The killing of three Israeli soldiers by an Egyptian border guard on June 3, and the May 9 shooting spree on the Mediterranean island of Djerba, in which a Tunisian naval guard killed three people (two Jews, one of them Israeli, with the third being a colleague) and wounded 10, fit into the wider phenomenon of “lone wolf” terrorism but also possess unique markers, according to former Israeli defense official.
(The terrorists in both these cases were shot dead; one by Israeli forces and the second by Tunisian security guards.)
According to Col. (res.) Shaul Shay, who served as the deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council and is today a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, one of the major differences is that in the case of rogue soldiers who target Israeli and Jews, the ideological motivation behind the attack is often not acknowledged.
When terrorist-soldiers who target Israel are captured and tried in their own countries, authorities tend to fall back on the insanity explanation. said Shay.
Individuals who carry out attacks on their own, without officially being part of terror organizations, have become known as “lone wolf” terrorists.
“This means that a person decides to conduct a terror attack and works independently, and is not part of an organization. No organization decides the character and timing of the attack. Only the terrorist decides that. This is a very widespread phenomenon, unfortunately,” said Shay.
The “crazy soldier” excuse “solves many problematic questions about the real motive” behind these attacks, and also “how it is possible that security forces did not detect the threat. It’s a convenient one-size fits all explanation,” said Shay.
“In most cases I checked, the attackers were not crazy but acted due to religious extremism, and were influenced by events in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict,” said Shay, who is due to publish a research paper on the topic.
One key difference between the rogue-soldier terrorists and their civilian lone-wolf counterparts is that the former have undergone organized training in the use of firearms, said Shay.
“All ‘crazy soldier’ incidents use standard firearms, usually Kalashnikovs, or M-16s in Jordan’s case, unlike lone-wolf terrorists who usually use a vehicle, a knife, or in a minority of cases improvised semiautomatic firearms,” said Shay. As a result, rogue-soldier attacks tend to be much more lethal.
Furthermore, rogue soldiers are in a better position than civilian lone-wolf terrorists to carefully choose their targets, and are also familiar with operational routines on the Israeli side of the border, enabling them to optimally time their attacks, he said.
The threat is further compounded by the fact that the majority of such attacks occur on peaceful borders, he added.
“Since most of these attacks occur on peaceful borders, the Israeli soldier or civilian sees security personnel all the time in uniform on other side, and doesn’t see them as threats,” said Shay. This means that the attackers in such cases have the element of surprise on their side—”a critical lethal advantage,” he continued.
Another significant characteristic of attacks by rogue soldiers is their potential diplomatic fallout, he noted.
“Such attacks produce deep embarrassment for all involved—whether that is Egypt, Jordan, or Israel, which demands explanations. The fallout is therefore bound to be wider than in the case of other types of lone wolf terror attack,” he said.
In the case of Egypt, where anti-Israel sentiment remains rampant despite the peace treaty, the country’s leadership treads carefully, according to Haim Koren, former Israeli Ambassador to South Sudan and Egypt.
As is the case with many states, “The positions of Egyptian governments can change in line with restrictions and opportunities, and due to changing realities,” he said. However, he continued, “The changing of an ideological position that has been dominant for years requires a daring leader, and an ability to present the fruits of this change.”
Egypt’s “cold peace” policy toward Israel has been discussed widely and in detail for many years, said Koren.
“After the assassination of [Egyptian] President [Anwar] Sadat in 1981 by an Egyptian soldier who subscribed to a radical Islamic ideology, his successor, Hosni Mubarak, chose not to take a risk—meaning preserving the peace to Egypt’s benefit but not ‘warming it’ too much, leaving it on a ‘low flame,’” he explained. “Mubarak believed that this caution would enable his political survival,” he added.
“In the case of the Egyptian soldier who killed an Israeli family of tourists in Ras Burka [in Sinai in 1985], Mubarak tried to smooth over the matter and dodge it,” said Koren.
While the Egyptian government has tightened relations with Israel since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became president in 2014, that has not stopped demonstrations in support of the border guard who perpetrated the June 3 attack, who was branded as a heroic “martyr,” said Koren. However, he noted, the Egyptian government refused to enable a martyr’s funeral for him.
Following such incidents Egypt is typically evasive, refusing to acknowledge the facts and take responsibility, he stated. This, he continued, is in stark contrast to the conduct of the late Jordanian King Hussein, who in 1997 paid condolence calls to the families of seven Israeli schoolgirls gunned down by a rogue Jordanian soldier at the “Island of Peace” border post.
“Sisi’s approach is different. He refrains from public statements on ties with Israel, but has increased cooperation with it significantly—mainly militarily, intelligence-wise, and from 2015, energy-wise,” said Koren.
“In practice, he changes things quietly, such as introducing content on the Camp David agreements to the school curriculum and renovating Jewish sites in Alexanderia and Cairo with state funds,” he added.
Sisi also worked quickly and practically to respond to the June 3 terror attack, working in full cooperation with the Israeli government, which also lowered the profile of its own response, said Koren.
According to Shay, both Jordan and Egypt continue to view their peace agreements with Israel as strategic assets. “Hence, authorities in both countries work hard to prevent terror, because it threatens their regimes and they want to protect joint interests with Israel on their borders,” he said.
Despite the limited number of such attacks, each carries great strategic weight, he added, showing up failures by local security forces to detect the threat, undermining prestige and creating tensions with Israel, said Shay.
In Egypt, such incidents also can undermine the tourism-economic sector, he added.
At the popular level, however, “the unfortunate fact is that all ‘crazy soldiers’ sooner or later turn into national heroes,” he said.
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