Counter-Terrorism Effectiveness and Human Rights in Israel

  • Badi HasisiEmail author
  • Simon Perry
  • Michael Wolfowicz
Living reference work entry
Part of the International Human Rights book series (IHR)


In the last two decades, democratic countries have had to contend with a growing and evolving terrorist threat. Many of the counter-terrorism policies that have been introduced during this period have been criticized for having been made hastily and without a solid evidentiary basis. Critics argue that as a result, many policies not only fail to guard human rights but impinge on them, all the while also proving ineffectual. By failing to safeguard human and civil rights and liberties, many see that such policies erode legitimacy and trust through discriminatory and alienating practices and thereby contribute to the radicalization that gives rise to the terrorism which they seek to prevent. Striking a balance between security needs and human rights concerns is certainly an important one. Selecting counter-terrorism strategies that limit human rights impingements may inherently address some of the tests of proportionality. The Israeli case, with its unique set of security challenges, provides an interesting laboratory to examine the relationship between counter-terrorism effectiveness and human rights maintenance. Taking a criminological approach to policing practices, in this chapter we highlight how key Israeli counter-terrorism policies combine situational prevention and focused deterrence approaches to achieve both proportionality and effectiveness.


Counter-terrorism Human rights Effectiveness Balance Israel 


Since the terror attacks of 9/11, democratic countries have placed an increased focus on developing more effective counter-terrorism strategies and policies. For example, the EU’s counter-terrorism strategy, rolled out in 2005, was based on the four key components of prevent, protect, pursue, and respond. That same year, the UK introduced its CONTEST strategy, based on the four pillars of prevent, pursue, protect, and prepare. The slight differences between these two strategies reflect the divergent perceptions regarding emerging trends in the terrorism threat, namely, relating to homegrown and lone-wolf terrorism. Indeed, the EU’s policy was amended in 2008 and later in 2014 in order to cope with these evolving trends. To a large extent, these policies placed additional focus on the communities from which terrorists were believed likely to emerge from. Increased surveillance and the granting of additional powers to intelligence and security forces were seen as necessary trade-offs in order to protect the state and its citizens’ security (Costi 2012; Dragu 2011; Robinson et al. 2010). However, these policies came under scrutiny and criticism from the outset. Referred to as “patchwork” (Coolsaet 2005), critics have argued that too often, these policies were made in haste and with a lack of consideration for potential negative societal and ethical impacts.

Concerns have been raised that policies such as CONTEST have unfairly targeted minority groups and impinged on the rights of innocent individuals. From mass surveillance to profiling, the policies of democratic countries were criticized for their fundamentally undemocratic consequences and outcomes. Leaders of minority communities targeted by such policies have claimed that rather than helping, they have contributed to the disintegration of trust and harmed progress in integration. In turn, these policies may have inadvertently contributed to the very radicalization that they sought to deter (Choudhury and Fenwick 2011; den Boer 2015; Harcourt 2007; LaFree and Ackerman 2009). Since community-oriented approaches are dependent on trust on cooperation in order to succeed, the increase in terrorism events may serve to highlight these issues and the ineffectiveness of these policies (Davies 2018; Lakhani 2012; Vidino and Brandon 2012).

The need to maintain trust and legitimacy while improving effectiveness in counter-terrorism policies is often portrayed as a balancing act between addressing legitimate security concerns and needs on the one hand and human rights on the other hand. The struggle to achieving effectiveness while avoiding unnecessary harm to individual rights has become one of the greatest challenges facing the democratic world (Zedner 2005; Golder and Williams 2006). However, the balance metaphor may be an inappropriate one because it is impossible to achieve. This is in part because different weights are attributed to different priorities quite subjectively and differ between societies. The result is that rather than achieving effective CT and effective human rights protections, the balance approach returns us to a zero-sum game in which it is either security or human rights or neither. As such, it has been suggested that what is truly needed is for policies to be designed based on proportionality and harm reduction (Michaelsen 2008, 2010; Zedner 2005; OHCHR 2008). In brief, in order for a particular CT policy to meet the proportionality test, it must (1) demonstrate a rational connection between the step, the objective, and the right, (2) demonstrate that it takes the least drastic means possible, and (3) accounts for possible negative effects stemming from fulfillment of the objective (Barak 2007; OHCHR 2008). Others insist that proportionality cannot be achieved unless it is tested and determined by a non-political body, such as an independent high court (OHCHR 2008).

