Brig. Gen. (Res) Nitzan Nuriel is a fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at Reichman University. Prior to joining ICT, Nuriel served as the director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office of Israel (2007-2012). He joined the IDF in September 1977 and was assigned within the infantry to the Golani Brigade and served in all commanding positions, reaching deputy division commander. He then served in the following positions: Deputy Commander of the Gaza Strip Division, J-3 of the Northern Command, Military Attaché at the Embassy of Israel in the United States, Deputy Commander of the Depth Corps, and Deputy Commander of Israel’s Special Forces. He is a recipient of the Legion of Merit from the president of the United States.

Editor’s Note: This interview is the second in a series of articles and interviews examining the terrorist threat landscape in Israel and the lessons other countries can learn from Israel’s counterterrorism efforts. The series is a joint effort between the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (CTC) and the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at Reichman University in Israel.

CTC/ICT: You spent more than 30 years in Israeli’s security establishment, and you are still serving in the IDF reserve. What led you to such a distinguished career in the military? During your career, what was your biggest achievement? What was the most challenging moment?

Nuriel: I believe that not many Israelis know what they want to do in life when they enlist at 18 years old or what they are going to do for the next 35 years. It is a gradual process: You start your military service because it is mandatory, and then you see that you can be an officer. After that, you move up the ladder, and you become a platoon commander. And after a while, you are battalion commander. And then, you see that this is not just a career; this is a life mission.

During my military service, I believe that my biggest achievement was that I never lost a soldier in combat. I conducted many operations, I was wounded twice, but I never lost a soldier in combat.

Regarding the most challenging moments, I know that many people are looking for an answer that includes combat description and bravery. But no, not at all. The most difficult moments: having to pick the team that will go with me behind the enemy’s line to conduct one of these operations. You are sitting in your tent or in your office and you have to pick the 20 individuals that you will take with you, and by picking them, you know that you may put them at a very high risk. They may not come back home, and this is not a feeling that you can prepare for.

CTC/ICT: In 2001, you served as the IDF Military Attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. What role, if any, did Israel play in assisting the United States in the establishment of its Global War on Terror post-9/11? 

Nuriel: I had the honor to serve as the Israeli military representative in Washington, D.C., at the time of the overall American military efforts against the Taliban in Afghanistan and later against the Baath regime in Iraq. At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created with Governor [Tom] Ridge as its first secretary. I was part of the team that supported and advised him. From that aspect, we provided him with all the knowledge we had. We sat down several days a week, every week, and provided him and his staff with the Israeli counterterrorism and homeland security experience.

I’ve always told my counterparts that you cannot take the Israeli structures and doctrine as they are. You have to adapt; you have to see what is relevant and what is less relevant. From that perspective, we provided, on the military side as well as on the civilian side, everything we had. No secrets, no boundaries, no limits. Everything was on the table.

For example, on the military side, at that time we spoke a lot about how to counter IEDs. We shared our methodologies and technology. On the civilian side, we spoke a lot about what the right counterterrorism apparatus should be; what the tasks and boundaries between the police, firefighters, first aid are; how to create a command-and-control concept in times of disaster. Ultimately, I believe that we helped the United States realize that they needed a different security structure.

More generally, we have very good cooperation with our Americans allies on the intelligence, operational, as well as technological side. And with those connections, we dramatically increased efforts to deal with the money behind terrorism, which is a keystone. Without money, you will not be able to conduct terror attacks. And for that, we need to keep increasing cooperation not only with the United States, but also with other countries.

On the technology side, the concept has been that if there is one agency on the Israeli side and one agency on the U.S. side that are looking for technological solutions to a problem, we will invest both of us, the American and Israelis, in order to find solutions. And that mechanism worked for many years. I had the privilege to lead that mechanism through the Technical Support Working Group (TSWG), and all in all, we provided good answers to some of the challenges that both Israel and the United States were facing.

It has also been important to share lessons learned. When something happens—for example, the April 2022 terror attack on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv—it is important to present it to our allies overseas and think together, what are the relevant shared lessons learned?1

CTC/ICT: How would you assess the evolution of Israel’s counterterrorism policy? Where has Israel been most effective and least effective?

