We will probably never know the whole story behind the 200+ fires that set Israel ablaze over the past 3-4 days. But pyro-terrorism should not surprise us. We were forewarned. Long ago.
Fire as a Weapon of War
Fire has been used in warfare throughout human history. Villages have been burned to the ground to prevent the enemy from returning home, witches and others have been burned at the stake, crosses have been set afire to terrorize black families in the United States.
Fire has a place in modern warfare and terrorism: during World War II, Japan sent 9000 balloons loaded with incendiary devices across the Pacific Ocean with the intention of starting forest fires on continental USA soil; over 500 landed and most did nothing, but one ignited in Oregon and killed five children and a pregnant woman picnicking in the woods. During the Vietnam War, forest fires were set by American soldiers with the intention of destroying vegetative cover and exposing the Vietcong; they were unsuccessful in creating fire storms, but the fires led the Vietcong to amass at the fire site to fight it and they were easily picked off by the Americans. And terrorists have ignited forest fires in Australia, Spain, Greece, Estonia and Israel over the past few decades.
As we clear the ash from destroyed forests and homes, salve the burns to our collective psyche, and watch for new ignition points before they can rage out of control, no organization has yet claimed responsibility for the fires. Spokespeople are saying that, while some of these fires were accidental or a natural reaction to dry weather conditions combined with high winds, perhaps 50% were caused by arson. We do not know yet as the investigations into the causes of the fires are in the early stages. A few dozen Arabs suspects are being held for questioning.
We saw all this unfold before us in Australia, if we paid attention. Australian historian Mervyn Bendle published his conclusions after study of the context of the tragic fires that took place in February 2009, killing about 200 people and millions of animals, destroying over 2,000 homes, and leaving 7,500 people homeless.
He discussed reports of jubilation around the Muslim world, happily celebrating the revenge wrought upon Australia for its involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and for the sentencing days earlier of a Muslim terrorist in Melbourne. We in Israel are familiar with acts of terror that claim to arise from spontaneous outbursts of vengeance, but that were more likely part of a long-term strategy.
We and other countries are also familiar with the attempts by authorities and some Muslim leaders to silence accusations directed toward Islamists for fear that it tarnishes an entire community. Bendle quoted a police statement issued at that time that sought to defuse animosity toward Muslims.
The Islamic community have made a concerted effort to support bushfire survivors, many of whom have donated blood to the Red Cross and only yesterday members of the Preston Mosque personally drove a collection of donated items to the tent city in Whittlesea. Members of the Islamic community will also be involved in a telethon on SBS tomorrow to raise further funds for the Bushfire Appeal.
However, it was noted that:
. . . this special exoneration and praise for a particular section of the community by the police failed to take into account the vastly greater contributions made by other groups, who were left unmentioned, and whose sustained efforts obviously involved a lot more than a drive out to Whittlesea with a collection of donated items.
The police further tried to muffle expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment by announcing, before investigations had even begun, that there was little to no chance the Victoria fire storm was an act of jihad. Bendle indicates how inappropriate such a statement was in view of the fact that of the 45,000-60,000 bush fires in Australia per year, about 90% have been determined to be sometimes accidentally but mostly purposefully ignited.
I do not understand this almost knee-jerk reaction to coddle the Muslims in one’s country – either by publicizing any humanitarian help they offer way out of proportion to the actual help they provide in light of assistance offered by other citizen groups, or by under-playing the fact that Muslims committed atrocities that were committed by Muslims. I cannot say that I really understand this phenomenon.
In 2006, Robert Baird, now American Deputy National Fire Director, wrote a thesis on pyro-terrorism. He assessed the potential for forest jihad to wreak havoc in the West and warned governments to devise strategies to combat it before forced to cope with it.
The potential destructive energy already exists in the nation’s forests, waiting for an opportunistic terrorist to unleash a wildfire and create a conflagration potentially equal to a multi-megaton nuclear weapon. If terrorist organizations use pyroterrorism — publicly assuming responsibility for massive arson-induced firestorms — the devastation would overwhelm suppression resources, weaken regional economies, destroy critical infrastructure, effect readiness in military forces, erode the perception of Homeland Security among the population, and potentially exert political pressure on national leadership for policy change.
A Manual for Pyro-Terrorism
An online open-access journal, Inspire, published an article in 2012 giving the potential pyro-terrorist all he or she would want to know about starting forest fires, from optimal weather conditions to materials. Not least important is building morale.
Perhaps, given the ease of starting forest fires and not being caught, it is surprising that we have not seen more large-scale pyro-terrorist attacks over the years. We can only hope that that will not change in the near future.
My Take-Aways from the Latest Israeli Experience and My Review of the Literature
- Pyromaniacs and terrorists alike get enormous pleasure in witnessing the results of their destructive acts. Fire is very photogenic and I can only imagine that the pyro-terrorist is almost orgasmic from all the videos and photos of huge fires and the blackened ash and broken hearts they leave in their wake. It is impossible, these days, to prevent that from happening as all forms of media rush to produce such materials. Had Japan known that 500 balloons landed in the USA and that one killed people, they probably would have continued trying, but we cannot black out the media today. The only way to reduce the impact of the fires, then, is to fight them more effectively so that they and their images are extinguished as quickly as possible so that we promptly move on to the next major news story.
- If forest fires can cause the same damage as bombs, we are likely to see an increase in pyro-terrorism as there is no need to purchase illegal materials or to move them across borders in order to carry out a deathly attack.
- The contributions of European and Arab neighbours to our fire-fighting efforts are to me a sign, not that they have changed their attitude or sentiments toward Israel, but that they recognize a common enemy and they want us on their side. So please, let us not wax poetic on this point.
- Our leaders, political and law enforcement alike, should stop making any statements aside from encouraging the resilience of the citizenry before they KNOW what caused the fires. Because they have jumped too quickly in other terror and crime related circumstances to make statements related to causes or blame, they have undermined our trust in them. This has also led to the unfortunate circumstance of a social media replete with cries for revenge against, in some cases, all Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The way to fight terrorism is by devising long-term strategies with clear goals and methodologies and with a public that is behind, and not in front of, our leaders.
- The fact that the Palestinian Authority sent over fire-fighters to help Israel control the flames does not impress me. It is nice. But they also sent fire-fighters to help control the Carmel Fire and that did not prevent them from inciting against us later and calling for Jews to be killed by stabbing and by rock-throwing and by car rammings.
- The fact that Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi came out against the pyro-terrorism and asked Arabs and Jews to support each other also does not impress me. Once this has passed, I have no doubt that they will continue to foment hate and destruction of Israel by other means.
- We do not need to talk about Arabs loving the land less than we do because they are willing to burn it, drawing on the story of King Solomon’s judgement in the case of two women who claimed a baby was theirs. True or not, such talk diverts our energies to emotional planes and may reduce our ability to think clearly about how to cope with terrorism and with our enemies. We need to be cool and not enraged. It does not matter what our enemies think or feel – it matters what they do; and it matters what we do to stop them from doing us harm and not what we think or feel.
I can only wonder if this entire article would have been different had MY house been one of those damaged. (Thank-you Hillel Goldberg for making me aware of this possibility.)
Finally, let me paraphrase a common saying thus:
A small fire that WARNS you is better than a large fire that BURNS you.
We have had sufficient small fires to be sufficiently warned. From what I have seen, it does appear that we have learned a lot from the Carmel Fire tragedy. It could have turned out so much worse otherwise. I hope this means that we are truly prepared for the worst of fire storms pyro-terrorists have in mind for us.
This article was first published on Israel Diaries.