In an effort to learn from the experience of others, democratic states often look to each other’s approaches. One country that is often brought into such discussions is Israel, who is known for its extensive experience in combatting terrorism (Kaunert 2010; Kaunert and Léonard 2011; Jonathan-Zamir et al. 2014; Freilich 2017; Hasisi et al. 2009; Roach 2011; Perliger and Pedahzur 2006). Widely hailed as “the only democratic country in the middle east,” Israel is constantly under scrutiny for how its practices impact human rights. Its record has been the focus of UN resolutions and statements, debates, and appeals to the international court (Pedahzur and Perliger 2010). Rather than focusing on a balancing act-based approach, Israel’s approach to achieving security goals while maintaining human rights is based heavily on the principle of proportionality. The principle of proportionality is a pillar of both Israeli law and CT policy. Former Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak has referred extensively to proportionality, consistently emphasizing that all three elements of the test (mentioned above) must be met by any CT policy in order for it to be considered legal under Israeli law (Barak 2007; Bitton 2016; Cohen and Shany 2007).

In this chapter we discuss how some of Israel’s key CT policies achieve proportionality and possible lessons for other democratic states who are facing increasing terrorism threats. While many scholars have focused on theoretical and legal discussions regarding the balance between human rights and CT (e.g., Wilson 2005; Masferrer and Walker 2013; Fitzpatrick 2003), that is not the purpose of this chapter. Rather, we accept the notion that rather than a dichotomy, “The promotion and protection of human rights for all and the rule of law is essential to all components of the Strategy, recognizing that effective counter-terrorism measures and the promotion of human rights are not conflicting goals, but complementary and mutually reinforcing” (United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy 2006: IV). While many hold that all counter-terrorism policies will inevitably impinge on some of the rights of some segment of a population, by focusing on achieving proportionality, as well as minimization of harm and invasiveness, this may not be an inevitability (Michaelsen 2006).

Situational Terrorism Prevention and Focused Deterrence: Effectiveness and Human Rights Go Hand in Hand

The need to establish proportionality between terrorism prevention, and the maintenance of human rights is a consideration that policy makers must consider at every level in a functioning democracy (Walker 2009). One set of strategies that are especially suitable to achieving this is situational crime prevention (SCP). With its roots in environmental criminology and rational choice perspectives, SCP is a system of approaches that focuses on acts and events rather than offenders. The SCP approach views offenders as essentially rational actors who make rational choices and decisions, calculating the costs and benefits of a given act, including their perceptions of chances of success. Given the assumption that offenders make such calculations, Cornish and Clarke (2003) systemized the pillars of SCP as being the need to (1) increase the effort the offender has to make and (2) the risks the offender faces while (3) reducing the rewards the offender will get if successful, (4) limiting provocations that might encourage offending, and (5) removing excuses that may justify offending. With regard to the fourth and fifth elements, the advantages of the SCP approach vis-à-vis counter-terrorism and human rights are that “(a) they do not discriminate, instead impacting on all citizens equally; (b) they do not necessarily restrict human rights and freedoms under the guise of increased security; and (c) they do not simply result in the offenders picking the next-best target as a result of opportunity reduction” (Clare and Morgan 2009:216).

With the rise of intelligence-led policing and other “high-policing” policies in the wake of 9/11, concerns of profiling, discrimination, and impingements of human rights have figured prominently. Since such policies may negatively impact human rights and freedoms, they are likely to cause harm to institutional trust, perceptions of procedural justice, and legitimacy (Hasisi and Weisburd 2011). As a result, they also run the risk of contributing to radicalization. In a study of six different CT strategies implemented in Northern Ireland, LaFree et al. (2009) found that the two high-policing-based approaches contributed to an increase in violence. They suggest that administrative detentions without trial and unjustified arrests contributed to a loss of legitimacy which in turn contributed to a backlash effect. Indeed, a number of studies have found that low legitimacy in government institutions is correlated with an increase in radicalization and terrorism (Crenshaw 1983; Krueger and Maleckova 2003; Masters and Hoen 2012; Doosje et al. 2012, 2013; Nivette et al. 2017; Pauwels and Schils 2016).

Given that SCP has both demonstrable effectiveness and inherently avoids many of the human rights issues that plague other types of crime prevention strategies, Clarke and Newman (2006) adapted the SCP approach toward counter-terrorism in their book Outsmarting the Terrorists. Leading terrorism researchers are of the opinion that the rational choice making of terrorists is one feature in which they are quite similar to ordinary criminals (Crenshaw 2008; Taylor 1988; Silke 2003, 2010; Pape 2005; Hasisi and Perry 2017; Clarke and Newman 2006; Faria 2006). One of the most appealing aspects of situational terrorism prevention (STP) approaches is that by removing the focus from the individual or group, there is a minimization of costs to human rights. As Clarke and Newman (2006) explain, “the kind of interventions and data collection necessitated by a situational approach to prevention are less likely to infringe on civil liberties than those collected by the intelligence-led approach that necessitates the collection of extensive information of individuals, leading unavoidably to profiling of one kind or another to identify “potential” terrorists” (p.15).