Nuriel: During my tenure as the director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau, I launched an initiative to have an Israeli-written counterterrorism strategy. It took me a while to convince the prime minister and his staff that it was needed. They provided me with a small budget and allowed me to start the process. Unfortunately, it was never completed because of various political limitations. We had a team, we started writing these concepts, and after a year or so, we received a red light (i.e., “we don’t want you to write a policy.”). I believe that the political echelon was afraid to have a policy that may have forced them to take certain decisions when they favored a status quo.

Looking into the tools we have in our counterterrorism basket, I believe that the most successful approach we have had is in the way we counter suicide attackers. Actually, if you look at the numbers, we succeeded in moving from approximatively 20 events a month down to zero; from 100 casualties to zero. And today in Israel, the threat of suicide attackers has significantly diminished. Because of a set of concepts (preventive arrests, intelligence dominance, the security fence), intelligence cooperation, and because of technology, we succeeded in reducing suicide terrorism so that it is almost no longer a relevant threat in Israel’s threat landscape.

Nitzan Nuriel

CTC/ICT: You served as the director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau in the prime minister’s office? Can you tell us a bit about the history, role, and evolution of the CTB? 

Nuriel: The Counter-Terrorism Bureau was established in 1996, after we started facing a wave of suicide attacks and the increasing need to better coordinate the responses of different security agencies (Mossad, ISA,a IDF, police, etc.). When I was appointed in 2007, I told the prime minister that beside coordinating between the agencies, I believed the bureau should also examine future threats and try to guide the security apparatus on how to be better prepared for such next threats. Besides that, at that time, we had several other new challenges, like protecting the rigs in the Mediterranean and preventing Iran from taking actions against the State of Israel after the [2008] killing of [Hezbollah’s international operations chief] Imad Mughniyeh. We had, at this time, many challenges that couldn’t be led by a single agency. And the Counter-Terrorism Bureau in Israel led these issues and gave different options to political leaders tasked to deal with those threats.

CTC/ICT: A major aspect of your role as director of the CTB was coordinating the efforts of different security agencies. These agencies had institutional egos, different priorities, and were often competing for intelligence sources and budget funds. What were the main challenges in this regard?

Nuriel: I must admit that there is probably a lot of ego among the different agencies, but when it comes to the security of the Israeli citizens, they are willing to adapt and one day work under the leadership of the police and the day after under the command of the ISA, etc. As such, organizations could change positions based on the need of the mission. My main challenge as the director of the CTB was to select the agency that [would] lead the mission. For example, in 2010, Israel faced the challenge to counter flotillas that were trying to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza. The question on my desk was which agency to assign as the lead against such a threat. Should it be the Mossad because the threat is coming from overseas? Is it the IDF because the threat comes from the sea? Is this the ISA because the flotillas wanted to enter Israel’s territory? Ultimately, you make a decision and the agencies follow it.

According to Israeli law at that time, if one of the head of the agencies had something to say, he needed to go to the prime minister. They never did.

CTC/ICT: Given the spring 2022 wave of terrorism in Israel,b how do you evaluate the ‘inspired lone actor’ threat to the country? 

Nuriel: Unfortunately, we do not always have the time to answer these questions. We must deal with the problem. And many times, first the problems start, then you are thinking how to solve it, how to prevent it. The most effective tool is based on a concept that we call preventive arrest operations. Every night, based on very good intelligence, we are conducting preventive arrest operations led by the IDF and other special forces units, led by the ISA, and we arrest those who, based on good intelligence, are part of the terror arena. We arrest them, interrogate them, and they provide us more names.

Is this enough? The answer is no. Because you can miss something, you can find someone who is smarter than you and he succeeds to sneak between the available intelligence. As such, and as a foundation, you need to build strong deterrence.

