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Israel at the vanguard of counter-terrorism


“How can you create real, effective international counter-terrorism cooperation, if the international community does not agree on one single definition of terrorism?” asks Dr. Boaz Ganor. “Think about the situation, if the international community does not agree on the definition of coronavirus. I would argue it shows how crucial it is to build the acceptance and understanding of the nature of the threat, both for terrorism and this pandemic.”

Though many authorities on counter-terrorism tend to believe that an internationally-accepted definition of terrorism can never be agreed upon, Ganor stands out against the conventional wisdom that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” When asked, Ganor is firmly convinced that an objective definition of terrorism can be derived based on international laws and principles regarding conventional warfare. Such a definition, he maintains, is indispensable in any serious attempt to combat terrorism.

“The definition I propose is as follows: Terrorism is the deliberate use of violence aimed against civilian targets in order to achieve political ends.” According to Ganor, this differentiates between terrorism as a tactic, which is always illegitimate, and the goals that a given terrorist seeks to achieve.

“Once you have that understanding of the threat, then you can start building effective international cooperation. As we always say, it takes a network to beat a network. In fact, that is the slogan we are using!”

Ganor laughs as he points to the motto of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) framed behind him. “But you cannot do that without an agreement on what terrorism is all about.”

Born in 1961 in Israel, Ganor is a seventh-generation Israeli, whose ancestors founded the city of Tel Aviv. When it came time for him to enlist in the military, Ganor at first had his heart set on becoming a pilot for the Israeli Air Force.

“They said I was a danger to myself and to others,” jokes Ganor “so they politely declined my application.” During the 1980s, prior to the First Lebanon War, he became part of an intelligence unit. It was there that he became fascinated by how terrorism would be approached as a multidisciplinary discipline. Ganor would go on to obtain his bachelor’s degree in political science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, his master’s degree in political studies from Tel Aviv University and then his Ph.D. at Hebrew University, where he defended his thesis titled, “The Israeli Counter-Terrorism Strategy – Efficiency versus Liberal Democratic Values.”

“There is a common denominator in countering the threats of global terrorism and corona virus pandemics, which we speak about [at Reichman University],” says Ganor. “This is what we call the democratic dilemma in countering terrorism.”  He explains that both threats pose a cross-border global threat to peoples’ lives. When decision-makers provide effective tools to counter these dangers, this often poses a challenge and threat to liberal-democratic values.

“We already see this with the coronavirus with the use of artificial intelligence,” says Ganor, “collecting the information and whereabouts of people using their cellular phone information for coordination and so forth.” Ganor ties this back to his views on why the adoption of a global definition of terrorism is important.

“Furthermore, you need to develop international cooperation in both cases, because they are global phenomena. What is the point of Israel having a law against incitement to terrorism, if the inciters could sit in the Netherlands, use a social network platform from Russia and incite people in Israel? You need to create a global threshold in order to be effective.”

Ganor’s tenure in the government began in 1992, when Brig.-Gen. Yigal Pressler asked Ganor to be his adviser. Pressler was previously appointed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to be his advisor on counter-terrorism. During this period, Ganor would also become engaged in peace talks with his Jordanian counterparts on security aspects, culminating in the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty.

“Bear in mind this was a challenging and fascinating time for counter-terrorism in Israel,” says Ganor. “This was during the signing of the Oslo Accords and the beginning of the first wave of suicide attacks in Israel. As a young advisor, you are involved in coordinating the activities of counter-terrorism branches from the IDF, police, intelligence agencies, and governmental ministries, in order for them to work in a synergetic way to fulfill deadlines that are given by the prime minister.”

This new position would also come with some complications. As a freelancer consultant to the prime minister’s apparatus, Ganor stood vocally against the Oslo Accords. In academic articles for the Shalem Center, highlighting the problematic aspects of the process, Dr. Ganor cited how Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian leadership had no real intentions of signing a genuine peace agreement with Israel. Arafat and his circle were issuing statements in support of anti-Israel terrorism, whereas Israeli adherence to the Oslo Accords would have restricted the country’s efficiency in maintaining its security.

“You can imagine that there were elements within the Israeli government at that time who didn’t like that,” says Ganor in reference to his writings. “I clearly remember during an official meeting when one of the participants was telling me that I shouldn’t be there because I did not support the peace accords. Let me explain. I didn’t support the Oslo Accords not because I didn’t believe in peace or because I didn’t believe in the two-state solution. I believed in those two elements and I even believe in that today…. But I didn’t believe in the partner – Yasser Arafat.”

Following the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Pressler handed in his resignation. This paved the way for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appoint Meir Dagan to be his new adviser on counter-terrorism. Ganor had previously consulted Netanyahu while he was head of the opposition, working with him on the writing his book, Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorists.

