Police officers standing in front of the Manchester Arena in England, where a suspected suicide bomber killed at least 22 people on May 23. Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images

Rooting out extremism is an evolving battle

Less than a week before the May 22 attack at a concert in Manchester, England, I returned from a 10-day fact-finding trip to Europe on countering violent extremism.  

It is tragic that the trip, organized by the U.S. State Department, proved to be so timely. But I gained insights that helped me process and confront the all-too-frequent tragedies like Manchester. Despite countries’ differences in approaches, the core takeaways were consistent:  

1. “You can’t investigate your way out of this.” — A representative of New Scotland Yard SO15 (the London Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command)

Using only a criminal lens — surveillance, investigation, disruption, prosecution, etc. — limits the success of law enforcement in identifying threats. Our delegation heard from law enforcement and government officials across the spectrum that the most important tool in their kit is the trust of those communities most vulnerable to extremism.

Community-based organizations are essential to this strategy. The more robust the civic fabric, the greater the sense of social cohesion; the more people see themselves as having a stake and a voice in society, the less rationale there is for attacking the system. Communities most vulnerable are not blind to the problem in their midst. When engaged and supported as partners (not potential threats), they often will identify ways to address the problems with a greater cultural literacy and legitimacy than any government or law enforcement official could ever bring.

2. “Safeguarding against extremism is no different than safeguarding against drugs, gangs and sex trafficking. It’s out there and we want you to be able to protect yourselves from it.”— Prevent instructor to British students

Messaging matters. Great Britain’s Prevent program — a centralized governmental effort to safeguard against violent extremism — still suffers from a faulty launch that undermined its effectiveness. Many people perceived its focus to be solely on the Muslim community and treating the community as criminals in waiting.

By shifting to a message of safeguarding people vulnerable to recruitment by extremists and making it clear the program addresses all forms of extremism, Britain is just now starting to repair the perception and increase trust, though one nonprofit leader articulated concerns that the “horse has already left the barn” and that the program always will be tainted by the bad branding of its faulty launch.

Community leaders and parents need to know that when they have concerns about their kids or friends radicalizing, they will be given the intervention and help they need. The collaboration of mental health professionals, schools, faith communities and other community-based organizations are essential partners in identifying people who are at risk of or already on the path to radicalizing. Understanding this kind of violence as a public health issue can help engage a broader network of partners in the fight.

3. “Targeting Muslims is counterproductive. You have to identify extremist behavior.”  — Horace Frank, Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief of counterterrorism

Focusing exclusively on Muslims undermines the relationships needed in the Muslim community to identify and uproot real ISIS-inspired threats. It also ignores a rising statistical threat from extremist right-wing nationalists.

Nearly 20 percent of referrals for suspicious behavior in England are for right-wing extremism. While one might think that’s because the problem is grossly over-reported, about 10 percent of those serving time in prison for terrorism-related charges are radical right-wing nationalists.

In our American context, Muslim organizations correctly claim they are more likely to be on the receiving end of a violent hate crime than guilty of committing one. When law enforcement is present to protect minorities, it builds trust in those communities.

Like many Jewish institutions in Los Angeles, some local mosques received threats of violence in recent months. Those threats against the mosques were credible. Police arrested an Agoura Hills man with an arsenal of weapons and a plan to attack. The way that law enforcement stood with Muslim community leaders in that moment reflected the deep relationship-building that has happened for years at the local level.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric at the national level has framed violent extremism as an exclusively Muslim problem. It undermines the extraordinary work that has happened locally between Muslim leaders and law enforcement. Many Muslim organizations have built sophisticated programs to safeguard their communities from ISIS-inspired extremism.

But some are now having second thoughts about moving forward with these programs or are considering outright rejection of federal funds to support their work. This is not because they no longer think it is needed. They fear the money will come with problematic strings attached or that it may undermine their internal legitimacy for collaborating with those who amplify anti-Muslim sentiment. Local trust-building can go only so far in the midst of a toxic national conversation.

4. Despite our best efforts, governments now treat acts of violent extremism as a question of when, not whether, they will happen.  

