Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal
Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal

Yehuda Etzion, a former member of a Jewish terrorist group in the West Bank, once drove me to the top of the Mount of Olives, to a ridge above the Garden of Gethsemane, and asked me to look out across the valley, to the Temple Mount on the far side.

Shimmering in the sunlight was the Dome of the Rock, one of the world’s most important Muslim shrines. I said that the Dome was beautiful. Etzion answered that he didn’t even see it.

I asked him what he meant. “Look, maybe it’s beautiful,” he said.“But my father told me once that there are very many nice women in the world, beautiful women, but you have only one wife. This building is not my woman. It’s my enemy’s woman. So I don’t see it.”

I asked him what he saw instead. “I see the place where the Temple will stand.”

The Temple in question is the yet-unbuilt Third Temple, which certain Jews of a messianic bent believe should be built atop the Mount (site of the first two Jewish Temples), in place of the Dome of the Rock. But how to remove the Dome? Etzion and his fellow extremists once plotted to blow it up. The Israeli internal security service, the Shabak, caught them and sent them to jail before any damage could be done. Etzion told me he didn’t regret the plot, only that it didn’t work.

It could still work, however. There are still Jewish extremists roaming the Old City of Jerusalem, and some West Bank Jewish settlements are still home to men who believe they could hasten the coming of the messiah by igniting a cataclysmic war with Islam. I’ve met these men -- rabbis among them -- and they believe that God would save Israel if the Muslim world rose up in anger at the destruction of what one rabbi called “the abomination.”

They are right about one thing: The Muslim world would ignite if the Dome were attacked.

Clash of Civilizations

The terrorist who imagines himself to be not merely an agent of the aggrieved, but the salvation of his civilization -- these are the ones to fear. Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people July 22 in Norway because he believed Europe was under threat from Islam and multiculturalism, is the new archetype.

The ambitious terrorist of this moment in history seeks not simply to kill large numbers of innocent people, or to terrify an even greater number of people. He seeks nothing less than to provoke the thing we have so far mainly been able to avoid: a clash of civilizations.

Three attacks, in particular, I worry could have such world-changing effects. A plot against the Dome of the Rock is one.

Another would be an attack inside the U.S. of the kind that just took place in Norway -- an assault by a white, Christian extremist agitated by the imagined specter of worldwide Muslim domination, either against a government target, in the Oklahoma City and Oslo manner, or against a Muslim target.

Febrile Minds

A deadly attack prompted by anxiety about the building of mosques, for instance, would do irreparable harm to America’s image as a diverse and welcoming refuge, and could trigger the clash of civilizations extremists (both anti-Muslim Americans and anti-American Muslims) so desperately seek.

Is this a possibility? Spend time on websites devoted to stopping the coming invasion of the American court system by Muslim law -- an invasion that exists only in the febrile minds of anti-Muslim agitators -- or visit the sites devoted to keeping mosques out of places like Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It’s not hard to imagine that an unstable person with access to explosives would try to carry these campaigns to their logical conclusions.

Of course, the main terrorist threat to global security still emanates from Islamist groups: al-Qaeda, Qaeda affiliates and those inspired by the Qaeda message. But al-Qaeda itself has little ability now to launch a world-changing attack.

The Lashkar Threat

That ability resides with another Islamist organization, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has links to the Pakistani intelligence service. Lashkar unleashed the devastating attack on Mumbai in November 2008 that killed 164. That attack, terrible as it was, did not lead to war between India and Pakistan only because India’s government made the deliberate decision not to retaliate.

But a second terrorist spectacular in Mumbai? The Indian defense minister, Pallam Raju, said in June that “if a provocation is to happen again, it would be hard to justify to our people self-restraint.” And Pakistan -- which still views India as a hegemonic Hindu power dominating Muslims across the subcontinent -- would surely respond to an Indian reprisal with force. These two states, with massive armies and impressive atomic arsenals, could spiral toward a nuclear exchange.

Targets Are Exposed

What’s the likelihood that that any of these three attacks could happen? In Mumbai, the likelihood is fairly high. Lashkar is a potent and fanatic group with state support, and Mumbai remains a vulnerable target, as a fatal bombing showed last month.

In the U.S., it’s impossible to say. Such is the nature of lone-wolf terrorism. One day, a Timothy McVeigh or an Anders Breivik is completely unknown to the public and to the authorities. The next, he has written himself into history.

In Israel, the Shabak takes the threat of Jewish extremism quite seriously. But once again, lone wolves or small, self-radicalized cells are difficult to stop. And the target is exposed.

A few months ago, I visited a building in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City owned by a radical yeshiva. A friend, sympathetic to my worry, took me to the roof, up a series of dark, winding staircases. We came out into the sunlight. There, seemingly close enough to touch, was the golden dome.

“One rocket, fired from right here,” my friend said. He didn’t have to complete the sentence.

(Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.