One of the most successful evidence-based SCP approaches in crime prevention in recent years, hot spot policing, similarly focused on places and locations rather than individuals or groups. The hot spot policing approach is based on a solid evidentiary base which indicates that the majority of crime is concentrated in a very small number of places, down to the street segment level. These findings, which have collectively come to be known as the “law of crime concentration,” have been shown to be applicable to across places and contexts, including Israel (Weisburd and Amram 2014). By focusing policing resources on a small number of chronic crime places, hot spot policing approaches reduce the impact of policing on the wider community.

However, despite its apparent effectiveness, hot spot policing approaches have not been free of criticism, and it has been charged that they invariably lead to discrimination. Weisburd (2016) rejects these claims and emphasizes that hot spot approaches not only provide for an effective outcome (reduction of crime) but are also inherently fair and nondiscriminatory. While certain applications of targeted policing have perhaps unfairly targeted minorities, overall “hot spots policing does not necessarily lead to abusive police strategies” (p. 676). Rather, any correlation between hot spots and race “is a coincidence rather than a cause” (p. 678). Perceptions of profiling may be a matter of poorly defined offender profiles receiving more attention than the offence profiles which such policies actually seek to tackle (Weisburd 2016). Previously, Braga and Weisburd (2010) argued that when implemented properly, hot spots policing held great potential to effectively reduce crime while simultaneously improving both legitimacy and police-community relations. While there is some evidence to support these assertions, only a few correlational studies have examined the relationship between hot spot policing and legitimacy (Weisburd and Telep 2014).

The most effective hot spot policing strategies seem to be ones that include elements of focused deterrence strategies as well (Weisburd and Eck 2004). While developed separately from situational approaches, another set of approaches, known as focused deterrence strategies, overlap with elements of situational prevention (Skubak-Tillyer and Kennedy 2008). Beyond the overlap, the two approaches are mutually complementary, as focused deterrence strategies also focus on increasing the risk to offenders and decreasing opportunities for offending. However, they also seek to divert potential offenders through buffering community agents, increasing legitimacy, and changing norms regarding both offending and the risks of offending (Braga 2012; Braga and Weisburd 2012). By focusing on a small number of high-risk individuals or groups, these approaches reduce spillovers of harm to the wider community or society. One example of such a practice is stop-question-frisk (SQF), which, when implemented in a focused way targeting a small number of high-risk hot spots, has a significant impact on reducing crime. However, the way in which officers act during these stops plays an important role in how this policy affects perceptions of procedural justice, fairness, trust, and legitimacy. This suggests that if applied too broadly, the potential benefits of SQF could be offset by harm to legitimacy and thereby lower levels of law abidance and willingness to cooperate. However, it also suggests that such policies can be carried out in a way that maintains effectiveness while reducing implicit harm (Tyler et al. 2014; Weisburd et al. 2015).

When it comes to counter-terrorism, strategies situated within the situational prevention framework such as target hardening have been shown to effectively reduce the likelihood of an attack as well as the lethality of attacks that do occur (Hsu and McDowall 2017; Lum et al. 2006). Access control and screening practices in airports significantly reduced instances of skyjackings and other attacks on aerospace installations. There are clear similarities between airport security measures and other situational approaches such as target hardening more generally (Lum and Koper 2011). Many aspects of modern airport security and situational terrorism prevention strategies have their foundations in the “ring of steel” that was used to successfully prevent and deter attacks by the IRA. These situational approaches are now known to be among the most effective, and least intrusive, of CT policies (Perry et al. 2016). The evidence should alleviate some of the concerns regarding unexpected consequences, such as that terrorists would employ increasingly lethal methods in order to overcome defenses. Rather, with some notable exceptions, terrorist attacks have been increasingly characterized by less lethal modus operandi and weapons. Conversely, CT policies based on increasing punishments, preventative detention, and other criminal justice-based approaches tend to feed a type of “backlash” which is seen to contribute to terrorism (LaFree et al. 2009; Dugan et al. 2005; Landes 1978).

In their systematic review of counter-terrorism approaches, Lum et al. (2006) conclude that there is good evidence to support the effectiveness of target hardening approaches, whereas criminal justice approaches are apparently far less effective and are more likely to be associated with backlash effects. Despite these findings, some have expressed concern that terrorism offenders will simply change tactics in response to STP policies. Some aspects of this argument appear to be substantiated. For example, following the implementation of airport security, terrorists turned their attention to softer targets, such as embassies and other government installations. As these types of targets were increasingly hardened against attacks, terrorists shifted their tactics to focus on attacking government personnel outside of the protected installations and sites. This game of cat and mouse has characterized the history of modern terrorism and counter-terrorism (Rasmussen and Hafez 2010; Nacos 2009; Hoffman 1993; Enders et al. 1992; Faria 2003).

