than costly.

There are two misconceptions in reference to the rationale of terrorism; the first misconception is the false belief that terrorists are lunatics. How could it be that a person is ready to strap himself with a suicide belt and to commit a suicide attack, how can we refer to him as a rational actor? But I would argue that definitely the leaders of the organisation, but even the perpetrators, and even the suicide attackers themselves, have this calculus of costs and benefits which they act upon. But this is a subjective calculus. It’s based on their culture, their set of beliefs on their religion, on their experience in life.. So going back to the art of counter-terrorism – the challenge of the counter-terrorism artist is to comprehend the rationale of the opponent. And there is no generic rationale because the rationale of ISIS is different to the rationale of Al -Qaeda. The rationale of Al -Qaeda is different to the rationale of Hezbollah. Actually it’s a very dynamic phenomenon because the rationale of ISIS today is different to the rationale of ISIS six months ago, and probably different to the rationale of ISIS six months from now. So that’s the second dilemma that needs to be dealt with by European and international experts on counter-terrorism.

The third generic element of this art is solving the democratic dilemma in counter-terrorism. And the democratic dilemma practically means that there is a tension between liberal democratic values and effective counter-terrorism measures. There is a contradiction between the two. You can be most effective in counter-terrorism if you disregard liberal democratic values. You can stick to your liberal democratic values and not sacrifice even an inch of those values if you didn’t experience terrorist attacks and you don’t need to deal with this phenomenon. And the end of the day, in Western liberal democratic countries that face terrorism – and by the way today there is no exception I think – there is no one state that is immune to that threat. The challenge of the leaders is to find the right balance knowing that they are going to sacrifice some of the efficiency in counter-terrorism in order to cherish the liberal democratic values of the nation. They are probably going to sacrifice some of their values in order to protect one of the most important rights of their own people, the right to live. It’s easier said than done. I don’t have the time to get too deep into this question but of course you can immediately translate that to sub questions such as targeted killings, pro-active activity against terrorism using military measures or policing, ethnic profiling and so many other questions that have to do with this dilemma.

The dilemmas facing Europe

To start to wrap this up I want to zoom into a few concrete dilemmas that I believe Europe has right now. The first one again comes from the values that European countries adopted that they want to keep on cherishing, but the current challenges of terrorism is raising the question – is it really possible? I would start with the question of the Schengen agreement. Once Schengen is valid there are practically no borders between the countries, and definitely no border control between different European countries. Under those conditions, one needs to understand something that is very clear to counter-terrorism experts – that the strength of the chain of security is as strong as the weakest link of the chain. Meaning if one link is not that strong, or even weak, its risks the whole chain altogether. Europe is a chain. If, take for example, Belgium is being regarded as a weak link, it doesn’t threaten just Belgium; it practically threatens all Europe and the immediate neighbours of that country.So here there are two options for the European leaders. Either to withdraw from Schengen and to start to build borders and border control, and then everyone will be responsible for their own security. Some will do it in a better way, others will do it in a worse way, and maybe they will have some cooperation from some other countries, but every country will be responsible for their internal territory and security in their territory.

The other option is to start to build joint counter-terrorism apparatuses, and I’m definitely for it. I do believe that there are things that can be done jointly. I’m not talking about, as many are, international cooperation in counte-terrorism- this goes without saying. We need neither Paris nor Brussels attack in order to understand that there is always need for better international cooperation in counter-terrorism. We say that time and again at least since 9/11, even before that, and there is an improvement, but far from being satisfying. I’m talking about a new level of counter-terrorism which is not better cooperation in counter-terrorism. It’s joint counter-terrorism activity, and here there is a need to build some kind of new NATO if you wish. Or a special Interpol that will deal just with counter-terrorism, and will collect its own intelligence, not just rely on intelligence each one of the countries is ready to share with the others – this is important but not good enough. As said before, when OSINT, when open source intelligence starts to be operational in home grown terrorism, in lone wolf attacks, this is something that quite easily can be done jointly for all those countries..

I would argue there is need for, for example, a negotiation team. When you have a hostage situation, when terrorists take hostages, you need special expertise on how to negotiate with them. In many cases, you need to know Islam, you need to know fatwahs, you need to know their state of mind.Those hostage takers are different to what [they] used to be in the past because they don’t care if they die, and in the past the good negotiators could have negotiated the terrorists to free the hostages in return for their life. Those hostage-takers don’t care for their lives, this is a new breed of hostage-taker and therefore it needs new expertise. You cannot develop this expertise in Belgium, in Germany, in France, in Switzerland and so on and so forth, but you can build one unit that has this expertise and come and help the local authority in those cases. This is the kind of thinking that is needed. New apparatus of counter-terrorism, join apparatuses, European apparatuses for that matter.

