The massacre on 16 December 2014 at the school in Peshawar, Pakistan, during which 134 students were killed, is another link in a long chain of terror attacks against children in schools and educational institutions around the world. This is another illustration of the huge gap between the world's religions and cultures, when mass murder of children, which is perceived as a crossing of a red line and a taboo in most societies, is a legitimate target, not to say an attractive one, for radical Islam movements and terrorist organizations that are affected by them.
Beyond the fact that parents' concern for their children is the most basic instinct; this is a young population which is the next generation, the darling of every nation, and a harm inflicted upon it is a hard moral blow also at the national level.
Killing of children, therefore, is the ultimate expression of the word "terrorism" – fear mongering. Educational institutions are a favorite target for terrorists, specifically for that reason. On the operational level, it is also well suited due to its status as a "soft" target. It contains a large concentration of people in an open and accessible facility.
The history of attacks in educational institutions have not skipped Israel. In 1974 we experienced the brutal attack at a school in Ma'alot, during which 22 students and their teachers were killed. Later on, in April 1980, the attack at the children's house in kibbutz Misgav Am was carried out, in which three Israelis were killed. Over the years, additional serious attacks against Israeli educational institutions were carried out, such as the attacks at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, at the Hesder yeshiva in Atzmona, and more. Outside of Israel, in 1977, terrorists took over a school in the Netherlands, and since the beginning of the 80's to the mid-90s the PKK carried out hundreds of attacks against Turkish schools, many of which were in the form of arson attacks, in order to close the education system and to create fear.
Attacks in educational institutions are a common phenomenon both in countries with organized administrative and security systems and especially in countries where the control regarding security is undermined, leaving it to be exploited by various terrorist groups for carrying out terror attacks.
The radicalization of the extent and brutality of Islamic organizations attacks against schools is not really a surprise, and it can be attributed to Al Qaeda who signaled it back in 2002 in its calls for killing four million Americans, including at least a million children. These calls were also supported by operational activities of the organization's members. At that time the US military seized videos from Afghanistan where al Qaeda members are seen practicing taking over a school and the way to "handle" the hostages. With that begun the operational phase of the extremist activities of terrorist attacks against schools, the most dramatic was in 2004 in Beslan, Russia, when a group of 30 Chechen terrorists took over a school on the first day of the school year and took 1,200 people hostage. The attack resulted in 334 deaths of which 186 were students of the school.
Since then and over the past decade, Islamic terrorist organizations inspired by Al Qaeda, have performed hundreds of attacks against schools, particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Thailand and Nigeria. In March 2012, we have also seen in France a deadly example when a Muslim terrorist murdered a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse. From time to time, this kind of attacks is featured in the news headlines, assuming it has create a new "threshold of cruelty", whether it is the kidnapping of 300 school students in Nigeria by Boko Haram or the Taliban attacks in Pakistan. All these attacks, without exception, were executed by organizations inspired by Al Qaeda and the global jihad. The common thread is Islamic extremism providing ideological justifications (delusional, one might say) for killing children in schools.
These tragic attacks against children in educational institutions have not skipped on the West neither. However here it is not an act driven by religious ideology or another, and the motivations are very different. In the United States, allegedly the main target of the global jihad for attacks in schools, the severe phenomenon of the Active Shooter was revealed – usually an unstable resident who execute a ruthless killing campaign. Over the last decade dozens of these attacks were carried out in schools and educational institutions, by students or by individuals – usually residents of the area, who most of them, in retrospect, had personality problems, which led them to planning and executing deadly terrorist attacks in the educational institutions where they learned. Although this is not the volume of injuries such as in Beslan and Peshawar, certainly it is a serious and difficult threat that is reflected in dozens of attacks, the majority of which are shootings. Among these one can find the attack at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, where 2 students shot and killed 12 students and a teacher and then committed suicide (it's impossible not to mention the fact that they had prepared and brought explosive devices aimed at executing a mass attack, and thanks to a technical malfunction didn’t work), the Virginia Tech attack in 2007, during which 32 students were killed by a classmate and the attack at Sandy Hook in 2012, during which 26 children and teachers were killed at the primary school.
Over the years, having learned lessons from the numerous attacks, various security systems have been established to secure the educational institutions in Israel and abroad. Security methods and how to execute them vary from one place to another, are very also influenced by the debates of the management of educational institutions, between the desire to provide a pleasant and peaceful atmosphere and the need for integrating security measures in order to protect the facilities, including armed guards, fences, CCTV, and the like. These debates often create situations where the attempt to provide a security answer to a problem, while avoiding the increased security profile, is a "go with and feel without" situation. These pressures lead to basic gaps in the necessary response. As an example I note the report published last week according to which a high school in Massachusetts will employ an automated system for identifying armed on campus. On the surface it appears as a significant miss and a loss of direction, that probably lies in the absence of threat definition and relying on a system, which should (if any), provide an answer at a very late stage, when the weapons have been already found inside the campus. Needless to say that in order to produce the requested prevention, the security system must contain an effective cycle of inspection that will prevent the entry of weapons into the perimeter area. Ultimately, there is no escape from using hardening and delaying elements– although one should not cancel in any way the need for aesthetics and carefully matching profile – including visible elements, which are contributing to the necessary deterrence.
The US Department of Homeland Security adopted a comprehensive plan for action against Active Shooters, the killer terrorists such as those operating in shooting attacks in recent years in the United States. Some of the elements are reminiscent of known elements operated also in Israel, but ultimately the responsibility for the establishment of an effective security system lies with the management of the education.
Every security system, no matter how successful, must be updated and seek readiness to respond to the next step of the adversary, and therefore a key component of response is intelligence, collected by the responsible authorities and at the field level by the security agents, who should be competent and act to identify suspicious actions that may indicate collecting of intelligence information in preparation for an attack. With regard to the characteristics of the attacks, the US education officials at the schools have a significant part in the collection and analysis of relevant intelligence, regarding factors that may carry out an attack at the school. This is an essential element in the security package that requires proper treatment and training, facing both the teachers and possibly even the appropriate age groups of students.
The "success" of the Taliban in carrying out the attack in Peshawar might spur radical Islamic elements such as ISIS and co. for similar "display" actions; this option poses a significant challenge for dealing with school security. There is no doubt that a suitable readiness is necessary in order to allow the appropriate security response.
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