Part of the holistic approach to this work also includes effective disaster response that can help contain the impact and lessen the casualties. In the aftermath of Manchester, there will be new lessons learned in this ever-evolving battle.

I also returned from the delegation with three lessons on how the Jewish community can be on the front lines of safeguarding against extremism.

First, our community must become more nuanced in our relationship with the Muslim community. The more integrated the Muslim community is in America, the less ISIS-inspired extremism can take hold here. We isolate and reject mainstream Muslim leaders at our own peril. Undermining these leaders empowers extremists who think ISIS is fundamentally right about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. If you care about ISIS-inspired terrorism, then you also should care about fending off Islamophobia. We can and should disagree fiercely with our Muslim counterparts about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And we should not be afraid to call out when we see rhetoric cross the line into anti-Semitism. But isolation and exclusion feed the narrative of extremists. This is not merely a progressive talking point — it is a best practice from among the most experienced law enforcement professionals and government officials in the world.

Second, language matters. We must apply consistent rhetoric when speaking about various forms of extremism. The shooter at the AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and the thwarted attacker on the Los Angeles mosques are extremists just as much as the shooters in San Bernardino.

As part of this strategy of thoughtful language, I now will refrain from using the term Islamism when referring to extremism that emerges cloaked in religious garb. While this term seeks to differentiate ISIS and al-Qaida from Islam proper, it still retains the association that violence is inherent to Islam. I take my cue from a former Department of Homeland Security employee who uses the terminology “ISIS-inspired” or “al-Qaida-inspired” to refer to this kind of extremism. It ensures both that we avoid vilifying Islam and that we make it harder for vulnerable Muslim kids to see ISIS as a legitimate expression of Islam.  

Third, the great work of Jewish organizations in mental health, social services, refugee assistance and interfaith collaboration — from Jewish Family Service to NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change to HIAS — are going to be on the front lines of safeguarding against extremism in American society. They do this by serving the vulnerable in our midst, spotting potential issues before they become credible threats, and by modeling for other minority communities with less developed infrastructures.  

The Los Angeles mayor’s office frames this work as “building healthy communities.” The Jewish community has tremendous experience and expertise to contribute on this front. This week has taught us we have no choice but to work even harder toward our goal. 

Terror attacks have dropped considerably in recent weeks, Shin Bet says

There has been a “considerable decline” in the number of terror attacks committed by Palestinians in recent weeks, the Shin Bet security service told the Israeli Cabinet.

The number of attacks described as “significant” also has seriously declined, according to the Shin Bet, which reported 20 in March, compared to 78 last October, and three in April.

The main reason for the decline, according to the agency, is Israel’s counterterrorist operation. In a statement about the Shin Bet presentation released by the Prime Minister’s Office following the Cabinet meeting on Sunday, the Shin Bet cited the operation against Hamas, “which significantly increased its efforts to carry out attacks during this period (including abductions and suicide attacks), effective deterrent measures to prevent additional attacks and determined action against Palestinian incitement.”


“All of these were in the context of an effort not to disrupt the fabric of life of a majority of the Palestinian population, which is not involved in terrorism, and to continue cooperation with the Palestinian security services,” the statement said.

The effective preventative measures have “left a sense among the Palestinian public (especially lone terrorists) that escalation is useless,” according to the Shin Bet.

Since the beginning of the escalation of Palestinian terror attacks beginning on Oct. 1, Palestinian terrorists have committed some 270 significant terrorist attacks, the Shin Bet said, and attempted attacks including shootings, stabbings and vehicular attacks, leading to the deaths of 29 Israelis and four foreign nationals, including two Americans. Some 250 civilians have been wounded.

Most of the attacks have been isolated and carried out by youth. While some had nationalistic motives, the Shin Bet said, most were due to economic or personal hardship. In addition, “terrorist organizations, especially Hamas, have been trying in recent months to carry out major attacks” in the West Bank and in Israel proper “in order to accelerate the escalation,” according to the Shin Bet.

