Massacres and large-scale abductions of civilians such as seen in Israel on October 7 are nearly unprecedented in the annals of global terrorism, an already horrific history that includes atrocities such as the hijacking of civilian aircraft, the deliberate crashing of planes into skyscrapers, and the execution of civilians using various methods — sometimes broadcast live to the world.
But the events of October 7 are a world apart, according to Prof. Boaz Ganor, president of Reichman University and founder of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).
“What happened on October 7 is unprecedented from an Israeli perspective, and the only known international precedent is the abduction of 276 girls by Boko Haram” in Nigeria in 2014, Ganor told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.
“What sets this apart is the scale of the abduction, encompassing a diverse range of ages, including soldiers and civilians, women, and infants,” said Ganor.
On October 7, Hamas abducted from Israel 240 individuals — many of whom hold dual citizenship — including 30 minors and approximately 20 people aged 60 and above. They were violently taken from their homes, a massive outdoor music festival and army bases.
But this is hardly the first time the Jewish state has experienced terrorist abductions. In fact, warned Ganor, Israel is a sandbox for learning terrorist methodology.
“Since forever, Israel has served as a test case for new terrorist methods and a model for imitation for terrorist organizations worldwide. This was the case with hostage-taking, airplane hijackings, and even suicide bombings. Therefore, the world must realize, and do so as soon as possible, that we are currently facing a new type of arch-terrorism – and I have no doubt that we will see similar things in Europe because they have done it here and are subjecting an entire population to terror,” he said.
Ganor outlined two historically distinct types of terrorist abductions during an interview with The Times of Israel. The first is characterized as an “extortionist attack,” where terrorists seize residents of a specific facility — a building, plane, bus, hotel, or army base. In such instances, the opposing side is aware of the hostages’ location, allowing for the preparation of a potential rescue operation during negotiations.
The second type involves the abduction and disappearance of individuals. Here, the possibility of a successful rescue operation is nearly nonexistent unless reliable intelligence regarding the hostages’ location is available.
A prominent example of the first type is Operation Entebbe in 1976, a hostage rescue mission executed by Israeli commandos at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. This operation was a response to the hijacking of an Air France plane by Palestinian and German terrorists. Despite the challenge in accessing Entebbe, the location of the hostages was known. Ganor highlights that the majority of terrorist activities from the 1970s onward involved “extortionist terror attacks” of this kind.
Ganor also points out that the attacks by terrorist organizations during that period influenced Israeli policy, which was spearheaded by Yitzhak Rabin, who served as prime minister from 1974 to 1977 and again from 1992 until his assassination in 1995.
“Rabin established a policy stipulating that if there was a possibility of safely rescuing the hostages, that was better than negotiating with the terrorists. But, if there was no chance of rescuing the hostages alive, Israel would enter genuine negotiations for their release alive,” said Ganor.
Benjamin Netanyahu, whose brother Yoni was killed during Operation Entebbe, was the only prime minister who told Ganor that he opposed this policy. However, in practice, Netanyahu has operated in accordance with it.
Ganor notes that in the 1990s, terrorist organizations targeting Israel shifted their focus from extortionist attacks to abductions. During this period, abductions primarily targeted soldiers, including Nissim Toledano (1992), Nachshon Wachsman (1994), Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham, and Omar Souad (2000), Gilad Shalit (2006, Gaza), Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev (2006, Lebanon), Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul (2014, Gaza).
These incidents of soldier abductions, whether dead or alive, typically concluded with the release of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom had been convicted of violent acts against Israelis. Notably, the case of Nachshon Wachsman ended in a failed Israeli rescue attempt.
The historical record of terrorist organizations underscores that Israel often serves as an “experimental ground” for acts of terror. For instance, the trend of aircraft hijacking was initiated with the 1968 hijacking of an El Al plane to Algeria by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Similarly, incidents such as breaking into a school and taking children hostage date back to 1974, during the Ma’alot terror attack orchestrated by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), resulting in the loss of 28 lives, mostly children from Safed.
Echoes of Boko Haram
In recent history, only one incident bears partial resemblance to the October 7 attack. On April 14, 2014, terrorists from the Islamic group Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls from a high school in Nigeria’s northeastern region.
Boko Haram, a terrorist organization, opposes the “spread of Western influence” and what it deems a Western-style education in northern Nigeria, seeking to establish an Islamic state based on Islamic law. Its decades-long activities have claimed thousands of lives. Prior to the schoolgirls’ abduction, Boko Haram targeted numerous schools, killing hundreds of children. The group opposes the education of girls and has been involved in kidnapping them for forced sexual slavery.
On the night of April 14-15, 2014, Boko Haram terrorists killed the school’s guard and seized control of the building. While some girls managed to escape, approximately 276 were forced to board trucks. The Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, took weeks to address the public about the kidnapping, and even blamed some parents for not providing information about the identity of the kidnapped girls. This sparked public anger, prompting Nigerian citizens to take to the streets both in Nigeria and worldwide, demanding action.
In the weeks and months following the abduction, a global campaign emerged under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Notable figures and celebrities, from Michelle Obama and Pope Francis to Kim Kardashian and Alicia Keys, participated by tweeting selfies with the hashtag, drawing international attention and raising awareness. Heads of state deployed military forces, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and sophisticated intelligence methods.
This story does not have a happy ending: Eventually, the Twitter campaign lost momentum as public attention shifted to the next viral cause. In October 2014, the Nigerian army appeared to have reached a ceasefire agreement with the terrorists to release hundreds of girls, but this agreement didn’t materialize. It wasn’t until October 2016 that 21 girls were released. In May 2017, the government announced the release of some terrorists in exchange for the freedom of 82 girls. As of today, 112 girls are still missing.
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