ANALYSIS – Tel Aviv Shooting: Do Not Discount Islamic State

Haim Zach / GPO via Getty Images
Haim Zach / GPO via Getty Images

TEL AVIV – A careful review of Friday’s shooting incident on popular Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv raises significant questions about organizational terrorist involvement in the devastating assault.

At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the perpetrator as a deranged individual acting on his own but the known information points to more.

The terrorist was identified as Nashat Milhem, a 29-year-old Israeli Arab resident of Arara, a village in the Wadi Ara in northern Israel. Milhem is known to the security establishment here. Milhem was jailed for five years for a 2007 attack on an Israeli soldier in which he attempted to grab the soldier’s rifle after assaulting the victim with a screwdriver.

Israel’s Ynetnews website reported on Milhem’s seeming emotional problems. Apparently, Milhem several times requested anger management therapy while he was in Israeli prison, but the prisoner services repeatedly denied the petitions.

Also, his lawyer and family had asked that the court treat him as mentally unstable. Those requests were also rejected even though the judge in the case, Justice Tzila Keinan, ruled at the time that Milhem’s “behavior stems from a mental disorder.”

Keinan wrote in a ruling:

“While it was not proven that the accused suffers from a mental illness that excludes criminal responsibility, the same documentation shows that this is a ‘guy with a personality disorder, and based on psychological testing he has a full-fledged personality disorder, including drug and alcohol use from a young age and criminal behavior involving drugs, which led him to serve jail time a year ago.”

Keinen found that Milhem’s 2007 attack was not motivated by nationalism but rather by “a mental disorder that was aggravated by drug use.”

However, Milhem reportedly admitted his motivation for the 2007 attack was to avenge his cousin, who was killed during a police raid in 2006 and was found to be illegally storing weapons.

Milhem is currently at-large after shooting up a central Tel Aviv pub on Friday, killing two people and wounding at least seven, some seriously. Police are still searching the city for the alleged shooter.

Amos Harel of Haaretz did a good job describing why Milhem’s assault is unusual for the current so-called wave of terrorism.

If it was a terror attack, however, the events are uncharacteristic of the terror attacks in recent months. Not only was the suspected assailant an Israeli citizen (although several recent assailants have held Israeli IDs), but he used a firearm and attacked in the heart the country. Most extraordinarily, he immediately fled the scene of the attack rather than stay to maximize casualties before being killed himself – as did many of the terrorists before him.

Several questions need to be immediately asked:

Was Milhem directed by any terrorist group or was he possibly independently motivated by Islamic State ideology?

The Times of Israel reports on Milhem’s noticeably calm demeanor just prior to the attack:

New security camera video released Saturday showed Milhem walking calmly along Dizengoff Street minutes before the attack. Earlier footage showed him in a natural foods store, and stepping out to carry out the attack.

Footage from the scene of the attack shows people sitting in a cafe on the popular Dizengoff Street, and running for cover when the gunfire begins. The gunman can be seen coming into shot, as he sprays the street with his automatic weapon.

He had been filmed moments earlier in a natural foods grocery store, calmly removing the murder weapon from his backpack and stepping into the street.

Eye witnesses to the carnage described a calm assailant who seemed to have had an escape plan in place. Milhem’s cool behavior before and during the attack may indicate some level of military training, or at least preparedness for the assault.

Mental instability does not explain this behavior. Milhem was able to obtain a firearm and ammunition, arrive at the target, calmly stake out the scene of the attack, shoot up a chaotic café without panicking and then escape a major police dragnet.

It is instructive to note that a Koran was reportedly found in Milhem’s backpack, possibly evidencing Islamic motivation and not merely mental illness.

In recent weeks, Israeli and Palestinian security services have clamped down on cells of Salafists who reportedly joined the Islamic State. Some of those extremists were Israeli Arabs from northern Israel.

Israel’s Shin Bet security agency in December announced the arrest of Israeli Arab youths from Nazareth for declaring allegiance to the Islamic State. The Shin Bet said that during interrogations “it emerged that, in the past year, the youths obtained firearms and trained with them, while becoming more devout during meetings they held. They expressed support for ISIS [Islamic State], and praised the jihad against infidels.”

Two weeks ago, two cousins accused of being Islamic State operatives were arrested in the Nazareth area on suspicion of plotting attacks in northern Israel.

It is significant that last night Salafists in the Gaza Strip allied with IS ideology claimed responsibility for firing 5 rockets form Gaza into southern Israel.

Milhem’s attack also happens to follow a call-to-arms broadcast last weekend by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-declared Islamic State, who threatened in a rare audio recording to turn Israel into a “graveyard.”

Israel is also on heightened alert due to threats of retaliation from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah for the elimination last month of Samir Kuntar, perpetrator of one of the most brutal terror attacks in Israeli history.

Did Milhem have an accomplice?

According to reports, Milhem’s brother, Juadat Milhem, was arrested on Friday in conjunction to the attack.

Police are reportedly examining a potential link between Milhem’s attack and the murder of Amin Shaaban, a taxi driver whose body was found in north Tel Aviv moments after Milhem’s attack. On Saturday, Israel’s Walla news portal reported that police here are increasingly suspecting the two incidents are indeed related.

It is unusual for a suspect to escape the scene of a massive police search and still be at-large in or near Tel Aviv for over 24-hours. Security officials believe Milhem likely had an escape plan in place.

What are Milhem’s next moves?

A highly motivated killer remains at large in central Israel, with the murder weapon in tow.  Police reportedly fear two extreme scenarios: That Milhem would attempt a second shooting attack or that he would enter a civilian home and take a family hostage.

Aaron Klein is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He is a New York Times bestselling author and hosts the popular weekend talk radio program, “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio.”  Follow him on Twitter @AaronKleinShow. Follow him on Facebook.