Fighting Terrorism with Persistent Area Surveillance

"Europe has been conquered, it just does not know it yet." An interview with Brig. Gen. (ret.) Amnon Sofrin, Head of IAI's HLS activity, about the changes in Europe and the Middle East, and the effect thereof on the world of weapons systems

Photo: AP

How do the political and social changes in the Middle East affect the development of weapon systems by the defense industries? Brig. Gen. (ret.) Amnon Sofrin, Head of the HLS activity of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), offers an interesting answer to this question. Sofrin, who served as head of the Mossad's intelligence & analysis division and as the IDF Chief Field Intelligence Officer, says: "The disintegration of the states in Middle East, which began in Tunis in 2010, led to dramatic changes in our region. Four former states are not states anymore – Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria. In Syria, Assad currently dominates only about 40% of the national territory. Libya is divided into three parts with the official government dominating only one third. Iraq is divided ethnically among the Kurds, Sunnis and Shi'ites, and the government is not really in control. The Kurds in Iraq claim that as far as they are concerned, the 'official' Iraq no longer exists.

"This phenomenon produced three primary results: the absence of sovereign government; the intensification of terrorism and an uncontrolled leakage of arms pursuant to the disintegration of the state. Libya has become an arsenal for the Palestinians, and not just for them."

Another phenomenon Sofrin points to is the emergence of radical Islam. According to him, ISIS is only one of several radical organizations around the world which currently endeavor to undermine the western countries: "The terrorist organizations depart from the Middle East with the immigration waves in the direction of Europe," Sofrin explains.

"ISIS is sustaining blows in Iraq and Syria and losing territory. As they are unable to cope with the air strikes of the USA, Russia and the European countries that operate alongside the USA, they use immigration as a deterrent. Namely – within the surge of immigrants from Africa to Europe and Asia, they plant their own people and through those people they attack the countries that operate against them in the Middle East. Turkey, Germany and France are only a few of the examples. Any country operating against ISIS in Syria or Iraq will be added to the terrorist attack priorities of that organization.

"In the European context, Europe has been conquered, it just does not know it yet. Europe will never again be what it used to be. This causes internal debate within Europe regarding the manner in which the immigrants should be handled. Some countries erected fences to keep the immigrants out. The vision of a united Europe after World War II is taking a turn. The fences have created a buffer that will only grow larger."

Sofrin explains that the phenomenon of the disintegration of the countries in the Middle East and the rise of terrorist organizations that dominate expansive areas has not skipped Israel. "These organizations are inching closer to the borders of the State of Israel. On the Golan Heights, terrorist organizations are deployed on the border. This change led to a revision of IDF concepts. From preparing and maintaining readiness for a surprise attack in the style of the Yom-Kippur War of 1973, to a routine security concept," explains Sofrin. "The threat of a conventional war, an army facing an army, is almost nonexistent. Syria is no longer relevant as a military force. That is over.

"Other scenarios have become relevant. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization with a firm political status in Lebanon, and it has the military potential of a state, mainly with regard to rockets and missiles. They have rockets, Scud missiles and many other resources supplied by Iran and Syria. They can launch missiles at any spot within the State of Israel. Additionally, Hezbollah now possesses very good land warfare capabilities acquired during the fighting in Syria. That makes the (threat of a) temporary occupation of (Israeli) settlements in the north highly relevant.

"At the same time, owing to Hezbollah having to split their centers of gravity between Lebanon and Syria, it is unreasonable to expect them to open a front opposite Israel. Additionally, the Iranians wish to save Hezbollah, as a resource, for a day of reckoning rather than wasting it in vain as was the case in 2006. However, if and when the war in Syria ends and Hezbollah has returned to Lebanon and unified its forces opposite Israel, the situation could develop into a confrontation.

"Along with Hezbollah and the other organizations in the north, we have Hamas in the south. Since Operation Protective Edge Hamas has been developing their capabilities, mainly through Iranian support. Unlike the front opposite Hamas, the Egyptian front is not bothersome. Egypt is a signatory to a peace agreement with Israel and that is a major commitment on their part. Egypt also receives civilian and military support from the USA (the civilian support provided to Egypt amounts to about US$ 150 million per year. The military aid amounts to about US$ 1.3 billion per year). Understandably, the economic situation in Egypt is dire, and could deteriorate further without external economic support. Accordingly, the peace agreement along with the economic dependence on the USA deter Egypt from acting against Israel.

"Along with the economic consideration, Egypt has no interest of opening a front opposite Israel. The Sinai is in their possession, so there is no territorial dispute. So admittedly, Egypt is building up its military power. So what? As far as Israel is concerned, Egypt does not constitute a reference threat. If you need proof, what forces does Israel maintain opposite Egypt? Almost nothing, based on a situation appraisal. This no longer involves taking risks like we did back in 1973. On the contrary – Israel maintains defense ties with Egypt."

