A Grim Expertise: Countries Turn to Israel for Advice on Handling Terror

When Charles Ramsey, chief of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, visited Israel last year, he was impressed with the number of cops he saw on Jerusalem’s streets. Mickey Levy, then chief of Jerusalem’s police force, told Ramsey that the force actually was understaffed. But each police cruiser had its blue lights swirling, making them auspicious and giving the impression of police on every corner.

Now, blue and red lights swirl from police cars in the American capital as well, even when they’re just on regular patrol.

“Unfortunately we have a great experience of terrorism in a small arena,” said Levy, now police attache at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. “We don’t have the attitude that we want to teach people, but to prevent the bloodshed we suffered.”

With terrorism increasingly becoming a worldwide threat — as evidenced by the July 7 bombings on London’s public transport system as well as Tuesday’s suicide bombing at a shopping mall in Netanya — numerous American police forces are turning to Israeli law enforcement leaders to learn best practices from cops who have been facing the threat of terrorism for decades.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, law enforcement officers from Israel and America have been sharing information on how each force prevents, investigates and restores order after terrorist attacks. Several American Jewish groups have facilitated these educational travel exchanges, aiding police who protect everything from the U.S. Capitol to Disneyland.

The Israeli-aided preparation helped American law enforcement departments ratchet up security in the hours after the London bombings.

While American cooperation with Israeli law enforcement officials is advanced, it’s just getting under way in Europe, partly because of negative attitudes there toward Israel. But British officials are expected to utilize Israeli knowledge of Muslim terrorist groups in its investigation of last week’s attacks.

“What’s important to the United Kingdom is how these operations are organized, whether it’s British-based or whether the training, information and materials were brought from abroad,” said David Capitanchick, a terrorism expert from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Israeli law enforcement officials have more experience investigating terrorism crime scenes and have shared their knowledge, such as how to distinguish a suicide bomber from his or her victims, in forums throughout the United States.

Even veteran cops look stunned when they see video footage from suicide-bombing scenes, said David Friedman, Washington regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, which sponsors law-enforcement initiatives.

“These are people that have seen everything in the world — from car accidents to murders,” Friedman said. “But they see a whole family lying on the floor together, and you can tell how deeply affected they are.”

American police want to know how to investigate a terrorist attack while returning life to normal as quickly as possible. Stephen Serrao, the New Jersey State Police’s counterterrorism bureau chief, said U.S. roads likely would be blocked and mass transit shuttered for days or weeks after a terrorist attack, while the streets in Israel are reopened in a matter of hours.

“We needed to have the authority to clean things up and get on with life as quickly as possible,” Serrao said. “We have to learn how to minimize the impact the terrorists have by bombing.”

The New Jersey State Police superintendent, Joseph Fuentes, traveled to Israel last year with the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and spent nearly two weeks learning methodology and police tactics.

Levy and other Israeli law enforcement officials showed him how the police commander is in total control in an emergency situation and gives instructions to the local government, hospitals and fire officials. That allows a single authority to expedite the investigation, clean up and restore order.

“They go in-depth on how law enforcement can better collect and analyze and disseminate intelligence and how it can better respond to a terrorist incident,” said Steve Pomerantz, a former FBI assistant director who runs JINSA’s counterterrorism program.

Serrao said his force now uses more intelligence-based policing. If a routine traffic stop turns up a person with forged documents or other suspicious details, an intelligence officer will go to the scene to seek terrorism clues.

“We’ve learned we’ve got to have the resources out in the field 24/7,” he said.

The U.S. Capitol Police, which guard Congress’ workplace, also learned to think “outside the box” from their Israeli counterparts. When a suspicious man stood unresponsive next to two suitcases in April, the Capitol Police assumed the worst and blocked off several streets until the man was tackled and apprehended.

“The Israelis opened our eyes to other types of incidents that we may not have seen before or may not have been used to,” said Officer Michael Lauer, the Capitol Police’s public information officer.

Ted Sexton, a sheriff in Tuscaloosa, Ala. who is president of the National Sheriff’s Association, said the techniques he learned on a trip last year sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee were “invaluable.” They ranged from a briefing on how much to tell the media — enough to calm the public but not to tip off terrorists as to techniques — bomb dismantlement techniques, and crisis management, which came in handy preparing for the recent hurricane season.

His group is planning another AIPAC-sponsored tour in February, Sexton said.

“Homeland security cooperation between the United States and Israel is one of the areas where people are paying more and more attention,” AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said. “In coming years you will see a number of measures out of Congress that will enhance that cooperation. It is certainly something AIPAC is working on.”

There’s a limit to what tactics American police can replicate from the Israelis. Serrao said Israelis might destroy the house of those responsible for a terrorist attack, but that response wouldn’t work in New Jersey.

And U.S. police can’t operate checkpoints or follow other tactics Israel has developed to prevent attacks. That’s especially true in New Jersey, where law enforcement has been reprimanded in recent years for using racial profiling tactics in traffic stops.

But there still is much to learn from a country too familiar with fighting terrorism. Levy said Israeli children are taught, starting in kindergarten, to look out for suspicious packages. Six car bombs in the past four years were prevented in Israel because members of the public alerted police to suspicious vehicles.

In the wake of the London bombings, more European countries may consider Israeli tactics. An aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday that intelligence ties with Britain will be “tightened” after the London attacks, which killed at least 52 people and injured some 700.

England historically is familiar with terrorism because of the Irish Republican Army attacks in the 1980s. In fact, Israeli intelligence on Libya, a major supporter of the IRA and Palestinian terrorist groups, was used at that time.

But the lessons learned from IRA terror attacks were not necessarily helpful in dealing with the threat of Islamic extremism.

In the 1990s, the U.K. became a haven for Muslim radicals seeking refuge from hostile regimes, including those in Algeria and Saudi Arabia.

“The U.K. treated them with a great deal of tolerance and didn’t interfere, provided they weren’t carrying out attacks in this country,” Capitanchick said.

That allowed extremist Islamists such as Abu Hamza Al-Masri — the one-eyed, hook-handed cleric whose trial on multiple charges including soliciting the murder of Jews began last week — to recruit and indoctrinate young Muslims in Britain.

Intelligence sharing was heightened again in 2003 when two young British Muslims attacked Mike’s Place, a Tel Aviv bar. At least one of the Mike’s Place bombers was known to have attended the Finsbury Park mosque in London where Al-Masri preached.

German media have suggested that forensic investigators have found that the same explosive materials were used in both the July 7 London attacks and the Mike’s Place bombing, but the Israeli military chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, told the Knesset on Tuesday that the two attacks were unrelated.

Ron Kampeas in Washington and Daniella Peled in London contributed to this report.

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