While it would seem that these developments have correlated with an increased frequency of attacks, the overall success and lethality of attacks has been found to have declined (Brandt and Sandler 2010). This would seem to suggest that rather than there being a necessary trade-off or conflict between security effectiveness and human rights, part of the trade-off is actually between effectiveness in one area versus effectiveness in another. This paradox appears to have a parallel argument with respect to human rights, where the balance may not actually be between CT and human rights but between certain rights and others (Kleinig 2011). For example, the right to being free from violence is one that all citizens ought to enjoy, and the right to privacy may theoretically be impinged upon in order to achieve and maintain it. This is why, rather than attempting to balance CT and human rights, CT policies should be selected based on their ability to achieve proportionality – which includes an element of effectiveness – since it is difficult for any policy to not inherently have some negative impact on some right.

The Israeli Case

It is no surprise that Israel has been the focus of much of the counter-terrorism literature, especially with regard to the balance between human rights and security needs (e.g., Hasisi and Weisburd 2014; Weisburd et al. 2009b; Hasisi et al. 2009; Cohen and Dudai 2005). On the one hand, Israel represents a natural laboratory, since it experiences a frequency of terrorism events that hardly exists anywhere else. Secondly, Israel is a democratic country and thus must maintain a certain standard of human rights maintenance. As Freilich (2017) points out, “the percentage of Israel’s population killed by terrorism is higher than in any other democracy” (p.371). As the terrorism threat against democratic countries continues to grow, Israel figures as a prominent leader in CT knowledge, expertise, and policy development whose experience has far-reaching lessons that can be applied to other democratic contexts and settings (Weisburd et al. 2009a).

In the years following Israel’s war of independence, local guerillas carried out hundreds of attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets. Following the 6-day war of 1967, Israel gained control over the area that would come to be referred to as the “West Bank,” Gaza, and the Golan Heights. Maintaining military control over these areas and the ongoing violent conflict with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) has come with a heavy price, as Israel has dealt with an evolving and adaptive terrorism threat from these regions, with every CT move being met with a change in terrorism tactics. The PLO began to launch increasingly audacious attacks in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The most famous attacks were the spate of skyjackings which many scholars identify as the beginnings of the “international terrorism” phenomena (Reference). Indeed, terrorist groups from around the world came to mimic the tactic (Midlarsky et al. 1980; Dugan, LaFree and Piquero 2005). As a result of the aerospace threat, Israel implemented strict security in its airports and travel policies which reduced the aviation terrorist attacks (Hasisi et al. 2012). This policy has attracted a lot of criticism from human right agencies arguing that the security measures in the airport use ethnic and national profiling, mainly toward the Israeli Arab minority and other Arab passengers, and violate human and citizen rights.

In the summer of 2014, Israel experienced a wave of low-intensity lone-wolf attacks in the form of vehicular and stabbing attacks. In addition to the relatively low-tech and newly deployed tactics, security officials identified that the attacks were being spurred, in large part, by online incitement, calls for individual violence, and radicalization. As for prevention measures, immediate steps were taken, and the security apparatus erected bollards, concrete blocks, and other barriers at high-risk locations, especially bus stops. Simultaneously, the intelligence services began to scour social media for possible indicators of intentions to attack. They carried out a campaign of phone calls to families and parents of potential attackers, encouraging them to speak with their family members and children to dissuade them from attacking. Again, cyber monitoring of young high-risk Palestinians attracted criticism from human right agencies arguing that it violates the privacy and increases the risk of criminalization of these young Palestinians (Hirschauge and Shezaf 2017).

The three cases noted above (airport security, measures against “lone actors,” and cyber surveillance) have demonstrable applicability and generalization for other democratic countries. While some of Israel’s experiences with terrorism are quite unique – such as the wave of suicide bombings in the 1990s–2000s and barrages of rockets in more recent times – other trends, such as spates of vehicular attacks – were not limited to Israel. For example, in Europe alone there have been about a dozen vehicular attacks between 2014 and 2017, while similar attacks have occurred in the USA, Canada, and Australia as well. Taking note of Israel’s approach, many countries have erected bollards and other barriers to prevent vehicular terrorism and other types of attacks. In the following sections, we are going to discuss the cases of airport security, situational prevention of vehicular attacks, and the cyber monitoring of high-risk individuals. Within these three cases, we discuss the relationship between the effects of these approaches on human rights concerns and effectiveness.

Airport Screening

The 1960s and 1970s have long been recorded as the era of the skyjacking, a tactic used by terrorists in the early days of the internationalization of terrorism. While skyjackings occurred across the world, Israel stands out as having been one of the primary targets of skyjacking incidents. Skyjackings involving Palestinian militants – most commonly from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – resulted in the successful highjacking of a dozen aircrafts. On the 6th of September, 1970, the PFLP attempted to hijack four separate airliners in the Dawson’s Field incident. The event included the attempted hijacking of El-Al flight 219 which was foiled when Israeli security refused to allow two of the hijackers to board. This success meant that the only successful hijacking on an El-Al flight was the July 23, 1968 incident on flight 426. Israel’s daring counter-terrorism operation on June 27, 1976 in Entebbe has been seen as the nail in the coffin for skyjackings against Israel (Reference). Only two more notable skyjackings against Israel occurred after this event. The CT policies implemented by Israel underscored serious changes to aerospace security policies of the world over. A number of studies have shown that increasing airport security effectively reduced instances of aerospace terror attacks (Enders et al. 1990; Enders and Sandler 1993, 2000).

Among other strategies, Israel implemented an airport screening policy in which all passengers became subject to a high level of checking and questioning. Over the years, Israel’s airport screening developed into a highly targeted profiling approach, which unlike other countries, relied on trained screeners and not on automated systems that are known for their high false-positive rates. Like other countries, Israel’s approach focused on profiling which included ethnic profiling. However, unlike other countries, it placed a greater focus on suspicious behavioral patterns, which were given a higher priority over individual profiles (Seymour 2005). While the profiling method was proven to be highly effective, it was found to have costs to human rights. Passengers who felt they had been profiled reported that it negatively impacted their sense of legitimacy. Israel has therefore sought ways to mitigate this harm while maintaining the effectiveness of its screening policies and procedures.

The Israeli case of airport screening needs to be understood in the context of a general decline in police legitimacy in Israel (Perry and Jonathan-Zamir 2014; Jonathan and Weisburd 2010), which may be an important consideration for other democratic contexts when evaluating different policies and interventions. It is known that police legitimacy and law legitimacy are connected to a willingness to cooperate with police, including with regard to counter-terrorism (Murphy et al. 2018; Madon et al. 2016; Tyler et al. 2010). Previous studies have identified that an exceptionally high percentage of Israel’s Arab minority feel that the police has “criminalized” or “securitized” them (Hasisi and Weitzer 2007; Hasisi and Weisburd 2014). In spite of these feelings, a large proportion of the Israeli Arab minority continues to express a willingness to cooperate with CT policing, acknowledging the importance of the need to combat terrorism (Hasisi and Weisburd 2014).

Israeli airport screening places great focus on maintaining a high level of procedural justice, in part through its nondiscrimination in primary security checks. One of the key components of STP is that it does “not discriminate, instead impacting on all citizens equally” (Clare and Morgan 2009:216). Prior studies examining Israeli airport security practices have found that most passengers, including minorities, have a generally favorable view of procedural justice in airport security measures that they underwent (Hasisi et al. 2012; Hasisi and Weisburd 2011; Jonathan-Zamir et al. 2016a). Nevertheless, procedural justice is one of the greatest predictors of expressing feelings of discrimination at the hands of Israeli airport security. In order to mitigate such harm, Israel recently phased out its open-bag checks in the check-in hall, which were believed to contribute negatively to such outcomes (Hasisi and Weisburd 2011; Hasisi et al. 2012; Jonathan-Zamir et al. 2016a; Risse and Zeckhauser 2004). Starting in 2015, the automated “Hold Baggage Screening” (HBS) process was introduced to replace the check-in hall screening. A recent study by Perry and Hasisi (2018) found that these changes did in fact improve perceptions of procedural justice and fairness and led to a reduction in reports of humiliation. Israel’s airport screening policies are a good example of a CT policy that has been tailored and refined to reduce harm and potential negative consequences without sacrificing effectiveness.

Lone-Actor Attacks: The Case of Vehicular Attacks and Barricades

While situational prevention approaches have been touted for their effectiveness, White (1998) was concerned that situational approaches would invariably target minorities or at least provide them with the least benefits. While this concern may be legitimate in some crime-related contexts, its claims with respect to terrorism appear less relevant. For example, out of 68 vehicular attacks carried out in Israel between 2008 and 2017 (with 80% occurring between 2014 and 2017), about a dozen or so of the victims were Arab, and several more were from the Druze minority. The greatest number of attacks occurred in Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem, which has a largely mixed population and is a center for business and transportation. While the ethnic divide may make some observably orthodox individuals easy to identify, for others this is less so; more than 50% of Israeli Jews are of middle-eastern ancestry. While terrorists generally try to target specific groups, situational prevention approaches make no distinctions as to the identity of the offender and certainly not to the potential victims. As such, situational approaches actually provide a diffusion of benefits that extends to the noncombative populations from which terrorists emerge (Perry et al. 2017b; Yang and Jen 2018; Hsu and Apel 2015).

According to recent studies, 52 vehicular attacks occurred in Israel between 2014 and the first half of 2017. The largest proportion of attacks occurred in December 2015. The attacks were primarily centered in Jerusalem and the West Bank. It was clear that the attacks were occurring primarily at bus stops, where large numbers of pedestrians were idle (Perry et al. 2018, 2019). During the December wave of attacks, the Israeli government commenced erecting numerous bollards and other concrete barriers at major bus stops, train stops, and hitchhiking stations throughout Jerusalem, the West Bank, and elsewhere. While there were a number of attacks that occurred until the completion of the installations in June 2016, the frequency of attacks dropped significantly from the commencement of the first installations. It is notable that in the first half of 2018, there were zero vehicular attacks. While no statistical analysis has yet to be conducted to examine the effectiveness of the strategy, a clear trend is observable that would suggest that the strategy was effective (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Vehicular attacks and bollard installations in Israel during the terrorism wave from December 2014 to mid 2017

While the target hardening of bus stops and hitchhiking stations has been successful in reducing instances of vehicular attacks, the approach also achieves a high level of proportionality. Prior to the implementation of this policy, Israeli security services had shot and killed dozens of attackers. In some cases of other lone-actor terrorism, attackers claimed that these killings contributed to their motivation; in some cases, attackers were relatives or friends of those killed while carrying out vehicular attacks. As such, this strategy was able to achieve a number of successes vis-à-vis vehicular attacks which address key components of both the STP and focused deterrence frameworks: (1) it reduced the attractiveness of the targets and thereby the method of attack, (2) this led to less frequent and less lethal attacks, and (3) it also reduced opportunities for creating new excuses and provocations.

The Internet: A Source of Radicalization and a Window of Opportunity

In recent years, online radicalization has become an increasingly prevalent phenomenon among those who have carried out acts of violence. According to Gill et al. (2017), the Internet’s role in radicalization is inherently tied to situational perspectives, with the online experience being “a two-way, person–situation interactive process.” While the Internet may not be the cause of radicalization, it may be used to facilitate different aspects of offending, including legitimization, recruitment, and planning (Gill et al. 2017). In order to deal with the spread of online radicalization, governments and IT companies have recently stepped up their efforts to remove radicalizing content, pages, and groups. Content removal and access denial can easily be placed within the situational prevention framework, “denying them opportunities for success and for finding followers willing to implement their criminal policies [sic.]” (Schmid 2012). However, Neumann (2013) has referred to content removal as “the least desirable” of counter-online radicalization approaches. Similar to the criticisms of SCP/STP’s potential to result in displacement, content removal can lead to sending radicals into more hard to reach online spaces that aren’t so easily monitored. Moreover, instances of content removal or page takedowns may be used by radical groups as evidence to sympathizers and fence sitters that the “enemy” doesn’t really believe in free speech. As a result, such actions may be used to support radical grievances or be brought as proof of their claims (Weirman and Alexander 2018). Moreover, some believe that engagement in radical online activities may have a possible protective effect for some. Online radicals may feel that they are contributing to the cause through their online activities, and thus by providing a non-violent outlet to voice their grievances, their online behaviors reduce the likelihood that they will engage in violent-extremist, offline behaviors (Barbera 2014; Helmus et al. 2013; Kardas and Özdemir 2018).

In 2015, the Israeli Knesset succeeded in its lobbying of Facebook to remove a small number (about 150) of pages and profiles that the intelligence services had classified as being especially implicated in the online radicalization of a number of lone-wolf terrorists. In 2015, the EU and Europol established the ECTC to refer content for removal by hosting sites (Drewer and Ellermann 2016). It would seem that governments prefer that tech companies take up the responsibility of content removal. Incorporating private business into situational prevention approaches is a pillar of SCP. By pushing the responsibility onto the businesses, governments may be able to alleviate themselves of some of the accusations of restrictions of freedom of speech. The push for greater cooperation does not mean that it didn’t already exist prior to 2015. Indeed, Facebook and YouTube regularly remove radical content, especially based on its flagging system, and Twitter took an active role in removing tens of thousands of pro-ISIS accounts (Weimann 2014, 2016; Weirman and Alexander 2018).