Last but not least has to do with the question of immigration. Being an Israeli, being a Jew, being a member of a nation and people that were craving for asylum and got the cold shoulder from probably all the states around the world, I definitely cannot criticise the Europeans facing this moral dilemma and say they cannot close their borders for refugees. But I think that this is the time to differ between refugees who are political asylum seekers, and refugees who are trying to improve their social economic status.Right now I would suggest to have harsher immigration laws that leave the door open to those with their lives under risk but not to the others.

The other thing, which is crucial, is to develop much better integration policies. Based on research that I’ve done a few years ago, I would say that the main challenge is not necessarily just from the foreign fighters coming to Europe in this wave of immigration from Syrian and Iraq today. They are posing a challenge, but the bigger challenge would be with the second and third generation of the immigrants. Most of the homegrown terrorists in the recent decades in Europe were second and third generation, and if you are able to integrate in a proper manner this new wave of immigration, you will bear the best fruits of the immigration in a decade or so from now.

Last but not least, in many cases maybe the solution should not be on European soil. If I were an European leader I would invest in building a safe zone in Syria, maybe in Iraq, maybe in the northern parts of Syria and Iraq with European money, with international money, in order to give physical protection to those refugees without the need to leave the country and travel to Europe altogether.

Question and answer session

Q: You mentioned the importance of understanding the subjective view of the cost benefit analysis of different terrorist groups. Could I ask you to analyse the cost benefit of ISIS? Clearly at the moment they regard Europe as a primary target, but is there anything that might happen that might lead them to change that view and downgrade Europe?

BG: As a rationale, they calculate cost and benefits and there many, many influences that impact their decision-making process. A few months ago, Europe was mainly served in their eyes as a territory from which they could recruit foreign fighters. They could insight, they could inspire, and they call local Muslims that have been radicalised to come and join the fight in Iraq and Syria. There are many ways that they had/have in order to do so: social networks, YouTube and so on and so forth, but one of their biggest successes in this regard was to show those youngsters that if they would join ISIS in Syria and Iraq they are joining the winning side. They are joining the victorious side, and those youngsters would like to take part in this victory, especially if it’s a victory in the name of Allah, or the perceived way of understanding, or misunderstanding, Islam commandments. In the last few months ISIS is not victorious, just the opposite. ISIS is losing, and it’s losing ground, it’s losing support, and therefore the calculus of cost and benefits of ISIS in general, and ISIS interests is different now. So the attacks in Europe, in my view, serve mainly in order to deter the Europeans but not only the Europeans – any other state-form involving and interfering and attacking ISIS in Syria and Iraq. For that matter the message that they want to convey is that if you are chasing us in Syria we are going to chase you in Europe, or any other state whatsoever.

The other part of the question was “so how can we downgrade their interest in Europe?”. Well I don’t know if we can, and I don’t know tactically if we should. I think that those attacks, if I’m right in this analysis, actually prove that they’re losing and what they are doing here is something that are coming from frustration, coming from fear from their side, and this is their immediate reaction to that.

The other part of the reaction, by the way, is that ISIS has become much more global than it used to be. Like a balloon that is not full with air, , when you press in one side you see the bubble popping up in another side, an vice versa. So that’s what ISIS is doing right now, they are being stretched in Syria and Iraq and the bubble is popping up in Europe, and by the way, popping up in the Maghreb countries, in Northern Africa, in Libya, in Mali, and so on and so forth.

Q: Does ISIS know it’s losing?

BG: I’m sure that ISIS knows that they are losing, I don’t know if they define this as total loss of the campaign butevery person that reads the material, let alone lives in the region, sees that this triumph of victory that used to be during 2014, 2015 was stopped and actually was turned around, and they are losing territory in Syria and in Iraq at the same time. There are many reasons for that. One of them is the involvement of the Russians. This is another reason for them, by the way, to start to try to attack Russia or Russian interests. But if you ask me if they understand that they are losing, I would say they understand that they are not as victorious as they used to be.

Q : You mentioned a couple of attacks on Jewish communities in Europe, should the Jewish community be less worried now that ISIS is losing?

BG: Again it’s not that they can be less worried, maybe even they should be the opposite. Because They [ISIS] are focussing, on top of other things, in attacking on European soil – because of the reasons I explained before – and when they attack on European soil or any Western country’s soil, in many cases they see double benefit by attacking Jewish targets. Because a Jewish museum in Brussels or a Jewish school in Toulouse serves both a message to the Belgians or a messages to the Europeans, or a message to the French people, but at the same time a message to those that are being perceived as their enemies which are the Jews. So I cannot say I have any calming message to Jewish communities in Europe today, or in other Western countries. I think that the attacks of ISIS are not just here to stay but maybe even here to grow. If they would stay or grow the Jewish communities would be one of the immediate targets that would suffer from those attacks, as it used to be in the past.