The Shin Bet said it and other security services have foiled over 290 significant attacks since the beginning of 2015 — most in the past six months —  including 25 abductions and 15 suicide attacks. The last fatal attack was a month ago.

Intel changes, public awareness needed to prevent Paris-like attack in US

The series of terrorist attacks that killed at least 129 in Paris pose a couple of major challenges for the United States, Jewish officials and security experts said.

The challenges: security threats from the the 200 or so Islamic State fighters who have returned to the United States, and moral questions surrounding America’s absorption of Syrian war refugees.

The key takeaway from Friday’s attacks, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, is that the plotters managed to organize the terror wave in the French capital undetected by Western intelligence, said John Cohen, who until 2014 was a top intelligence official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“We need to come to realization that as robust as they are, our intelligence community is not picking up on threats,” said Cohen, now the senior adviser at the Rutgers University Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security.

John Brennan, the CIA director, said that backlash over the scope of intelligence gathering after the 9/11 attacks had eroded the intelligence community’s surveillance capabilities, with rollbacks in eavesdropping coming as a result of revelations by former National Security Agency contractor and whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

“In the past several years, because of a number of unauthorized disclosures and a lot of hand wringing over the government’s role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists, there have been some policy and legal and other actions that are taken that make our ability — collectively, internationally — to find these terrorists much more challenging,” Brennan told the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank on Monday.

There is evidence suggesting that one of the attackers involved in the Paris attacks may have arrived under the guise of being a refugee, and that the planner, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian citizen, was a returned fighter from the war zone in Syria and Iraq.

Yet as in the wake of previous attacks in Europe, security experts said the United States does not face the same challenges.

In a New York Times Op-Ed on Sunday, Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin, both top former Obama administration national security officials, outlined the differences: Far fewer fighters have returned from ISIS territory to the United States and are easier to monitor, and refugees, flooding the shores of Europe in cramped boats, arrive in far smaller numbers to the United States and after a rigorous screening process.

“Counterterrorism often boils down to a search for a few individuals, and the chaos surrounding the flood of refugees — a record 218,000 entered the European Union just last month — has exacerbated the difficulty of keeping track of such incoming security threats,” Simon and Benjamin wrote in their Op-Ed.

“But the United States doesn’t have this problem,” they wrote. “Pretty much anyone coming to the United States from Middle Eastern war zones or the radical underground of Europe would need to come by plane, and, since 9/11, we have made it tough for such people to fly to the United States.”

Additionally, tracking the approximately 200 fighters who have returned to the United States is easier than monitoring the 2,000-3,000 who are estimated to have returned to Europe, where borders are porous and intelligence agencies do not always cooperate.

Cohen identified an element common to both the U.S. and European arenas: the radicalization of indigenous Muslims. Several of the eight attackers in Paris were natives of France and Belgium, and perpetrators of recent mass attacks in the United States — including those behind the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood in Texas — were immigrants of long standing.

Cohen said that U.S. and European law enforcement needed to create more intimate relationships with Muslim communities from which potential terrorists might emerge.

“The first thing that national authorities need to recognize is that an important part of our approach dealing with the threat does not involve them alone, it involves working with local police more robustly,” he said.

Cohen referred to reports that Omar Mostefai, one of the suspected attackers in the Paris attack, was a petty criminal from a dysfunctional family. He dropped off the French intelligence radar after authorities deemed his involvement with extremists not to be a threat. Cohen said local authorities should have engaged the Muslim community and mental health officials to reel the young man back in.

“We have to have the ability when we find people to match that behavioral profile to engage educators and mental health professionals,” he said.

The Paris attack showed terrorists willing to attack a broad cross-section of society, beyond the targeted attacks on Jews and secularists of previous attacks.

Experts suggested emulating in the broader community the heightened awareness of potential threats in the Jewish and other vulnerable communities. Attacks by loners and groups almost always involve advance reconnoitering, which would be noticeable to the trained eye.

