The attacks in London, Paris and Brussels which took place in June were added to a seemingly endless list of terror attacks in which crude tactics are used to maximum effect. As Europeans come to terms with the growing terror threat, many politicians and members of the security services have stressed the challenges of predicting and preventing the actions of self-motivated individuals or lone wolves. However there is evidence to suggest that the problem may be less intractable, as outside Europe measures are being adopted, which are producing results.
One could argue that today Europe has reached a point where the regularity of terror attacks means even the most benign of day-to-day activities is tinged with nervous apprehension, similar to North-Ireland during the 'Troubles' or Israel during the Second Intifada. What makes it worse is that everyone from commentators to politicians and members of the security services keep stressing the difficulty in preventing, not to mention predicting the actions of lone attackers. London´s Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has noted that addressing the problem is “very challenging” and in the wake of the Manchester attack, the UK´s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon similarly noted, ´This kind of attack, this lone wolf attack, using things from daily life – a vehicle, a knife – is much more difficult to forestall´.
Israel is no stranger to terrorism and over the years both its police and security services have had to radically adapt at short notice to new kinds of terror threats. Yet even battle hardened Israelis were completed stunned in 2015 following a series of knife attacks by Palestinians, which seemed to occur with no prior warnings and little direction or involvement of Palestinian organisations such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Day after day young Palestinian men and women were choosing to attack soldiers and civilians in broad daylight, surrounded by witnesses.
In order to address the problem, the Israeli Defense Force and the internal security agency Shabak turned to monitoring social media. According to Israeli journalist Amos Harel, assailants who have carried out attacks have ´telegraphed´ their intentions via social media. For example, in October 2015, before carrying out a stabbing attack in Jerusalem, a young Palestinian man named Fadi Alloun, wrote on Facebook before the attack that, ´In the name of Allah, I have decided today to carry out martyrdom and victory for Allah…”. This is one of many examples.
By tracking individuals via their online activities, in combination with other data obtained by the intelligence services, this helps to establish a clearer picture of whether or not someone is likely to gravitate towards radical elements. According to journalists Orr Hirschauge and Hagar Sheizaf, the key task, which intelligence services undertook was creating profiles using the criteria that played a role in previous attacks. Profiles would take into consideration elements such as gender, age, address and personal circumstances. Israeli military officials were able to create approximately four profiles. This new system identified that half of the attackers came from several specific villages in the West Bank and certain neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. It also gave insights into the motives of the attackers. For instance, between October 2015 and January 2016, 40% of attackers experienced difficulties in their personal life and some of them looked on the opportunity to become 'martyrs' as a solution. Family tensions, and forced marriage, were identified as strong motivating factors, especially among women.
This Israeli approach, which is effectively an early warning system is not predicated on just an algorithm or a single Facebook post. Instead, the system provides the input for analysts and officials who must handle day to day 'risk management’. As a cooperative gesture, the Israeli authorities have even handed over data concerning 400 suspected attackers to the Palestinian Authority. According to the IDF and Israeli military intelligence, approximately 2200 Palestinians have been stopped while at various stages of planning and preparing attacks.
European governments can learn something from the Israeli example. Britain´s security services, as well as other European powers have the computational and cyber resources to collect open-source information from social media and integrate it with information from human sources. The data method would allow for the development of an early warning system, which is based on profiles of potential attackers. The purpose of detention based on a certain profile will allow authorities with the help of civil society organisations the opportunity to carry out an 'intervention'. This would be within a legal framework and then an individual could be subject to a deradicalisation programme, which will help reintegrate him or her back into the community. It will also allow the authorities, psychologists and the police to gain a clearer picture on the pattern of radicalisation.
Naturally, this proposal will elicit push back, especially from civil liberty groups who oppose the use of digital data by the authorities for policing purposes, as evidenced by recent objections in Germany to forcing asylum-seeker to hand over their mobile phones to the authorities for the purpose of screening for radical material. However, the data-driven approach that was developed in Israel is neither unique to an Israeli setting, nor requires changes to existing European legal frameworks. It is well-aligned with existing anti-radicalisation initiatives such as those of the UK and Germany. Hence, European governments, who often criticize Israel and the US for their aggressive policies, could use the opportunity to demonstrate how innovative counter-terrorism methods could be implemented in a law-abiding manner. More importantly there is now credible evidence to show that the prevention or prediction of lone wolf attacks is possible.
Emily Boulter is a writer based in the Netherlands. She is the creator of the current affairs blog “From Brussels to Beirut”. From 2010 -2013 she worked as an assistant to the Vice-chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament.
Dr. Tamir Libel is a Beatriu de Pinós Research fellow at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI).