Anticipating the Gaza-Driven Terrorism Surge

The Oct. 7 attack and Israeli response has increased the threat of international attacks. The United States needs to consider how it will respond.

Hamas militants participate in a parade in Gaza in Nov. 2011.

Editor’s Note: The Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attack and the Israeli response are raising the risk of anti-U.S. terrorism. The University of Washington’s Steve Simon and International Institute for Strategic Studies’s Jonathan Stevenson describe the growing danger and argue the United States should be vigilant against the threat but careful to avoid any overreaction, even if there is a successful terrorist attack. – Daniel Byman

The Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attack and ensuing war in Gaza have reanimated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a driver of global Islamic militancy. In December, German and Dutch authorities arrested four members of a Hamas cell plotting to attack European Jewish institutions, and several recent attackers have cited the war as the motive for their actions. The Israel-Hamas War and related hostilities seem likely to inspire terrorist operations against U.S. interests beyond the Middle East—and could target the U.S. homeland. In preparing its response, the U.S. government must consider that the country already faces domestic extremist threats that are challenging federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies and avoid a militarized reaction to transnational terrorism that could increase terrorist recruitment while diverting intelligence resources.

It should come as little surprise that some members of Hamas are expanding to out-of-area operations or that jihadism in general is reacquiring transnational scope. U.S. support for Israel has been cited by extremists as a motive for attacks in the United States at least since Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and it has been a feature of Islamist extremists’ propaganda since before 9/11.

The Oct. 7 attack and subsequent war have given new salience to this historical driver of terrorism. Late last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that jihadist terrorist threats had reached “historic levels” not seen since the Islamic State launched its caliphate in 2014. As of Jan. 24, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) had uncovered a dozen sermons by imams supporting the Oct. 7 attack in California alone, one anointing Muslims “the new Nazis” and another exhorting them to “annihilate the Zionists.” The Islamic State and al-Qaeda are exploiting Muslim anger over Israel’s indiscriminate retaliation in Gaza to energize crowdfunding efforts.

And it’s not just Sunni militants that are worrisome. Earlier this month, U.S. intelligence officials warned that the “wider war” percolating in the Middle East could prompt Hezbollah—the most capable non-state armed group in the world—to launch attacks on U.S. soldiers or diplomats overseas, and potentially the U.S. homeland.

For the United States, this renewed threat could not come at a worse moment. When jihadism reared its head on 9/11, at least the United States did not face major risks of terrorist attacks from other sources, such as domestic extremists. As of early 2021, federal authorities considered the domestic threat to pose the country’s gravest extremist problem. And they are finding it very difficult to contain owing to far-right sympathies among state and local agencies, and to a lesser degree even federal agencies themselves, while Republicans in Congress have been reluctant to target presumptive supporters. With Donald Trump the far right’s main champion and inspiration and now the prohibitive favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, domestic extremists are likely to become even more dangerous and disruptive. As the Jan. 6 insurrection and his inflammatory rhetoric since then have demonstrated, Trump has no compunction about fomenting large-scale violence to advance his own political interests.

A major resurgence of transnational terrorism would therefore place U.S. counterterrorism capabilities under extraordinary stress. It is hard even for well-resourced law enforcement and intelligence agencies to deal simultaneously with two discrete terrorist threat streams. In the 1990s, the United States had a tough enough time dealing with domestic white supremacist and anti-government threats that peaked with the Oklahoma City bombing and an established Shiite terrorist threat, never mind a rising Sunni one. America was hardly alone. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) distracted the United Kingdom from fully appreciating rising jihadist threats. The Basque separatists of Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) skewed Spain’s threat perceptions to the extent that Spanish authorities initially attributed the 2004 Madrid train bombings to ETA rather than jihadists, the actual culprits.

In the near term, President Biden will be firming up U.S. defenses against Hamas-inspired attacks. The fewer that succeed, the less politicized the counterterrorism mission and the more stable the American polity will be. But, as the IRA observed after it had narrowly missed killing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1984 Brighton bombing, the aggressor just needs to be lucky once whereas the defender needs to be lucky all the time. The odds are that terrorists are going to pull off a significant attack at some point—probably not a 9/11, but possibly an operation on the order of the 2016 Orlando nightclub attack. When that happens, it will be crucial for U.S. officials and private citizens alike to keep level heads and, remembering the lessons of 9/11, not allow painful attacks on Americans to transmogrify into another generationally costly “war” on terror that might only inspire and multiply jihadists. Counter-radicalization—an underappreciated and underdeveloped tool—should be given more attention and applied mainly to U.S.-based Muslims who could become sufficiently motivated to launch attacks in the United States.

In the foreign-policy domain, Washington should not let rising threats, or actual attacks, stemming from the war in Gaza affect the U.S.-Israel relationship one way or the other. Israel will be inclined to claim that any possible attack—successful or thwarted—shows that the United States and Israel have a shared interest and are both under siege from fanatics because together they represent the forces of civilization. Such arguments should not be allowed to lash the United States to Israeli policies that do not serve American strategic interests in regional stability and avoiding wider war. At the same time, the United States should not give in to Hamas’s attempts to coerce it through terrorism into distancing itself from Israel, which would afford a terrorist organization a strategic victory.

The upshot is that U.S. authorities should treat Hamas-inspired domestic attacks that do occur strictly as state and federal crimes. This was the United States’ approach in the 2000s, and it worked well despite 9/11, which resulted partly from insufficiencies in interagency coordination and homeland security defenses that have since been remedied. Even in the case of a terrorist operation directed by Hamas out of Gaza, Doha, or a safe haven elsewhere, Washington should avoid immersing itself in the war in Gaza. Instead, it should seek and, if necessary, facilitate the capture and extradition of the perpetrators. This would mean intensified liaison among the law enforcement and intelligence agencies of the United States, Israel, and the frontline Arab states, and perhaps in rare cases surgical “prisoner snatch” operations involving U.S. special forces coordinating with their regional counterparts. These parameters broadly reflect those that the United States established as the militarized phase of the post-9/11 global counterterrorism campaign wound down, and the corresponding reduction in out-of-area jihadist attacks suggests they make for an effective deterrent.

Diplomatic and political efforts should complement hard counterterrorism measures. Notwithstanding polls of Israelis and Palestinians showing declining interest in a two-state solution, the grievances that underlie Hamas’s hostility may be more amenable to redress than those that have propelled transnational jihadist groups. In its lethality and ferocity, the Oct. 7 attack resembled an al-Qaeda or Islamic State operation, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enthusiastically made the comparison. But Hamas differs crucially from transnational jihadist groups. It has open state support, specifically espouses the plausible goal of Palestinian nationalism, has no global agenda, and does not regard the United States as a primary enemy. Even if some in Hamas might have hoped—it appears in vain—that the Oct. 7 operation would trigger a wider regional war, at this point it does not seem to have been the opening salvo of a coordinated cross-sectarian assault on U.S. interests.

In this light, Hamas may assess that the Oct. 7 attack has served the purpose of reinvigorating the Palestinian cause and be content to watch the carnage in Gaza prompt self-starting militants, or those with other affiliations, to out-of-area action. To reduce the war’s inspirational effect, and counteract the Israeli government’s cynical and failed policy of discreetly nurturing Hamas’s viability as a pretext for dismissing political settlement, Washington should stay focused on, and keep discussing, political means of addressing Palestinian grievances even when, as now, they may seem infeasible. This is part and parcel of heeding the overarching lesson of 9/11: keeping cool.

Steven Simon, Jonathan Stevenson, Published courtesy of Lawfare

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