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Comparing Hamas' attack on Israel and 9/11 - A Counterterrorism Perspective

27 Oct 2023
Short Read by Peter Knoope

Soon after the horrific events perpetrated by Hamas in Israel on the 7th of October, a comparison was made with the unprecedented attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001. `This is our 9/11` was a message coming out of Israel’s diplomatic circles in the immediate aftermath of the recent largescale kidnappings and killings by the group. These events have traumatised a nation. The magnitude of the collective trauma can certainly be compared to what happened to the people in the US. Even though it was twenty-two years ago, the trauma is still felt in the US and quite similarly, the trauma of today will be felt in Israel for many years to come. There is a national history before, and a period after, the 7th of October 2023 for the Israeli`s.  

A comparison between two events in different times and under different circumstances does not fully hold. In this recent case in Israel there are obvious differences - the modus operandi, the motives, and the way signals and warnings were picked up or were ignored are unique. But the differences between the two large-scale terrorist attacks are most evident in relation to the existent global policy conditions. For the CT community, it is relevant to examine what these attacks represent in light of what has happened in the domain of counter terrorism over the last twenty-two years. The focus on security-related work globally is incomparable to what it was in 2001. Those were the days when one could still train to become a pilot and no questions were asked. A world where identification of hotbeds of radicalisation, disengagement and deradicalization, let alone CVE, was terra incognita. The Global Counter Terrorism Forum and the EU Radicalisation Awareness Network did not yet exist, nor were even conceived.  

They say that history often repeats itself. If that is true, the forecast is very grim, and the situation is very likely to get far worse in the short-term, before it will possibly get a bit better in the years to come. This analysis considers whether in light of more than 20 years of lessons learned in counterterrorism, the short-term responses will support long-term strategic goals for peace and security in Israel, and beyond.  


On root causes  

On the day of the attacks in the US, people were celebrating the, in their eyes, successful attack by Al Qaida (AQ) in several places around the world. This occurred in Bamako for instance, a city in sub-Sahara Africa where one would not immediately expect manifestations of joy to emerge after an attack in the US, but people were nonetheless rejoicing as finally the seemingly invincible collective enemy was defeated on its own territory. There were also celebrations in a variety of places where the attack was met with a sense of `serves them right`. In large parts of the world the attacks appealed to a sometimes dormant, but ever present, animosity towards `The West` (or at least animosity towards a vague notion of the West). This animosity was further mobilised by the polarising words of the President of the US at the time. President George W. Bush exclaimed that `you are either with us or you are with the terrorists`, a statement that pushed many into the arms of the AQ attackers. Ali Soufan has indicated repeatedly that support for AQ grew as a result of this statement by the US President. 

Despite this support for the actions of AQ even the slightest reference to the ‘root causes’ in the direct aftermath of those attacks of the aggression against the US was considered a justification of the violence. It took a period of at least four to five years to permit an open debate about the reasons why individuals chose to join violent actors. In the UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy adopted in September 2006 the term `conditions conducive to terrorism` was introduced to avoid the term `root causes` that was still considered too much of a justification. As late as 2007 the National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism (NCTb) in the Netherlands organised the first international forum on radicalisation and understanding pathways into violent actions – a unique event at the time.  

The debate that followed led to understanding of the specific conditions, push and pull factors, and policies that could address the underlying causes of radicalisation. These policies and interventions could target individuals at risk but would also seek to address underlying conditions conducive to the appeal of terrorism. These conditions can vary, and require a thorough analyses, but may be related to issues such as foreign occupation, marginalisation, lack of good governance, corruption, and human rights violations, amongst others. Counter terrorism includes understanding these conditions and addressing them. Since 2011 when the Global Counter Terrorism Forum was created, many nations have undertaken such analyses and drafted strategic action plans to address the underlying issues conducive to terrorism.  

The reactions to the 7th of October 2023 events appear to show at least some similarities. The initial responses were equally negative towards references to `root causes`. And again, the very mention of potential motives or reasons behind the attack has been regarded as a form of justification of the acts. One would expect that close to twenty years of investments into research and policy development on the topics of motivational factors and root causes would bear some relevance when a comparison is made with earlier and similar violence. But directly after the incidents in Israel most of the large volume of expertise in this field was ignored or was (again) framed as suspicious, even though there is sufficient evidence to suggest that ignoring root causes will aggravate the situation rather than solve the conflict and prevent further escalation and future violence.    


On strategic response mechanisms 

The fact that we are twenty-two years later should also give us some advantage when it comes to strategic options and choices in the field of counter terrorism. We have learned that there are only so many options to reduce the threat or otherwise prevent terrorist activities. Apart from kinetics or hard power there are the options of arrests or other legal action. The third option is cutting off resources, including funding and weapons. Lastly there is a myriad of soft power measures including empowering minorities and other political measures. In practice it is always a combination of these four approaches. The real art of counter terrorism is striking the right balance, a balance that is condition- and country-specific - no two situations are the same.  