There is of course a need to balance the removal of content with avoiding the stymieing freedom of speech. While some may criticize any and all content removal as impinging on free speech, content which explicitly incites to violence is illegal in Israel and elsewhere and thus is not protected by freedom of speech laws. Even in the USA, where the first amendment may protect such speech, content depicting beheadings and other forms of radical violence may be considered illegal under international humanitarian laws and may therefore be removed on such basis (Fidler 2015). In fact, international norms would dictate that not only is the removal of such content proportional “but arguably required by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” (Shefet 2016:101).

Like any policy, content removal alone will not accomplish much. Previous research indicates that exposure to radical content alone has a low, if not nonsignificant correlation with radical outcomes (Pauwels and Schils 2016; Nivette et al. 2017). However, in conjunction with exposure, being active in using social media to engage in radical content posting and communication is positively correlated with radical cognitive and behavioral outcomes (Pauwels and Schils 2016; Pauwels and Hardyns 2018 Pedersen et al. 2018; Wojcieszak 2009; Bhui et al. 2016). According to the STP concept of “reducing provocations,” Clarke and Newman (2006) included the neutralization of peer pressure and the discouraging of imitation. Research on online radicalization indicates that peer pressure and imitation are two important functions in determining when online radicalization will contribute to violence (Pauwels and Schils 2016). The role of online peers and imitations has also been shown to be among the greatest predictors of involvement in cybercrime and cyber-enabled crime, including other forms of violent crimes. While little is known about the technical side of Israel’s algorithmic approach to detecting potential threats online, what is known is that they often pay special attention to family and friends of those who have committed recent attacks. A number of cases demonstrate that attacks may be closely followed by subsequent attacks carried out by friends and family members.

The online realm is both a source of radicalization and a window of opportunity for preventive actions by security and intelligence forces. However, many of the mass-surveillance strategies that have been undertaken by democratic states have come under much scrutiny (Coppock and McGovern 2014). As a general practice, mass surveillance of online activities impinges on a slew of privacy-related rights, as the European Parliament (2011) itself has both admitted and expressed concern about. In recent years, these practices have also led to the criminalization of activities that would, in normal circumstances, apparently be covered by rights to free speech and expression. Today, many European states arrest individuals for expressing sympathy with terrorists and sometimes even less. These types of strategies carry with them a number of risks: (1) they may negatively affect legitimacy, (2) they may provide legitimacy to radical grievances and claims, and (3) they may displace high-risk radicals and send them underground. The thin line between legitimate security concerns and privacy rights means that online counter-terrorism strategies need to be especially sensitive to the principles of proportionality (Brown and Korff 2009; Argomaniz 2015; Milaj and Bonnici 2014; Loideain 2014). Indeed, citing a lack of proportionality, in 2014 the European Court of Justice declared the 2006 Data Retention Directive to be illegal (Granger and Irion 2014).

During the 2014–2016 wave of lone-wolf terror attacks in Israel, the Internet, and social media in particular, was not only a source of encouragement but a platform on which would-be attackers were expressing their intentions, something which lone-wolf terrorists often do (Gill et al. 2014). However, there are many thousands of radicals expressing highly radical opinions online, and only an exceptionally small percentage are at risk of going on to engage in acts of radical violence (Schmid 2013; Hafez and Mullins 2015). In fact, the types of words and language that one would expect to be used by a would-be terrorist are more likely to be used by non-violent radicals (Shortland 2016), thereby making risk assessments based on the use of keywords and phrases highly susceptible to false positives. In order to take advantage of the virtual window of opportunity while simultaneously trying to avoid impingements on privacy and protected speech, Israel has undertaken a more targeted and focused approach.

The Israeli approach focuses on two elements of STP: integrating deterrence and denial of opportunities with effective identification. In the first instance, this approach recognizes that the relationship between the online and offline worlds is not a dichotomous one. Rather, the online and offline worlds are intertwined and hardly separable. Thus, while the Israeli approach does include content removal, it is very specific to only remove content that is specifically aimed at recruitment or encouragement of lone acts. Secondly, while the full extent of Israel’s cyber capabilities is not known, it is claimed that their algorithm-based tools are among the most sophisticated in use (SIBAT 2015). Israel also uses offline follow-ups in the form of telephone calls and home visits in order to establish the validity of online assessments and provide warnings (The Economist 2017). The warning element of this approach is similar to focused deterrence strategies which have been used in other settings, such as against gang members and drug offenders. Focused deterrence strategies seek to target the smallest number of individuals possible who represent the greatest risk. When warnings of potential risks and consequences are mediated by and reinforced through community members, such as parents, who have greater moral authority and legitimacy, targeted individuals are more likely to take the warnings seriously (Braga and Weisburd 2015).

