‘Lone-wolf’ Terrorist Attacks in Israel Create New Challenges for Intelligence

Deadly aftermath: Israeli police work at the scene of a terrorist attack in Elad, Israel, on 5 May 2022. Image: Nimrod Glikman / Alamy

As Israeli intelligence grapples with the threat of ‘lone-wolf’ terrorism, it may provide useful lessons for other intelligence communities.

In recent weeks, Israel has experienced a resurgence of ‘lone-wolf’ terrorist attacks. Some of the terrorists were Palestinians from the West Bank inspired by Islamist incitement, including from Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Others were Arab Israeli citizens inspired by Islamic State. These individuals received no guidance or resources from terrorist organisations, and did not leave ‘social media trails’. This poses a new problem for Israeli intelligence, at a time when the challenges it faces are becoming more diverse and complex.

Intelligence is the first line of defence against terrorism. It must be ‘ahead of the curve’, acknowledging an emerging trend on the strategic level, and providing an early warning which enables prevention on the tactical level. Israeli intelligence is probably already adapting to the new challenges, manifesting a pattern of ‘innovation through adaptation’ typical of Israeli strategic culture. The lessons learned in Israel could prove useful for other intelligence communities.

An organisational challenge for the Israeli security establishment stems from the fact that the job of foiling terrorist attacks inside Israel, and managing their aftermath to prevent additional ones, is conducted by different organisations. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) legally cannot carry out operations aimed at the Israeli civilian population, yet enjoy an operational freedom of action in the West Bank underpinned by intelligence superiority, while preparing contingency plans for operations in the Gaza Strip against Hamas; the Israeli Police is a law enforcement organisation, which does not have a foreign intelligence capability, but is in charge of Israel’s elite counterterrorism unit (the Yamam); the Israeli Border Guard is a police organisation working de facto under the IDF’s command; and the Israeli Security Agency, also known as Shabak or Shin-Bet, is an intelligence organisation directly subordinate to the prime minister’s office which conducts counterterrorism and counterespionage operations in the West Bank, as well as operations targeting Israeli civilians if necessary. Jointness and cooperation are therefore the key factors for success. Joint doctrines have guided Israel for years in the field of counterterrorism, and have even been adopted more broadly for other forms of warfare.

The most important role of intelligence is to provide an accurate and high-resolution early warning of an impending terrorist attack, which can be operationalised for prevention

Since the recent terror attacks have blurred the lines between foreign and domestic intelligence, jointness between agencies with different jurisdictions also has legal and ethical implications. Israeli intelligence actions during the coronavirus pandemic illustrate a similar complexity. In this case, Shabak employed technological surveillance tools to monitor Israeli citizens, and Israeli military intelligence conducted analysis regarding Israeli COVID-19 trends. Although these activities were all lawful, they created a controversy in Israel regarding privacy and ethics.

From a tactical perspective, the most important role of intelligence is to provide an accurate and high-resolution early warning of an impending terrorist attack, which can be operationalised for prevention. This is underpinned by the ability to detect anomalies in the behaviours of well-defined populations – such as those connected to a specific terrorist network or organisation. Several years ago, Israel developed new tools to counter the phenomenon of ‘lone-wolf’ terrorists who still ‘left behind social media trails’. However, tactical early warning when no social media trails are available, and when terrorists are not part of a structured terrorist network, is harder to produce.

Conceptual issues influencing the tactical ones are also relevant for lesson-learning. While the concept of early warning is dominant in Israeli national security doctrine, an inquiry in the context of terrorism is currently underway. On top of tactical early warning, intelligence must notice shifts as they begin to emerge, thus providing strategic-operational warning of growing trends. The increase in Islamic State inspiration might have been such a trend, as well as the escalation of religious discourse regarding the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Israeli intelligence does not have the luxury of conducting prolonged force design processes to confront these new terrorism challenges

Deterrence is also a dominant concept in Israeli national security doctrine and military strategy. However, deterring hybrid organisations such as Hamas or Hizbullah from initiating an attack against Israel, or deterring Iran from broadening its regional influence, is substantially different from deterring ‘lone-wolf’ terrorists. Israeli intelligence must recognise the most relevant and applicable ‘targets’ for employing deterrence tools, and not necessarily kinetic ones. It must assess whether deterrence by denial or by punishment might be more effective, and more broadly, whether this framework is relevant for the new challenge.

Israeli intelligence does not have the luxury of conducting prolonged force design processes to confront these new terrorism challenges. It will probably test new concepts and tools through operations of prevention and through strategic messaging, inductively and implicitly developing a compatible theory. In Israeli strategic culture, practice usually precedes theory, but this does not mean that the latter is considered obsolete.

Some of the Israeli adaptations might also prove useful for other intelligence communities. This is especially true since many Western establishments have focused in recent years on strategic competition, thus diverting resources from counterterrorism. Counterterrorism concepts and tools must remain robust, and more importantly, defence establishments must be able to adapt swiftly.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Itai Shapira

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