Israel is using social media to prevent terrorist attacks

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AFTER six months of a wave of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Israeli security officials are warily speaking of signs of the attacks abating. Violent protests and rioting in the West Bank have waned, and the rate of stabbing, ramming and shooting attacks by Palestinians on Israeli soldiers and civilians has halved (two months ago there was an average of at least one a day). In the six months from October 2015 to March there were 230 attacks, in which 34 Israelis and foreign tourists and 121 Palestinian attackers were killed. Many have called it a third intifada (uprising), though the Israeli military prefers the term “limited uprising”. The bloodshed is unlikely to end completely while the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are incapable of even sitting down in the same room. But it may at last be ebbing.

For Israel’s security services, the killings have posed a unique challenge. Unlike in previous rounds, the Palestinians carrying out the attacks are nearly all acting on their own and unaffiliated with armed groups. “In the second intifada [2000-2005] there was a clear chain from those directing and funding the attacks, and the dispatcher and perpetrator,” says an operations officer in the Israel Defence Force (IDF). “You could pinpoint a terror cell and take them out. Now you have to look at every Palestinian as a potential suspect, which is a bad situation. You need to be able to differentiate the perpetrators from the wider Palestinian public.”

That is much easier said than done when very few of the attackers had any previous involvement in violent activities, are acting as individuals or at the most in groups of two or three friends, and in some cases are as young as thirteen. The IDF Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot, admitted three months ago that Israel’s security services hadn’t had advance indications of any of the attacks. That has changed, at least in part, due to an unorthodox intelligence operation.

While Israeli ministers accuse Palestinians of incitement to murder on the internet and have tried, unsuccessfully so far, to persuade companies like Facebook to remove such content from their webpages, the intelligence community sees the social media networks as its main opportunity to spot attackers in advance. With the average perpetrator aged between 15 and 25, the great majority of them are active on Facebook and Twitter, and in hindsight are found to have given some inkling of their intentions online.

“It’s a new paradigm where not only are we dealing with individuals with no organisational affiliation, but a week or even a day before, they had no idea they were going to carry out an attack,” explains an Israeli intelligence officer. “What we can do is build in-depth profiles of past perpetrators, what motivated and inspired them, and based on what they have in common locate those with similar characteristics.”

Some of this can be found in descriptions posted by young Palestinians online in their Facebook or Twitter accounts. Typical profiles of past perpetrators include allegations that Israel is “desecrating” the al-Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, complaints about the Palestinian leadership, and declarations of how they belong to a “lost generation” or are personally enraged by a relative, friend or neighbour having been killed by Israel. This is often coupled with personal problems, such as forced marriages, debt and social exclusion. Some of the perpetrators caught alive have admitted under interrogation that they wanted to kill themselves, avoiding shame by being regarded as “martyrs”. This now termed by Israeli security people as “suicide by IDF”.

Using specially developed algorithms to monitor the social media accounts of young Palestinians has yielded a list of potential suspects, and in some cases has allowed the IDF in recent weeks to stop attackers before they could act. Dozens of young men and women have received “warning visits” by the Shin Bet security service, in which they and their parents are told they’re under surveillance. The names are also passed on to the Palestinian Authority’s security apparatus so they can keep tabs on them.

These methods could be of use in other societies where disaffected young people are being radicalised on the web. The same tools through which they are pushed to join jihad could help to stop them before it is too late.
Source:http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21697083-new-paradigm-intelligence-israel-using-social-media-prevent-terrorist

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