Paul Goldenberg, the director of Secure Community Network, the security arm of national Jewish umbrella groups, identified possible “force multipliers” in Paris who may have spotted trouble had they been trained to do so — among them ticket sellers and ushers at the soccer stadium and the concert hall that came under attack.

“At the concert, if the individuals taking the tickets and working the front door were trained for an hour or two just to see what looks suspicious and did not hesitate to call the police, the outcome might have been different,” Goldenberg said.

Cohen praised Amtrak for its comprehensive security training of staff and for posting pervasive notices to passengers to be aware of suspicious objects. Other private sector industries, including hotels, shopping centers and entertainment venues, could emulate Amtrak’s model, he said.

A number of Jewish organizations have expressed concern by the spate of governors, most of them Republicans, who have vowed not to provide services to war refugees from Syria. The Obama administration has said it would take in 10,000 over the next year.

“The Jewish community is particularly affected by the images of men, women and children forced to flee their homes only to find they are unwanted anyplace else,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement. “Many of these refugees are fleeing the same terrorists who perpetrated the horrendous attacks on Paris.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was among the first on Monday to say he would not accept refugees.

“Texas will not accept any Syrian refugees & I demand the U.S. act similarly,” he said on Twitter. “Security comes first.”

A number of Jewish groups joined 81 organizations on Tuesday in sending a letter to every member of Congress urging them not to reduce intake of Syrian refugees.

“To turn our back on refugees would be to betray our nation’s core values,” said the letter, which was signed by the ADL, the American Jewish Committee, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Union for Reform Judaism, among other groups. “It would send a demoralizing and dangerous message to the world that the United States makes judgments about people based on the country they come from and their religion.”

Mark Hetfield, the director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which initiated the letter and is working to settle some of the refugees, noted that unlike the flood in Europe, the United States is accepting refugees only after extensive screening.

“These are all vetted, carefully interviewed applicants,” Hetfield said. “There are easier ways for a terrorist to get into this country.”

U.S. police officials study counterterrorism in Israel

Counterterrorism officials from five U.S. cities met with their counterparts in Israel.

Ten officials from five major cities — New York; Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; Austin, Texas; and Houston — met in mid-October with representatives of Israel's police, the Jerusalem Post reported. The tour focused on “technological and operational advances in counterterrorism,” according to the American Jewish Committee's Project Interchange, which organized the tour.

Separately, the New York Police Department now has a branch in Israel.

The branch is located within the Kfar Saba police station in the Sharon District and is designed to maintain a working relationship with the Israeli police force, Al-Monitor reported in September.

Charlie Ben-Naim, a former Israeli citizen who had been a detective on the New York police force, will man the station by himself, the report said.

The goal of the satellite office is to fight terrorism.

The New York Police Department also has offices in England, Germany and Canada.

State terrorism report praises Israel, counts settler attacks as terror

The U.S. State Department’s annual report on terrorism said Hamas and Hezbollah continued to destabilize the Middle East, described Israel as a “resolute” partner in counterterrorism and listed as “terrorist incidents” extremist settler attacks on Palestinians.

“Both Hamas and Hezbollah continued to play destabilizing roles in the Middle East,” said the executive summary of the report for 2011, which was released on Tuesday.

Much of the summary, which highlights what the authors believe to be the report’s most salient points, was devoted to al-Qaida, and it led with the assassination last year by U.S. forces of the group’s founder, Osama bin Laden.

Turning to the Middle East, the summary said Hezbollah’s “robust relationships with the regimes in Iran and Syria, involvement in illicit financial activity, continued engagement in international attack planning, and acquisition of increasingly sophisticated missiles and rockets continued to threaten U.S. interests in the region.”

The report also stated: “Meanwhile, Hamas retained its grip on Gaza, where it continued to stockpile weapons that pose a serious threat to regional stability. Moreover, Hamas and other Gaza-based groups continue to smuggle weapons, material, and people through the Sinai, taking advantage of the vast and largely ungoverned territory.”

The country report on Israel was unusually robust in its praise, for the first time describing Israel as a “resolute counterterrorism partner,” and noting, for instance, Israel’s cooperation with the international community in tracking financing for terrorists.