I believe that you can deter terrorism even though an individual is willing to commit suicide. If he understands that for sure he will be captured and maybe sent to Israeli jail forever, he or she will think twice. So, the most effective approach is a combination of preventive arrest operations as well as deterrence. If something happens, then it is necessary to shut down the threat as soon as we can, even if that requires intervention of civilians who are carrying weapons and, by that, to minimize the number of casualties. I don’t want to criticize anyone, but just as an example, in May there was a school shooting in Uvalde County in Texas in which 21 were killed. In Israel, in events like that, the numbers will be much lower. Mainly because the first responders are very quick. It can be security forces, it could be citizens, it could be soldiers that are on vacation. But the concept is to make sure that you can shut down the threat as soon as you can.

CTC/ICT: In the last few decades, there seems to have been a similar pattern with Hamas in Gaza: sporadic launches of rockets and waves of inspired attacks, IDF retaliations that are followed by more rockets and more attacks, which are followed by military operations (Defensive Shield [2002], Summer Rains [2006], Pillar of Defense [2012], Protective Edge [2014], Guardian of the Walls [2021] just to name a few). How do you break away from this vicious cycle?

Nuriel: I’m not sure, and I don’t think there is a magical solution. And yet, by observing what’s going on right now in Gaza, the results of the last year’s operation—Guardian of the Walls—maybe we created a new level of deterrence. Based on the intelligence, and I cannot share everything with your readers, Hamas is very disturbed and it’s doing almost everything it can to avoid its organization and its supporters opening fire against us and is also preventing others from doing so. How long is it going to stay like that? I don’t know; it’s too soon to say.

The concept is to make sure that the other side, Hamas and [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad [PIJ], understand that if they do something, they will pay a very high price. But this is not sufficient. We need to speak about structural solutions. I believe, for example, that the workers that are coming from the Gaza Strip to work in Israel are part of the mechanism that can help reduce the level of threats. Conveying a message that if it is going to be quiet, we will have another 500 workers. And then every week to increase the number of workers based on the level of quiet. Again, how long is it going to take? Some time. It also depends on us because if there is an incident and we make a mistake that Hamas or [PIJ] cannot accept—for example, in the Temple Mount—then things may again spiral out of control.

CTC/ICT: More than 20 years ago, you took part in the planning and command of the IDF’s retreat from southern Lebanon [in 2000]. Today, the situation is more and more fragile in Israel’s “northern front” with the threat posed by Hezbollah. Many Israeli security analysts say that the next war in the north is not a question of if, but when. What is your assessment? What should Israel’s counterterrorism strategy be vis-à-vis Hezbollah? 

Nuriel: I believe that the most problematic dilemma we have is, what should come first? We believe that there are strong connections between Iran and Hezbollah. Iran is very close to nuclear capabilities. Hezbollah already has thousands of rockets. And now you have to make the decision what should come first: attacking Iran in order to prevent them from having a nuclear weapon while being aware that Hezbollah can respond and launch thousands of rockets towards Israel; or launch a preventive attack against Hezbollah and take care of Iran after. This is the major dilemma we have today. I also believe that it is a question of when and not if, with regard to Israel needing to take action against both Iran and Hezbollah. What should come first is a tactical and operational question. I don’t know what the Iranian response will be if Israel attacks Hezbollah, and I don’t know what Hezbollah’s response will be in case Israel attacks Iran. We need to be prepared to deal with those two fronts at the same time even though we all know that Israel cannot fight and win on two fronts at the same time. So, when it becomes necessary to act, we have to make a decision [about] who comes first.

But it not solely these two fronts. We are speaking today about six fronts at the same time: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, the Gaza Strip, and Yemen, and then add potential domestic disturbance. Therefore, the Israeli air defense system, with very strong U.S. cooperation, is trying to build up a very strong umbrella with very robust detection capabilities as well as interception capabilities.

CTC/ICT: In the wake of a surge in missile launches in the early months of 2022 from pro-Tehran militias in Yemen and Iraq targeting Saudi Arabia and the UAE, what is your assessment of the threat to Israel and Israel’s Gulf allies by an Iran threat network, which includes Lebanese Hezbollah, pro-Tehran militias in Iraq, and the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen?

