23 years ago, a car bomb demolished the building housing the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aries, Argentina, causing the death of 29 people, including 4 Israeli nationals, employees of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the injury of more than 220 others.
The time that has passed since then notwithstanding, these days look like a mirror image of the days prior to that terrorist attack, with regard to the characteristics of the confrontation against Iran and its agents, namely – Hezbollah. These parties currently aspire to stage terrorist attacks against Israeli objectives, as they seek to avenge the death of the high-ranking Iranian officer on the Syrian Golan Heights, close to the Israeli border, along with a group of Hezbollah terrorists that included Jihad Mughniyah.
In those days, Hezbollah staged two mass-casualty car bomb attacks in Argentina with the support – or more accurately under the leadership of the Iranian security services. The first attack was staged against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aries on March 17, 1992, one month after the targeted elimination of Abbas Musawi, then Secretary General of Hezbollah, and allegedly in revenge for his death. The second attack was staged on July 18, 1994 against AMIA House – the center of the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. Hezbollah assumed responsibility for this attack, claiming that it was intended to avenge the attack by the Israeli Air Force against its training camp in Ein-Dardara, in which 50 Hezbollah operatives were eliminated.
During the period in which the sequence of events that began with the elimination of Musawi and the IAF attack in Ein-Dardara and continued with the vengeance attacks by Hezbollah/Iran in Argentina took place, two significant terrorist attacks were staged which match the mirror image that we are facing today. The first incident, which took place about three weeks after the elimination of Musawi, was the attack in which the late Ehud Sadan, the security officer of the Israeli embassy in Ankara, Turkey, was murdered by an explosive charge placed under his car. On the face of it, this attack seemed like an act of vengeance by Hezbollah. As it turned out, however, this was only a preliminary stage on the way to the main act of vengeance – the attack against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aries. Along the same time axis, between the IAF attack in Ein-Dardara and the counterattack against AMIA House on July 18, 1994 (even before the attack against AMIA House), another meaningful terrorist attack took place when on March 13, 1994, an attempt by Hezbollah to carry out an attack and detonate a truckload of explosives at the Israeli embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, failed.
In view of this modus operandi by the opponent, the resemblance between the elimination of the Hezbollah/Iranian Revolutionary Guards infrastructure on the Golan Heights followed by the attack against the IDF detachment on Har Dov, and the attacks against Hezbollah in the early 1990s followed by the terrorist attacks in Argentina, is self-explanatory. It should be noted that since the attack against the IDF detachment on Har Dov, we have witnessed explicit statements by the Iranians regarding the "proper" revenge that should be expected pursuant to the elimination of the high-ranking Iranian officer. Various media reports listed various options for terrorist attacks, and even published the pictures of several high-ranking IDF officers as potential targets. These warnings should be heeded with the appropriate degree of seriousness.
Setting aside the highly-focused intelligence required in order to direct the security preparations vis-à-vis a potential terrorist attack, any appraisal of the operational options available to Hezbollah/Iran against Israeli objectives abroad should address an extremely wide range of possible courses of action those opponents may employ in order to attack a symbolic Israeli objective that would constitute an adequate target for their vengeance, in their view. Within the range of possible courses of action available to the opponents, the use of a car bomb stands out. It is one of the most commonly used courses of action among world terrorist organizations, owing to the numerous advantages it offers to those organizations, which enable them to achieve significant effects, both physically and media-wise, by using an essentially conventional weapon.
Security agencies facing the car bomb threat are required to engage in specialized security preparations that include various elements of doctrine, specialized procedures and dedicated technological measures. The security response for the car bomb course of action has been developed and refined significantly over the years, worldwide. This particular challenge was faced by the Israeli security layout as well as by other western countries such as the USA, Germany, Australia, Canada, et al, whose assets were targeted in bloody terrorist attacks using this particular course of action. Some examples: the car bomb attack at the WTC twin towers in February 1993 (which, it should be noted, was originally intended to destroy the WTC towers, something Bin Laden's organization eventually managed to accomplish using a somewhat different course of action…); the attack (one among many others) staged in February 1996 by the IRA in London; the Khobar Towers bombing – the truck bomb attack against the living quarters of US servicemen in Dahran, Saudi Arabia, in June 1996; the dual attacks in August 1998 against the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-e-Salaam; the attack against the Australian embassy in Indonesia in September 2004 and many other car bomb and truck bomb attacks.
