Did you know the U.S. government’s first official counterterrorism office was created in response to an attack on Israelis? In fact, many of the components of the U.S. responses to terrorism were prompted by developments affecting Israel.
During his Shabbat morning guest lecture on Jan. 27, Michael Kraft, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. State Department’s counterterrorism office, shared these and many other insights about about American cooperation with Israel and other allies in combating terrorism. Kraft spoke at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudat Achim in Silver Spring, Maryland.
In 1972, Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics. This attack prompted the U.S. to establish a formalized counterterrorism effort. “In reaction to the killings and the botched German rescue operation, President Nixon established the first U.S. government interagency counterterrorism organization,” Kraft said. That effort led to the creation of the Office for Combating Terrorism, which is now known as the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, in the State Department.
International cooperation with traditional allies, and particularly with Israel, intensified as the United States and Israel both faced threats from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and other Palestinian groups such as the Abu Nidal Organization. In May 1973, the Black September offshoot of the PLO killed U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel and Deputy Chief of Mission George Curtis Moore in the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan.
“In Israel and elsewhere, both Israelis and Americans were hit in these cases,” Kraft said. “In one case, a young Senate staffer, Hal Rosenthal, was killed along with two other persons near the El Al terminals when he got off a plane in Istanbul in 1976.”
Kraft recently co-authored that covers these developments: “U.S. Counterterrorism: From Nixon to Trump – Key Challenges, Issues, and Responses.” Before retiring from government, Kraft served as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Middle East Subcommittee; he also worked as a chief congressional correspondent for Reuters, and as a foreign correspondent based in London and Central Africa.
FBI overseas offices, known as legal attaches or “legats,” have “proven useful in helping to investigate terrorist crimes, helping host governments investigate attacks, and even helping draft counterterrorism legislation,” said Kraft. Legats and U.S. embassy officials in Israel work closely with the Israeli government, although Israeli and FBI agents have different work styles, he said.
“The Israelis like to clean up the site of a terrorist attack as quickly as possible to bring them back an appearance of normalcy. The American approach is to seal off the crime scene, and search carefully for evidence," said Kraft.
“The Israelis rely heavily on rounding up and questioning suspects or persons who may know something about them. I have heard FBI officials telling Congress that such interrogations are unlikely to stand up in American courts,” he added.
Notwithstanding such differences in approach, U.S. and Israeli authorities maintain close cooperation on counterterrorism.
“While [the U.S. does] not provide antiterrorism training to Israel as we do with less-developed countries, there is an exchange of information, and sometimes Israeli instructors come here to train us. Some have even carved out a niche in advising the U.S. private sector,” he said.
In the bigger picture, the U.S. is a major supplier of military equipment to Israel and works with Israel to develop the Iron Dome and other anti-missile systems. In doing so, the U.S. has benefited from Israeli innovations and modifications on counterterrorism.
“One of the little-publicized cooperative efforts between the United States and Israel is the research and development of equipment to deter, counter or minimize terrorist attacks,” Kraft said.
By Frank Solomon
Frank Solomon is a member of Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim and lives in the Kemp Mill neighborhood of Silver Spring, Maryland.