Nuriel: We are living in an era—and the war between Russia and Ukraine proves it again—in which there is significant vulnerability to ammunition coming from the sky (e.g., drones and other UAVs, missiles). Like with many other threats, you have to develop concepts and technology that enable you to deal with these aerial threats. We do have some solutions, but if you take any Israeli heavy armor vehicle, it is vulnerable from aerial threats. And we are now developing both concepts and technology on how to provide those vehicles better protections from being targeted from above. So, the threat is real, and we are working very hard to come up with solutions.

CTC/ICT: If the talks in Vienna result in a restoration of a nuclear deal with Iran, what do you see as the implications for the regional threat posed by the Iran threat network?

Nuriel: We need to look at the economy. And here as well, it is impacted by the Russian-Ukrainian War. If the 2015 deal provided the Iranians with a lot of money, now it will be much more in light of the current oil prices. The Iranian economy did not really fully recover after the JCPOA in 2015.c It helped them a lot, but it has not changed their life. I believe that today, if there is a new agreement which allows them sell of oil or natural gas, the positive effect on the Iranian economy will be dramatic, and therefore, the option of increased aggressiveness in the Middle East will increase as well. From that perspective, I am a bit concerned.

CTC/ICT: There has been concern over what are perceived to be Iranian efforts to build a “land bridge” between Iran and Lebanon through Iraq and Syria, with questions remaining “about whether this land corridor is a corridor of influence, or one of weapons trafficking, or part of a wider permanent trade route that will combine Iranian-backed militias with alliances on the ground and a kind of highway of power stretching to Lebanon.”2 What is your view of this issue?

Nuriel: Iran uses Israel as an excuse in its bid to dominate the Muslim world. They did it in 1982 when they established Hezbollah. Hezbollah was created as an excuse for fighting against Israel, which in turn was a way to assert Iran’s leadership in the Muslim world.

Hezbollah still exists even though Israel is not in Lebanon anymore. So, why does Hezbollah still exist? Who needs Hezbollah? The Iranians need Hezbollah to control Lebanon and, through that, to threaten Israel. Why is Iran trying to increase their presence near Israeli borders? They do it in Lebanon, they do it in Syria, they do it in the Gaza Strip. They want to create deterrence against us: If you attack us (Iran), our response will be immediate and along all Israeli borders. But that is only part of the story. Tehran sees their confrontation with Israel as helping their bigger plan to dominate the region. The Iranian message is the following: In the Muslim world, there is a huge friction between Sunnis and the Shiites. And the Iranian Shiite regime is telling the Sunnis: You tried to destroy the State of Israel many times and you failed: 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973—all the big wars. Now it’s our turn; follow us.

Last but not least, let’s talk about the nuclear issue. The Iranian nuclear program is less about Israel and more about leadership of the Muslim world. The Sunni world already has the Pakistani nuclear bomb, so Iran believes that it too needs to get nuclear weapons if it is ever to lead the Muslim world.

Iran uses the nuclear issue in order to lead the Muslim world and control the Sunni states. And Israel is a great excuse. Therefore, the Israeli policy regarding the Iranian ambition to get military nuclear capabilities is clear cut: We will not allow them to pass the military nuclear threshold.

One scenario I am worried about is Iran controlling things on three of Israel’s borders. They already do so in Lebanon and Syria, and if you understand the Iranian approach, you can ask yourself, who is next in line?

CTC/ICT: Jordan?

Nuriel: Yes. And this is something that we cannot accept. The longest border among the Israeli borders is Jordan. And another Iranian player sitting on the Jordanian borders will be too much for us to handle.

CTC/ICT: Let’s move to the international arena. With the rise and fall of al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State, as well as the increasing number of far-right terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, what are the major counterterrorism threats you are most concerned with? 

Nuriel: I’m very much concerned with something that has not really been part of the game this far: non-conventional terrorism.3 Are we near a breaking point and about to see non-conventional attacks? And frankly, our responses are not there yet. Given the catastrophic effects of COVID-19, terrorists may seek to cause an even worse pandemic. It would take us a while to understand what it would be all about and it would already be too late. In my view, terrorist organizations are very close to deciding to try to develop non-conventional capabilities because of their poor achievements in the last few years. The last dramatic event, September 11, took place 21 years ago, and since that date, they’ve failed to launch something of such proportion. Some among their number may be calculating that by developing non-conventional capabilities, they can instill huge fear and create a dramatic effect on our societies and economies.