“[Dagan] came into my office, and said: ‘Look, I heard you are a good guy. But I have my own people and I need your room!’” Dagan recalls. “I was fired and I thought this was a disaster and the worst thing that could happen to me. But I say to my students that sometimes, being fired is the best thing that can happen to you.” As an outcome, Ganor and his colleagues would go on to create the ICT later that year at IDC Herzliya.

Ganor would be nominated by then-foreign minister Ariel Sharon and later appointed by Netanyahu to be a part of the Trilateral Committee established during the Wye Accords –the purpose of which was to monitor and prevent terrorist incitement within the Palestinian Authority. The committee itself was divided into different fields of activity. One team was responsible for incitement in the media, the other for official incitement, while Dr. Ganor’s team was in charge of incitement in schoolbooks. The committee would meet regularly in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington. Ganor would be the only member of the team asked to stay in his position when Prime Minister Ehud Barak took over.

“It has not changed to this day,” says Ganor in reference to continued antisemitic and anti-Israel incitement that is still be found in Palestinian schoolbooks. “The committee turned out to be a failure.”

According to Ganor, Israel’s fight for survival since independence has made the country a world leader when it comes to counter-terrorism. Israel has continuously produced uniquely innovative responses to the challenges posed by terrorists, some of which diverge from how the US tackles with the same issue. Yet despite these differences, the methodologies presented by Israel and the US compliment each other. The US excels in strategic thinkers in counter-terrorism, while this is not the case for Israel. The strength of the Jewish state resides in its tacticians and having the best operational counter-terrorism authorities in the world. Nevertheless, both countries share the same liberal-democratic values and need each other in order to effectively fight terrorism.

Prior to the ICT’s establishment in 1996, the academic study of counter-terrorism was viewed as disconnected from actual counter-terrorism. Along with the former director-general of the Mossad Shabtai Shavit and other colleagues, Ganor would approach Prof. Uriel Reichman, former Dean of Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law and the founder of IDC Herzliya. Reichmann would provide the necessary back wind for the institute to thrive within his college, one year after IDC was established on a neglected Israeli air force base.

In June, the General Assembly of IDC Herzliya announced its decision to change the name of the institution to Reichman University. The renaming was done in honor of Reichman, who will be resigning from his position next year, as well as to better reflect the university’s character as an academic research institution that confers doctoral degrees while operating in accordance with the highest academic standards.

“President Reichman would always tell me that academia was an apparatus of the society and meant to serve the society,” says Ganor of his mentor. “That’s exactly how one should understand the academic activity of counter-terrorism, it should not be an ivory tower secluded from the practicalities and challenges from the field itself.” For many years, the ICT was unique and innovative to Israel itself, since practitioners and scholars in the field did not see for such an academic institute. This would all change, five years later.

As a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US established the Department of Homeland Security. The DHS then created the Department of Science and Technology, which established 12 centers of excellence for counter-terrorism and homeland security in different American universities. The concept of which would be modeled after the ICT. From then on, an academic tsunami developed in which almost every university inside and outside the US developed either courses, programs or institutes devoted to the study of counter-terrorism.

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the ICT distinguishes itself by producing cutting-edge research which seeks to understand the rationale of terrorist actors. One project Ganor highlighted took place several years ago, when the Transportation Ministry asked him to create a “red team” (where counter-terrorism experts plan and prepare simulated terrorist attacks) for an international course being developed for security experts by ICT. Ganor’s team played the role of Al Qaeda in attacking an unnamed transportation facility in Europe where they found that a device known as a derailer could be purchased cheaply online to target moving trains. 

Authorities were shocked by these findings and develop appropriate countermeasures. But less than two years later, Al Qaeda dedicated issue #17 of Inspire magazine with instructions for homegrown terrorists on how to purchase and use derailers to commit attacks.

“Don’t worry… it didn’t come from us because we did not publish our findings,” Ganor says reassuringly. “In fact, I would not be revealing this to you if Inspire magazine did not publish it first.” Over 500 students have graduated from the university’s prestigious counter-terrorism masters program, with over a thousand more in all the MA tracks from the Lauder School of Government and Diplomacy. Students from all over the world enroll, including a number of Palestinians. 

“I think one of the goals we set for ourselves in educating the new generation of counter-terrorism decision-makers lastly has to do with understanding the fragile balance between effectiveness in counter-terrorism and guarding liberal democratic values,” reflects Ganor. “The whole challenge is to understand the right balance, knowing that you sometimes need to sacrifice some of your efficiency in counter-terrorism in order to hold your fundamental liberal democratic values. But also that sometimes you need to set aside few values in order to increase your effectiveness in countering terrorism.” n

Bradley Martin is the Executive Director for the Near East Center for Strategic Studies





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