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Israel and the War on ISIS

May 8, 2018

by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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Explosions from the war in Syria, where ISIS is based, can be seen from the Golan Heights in Israel.

In 2017, ISIS had plans to blow up a passenger plane flying from Australia. However, with the scheme nearing completion, the suspects behind the plot were instead arrested—and the key piece of intelligence that foiled the bombing came from Israel. The Ha’aretz newspaper, in reporting on the prevented attack, said a high-tech Israeli intelligence unit was the hero that saved lives that time. If that had been Israel’s only assistance in the war on ISIS, that would have been significant, but this wasn’t even the only airplane attack foiled with Israel’s help.

“Israel has demolished ISIS terrorist attacks, dozens of major attacks, we foiled with our supreme intelligence, including the downing of major, I mean big airlines,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in comments published by his office.

Netanyahu didn’t even mention the direct bombing campaign against ISIS-aligned terrorists in Egypt or the Israelis’ arrests of ISIS recruits among Arabs at home. While the United States has been a visible leader in the war on ISIS, the Israelis have been a quieter but essential ally—and they have good reasons to be one of the best at fighting the global terrorist organization.

Intelligence Necessity

The Australia attack may have seemed a world away from Israel, but geography is an important reason for Israel’s elite intelligence operation against ISIS, said Dr. Ely Karmon of The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzlyia, Israel, in an interview with The Mideast Update. ISIS is, after all, based in Syria—Israel’s neighbor to the north. Dr. Karmon noted that one of the local affiliates of ISIS unleashed mortar fire against the Israeli Golan Heights and even closer to home, ISIS is recruiting Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to target Israel. Given the close proximity to the threat, Israel “clearly has to cover this kind of activity,” said Dr. Karmon, a senior research scholar at the IDC’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. He noted that even the Australia plot had connections to the region in Turkey. Said Dr. Karmon, “Perhaps in this sense we can consider Israel as a great power in intelligence fields, first of all because we speak about our region.”

Ironically, it is Israeli–Arab recruits who join ISIS and then return to Israel who can also serve as intelligence sources. Dr. Karmon highlighted Israeli media reports of some former ISIS members, encouraged by their families to come back home to Israel, who actually make the return trip despite knowing a prison sentence is awaiting them. However, despite the jail time, Dr. Karmon said they “…prefer to return to Israel; this also gave information, I think, to our authorities.”

Back in 2016, a press release from the Israel Security Agency highlighted one such Israeli–Arab family who chose to leave ISIS and return to Israel, where they were arrested but also provided details about living conditions under ISIS.

Israel’s intelligence gathering isn’t limited to human sources. Dr. Karmon noted that monitoring social media is an area in which Israeli counter-terrorism intelligence has been a leader, but that other governments are realizing the importance of that tool. Outside the government-to-government cooperation and inspiration, Dr. Karmon noted that European academics have also had the opportunity to learn from Israeli academics who have studied counter-terrorism.

Operational Necessity

It’s not just an academic exercise for Israel. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that Israel had launched more than 100 airstrikes against ISIS-aligned terrorists in the Egyptian Sinai region. That was significant, seeing that despite a decades-old peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, Egypt’s side of that peace has long been cold in order to appease anti-Israel Arabs in the country. Allowing Israeli warplanes to bomb Egyptian territory to assist the Egyptian military was thus a stunning development. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t officially acknowledged by either side in the report.

The fact that it happened—repeatedly—highlights the seriousness of the ISIS threat in the Middle East and the importance of Israel in battling back. As Netanyahu noted in comments around the time of The New York Times report, “Our presence here is the main element in the Middle East blocking the spread of radical Islam.”

While Israel is helping other nations fight back the ISIS threat, they apparently are doing a good job of limiting it at home too. While multiple Western nations have watched their citizens join ISIS to fight in Syria and Iraq, Israel has had fewer such terror converts—even when counting the Palestinians—than the French and Belgians, according to Dr. Karmon.

Given all that Israel has done to fight ISIS, it may seem surprising that ISIS hasn’t more aggressively attacked Israel. Dr. Karmon believes that they don’t want another “very skilled enemy” like the Israel Defense Forces openly opposing them, which limits ISIS’s options in attacking Israel. Nonetheless, don’t think that ISIS is ignoring the Jewish state. Dr. Karmon pointed out that one of the first major ISIS attacks in Europe was against a Jewish museum in Brussels and that other Jewish sites and groups have been targeted around the world.

The shared ISIS threat is also a shared mission for Israel and the West. As Netanyahu said late last year in comments from his office, “Israel is…not only preventing ISIS attacks in Europe, but also preventing the collapse of many parts of the Middle East adjacent to Israel that would otherwise be taken over by these militant Islamists, driving many, many, many millions into Europe. So, obviously we do so to protect ourselves, but in so doing, I believe that Israel serves a very important security function for the people of Europe in ways that are not always understood, but increasingly are appreciated.”

Photo Credit: Robert Hoetink/shutterstock.com

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