On being rescued, Ingrid Betancourt stated: “This is a miracle, a miracle. We have an amazing military. I think only the Israelis can possibly pull off something like this.”
Her comment set off immediate speculation that there had been an Israeli hand in the dramatic operation. It is high praise for Israeli special forces that so many would readily assume that an effective commando operation was their handiwork. From a practical standpoint, the Israeli contribution to Betancourt’s rescue was modest (dwarfed by the U.S. contribution). But Israel’s philosophical contribution was enormous.
Yossi Melman of Haaretz (a leading Israeli daily) reported:
The Israeli activity, involving dozens of Israeli security experts, was coordinated by Global CST, owned by former General Staff operations chief, Brigadier General (res.) Israel Ziv, and Brigadier (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser…..
“It’s a Colombian Entebbe operation,” Ziv said Thursday when he returned from Bogota. “Both regarding its national and international importance. Betancourt has become a symbol of the struggle against international terror. This is an amazing operation that wouldn’t shame any army or special forces anywhere in the world.”
Asked about the Israeli involvement in it Ziv said there is “no need to exaggerate.”
“We don’t want to take credit for something we didn’t do,” a company source said. “We helped them prepare themselves to fight terror. We helped them to plan operations and strategies and develop intelligence sources. That’s quite a bit, but shouldn’t be taken too far.”
Another article discussing the Israeli role (and this less flattering cases of ex-IDF personnel training Colombia’s vicious paramilitaries) is here.
The American contribution, reported in The Washington Post was far more extensive involving a 100 person team of analysts and operatives. The operation received vetting from the Secretary of State and the Vice President. Overall Colombian capabilities benefited from a decade of extensive U.S. aid. Beyond helping to build a professional military, the U.S. contributed with its unparalleled electronic intelligence capabilities.
Israeli Counter-Terror: Setting the Stage
The real Israeli contribution occurred nearly forty years ago, with the dawn of modern international terrorism. On July 23, 1968 an El Al plane was hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and forced to land in Algeria. The Israelis had no response and after three weeks were forced to hand over a dozen Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the passengers and crew. It was the first and last successful hijacking of an Israeli airliner.
For a time the terrorists had the initiative, carrying out a wave of bombings and hijackings around the world. It seemed unstoppable. Then, as now, there were voices calling for negotiations, capitulation, and “addressing the root causes.”
But the Israelis developed counter-measures and responses. Secure check-in and armed sky marshals drawn from elite army units were only a few of the procedures the Israelis adopted. At the same time, Israel developed responses, training commando teams for hostage rescue operations. Entebbe is, deservedly the most famous, but not the only example. Other countries followed suit, in 1977 German commandos carried out a daring rescue of a hijacked Luthansa jet in Mogadishu. Like the Israelis, the Germans had been caught flat-footed in a previous terror attack – this time with the world watching at the 1972 Olympics. Perhaps the most significant of these rescues was in 1994 when French commandos stormed a hijacked Air France plane in Marseilles. The Algerian terrorists were believed to be planning to fly the plane into the Eiffel Tower.
Effective responses to terrorism are not limited to airborne terror. Capable strategy and tactics can marginalize terrorists and insurgents. Israel has brought Palestinian suicide attacks down from a weekly event at the height of the al-Aqsa Intifada to a few times a year.
That force can be useful against terrorists does not mean brute force is the right path. Almost every country that encounters terrorists and guerillas has turned to harsh brute force crackdowns. In and of themselves, these crackdowns are not always effective over the long term and often bring human rights violations in their wake. But creative thinking, rigorous intelligence gathering, analysis, and planning, and quality training can defeat terrorism.
At the same time, counter-terror is not only a task for commandos. In Colombia, the regular army played an essential role in setting the stage for the dramatic rescue. First, by re-claiming large parts of Colombian territory, which limited the FARC’s freedom of movement. Then, before the operation itself, the army played a long painstaking cat and mouse game with the FARC unit that held the hostages (getting so close that they actually saw the U.S. hostages) to learn its operations.
Not every terror attack can be prevented, but Israel has stood in the forefront of reminding the world that force – properly and intelligently applied – can be used to neutralize terrorism, thereby setting the stage for last week’s dramatic events in Colombia.