No one can say who actually directs the current Palestinian campaign of anti-Israeli terror now in its third week – neither Israel’s security agencies nor even the Palestinians themselves. Since the onset of the current wave on Oct. 1, the attacks have claimed 10 Israeli lives and dozens of casualties. A total of 11 terrorists were killed in the act by soldiers, police and civilians. The number of injured on both sides has mounted to scores.
DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources have counted a total of one suicide bombing, three vehicular attacks, 10 shootings and 25 murders by knife or butcher’s cleavers – altogether 40 attacks in 20 days, or an average of two acts of Palestinian terror per day.
Unfortunately, there are no signs of the violence abating; on the contrary, it looks like getting worse.
No Palestinian organization or group has so far assumed responsibility for any of the attacks. On Monday, Oct. 19, Hamas made its voice heard in a directive to its West Bank cells to go back to suicide bombings against Israel.
During the second intifada of 2000-2006, Hamas and other groups, including Fatah, ran a fearsome suicide bombing campaign, using exploding cars and lone bombers wearing explosive vests.
The lone wolf theory as cover-up for intelligence failure
The calls to violence appear to originate from individual Palestinians over social media, especially Facebook. That, at all events, is what Israeli and Palestinian security and intelligence agencies are reporting to their superiors – Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen (Mahmud Abbas).
Israeli agencies are using this gambit, according to our sources, to vindicate their failure to foresee and avert the current wave of terror and to appease a resentful Israeli public. They argue that no one could have expected to appreciate the power of anonymous Facebook messages by individuals to light the spark of terror. Even since it was in full spate, they have not identified the parties pulling the strings or determined why the leaders of Israel’s two-million strong Arab community suddenly rose up in arms and ran riot.
These security experts are referring to the outbreaks as a kind of spontaneous “Palestinian Arab spring.”
In a rare confluence of opinion, the Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah and the Hamas leadership in Gaza concur with the Israeli claim that the terror is surging without a controlling hand, activated by lone wolves via social networks.
Is the Palestinian terror campaign really leaderless?
But not all Israeli counterterrorism and intelligence experts subscribe to this hypothesis. Knowledgeable circles attribute it to the failure of Israeli intelligence, particularly the Shin Bet domestic security agency, to detect the approaching wave of Palestinian terror, a year after failing to forestall the kidnap-murders of three Israeli teenage boys in June 2014 and their inability to locate the victims’ bodies, which were eventually discovered by civilians.
These circles, as well as DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism experts, refuse to accept the premise that the terror campaign is leaderless, given its swift, escalating shift from one stage to the next.
They point to five distinct stages in 20 days: rocks and Molotov cocktails; firebombs; vehicular attacks, stabbings and gunfire – all accompanied by violent mob rioting. .
The campaign may be orchestrated by one or several masterminds. The fact remains that the Israeli intelligence bodies responsible for monitoring social networks did not pick up on the coming crisis and omitted to forewarn the powers-that-be.
Is this sort of foresight possible? It certainly is, as our intelligence and cyber experts believe. In fact the best bet for curbing terror is to get at the terrorists’ most dynamic form of inter-communications. This can be done by smart methods for spying on their social networks and digital media and turning them against their users. In this field, groundbreaking intelligence-gathering projects are already underway.
Israel’s keyboard spooks and digital agents provocateurs
Land-line and cellular communication, which until a few years ago were the primary tools of security organizations for forestalling terror, are today old hat. Almost extinct too are the costly technological engineering and SIGINT (signal intelligence) equipment and information systems, once used for disrupting and thwarting terror.
The contemporary emphasis is on OSINT (open source intelligence), which monitors the mass media, such as television and radio stations, internet sites and newspapers, and has generated a new branch of intelligence, which harvests critical operational and tactical data from the social networks.
The present-day Israeli intelligence officer is not trained in hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship or methods of survival behind enemy lines. He is armed with a keyboard, screen, internet connection and a complete command of the local Arabic vernacular. This officer goes online under a false name and accesses targeted social networks. He may issue false directives to terrorists ready to stab, run down or shoot Israelis. He may also invade their digital space to sow panic and confusion. In all cases, these keyboard spooks focus on ferreting out the chains of command activating the terrorist in the field.
Official Palestinian leaders lose clout to local bosses
The elusiveness of an identifiable terrorist leader is further splintering Palestinian communities:
The security forces of Abbas on the West Bank and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in the Gaza Strip are at a loss on how to keep their streets from veering out of control. These populations, and most of all the restive youngsters, of Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps, are falling under the sway of newly-powerful neighborhood bosses and losing their respect for central government.
The insurgency against President Bashar Assad began in much the same way in 2011. The gaps between local leaders and central government in Damascus kept on widening until they were impossible to bridge.
There, the separate rebel groups formed their own militias for status and protecting their territory.
In the case of the Palestinians, local leaders are sending their followers to attack Israeli targets, thereby confirming their authority and laying the groundwork for militias to spring up outside the official Palestinian orbit.
In no time, the new militias are expected to be caught up in turf fights and vie for prestige by intensifying their terror assaults against Israel. Under these circumstances, it is hard to see the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation winding down any time soon.