Israel faces a vast array of terrorist threats from groups such as Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and ISIS in Syria and the Sinai, as well as from lone-wolf attackers. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Dr. Anat Berko, counterterrorism expert and current member of the Israeli Knesset representing the Likud party, to discuss how Israel combats these threats as well as what lessons the international community can learn from Israel’s counterterrorism approach.
The Cipher Brief: What is the current level of intelligence cooperation between Israel and the U.S.? Has anything changed since U.S. President Donald Trump purportedly shared Israeli intelligence with the Russians?
Anat Berko: I currently serve on the Committee for Foreign Affairs and Defense in the Israeli Knesset so almost everything is classified, but I can tell you that we have a very deep relationship and excellent cooperation with the U.S. with respect to intelligence sharing and security.
TCB: How many Israeli citizens have joined ISIS?
Berko: There are around 40 Israeli Arab citizens who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. I call this phenomenon “jihad tourism.” In various articles that I have written, I describe ISIS as “jihad tourism” and I define it as “shahada-mania” meaning “martyrdom mania.”
TCB: Israel is facing several different terrorist threats including from Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah, and ISIS both in Syria and the Sinai. Which of these are most pressing? How has Israel worked to combat these threats?
Berko: I’ve worked as a counterterrorism researcher for years and have even spoken to terrorists face-to-face. There is a similar theme in all of these organizations, which is the radical ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, there are several different stages of this ideology. ISIS is on the extreme side. There is also the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and all the other variations of al Qaeda, and so many others. But the ideology is the same ideology, just in different stages.
With ISIS, there is a phenomenon called takfir, which means that they believe that other organizations and individuals should be excommunicated from the pack of Islam because he or she is not religious enough. What makes ISIS unique is that it actually looks back to the seventh century with the tools and technology of the 21st century. It’s very difficult to combat the ideology of ISIS and of radical Islam.
TCB: Does Israel employ any counter-messaging programs?
Berko: First you need a precise definition of the threat, which in this case is Islamist or radical Islam. Then you can start talking about this phenomenon and how to deal with it. But just saying countering extreme violence when everyone knows it’s not just violence but it’s Islamists that have been radicalized, is not helpful. We need to deal with this phenomenon by defining it precisely and without compromise about the definition.
TCB: How much of a concern is Hezbollah at the moment?
Berko: Hezbollah is the enemy, but they are the proxy of Shia Iran. Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism. What is interesting here is that Iran is the Shia version of ISIS, but as a state. This is what makes it so dangerous.
You see the fingerprints of Iran everywhere. You see them in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Libya, in South America. Therefore, it was a good thing when President Trump said that Iran is the enemy of the U.S., the West, and most definitely Israel.
My family fed from Iraq when Israel was established in 1948. They are Jewish refugees from Iraq, just like the more than 800,000 Jewish refugees from various Arab countries. When my father fled from Iraq, he fled to Tehran. He stayed there two years and became fluent in Farsi because there was a Jewish underground Iran that helped Jews flee from Iraq to Iran and then to Israel. So at that time, Iran was a very good friend of Israel. But after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, they started to define the Jews as the enemy to be able to combine the Shia world and some of the Sunni world against the Jewish state.
But Iran is the enemy, and Hezbollah is most certainly the enemy. Hezbollah is actually part of the government of Lebanon. So everything that Hezbollah does with respect to targeting Israel will put Lebanon in extreme danger. The Lebanese government can’t say it is just Hezbollah and not them. There is a government in Lebanon, and they should take care of everything and all the militias there including Hezbollah.
Additionally, there are also Shia militias that are currently carrying out atrocities in Iraq and Syria. Even after ISIS is defeated, you won’t defeat the group’s ideology, and the ethnic cleansing of Sunni people undertaken by the Shia militias backed by Iran in Iraq and Syria will continue.
TCB: How would you assess Israel’s current level of ties with Sunni Arab States in the region? Has this relationship grown closer due to the threat posed by Iran?
Berko: We hope so. I think these countries know that Iran is the enemy of all of us, and Israel is not the enemy. Israel would like to have peace treaties with each of these countries, and they need to recognize that Israel is a Jewish democratic state for all her citizens. I think they are starting to understand that Israel is not the enemy. These countries are seeing what a monster Iran is and what it is doing to the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria and how they are conducting negative activities in Sunni countries. They know that they need to collaborate with Israel to be able to deal with Iran, Hezbollah, Shia militias, and the Houthis in Yemen.
TCB: In an interview with The Cipher Brief, counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, said “In recent decades, Israel has often been the canary in the coal mine in terms of being on the receiving end of new terrorist tactics and different targeting patterns. Certainly, Israel has had to contend with individuals using cars to mow down pedestrians and knife attacks on crowded streets and public areas, so there may be some lessons to be learned from how Israel has dealt with this threat.” How has Israel managed to combat the evolving terrorist tactics? Can other countries learn lessons from Israel?
Berko: We are a start-up nation. Everyone calls Israel a start-up nation. For the Palestinians, the start-up in their lives was terrorism. All the terrorism that you see right now, the role model for it was the Palestinians. They were the first to hijack aircrafts, they were the first to send suicide bombers, they were the first to run over people with cars, they were the first to slaughter people in the streets. They even beheaded people. So for all of this terrorism, the role models were the Palestinian people. Even the mentor of al Qaeda was a Palestinian, Abdullah Azzam.
We have the experience, we are prepared, and we are currently helping a lot of countries combat terrorism, because we know how to define the enemy and how to combat it. We hope that the other countries will support Israel in the same way that we are saving lives all over the world. What you see right now could be a lot worse if Israel wasn’t able to help.