The country report also unequivocally listed settler attacks on Palestinians as “terrorist incidents,” scrubbing distinctions in previous reports between “settler violence” and terrorism. It listed several arson attacks on mosques that are believed to have been made by settlers.

The report continued to again list Kahane Chai, an extremist settler group, as a designated terrorist group, as well as five Palestinian groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and two affiliates of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The report listed four state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.

“Iran was known to use the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and terrorist insurgent groups to implement its foreign policy goals, provide cover for intelligence operations, and support terrorist and militant groups,” it said.

It also noted that Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups continued to headquarter in Damascus, adding that Hamas left toward the end of 2011 because of the surging unrest in that country.

In listing American victims of terrorism last year, the report noted that one American was killed in Jerusalem on Sept. 23 and one was injured in Tel Aviv on Aug. 19.

Israeli appointed to top U.N. counterrorism position

An Israeli who worked as a government attorney was appointed a leader in the United Nations Security Council’s counterterrorism effort.

David Scharia was tapped as the legal coordinator for the Counter-Terrorism Committee executive directorate, and will head up a team of 12 international legal experts who advise the Security Council.

He becomes the only Israeli serving in a top senior security position in the U.N., according to reports citing Israeli and U.N. officials.

[Related: At least 7 Israelis reported killed, dozens injured in Bulgarian terror attack]

Of the more than 44,000 international employees within the United Nations, some 124 are Israeli, the Washington Post reported, citing U.N. figures.

Scharia served as the Israeli attorney general’s chief attorney for counterterrorism cases before the Israeli Supreme Court. In 2005 he became a legal adviser to the Security Council’s counterterrorism executive directorate.

The Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee, which was established after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, helps U.N. member states combat terrorism from within and outside of their borders and promotes cooperation between countries.

Senators chide Clinton on Israel’s exclusion from counterterrorism forum

U.S. Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Mark Kirk have written a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing their disappointment with Israel’s exclusion from the inaugural meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum.

In the letter, Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) told Clinton that “there are few countries in the world that have suffered more from terrorism than Israel, and few governments that have more experience combating this threat than that of Israel.”

“One of the stated missions of the GCTF is to ‘provide a needed venue for national [counterterrorism] officials and practitioners to meet with their counterparts from key countries in different regions to share [counterterrorism] experiences, expertise, strategies, capacity needs and capability-building programs.’ We strongly believe that Israel would both benefit from, and contribute enormously to, this kind of exchange,” Lieberman and Kirk wrote. 

Israel had not been invited to the forum allegedly due to objections by Turkey, which also blocked Israel’s participation in the recent NATO summit in Chicago.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told the Times of Israel that the Israeli government will participate in working groups formed by the forum, and said that Israel had not been planning on attending the meeting.

The rift between Israel and Turkey has been ongoing since the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010. Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens during a hostile exchange after the ship tried to run Israel’s Gaza maritime blockade.

Kirk, who suffered a stroke in January, is still recovering in Chicago, while Lieberman is completing his final term as a U.S. senator.

Roman Holiday

On Yom Kippur, my wife Sally and I went to shul just around the corner from the Vatican. It was a visit we will not soon forget. The imposing Comunita Ebraica di Roma Synagogue (the Great Synagogue of Rome) sits just off the Piazza del Firori close to the Tiber River and spitting distance from Vatican City across the river in one direction, and Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum in the other.

We arrived to find an armed camp. With the Middle East coming to a boil again, the shul was a counter-terrorist fortress. Separated from the traffic off the main boulevard by metal barriers, every single side street was blocked by police cars and more barriers. A large contingent of carabinieri (antiterrorist police) toting Uzis and plainclothes men in sun glasses with walkie-talkies patrolled the perimeter. We were told that even when there is no trouble in Israel there are around-the-clock guards on the Rome synagogue, but Yom Kippur was a day for special alertness.

Pedestrian access to the sanctuary was through one narrow gate manned by plain clothes guards who inspected our passports and subjected us to a short interview. What were we doing in Rome? Where were we staying? Why did we want to visit the synagogue?

