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By Nitsana Darshan-Leitner
On the afternoon of Oct. 31, Halloween, the 24/7 news channels once again interrupted their scheduled broadcasts with ominous music and the words “Breaking News,” with live shots of yet another crime scene. This time the bloody scene was New York City, lower Manhattan to be exact, and a few steps from Ground Zero, where on Sept. 11, 2001, the world witnessed the most catastrophic terrorist attack in history. The New York attacker, 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov, a so-called ISIS loyalist, had hoped to kill scores of people by plowing his rented truck into a bike path along the West Side Highway and then, according to reports, targeting pedestrians and motorists on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Those who naively boasted a few short weeks ago that “ISIS had been defeated,” must come to the realization that these sorts of low-tech attacks — Paris, London, Belgium, San Bernardino, Nice, Istanbul, Barcelona and Manhattan — are the new and deadly face of terrorism.
Seemingly lone-wolf assailants, employing the crudest of weapons, such as vehicles, household chemicals, handguns and kitchen knives, are the devastating threat to national security we are facing. Rather than having been delivered a knockout blow, ISIS’s leaders and its extremist followers have merely changed strategies, transformed themselves and adopted to a new reality and political environment.
To borrow the term from Silicon Valley, they have successfully pivoted.
Our rage over these tragic attacks must be tempered and followed by a sobering dose of resilience and purposeful innovation. We in the west cannot allow terrorists or those who liken themselves as martyrs in a greater struggle to dictate the course of our day-to-day life. In Israel, a nation that has endured endless years of terrorist offensives — including a six-year suicide bombing offensive during the second Intifada, which resulted in nearly 1,000 dead, and more recently a deadly wave of knife stabbings and car ramming attacks — the security services recognized that the fast-changing and unsophisticated methods of these attacks required a response that was just as quick to adopt and unconventional enough to consistently surprise and devastate the terrorist organizations. Resilience is required in the face of unspeakable horror. And so is disruptive innovation.
In 1996, a retired general and a future head of the Mossad named Meir Dagan came to the conclusion that the conventional means to fight terror had to be augmented by a new multidimensional battlefield centered on the financial resources that enabled terrorist armies to carry out their horrific attacks. Dagan created a financial warfare task force code-named “Harpoon” that mobilized all of Israel’s resources to target the money men, bankers, banks and sources of revenue that fueled the terror fires: charities were shuttered and state sponsors of terror, in Iran and the Persian Gulf, found that financing bloodshed against Israel was becoming cost-prohibitive.
It was a bold new start-up in the then-staid field of counterterrorism. Dagan was certain that if you choke off the funding, the oxygen of terrorism, you could suffocate the terrorist groups’ operations. His new task force enlisted soldiers and spies, accountants and hackers, customs agents and con men, as well as private law firms, to target the financial institutions that had blood on their hands; Harpoon set its sights on the money men, the white-collar pencil pushers who moved money around the Middle East, as if these bean counters and bankers were the ones wearing the explosive vests on their own chests.
Despite its many skeptics and critics, Dagan’s battlefield analysis worked.
Deprived of the resources needed to pay for the logistics infrastructure that supported the terror cells and the suicide bombers, groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah were forced to stop the terror once their pockets were empty.
The financial warfare playbook, first pioneered by Harpoon, has come to be adopted by virtually every western country in the world.
But the terror didn’t stop. It never does. Instead of well-trained and highly indoctrinated foot soldiers carrying out shooting attacks or suicide bombers striking buses, individuals armed with knives began stabbing and killing civilians. Cars were used as compact-sedan cruise missiles to ram into crowds of civilians. These attackers — first striking in Israel and then spreading to cities in Europe and now New York City — were called lone wolves.
But there really is no such thing as a lone-wolf attacker. Sure, one man might pull the trigger, ram a car into a crowd of pedestrians, or begin hacking people to death on a city street corner, but there is an apparatus behind the violence — the fire-branding speech of a cleric, web pages full of online hatred designed to spark the imagination of a mind full of void and rage, or the means to purchase a weapon or rent a truck. There are accomplices and people who hope to profit from the bloodshed. The act of murder is a final cog in a well-oiled machine.
That machine, the apparatus behind the bloodshed, is what must be targeted as a proactive and preventative measure to ensure that men and women radicalized overseas or in their adoptive homes lack the resources to act on their homicidal desires.
Western law enforcement and intelligence agencies face a daunting task in approaching the war on terror this way. In many cases, the forensic trail of cash is small and insignificant. But the paradigm of using a financial perspective as an effective tool to fight terror has been proven. Similarly, the new tactics of the terrorist organizations must be studied and their vulnerabilities identified and exploited.
Those battling these slippery and sometimes brilliantly diabolical terror networks need a persistently unconventional mindset to innovate new methods, utilize novel technologies and employ creative strategies, as the Harpoon task force did, just to keep these no-frill attacks like lethal car rammings from turning pandemic on us. As the terror groups continue to adopt, to transform and to surprise, those of us being targeted by the terror groups need to vigilantly innovate and disrupt at a fast pace right along with them.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner is an Israeli activist and civil rights attorney. She is the president of Shurat HaDin, an Israeli law center based in Tel Aviv that has represented hundreds of terror victims in lawsuits around the world. She is the co-author of “Harpoon: Inside The Covert War Against Terrorism’s Money Masters,” by Hachette Books.