These terrorist attacks and others like them were used for drawing lessons with regard to various aspects, for the purpose of finding an effective response to the threats stemming from this course of action. The sharing of knowledge by western countries, with Israel being one of the most dominant ones, led to highly developed security arrangements. However, the opponent keeps track of all security developments and seeks new ways to stage his attacks so as to inflict the maximum possible damage. The tight security layouts led the terrorist organizations to seek new ways – some of which were, admittedly, rather creative – for bypassing the obstacles facing them. For example, while collecting intelligence in preparation for the terrorist attack staged by Hezbollah against the living quarters of USAF personnel in Dahran, Saudi Arabia in 1996, the terrorists realized that the residential neighborhood they targeted had a peripheral security system around it. At the same time, they managed to spot an external plot located less than a hundred meters away from the outermost building of the neighborhood. In order to bridge the distance gap, Hezbollah eventually staged the attack using a tanker that carried not less than 8 tons of explosives (!). Another example of the opponent's attempts to cope with the security solutions surfaced in February 1996, when the Belgian customs authorities at the port of Antwerp opened for inspection a sea freight container that arrived on board an Iranian ship from the port of Bandar Abbas. According to the bill of lading, the container should have contained canned pickled vegetables. It did contain pickles, but along with them, it also contained a giant mortar, capable of firing a shell weighing many dozens of kilograms.
The "fingerprints" on the mortar were traced back, unequivocally, to Iran. As it turned out, the same kind of mortar had been used by the Iranians to attack installations (which just “happened to be” a hospital) of the Iranian opposition forces in Iraq. It is estimated that this weapon was intended for an attack against a secured installation in Europe, so that the attackers may be assured of the building being demolished by a shell fired from a distance, dropping on the building from above and exploding it, thereby bypassing the peripheral security systems set up around it. There are many other examples of how the opponent had drawn the relevant lessons, but the trend is very clear: the terrorist organizations examine and study the security layouts very thoroughly and attempt to spot loopholes and bypasses in order to maximize the damage inflicted by their attacks.
Hezbollah, with significant Iranian support, has already launched airborne platforms (UAVs) into Israel. These UAVs were eventually intercepted by IAF. The significant development of these systems worldwide led to a situation where various types of UAVs and hover drones are currently available as civil technologies to terrorist organizations wherever they may operate. Consequently, they constitute a significant threat that must be addressed by security authorities worldwide. This was blatantly demonstrated by the UAVs that recently crashed at the feet of the German Chancellor and the hover drone that crashed on the White House lawn just the other week. The various attacks planned around the world along similar lines and were revealed and prevented in due time should be added to the incidents outlined above. It is safe to estimate that the relevant authorities in Israel will provide the right solution for these threats.
In the absence of specific, focused intelligence, and even when such intelligence is available, the most comprehensive preparations and deployment possible are required in order to prevent terrorist attacks of various types and against various objectives, dignitaries, infrastructures and installations. Naturally, this also applies to the field of cyber warfare, although in the present situation one can assume the Iranians will more likely seek a physical target. The overriding principle, in this case, is being proactive, namely – taking action in advance in order to prevent future damage. In other words, prevention at the tactical level is a necessity, both in order to save lives and to provide the strategic 'breathing space' and prevent the conflict from escalating.
Against the background of reports and declarations by senior Iranians government officials regarding Iran's vengeful intentions, a formula is emerging of a clear statement of intent, presented in combination with a proven capability of staging terrorist attacks while relying on the Iranian diplomatic missions as a logistic infrastructure for those attacks. This combination leads to an assessment according to which the threat level is high, and this calls for suitable preparations and deployment and for a willingness to engage in long-term security efforts and vigilance.
The writer is a former head of division in the ISA and currently Senior Vice President, Homeland Security, at Maydex AG, specializing in critical infrastructures security.