At this point in the investigation, while the main suspect in Friday’s attack in Tel Aviv has yet to be apprehended, it is hard to see many similarities to the Palestinian terror attacks we have known in the last three months, or even in past years.
If the fatal Dizengoff Street attack was indeed carried out by Nashat Milhem, a 29-year-old Israeli citizen from Arara, a village in northern Israel — as police suspect — then it is not part of the “third intifada,” or an attempt to identify with the Palestinians. It’s different in style, in method, in the attacker’s flight from the scene. It wasn’t a suicide attack, or the sort of self-sacrificial attacks that took place in 2001, when armed Palestinians would charge restaurants or other entertainment venues and shoot indiscriminately until they were shot dead.
No one has taken responsibility (at least thus far); nor has any organization gloried in the murder of innocents. It is not inconceivable that this latest terror attack is another “lone wolf” act — only this time, it may have been inspired by terror attacks carried out abroad under the ideological influence of the Islamic State group.
The similarities to the November 13 attacks that killed 130 in Paris are obvious: the perpetrator’s flight, as well as his chosen target — young people sipping coffee on a bustling city street. It is clear that the terrorist intended to survive, and continues (at least thus far) to flee for his life.
Was Nashat Milhem inspired by IS? Possibly. The Shin Bet busts cells or individuals planning to launch Islamic State-inspired attacks on an almost weekly basis. Islamic State succeeded in inspiring more than a few Arab Israelis to go fight in Syria and Iraq. It is possible others prefer to remain in Israel and murder apostates here, rather than make the long journey to the lands of IS. It is possible that, ultimately, someone from the Israeli Arab community will be able to evade and penetrate Israel’s imperfect intelligence coverage in order to carry out an attack of this sort.
Islamic State’s own leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, emphasized the importance of the Palestinian theater in his last public address, even vowing to attack the Jews, so it is not unreasonable to conclude that the speech may have inspired a few bad seeds in the Arab Israeli community, or even a single bad seed who reportedly already suffered from other problems, including a drug habit.
Milhem’s family claimed he suffered from severe mental illness. Yet the method of the attack testifies to cool-headed planning far beyond what might be expected from someone purportedly suffering from severe mental illness: the choice of target, the theft of the firearm from his father, the shooting, the flight, the possible killing spree that followed (with the possible killing of cab driver Amin Shaaban about an hour after the attack), and his survival until now.
To be sure, the motive for the attack may have been more complex than straightforward ideological inspiration. The intersection of mental illness, religious radicalization and a troubled past (including a prison term for attempting to steal a soldier’s firearm, a cousin killed by cops, drug use) may have created an especially dangerous mix. But the totality of his actions cannot be explained simply as mental illness or a psychotic break.
It is possible that Milhem’s case exposes the extent to which the State of Israel may be vulnerable to a new kind of homebrew terror of the IS model. This is no longer just Europe’s problem, or the Arab world’s. Just as the jihadist group succeeded in “inspiring” Muslims in Paris, Germany and Belgium, it is certainly possible that it is succeeding in instilling hatred and inspiring violence among Muslims in Israel, and pushing these “lone wolves” to take up arms and murder Israelis — Jews and Muslims alike.