In generic terms we have learned that kinetics or military interventions only have short-term impacts and hardly ever lead to a long-term solution. This is certainly the case when military intervention is not paralleled by sufficient and adequate soft power and effective measures to prevent the influx of recruits and funds. In many cases, isolated military approaches are even counterproductive and have an inverse effect as they may add to the existing grievances and root causes, and increase the support base for the violent actors. This is more often the case when the popular support base for resistance is high. Afghanistan and Somalia are examples of responses that have failed to give the desired results. But there are also examples where military action has clearly contributed to solutions and reduction of terrorist activities, like in the case of the global coalition against ISIS, the Rwandan intervention in Mozambique, and Sri Lanka`s approach to the Tamil Tigers. This demonstrates that choices need to be made with great care and that they need to strike the right balance. The existing support base for resistance and acts of terrorist violence is an element to take closely into consideration.  

The reaction to the 7th of October is, in strategic terms, very clearly based on hard power, and justified by a self defence argument. It is meant to punish the terrorists and their support base and is comparable to the US intervention in Afghanistan in the direct aftermath of 9/11, which was meant to punish AQ and their support base, the Taliban. Equally comparable is the international support for the choice made by both Israel and by the US at the time. Even though there were also some dissenting voices, the language coming out of Brussels, Washington, and London was clear – Israel’s strategic choice has, certainly initially, found much international support as much as the choices made by President Bush at the time.  

But over the last twenty years a growing consensus has emerged among experts, based on research by UNDP and many others, that hard power approaches alone do not bring the desired effect. These lessons learned should be taken into account. Given the fact that there seems to be more international solidarity with the inhabitants of Gaza than there was with the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 - the one-dimensional focus on hard power seems inadequate in the long-run. Certainly, the root cause debate after 9/11 took some time to get off the ground, but is has resulted in P/CVE and other soft power approaches around the globe. It has led to at least some investments in prevention work based on understanding motives, grievances, and root causes. Even though the root causes and grievances debate in the Middle East is complex, the ‘action-reaction’ relationship seems relatively direct in nature, and should prompt sufficient direction towards a more multi-layered and preventative approach under the given circumstances.  


On the long-term effects of 9/11 

There is no disagreement internationally that the situation in Israel-Palestine requires a long- term solution. It is therefore crucial to account for the way short-term counter terrorism operations are conducted as they will either create the basis for a long-term solution or will frustrate future solutions. Today it is hard to predict the long-term impact of October 7th. There are different potential scenario`s that may unfold. One scenario is mobilisation of anger and frustration about the situation of the Palestinians by violent actors who may effectively capitalize on the victims amongst the Palestinian population. This mobilisation may happen on all levels and in all forms, both in the Middle East and in other parts of the world. The situation may inspire lone actors, or may be used to mobilise support and actions by existing groups in the West or elsewhere. This may lead to a surge in polarisation and attacks around the globe due to the heartfelt grievances and expressions of solidarity with civilian populations caught in this conflict. 

Reflecting on what we have learned from history, we now know that the response to AQ in Afghanistan ended in a humiliating failure twenty years after the intervention and the situation there is back to square one. After the departure of the US and ISAF troops from Afghanistan the analyses of the failures led to the acknowledgement by the international community that the situation in the AFPAK region was misunderstood or even misjudged.  

This time we have a unique chance to get it right – we should not misunderstand the situation again. A profound conflict analyses, and a direct intervention that creates the basis for a long-term solution, is required.  

The lessons of Afghanistan are clear. Counter terrorism approaches must be based on a proper understanding of the specifics of the situation. They must be operationalised with a clear long- term plan that may include a properly negotiated settlement at some point. Securitization, abuse of terminology, and human rights violations all reduce the effectiveness of any preventative counter terrorism action especially from a long-term perspective. 

The international root causes debate that started around 2006 has led to some good practices and forms of assistance, especially for individuals that are vulnerable to recruitment or have the desire to disengage and leave the extremist environment. Early warning mechanisms, referral systems, community policing, youth campaigns, counter narratives, victim voices, reintegration programs, education programs, and religious counselling are but some of these tools. There are a variety of effective preventative programs, including the Radicalisation Awareness Network, that have been developed and implemented by governments and civil society alike.

The vast majority of these programs target vulnerable individuals or convicted terrorists. So on the level of individual terrorists, progress has been made, and violence has been prevented, even though it has in some cases led to scrutiny of individual behaviour by those who are in power. It has also led to the abuse of the term radical, extremist, and even the term ‘terrorist’ itself. It has even led to states adopting terrorist modus operandi and eroding human rights in some cases. All these unforeseen and sometimes unintended side-effects have been mapped and can be avoided. Counter terrorism has professionalised, and the results of this increased professionalism deserve attention.  



If we agree with the comparison made by diplomats between the horrific events in 2001 and 2023, we should be prepared to consider the lessons from the responses after 9/11 to determine what is the best response to October 7th. The world owes it to itself to take the failures into account. Based on earlier experiences and research we should realise that heavy reliance on kinetic solutions and securitization should not be seen as he most adequate solution if it is not accompanied by parallel actions in the area of soft power and long-term investments in political solutions and negotiations. These approaches can be developed through an understanding of the collective and historic grievances and root causes related to that event.  

We did not see 9/11 coming, and we have not prevented 7/10. Isn`t it time we prevent the next tragic and devastating event(s) by getting it right next time?  



More than 200 inspiring practices are included in the RAN Collection, which is a convincing testimony to the progress that is being made in the field preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE). It is continually expanding to include more practices with the aim of providing a valuable source of information and inspiration for practitioners, policymakers and researchers.