When used in a mass surveillance setting, even high accuracy automatic detection tools may mean that for every terrorist, there are tens of thousands of false positives (Munk 2017). Based on an analysis of a high-performance algorithm situation, Brumnik et al. (2011) calculate that in order to identify 400 terrorists, there would be 30,000 false positives. The authors suggest that these numbers would mean that mass surveillance using such approaches would have a virtually zero chance of catching an actual terrorist. While there have been reported cases of Palestinians being arrested for online incitement, the number of arrests appears to be exceptionally small compared to those in other countries and relative to the volume of radical content being posted by the at-risk population. While reports indicate that 800 Palestinians were arrested for their online activities (Santos 2018), the Israel Security Agency (ISA) has claimed that this has led to the prevention of some 400 terror attacks (Barnea 2018). With this being the case, Israel’s targeted approach appears to be quite successful, with relatively few non-terrorist arrests compared to what would be predicted. False arrests are often considered to be one of the worst forms of human rights violations in counter-terrorism. They can also have a spillover effect in which news of false arrests negatively impact trust and legitimacy in the wider community. As such, by minimizing false arrests and known privacy intrusions, such a method also guards against human rights violations and minimizes the potential negative impacts that such policies may be exposed to.


In this chapter we discussed some of the issues that exist in balancing security needs with the need to maintain human rights. It has been argued that attempts to create such a balance lead to a “zero-sum game” that has been the source of much criticism of CT policies and which provide for low effectiveness and poor human rights maintenance. A legalistic approach based on the principles of proportionality appears to provide a more suitable framework and provides for the ability to more effectively qualify and quantify when a particular policy is meeting its obligations. While criminological perspectives often focus on risk, CT policies must consider their implications on larger segments of the population and potential backlash effects. While not without their criticisms, CT policies stemming from situational prevention-based approaches, especially when coupled with elements of focused deterrence strategies, are inherently less discriminatory and in some cases totally nondiscriminatory. Such approaches not only avoid creating the excuses and provocations that may contribute to backlash, but they inherently meet a high level of proportionality since they do not specifically impinge on individual rights. Moreover, the empirical evidence suggests that such approaches are among the most proven and effective of CT strategies, further demonstrating that achieving effectiveness and human rights maintenance need not be a zero-sum game.

In this chapter we discussed three different counter-terrorism strategies which demonstrate a high level of effectiveness while maintaining proportionality. In the case of airport security, whose effectiveness can hardly be challenged, it was identified that open-bag checks in front of other passengers were a source of implicit harm. As such, recent policy changes have done away with this practice and replaced it with less invasive methods. Evidence suggests that these changes have had a positive effect. In the second case, in responding to a spate of vehicular attacks, target hardening effectively reduced the frequency of incidents. By focusing on the targets rather than potential attackers, this approach avoided discrimination and reduced the risk for excuses and provocations. Lastly, the use of the Internet as a tool of surveillance against potential terrorist threats has been a topic of concerns for both researchers and policy makers. While little is known about the inner workings of how security services are conducting Internet-based surveillance, there are legitimate concerns relating to privacy and human rights. The numbers indicate that Israel has been highly successful in leveraging Internet surveillance to prevent attacks, and the number of alleged false arrests is well below that which would be predicted. That Israel continues to allow even highly radical content to exist and focuses only on identifying legitimate threats illustrates its efforts to maintain proportionality without sacrificing effectiveness. As such, across these examples we found a common denominator, namely, a high degree of effectiveness while meeting the tests of proportionality and reducing harm to human rights.

The policies described in this chapter in the case of Israel also demonstrate a wider application of situational-based approaches, focused deterrence, and high proportionality in a context in which terrorist events are quite frequent and the political arena highly sensitive. Empirical evidence lends support to the effectiveness of the strategies discussed here, each of which can be shown to have been developed within the proportionality framework and with human maintenance in mind. While virtually all CT policies are bound to impinge on some of the rights of some individuals or segments of a population, following a proportionality principle can lead to more carefully crafted CT policies that can also be highly effective. Despite what the design of some CT policies may suggest, the effective prevention of terror attacks doesn’t require large, sweeping generalizations or profiling. In fact, evidence suggests that these approaches are relatively unsuccessful. On the one hand, they place great demand on limited resources and capabilities. On the other hand, they may add to, or even cause grievances that contribute to radicalization, either directly or through the diminishing of trust and legitimacy. While reactionary, high-policing-based approaches certainly have their time and place, these approaches should be avoided as a standard practice wherever possible. The issue is that there is a difference between anti-terrorism and terrorism prevention approaches, both of which fall under the umbrella of CT but which entail entirely different strategies and seemingly serve different purposes. It would seem that the need for so-called trade-offs may be overstated as situational approaches may even increase legitimacy, in turn contributing to the willingness of the general population to cooperate in CT efforts.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Institute of Criminology, Faculty of LawHebrew University of JerusalemMount ScopusIsrael

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