CTC/ICT: In recent years, we have seen shocking far-right terror attacks targeting Jews in Europe and the United States, including attacks on synagogues in Halle, Germany,4 and Pittsburgh.5 According to the Anti-Defamation League, reports of assaults, vandalism, and harassment against Jewish communities and individuals in the United States were the highest on record in 2021, with its director recently stating that Jews living in America are experiencing the most anti-Semitism they have witnessed in the past 40 years.6 What can be done to help protect the Jewish community and stem this tide of violent far-right anti-Semitism in the West?

Nuriel: First, I believe that in many places there is a strong connection between anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism. And because of that, the number of events is very high. What can be done? First and foremost, we need to increase the cooperation between Jewish communities and the local police stations, the local police commanders, because they have the responsibility. And we need to build up some kind of cooperation between local community guards and the police. And together, to build up layers of defense. Obviously, technology should be a part of it—cameras and some other tools such as smart sensors that will give us early warnings. The combination of technology, first responders’ team, and the police can provide us with a strong layer of defense. And yet, we all know that unfortunately there is no 100 percent security.

CTC/ICT: From a counterterrorism perspective, what are the issues that most concern you when it comes to Israeli security moving forward?

Nuriel: You may be surprised to hear that what I’m most concerned about are riots and massive demonstrations. Now, think about the Shuafat crossing in East Jerusalem. All protestors must do is just walk in massive numbers toward West Jerusalem. The Israeli police and the IDF will not open fire. We are not going to open fire against innocent civilians, even though a scenario like the one I just mentioned is very dangerous for Israel.

I believe that we need to develop, with the Americans, and hopefully with other states, non-lethal capabilities that will be able to put a stop to such massive demonstrations within a minute. Technology can provide us with better tools, better material, and that should be the concept: have something that within a second can neutralize a massive threatening demonstration without any damage to people.

Another worry I have is Hamas moving its military capabilities to the West Bank. This must be prevented.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s Note: The Israeli Security Agency (ISA) focuses on domestic security and is referred to as Shin Bet or Shabak.

[b] “During the spring of 2022, Israel suffered six attacks by lone actors or local networks—at least three inspired by Palestinian organizations and at least two by the global jihad—and a multitude of thwarted plots.” Boaz Ganor, “CTC-ICT Focus on Israel: What Can We Learn from the Spring 2022 Terror Wave in Israel,” CTC Sentinel 15:6 (2022).

[c] Editor’s Note: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was “a detailed, 159-page agreement with five annexes reached by Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) on July 14, 2015.” See “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, last reviewed March 2022.

[1] Editor’s Note: For a perspective on the lessons learned from the recent terror wave in Israel, see Boaz Ganor, “CTC-ICT Focus on Israel: What Can We Learn from the Spring 2022 Terror Wave in Israel,” CTC Sentinel 15:6 (2022).

[2] Seth J. Frantzman, “The images and maps behind Iran’s ‘land bridge,’” Jerusalem Post, August 23, 2019.

[3] Editor’s Note: For a recent focus on non-conventional threats, see CTC Sentinel’s April and May 2022 special issues on the biological threat.

[4] Daniel Koehler, “The Halle, Germany, Synagogue Attack and the Evolution of the Far-Right Terror Threat,” CTC Sentinel 12:11 (2019).

[5] Mitchell D. Silber, “Terrorist Attacks Against Jewish Targets in the West (2012-2019): The Atlantic Divide Between European and American Attackers,” CTC Sentinel 12:5 (2019); Rich Lord, “How Robert Bowers went from conservative to white nationalist,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 10, 2018.

[6] Nicole Chavez, “Assaults, vandalism and harassment targeting Jewish communities and people are higher than ever, audit shows,” CNN, April 26, 2022.

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