The Lone Terrorist

By July 13, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 86

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The success of Israel’s security forces in decreasing in Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli civilians could be threatened if a new type of terrorist attack – the lone terrorist attack – becomes more frequent. The lone terrorist phenomenon is characterized by radicals who embark on individual terrorist missions without any logistical support or conventional means. This type of attack is particularly difficult to defend against. Terrorists cannot be easily identified by their logistical plans, weapon sources or organizational affiliations. The only way to prevent this form of terrorism is by creating a high personal price tag in order to deter the potential terrorist. However, such terrorist deterrence requires clearly defined legislation. Currently, no laws exist regarding allowable punitive action, for example, against terrorists’ property. Effective “price tag” deterrence legislation must also apply to the intent to kill, regardless of the results.

Terrorism has existed in different forms since the beginning of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the years, terror acts have evolved from stabbings and Molotov cocktails to suicide bombings and the use of vehicles to run over Israelis citizens.

The Al-Aqsa Intifada produced an unprecedented number of terrorist activities against Israel. This elicited the March-April 2002 Operation Defensive Shield and subsequent IDF actions that have significantly reduced the ability of Palestinian terror organizations to attack Israel. The suicide bomber, which had become the Israeli home front’s worst nightmare, has been almost completely suppressed. The number of 53 suicide attacks against Israeli cities in 2002 was reduced to a single suicide attack in 2007 and one during 2008. However, terror has not disappeared, but acquired a different shape.

The Kassam rocket industry in Gaza has been growing since 2005, and terrorists without organizational affiliation have been emerging in Judea, Samaria, and East Jerusalem. In 2008, more than 80 percent of the terrorist attacks (to be distinguished from suicide attacks, as mentioned above) were carried out by unaffiliated terrorists who did not benefit from an organizational logistical support. The Israeli defense establishment and the media dubs them “lone terrorists,” and views this phenomenon as unstoppable because a terrorist acting without preliminary preparations, a logistical base, and secret partners is very difficult to identify. It is next to impossible to gather critical intelligence to stop him.

The first terrorist attack of this kind occurred on 26 March 2007, when a resident of East Jerusalem with an Israeli identification card opened fire at students in the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva. Two other armed terrorist attacks occurred during the same year at military checkpoints.

In 2008 there were three terrorist attempts to run over civilians with a vehicle. In the first attack (2 July 2008) an East Jerusalem resident drove a tractor into the heart of a crowded street. Family members and close friends of the terrorist claimed that aside from a renewed interest in religion, they had not noticed any unusual behavior. Twenty days later, another Palestinian from East Jerusalem drove a tractor into a civilian neighborhood. And two months later (22 September 2008), another young Palestinian, inspired by the tractor events, took a private car and tried to run over pedestrians in a Jerusalem neighborhood. In all attacks the “weapon” did not attract the attention of the security forces in Jerusalem.

The following year, on 5 March 2009, a Palestinian driving a sedan ran over a police car. In April, there were 5 lone terrorist attacks. On May 10, three unarmed Palestinians got into an Israeli taxi and strangled the driver to death. Neither belonged to a known terrorist organization.

The Lone Terrorist Phenomenon

  1. Although the relative damage of lone terrorists has been limited, the expansion of such a phenomenon has the potential to influence Israeli society just as suicide bomber attacks impacted the world in beginning of the millennium. The new “lone terrorist” displays a few common characteristics: Many of the attackers are inspired by a radical interpretation of Islam with no clear instigator to act in the name of God.
  2. The terrorist attacks which took place inside Israeli cities (especially Jerusalem) occurred as a result of free access to the target areas. The attackers passed through the security filters between the roads of Judea and Samaria and the Green Line without any difficulties. Several of these lone terrorists, East Jerusalem residents, did not have to go through any security inspection.
  3. A significant percentage of the “lone terrorists” hardly fit a terrorist profile, as they had never been part of a terrorist organization and had no record of terrorist activities.
  4. Even when a “lone terrorist” matched the terrorist profile, the Israeli security system did not identify them ahead of time, as they were not carrying any suspicious weaponry. In most of the attacks it was impossible to identify the terrorists because there was no weapon to indicate a terrorist intention.

How to Cope With Lone Terrorists?

Intention and means characterize terrorists. Without the two, it is impossible for a terrorist to act. After the al-Aqsa Intifada, Israel struck a meaningful blow to the terrorists’ “means.” On the one hand, the Israeli secret service and the IDF damaged terrorist organizations’ infrastructures, leadership, and the critical access to Israel’s cities. Yet, the terrorist’s intentions, i.e. their motivation, remained high.

In the struggle against the lone terrorist, it is often difficult to destroy the means, because in many attacks they do not exist until the moment the terrorist decides to act. Also, the use of dual technology, such as utilizing a car or a tractor to attack Israelis, is unrecognizable as a “means” because these vehicles are innocuous in nature. In the case of East Jerusalemites, even when the means (weapon) exist the attacker enjoys free access because he holds an Israeli identification card.

In order to prevent lone terrorist attacks, the state of Israel must cope with intentions – the will of the terrorist to act. The only way to do so in a democratic state is by deterrence, which requires creating high personal price tags in order to deter the potential terrorist.

For example, in the case of terrorism from Judea and Samaria, areas under Israeli military control, the requested steps to create deterrence are less complicated. In these areas it is legal to take action against the terrorist’s property. In Palestinian ruled territory, the Palestinian police forces can take similar action. If they do not, Israel will be forced to replace the Palestinian Authority, as happened in the past. If the Palestinian police forces will treat the lone terrorist’s families the same way as they treat Hamas’ families to deter them from acting against Abu Mazen’s government, it will be similarly effective.

To assure that punishment will be effective requires clearly defined legislative directives backed by the Israeli parliament. Currently, no laws exist on the Israeli law book regarding punitive actions against terrorists’ property. Such laws must be adopted by the Israeli Parliament. This will strengthen deterrence against terrorism. Indeed, in order to achieve reasonable deterrence against lone terrorists, the price tag must also apply to the intent to damage, regardless of the results.


Over the past two years, lone terrorist attacks have became a problematic phenomena. In contrast to most terrorist attackers, the lone terrorist is characterized by determined intention without conventional means. In order to arrest this phenomena, traditional counter-terror tools are mostly ineffective. The only way to deter lone terrorists is by negatively impacting on their motivation through painful deterrent policies and punishments.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Yoaz Hendel

Yoaz Hendel is the defense correspondent for Makor Rishon and a former research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.