In the eastern sector, we have Jordan, which currently faces a major problem. Sofrin explains that Jordan is dealing with more than a million refugees from Syria. "They mix into the local population through marriage and take jobs away from the locals as they will accept a lower pay," explains Sofrin. "This leads to agitation in Jordan against the refugees. Additionally, some of the Syrian refugees are members of 'sleeper cells' of the terrorist organizations, inserted into Jordan.

"At the same time, in northern Jordan, they face the threat of ISIS from the direction of Iraq. After Iraq and Syria, Jordan is next in the plans of ISIS. As far as the West is concerned, the implication is that we should help the Jordanian government to the maximum extent possible in line with our strategic interests. Jordan is Israel's strategic depth on the eastern front."

Second-Circle Countries

Beyond the inner circle of countries surrounding Israel's borders, there are strategic interests concerning the countries of the second circle. Sofrin stresses the coupling of interests Israel shares with other countries in the region. "These (interests) have intensified substantially over the last few years," says Sofrin. "We have shared interests with moderate Sunni countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others. If a retired Saudi general arrives in Israel and then returns home and nothing is done to him, it means that he had been authorized to come here. When the King of Saudi Arabia signs an agreement with Egypt regarding the transfer of the islands Tiran and Sanafir (from Egypt to Saudi Arabia), and the public is informed implicitly that Israel had agreed to that move, then that connection is not imaginary.

"Many things are done opposite the Gulf countries behind the scenes. These countries also want to help Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement by mutual pressure."

The second circle also includes Turkey. On the one hand, this country had maintained close security and business relations with Israel in the past, but on the other hand, it has undergone a process of religious radicalization since the ascent to power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The relations between the two countries have warmed up somewhat recently.

"In the Turkish context, we have an interest in maintaining good relations with Turkey and developing those relations further," explains Sofrin. "Turkey is a relatively moderate Sunni country, it opposes the Assad regime and the massacring of the Syrian population and is a fertile ground for defense transactions. At the diplomatic level, through our connections with Turkey the Shi'ite axis may be blocked.

"At the same time, there are some concerns regarding Turkey. One reason is Turkey's shared interests with Iran vis-à-vis the question of the Kurds. In the Middle East, four countries share Kurdish minorities – Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. All of these countries share a common denominator that leads them to cooperate. In Iraq, the Kurds have an autonomy. In Turkey, the entire south-eastern part of the country is Kurdish and the Turks clash regularly with the PKK organization over there. In north-eastern Syria, the Turks are engaged in military operations intended to deny the Kurds of a contiguous territory. There are currently some 30 million Kurds in the Middle East. They are scattered, but they all share the same ethnic background – and they want a state of their own.

"The implication is that it is feasible that those four countries exchange and share knowledge and information. So if you engage in a cooperative alliance with Turkey, you can never know whether or not it will reach Iran tomorrow. That is a concern that must be taken into consideration."

The main conclusion thus far is that the trend of asymmetrical war will continue into the next few years. The force build-up and weapon system development processes should match this conclusion. "One of the primary directions we opted for at IAI, including the Elta Division, is the development of persistent area surveillance capabilities," says Sofrin.

"In order to gain an advantage in the fight against terrorism and guerrilla, you need intelligence superiority. One of the means is cyberspace, regarding the intelligence gathering and offensive aspect. If the enemy uses the Internet, including social media and messenger-type channels for coordination and information sharing purposes, you must possess relevant capabilities for collecting intelligence from open or covert web sources. Cyber can serve as a collection element according to which other intelligence-gathering elements from the SigInt and HumInt categories may be directed.

"Cyberspace can also serve as a weapon on the battlefield. While in the past you had to deploy a special operations unit in order to conduct a certain mission, today you can assign it to hackers with almost no risk. 

"Look at Russia. Prior to any kinetic attack against an enemy state, they assign 300 hackers to attack the government websites, communication providers and critical infrastructures through cyberspace, thereby cutting off the connection between the government and the people. This paralyzes the enemy state's systems prior to the kinetic attack. It is a new offensive world that compels the military to develop new capabilities through cooperation with defense and civilian industries.

"Along with cyber, you need the capabilities required in order to 'dominate' the entire area cell in real time – to detect and identify anything that moves within that area cell. The accomplishments in the war against terrorism and guerrilla depend on the autonomous capability of combat elements to collect intelligence and close fire loops on their own. Once you have collected the information – you will be able to respond. If you fail to do this fast enough, you may have a good debriefing, but you would have lost the battle."

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The complete interview can be found in issue 37 of Israel Defense magazine. To subscribe, click here.