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Israelis and the international terror threat

"Most Israelis need to smell the danger and feel it in order to understand that they are in danger."

The funeral of Simcha Damri, one of three Israelis who was killed in a March 19, 2016, suicide bombing in Istanbul, March 21, 2016. Credit: Flash90.
The funeral of Simcha Damri, one of three Israelis who was killed in a March 19, 2016, suicide bombing in Istanbul, March 21, 2016. Credit: Flash90.

“How disciplined are Israelis when it comes to following Israel’s travel warnings?” I ask the head of Israel’s National Security Council Intelligence Division Yossi Adler.

He sighs.

“Let’s put it this way,” he says. “Most Israelis need to smell the danger and feel it in order to understand that they are in danger. That’s why we keep the heavy ammunition for D-Day. I don’t shoot it every day and everywhere, and I don’t make threats all the time.”

Over the past year alone, Israel has foiled dozens of planned terror attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets around the world. Adler is one of the most senior figures tasked with preventing such attacks. One of his jobs is to be the public face of official warnings.

“I haven’t had a week without threats,” he tells JNS in an interview. “I started working in this position six years ago, and I think that the last two years have been exceptional, from a historical perspective, in terms of terror activity against Israelis and Jews abroad. I think that the amount of threats—and the amount of threats that have been foiled—has never been like this before.”

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JNS: Who is behind the planned attacks?

Adler: The most dominant factor is Iran. It can involve attacks using Iranians, Hezbollah or Iranian proxies and terrorists from Azerbaijan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan who were recruited by Iran. The Iranian desire to harm [Israelis] stems from the assassination of their scientists, which they attribute to Israel, and the assassination of [Quds Force head Qassem] Soleimani.

If I try to get into the mind of the Iranian decision-makers, he is constantly thinking about how he can create a balance for actions that he considers Israeli. The Iranians can’t respond freely from Lebanon, we are striking them in Syria and they also have limits on responding from Gaza or Judea and Samaria. Therefore, Tehran sees the overseas arena as enabling it, as well as in terms of the ability to blur Iranian responsibility.

JNS: What are the targets these terrorists are looking for?

Adler: They are trying to hit “quality” targets: Officials, former officials or business people who are connected to the security establishment. If they fail to find these kinds of targets, they begin to examine all other options to the point of going to the “easy” option. We saw this in Turkey last year, where the terror squads got permission from their operators to hit Israelis wherever they were, regardless of age, position or status.

When it comes to Jews around the world, we see attempts to hit Jews all the time: Mainly the attempt to hurt community leaders, people who are seen as holding an official position.

Israel has a warning system with categories from 1-4. “1” means be cautious, but you are free to go. “2” means there is a need for a bit more caution. “3” means there is a potential for some kind of terror attack, so we are not giving our blessing if you decide to go somewhere. Some defense officials and civil servants are forbidden to fly to category “3” countries. And number “4” means don’t go there, and if you are already there, fly out.

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Over the last few years, several terror plots against Israelis abroad have been foiled, including in Mumbai, Azerbaijan, Greece, Cyprus and Turkey.

“What happened in the summer of 2022 in Istanbul, I don’t remember such an event in all my career. I didn’t sleep for a whole month,” Adler tells JNS.

Exactly a year ago, three Iranian terror squads hunted Israelis in Istanbul to murder them. The Mossad, together with Turkish intelligence, managed to stop the attacks just before they happened.

“It was a miracle. A calculated miracle, I would say,” Adler says.

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JNS: How much have social networks made it easier for terrorists to locate Israelis and Jews abroad?

Adler: You know, the orders in the past said, “Don’t go abroad with an IDF shirt.” But now, you post a story and people know there are Israelis in a certain place. The terrorist organizations use the networks to locate Israelis. There is nothing easier than that. Most Israelis, their networks are open to the whole world, so if a terror squad is in a certain city that is known as a city of Israelis, they can go on social networks and check where there are soldiers, which hotels people are staying in.

JNS: Have social networks been used in the foiled terror attacks?

Adler: Indeed. They can see what the head of a community is doing, a new Chabad house, an official representative of Israel’s Trade Ministry or an Israeli security company that advertises its goods. That’s why there is a built-in tension. On the one hand, you want to share as much as possible from your vacation, but what we are saying is: Come back to Israel, and then share, especially when you are in a country with a potential for risk.

JNS: Let’s talk about Elizabeth Tsurkov, the Israeli-Russian citizen who is now being held hostage by an Iranian militia in Iraq. What is your message to Israelis with dual passports?

Adler: There are countries that Israel defines as enemy states. We’ll tell Israelis not to fly over them because there might not be emergency landing sites in one of those countries. Dual passport holders do not have any insurance upon arrival in such countries.

Now we are dealing with Elizabeth Tsurkov, who also operated with a very high social network presence. She traveled around enemy countries with a Russian passport. And I will tell you a secret: This is not the only case. And since then, we have had other cases. The danger for Jews in Iran is higher than what can happen to a Jew in Belgium. We see the Iranians arresting foreigners. So I think that the “enemy state” directive is reasonable for Jews as well, certainly for Jews with an Israeli connection.

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“My message is, think about what you are saying on the social networks, don’t give your geographic route, which hotel room you’re in, because the squads are looking for prey,” Adler says. “And think seven times before going to enemy countries. I don’t think there are too many attractions there either. There are 150 countries you can go to at any given moment. Better to go there than one of the countries at the bottom of the food chain.”

Israel’s National Security Council provides 24/7 service on its website and a call center for issues related to travel warnings.

Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.

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