Women who brought their purses had them emptied. A canvas booth, like those El Al uses at airports, stood nearby for more detailed inspections.

Once inside, everything was as it presumably always is for the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The interior of this magnificent Sephardic sinagoga is impressive. Friezes of gold-painted palm trees adorn the walls, the floors are marble and the bimah – at the front of the sanctuary rather than in the middle – is approached by a wide, elegant staircase. The Torah scrolls sit dressed in gold breast plates and crowns in an aron kodesh behind high, carved wooden doors and screened from the congregation by heavy white satin curtains.

Of course all this magnificnce is downstairs where the men sit. Upstairs, the women are isolated behind face-high metal grilles on shabby, uncomfortable steel chairs with worn leather seats resting on bare concrete.

Downstairs, tiny Italian school boys with mini tallesim were carried onto the bimah by fathers granted an aliyah to participate fully in the service, while upstairs their mothers and sisters strained to catch a view.A shammes in top hat, white tie, tails and sneakers rushed busily up and down, kibbitizing and handing out the aliyah cards to selected congregants. He didn’t seem to do a lot of praying. He wouldn’t have had the time.

The crowd was sparse when we arrived at mid-morning, but the pews began filling up slowly as the hour grew later. An American lawyer, who has lived in Rome for a dozen years, told me congregants know the times of specific services and come for those rather than sit all day. What else is new?

Fortunately the day was cool. The expatriate American told me when the weather is hot, the shul has no air conditioning and things can get a little uncomfortable.

The dress code was a lot more relaxed than it would be in an American Orthodox synagogue, and certainly less formal than in the English synagogues of my youth. There were older men in business suits, but many wore trendy Italian sports clothes as for a day at the Lido; some even wore jeans. Few of the women wore hats.

There are between 30,000 to 40,000 Jews in Italy, and 15,000 of them are in Rome. As a community, they have had troubled relations with their neighbors over the centuries. In the 16th century, Pope Paul IV segregated the Jews of Rome behind a wall into a ghetto, a neighborhood where many of the Jews still live. Four centuries later, members of the community were shipped from Rome, where their ancestors had lived for generations, to perish in concentration camps.

The current occupant of the Throne of St. Peter, Pope John Paul II, made the short drive across the bridge from the Vatican in April 1986 to step into the history books as the first pope ever to set foot in the Rome synagogue.

But despite the pope’s apparently sincere desire to be closer to bring Jews and Catholics closer, this is not an easy time to be Jewish anywhere in Europe. France, with a large Arab population, has had scores of incidents during the past month; Italy, too. The short flight from the Middle East brings large Arab immigrant and student populations to many major towns in both countries. Synagogues and Jewish groups everywhere in the country are on high alert.

We found the synagogue of Siena at the bottom of a narrow alleyway just steps from the Piazza del Campo, site of the famous twice yearly Palio horse race. The inevitable police car with two armed officers inside was backed up to the entrance 24 hours a day.

A nondescript facade hides a beautiful neoclassical sanctuary from the 18th century. The interior has been restored, except for the ladies’ gallery, which is in disrepair. Consequently, women are now allowed to sit downstairs on one side of the sanctuary.

The synagogue’s prize possession is a beautiful walnut inlaid “Chair of Elijah” used in the Sephardic circumcision ritual. Alas, brit milah are few and far between these days. There are only 55 Jews left in Siena, but four boys are currently preparing for their Bar Mitzvah. The congregation is served by a rabbi who comes from Florence, some 40 miles away, to the walled city for special events, but minyans gather only when a member manages to personally call enough men together to help him pray. There are no Shabbat services.

Outside, two plaques commemorate congregants lost in two Holocausts – the 20th century one and a pogrom from 1790 when a local priest unleashed his ire.

Nothing has really changed, I guess. It was never easy to be a Jew in Europe.

Tours of the Siena synagogue are conducted several times a week. The times of English language tours of the synagogue are posted weekly on the front door.