Israel's lessons for protecting Americans

Story highlights

  • Adam Harmon: Israel offers important lessons in approach to counterterrorism
  • Israelis place greater emphasis on safety than personal privacy of their fellow citizens, he says

Adam Harmon served with Israeli Paratrooper and Special Operations units for over 15 years and has briefed the U.S. defense and intelligence community on counterterrorism best practices since 2003. He is the author of "Lonely Soldier: Memoir of an American in the Israeli Army." The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have created an even greater sense of urgency that something must be done to prevent further attacks in the United States and Europe. But while this is not surprising, the solutions being advocated, expanding military operations against ISIS and identifying whether those fleeing the Middle East pose a threat, seem to miss the point.

After all, the most significant U.S. response to the threats facing the West post-9/11 was regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan, an approach that cost thousands of American lives and a trillion dollars, but which has failed to eliminate the threat to American citizens while leaving the Middle East in an even bigger mess than it was.
Of course, defeating ISIS will require a comprehensive strategy. But achieving that goal won't necessarily make Americans and Europeans safer. Remember, Osama Bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda's ability to attack has been greatly reduced, yet terrorists remain able to threaten the United States and others; just as ISIS supplanted al Qaeda, another terror group will likely take the lead if ISIS is destroyed.
    Adam Harmon
    The reality is that if the primary goal for the United States is to substantially reduce the threat of terrorism to Americans, the Obama administration and the current crop of presidential candidates should look to a key U.S. ally, one that has virtually extinguished mass casualty terrorism despite being an ongoing target: Israel. There hasn't been a successful suicide bombing in Israel since 2008, and although the country has recently witnessed a troubling spate of stabbings, these are not on the same scale as the headline grabbing bombings the country once suffered.
    How has Israeli counterterrorism been so successful?
    Know thy enemy. Israeli counterterrorism professionals aren't focused on Muslims. Arabs and Muslims are not the enemy. In fact, thousands of Israeli Arabs volunteer to serve in Israeli combat units. Likewise, thousands of Muslims serve in the U.S. military. Ethnic and religious groups should never be seen as a threat. A threat is a specific person -- with a name, a place of residence, and a plan to kill civilians -- and security forces need to identify those individuals who pose a threat.
    Israel is able to identify most terrorists before attacks because Israel's intelligence gathering, analysis and field operations on its own citizens are far more comprehensive than the surveillance conducted by U.S. and European counterterrorism agencies on their citizens. Israeli security agencies have been given the necessary authority and tools because ultimately, on balance, Israelis place a greater emphasis on their safety than they do the personal privacy of their fellow citizens.
    Also, Israelis take profiling seriously. Profiling enables them to focus more resources on the individuals who have the highest likelihood of being a threat. And while ethnicity and religion are part of that calculus, they are not the most important data points. In fact, it might surprise many to know that a profile that triggers action on the part of Israeli security professionals is sometimes a blond, blue-eyed, Christian, European woman traveling alone to visit a boyfriend in Israel. This profile requires additional scrutiny because Palestinian terrorists have in the past planted explosives in the belongings of their girlfriends.
    Prevention, prevention, prevention. Pinpoint intelligence and military operations that uncover terror cells and weapons before an attack are critical, and undoubtedly save lives. But the most important part of Israel's counterterrorism strategy is the emphasis it places on making it very difficult for a terrorist -- those who have evaded the military and intelligence community -- to put themselves in a position to harm large numbers of civilians.
    How?
    For a start, Israel has secured its borders. When a critical piece of its security fence became operational in 2003, there was a 90% reduction in the number of successful suicide attacks.
    Second, when a person enters a mall, a concert, mass transit, sporting event, or any other place where many people gather, that individual and their belongings are checked thoroughly. Security personnel are highly trained, well-paid and are often combat veterans. They don't just check belongings, they know how to determine intent and serve as a final physical barrier to keep terrorists away from civilians. And, as an added benefit, taking these kinds of steps will also help prevent tragedies like those in Aurora, Colorado, when a gunman opened fire in a movie theater.
    Securing borders is much more important to the security of Europe than America, but both the United States and Europe need to take a much more comprehensive approach to surveilling their citizens and building a proactive defense system that is similar to the Israeli approach if the primary goal is to substantially reduce the ability of terrorists to conduct mass casualty attacks.
    Taking these steps will do exponentially more, in the short- to medium-term, to protect American and European lives than sending military forces to engage ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Likewise, following the Israeli example will cost far less in terms of lives and budget than military operations that will very likely, and ironically, intensify terrorist efforts to target American and European civilians.