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18 October 2023

Inside Israel’s intelligence fiasco

Security failures allowed Hamas to launch its catastrophic attack on 7 October. Can the Israeli leadership overcome its fatal complacency?

By Lawrence Freedman

Intelligence failures happen when pieces of information that should be picked up are not or are picked up and then misinterpreted. If they are interpreted correctly but not acted upon then it becomes more of a policy failure. When Israel was caught out by the Hamas attack of 7 October this was both an intelligence and policy failure. Despite the famed professionalism and tenacity of Israel’s intelligence agencies, they did not notice signs of the coming attack by the Palestinian militants, and despite the equally famed security focus of the government, it was complacent about the situation in Gaza. This was not the first time the country had been caught out, in different circumstances but for similar reasons. Fifty years earlier, on 6 October 1973, Israel was surprised as Egyptian and Syrian forces embarked on a sudden offensive and broke through its defensive lines.

Perhaps still the most fateful and studied example of a successful surprise attack is the Japanese strike against the American Pearl Harbor naval base on 7 December 1941 that opened the Pacific War. In a landmark study, the historian Roberta Wohlstetter introduced the thought that the problem was not a lack of information – the Americans were after all reading Japanese diplomatic and military traffic – but that those bits that in retrospect warned of trouble to come were lost in the background “noise” of masses of material that turned out to be irrelevant.

[See also: The Middle East on the brink]

This is why the problem facing intelligence analysts is often described as one of “joining the dots”: seeing a pattern in disparate pieces of information that point to the danger ahead. This is always going to be a difficult exercise because the information is often incomplete, ambiguous, contradictory and confusing. To make sense of it all analysts need a working hypothesis – we can call it a “construct” – against which the incoming evidence will be tested, and its reliability judged. If the construct is too strongly held, the risk is that only information that fits with it will be highlighted, while that which does not is disregarded. Thus Irving Janis’s concept of “groupthink” explained how US naval commanders in Hawaii developed a set of firmly held beliefs that blinded them to the possibility of such an audacious Japanese move. It was hard to suppose that Japan would go to war with the much more powerful United States because it would obviously lose, and, even as war became more likely, there seemed to be better targets for the Japanese.

In the other great surprise attack of 1941 – the German invasion of the Soviet Union – the construct was entirely Stalin’s. He did not think the pact with Germany would last much longer, but that for the time being it served Hitler’s interests as much as it served his. He was confident in the strength of the Soviet army and Hitler’s reluctance to take on another enemy before the British had been defeated. Many warnings came to him, including from Winston Churchill, that a German attack was imminent, but he assumed that all these messengers had malign intent.

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In October 1973 Israeli military intelligence’s construct appreciated that Syria would not go to war alone and that Egypt would only take the risk if it were able to neutralise the Israeli air force, the source of its defeat in the 1967 war. Israel underestimated both Egyptian capabilities, including air defences, and the risks that Anwar el-Sadat, the president, was prepared to take, while overestimating its own ability to defend.

The influence of compelling constructs of this sort, plausible enough to explain the lack of immediate danger, can be seen at work most times that countries get caught by surprise. Consider two occasions  when UK assessments went badly wrong. In 1982, the possibility of a Falkland Islands invasion was dismissed not because Argentina lacked the capabilities but because its best option, incurring less international opprobrium, would simply have been to cut off communications to the islands. (This had been rejected because the Argentines assumed that Chile would keep the Falklands supplied.)

Then in 2003, assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were proven very wrong – a different sort of failure because it involved exaggerating an adversary’s capabilities. The Chilcot Inquiry concluded that the problem was the intelligence community’s construct on what it thought was happening with Iraq’s weapons programme while only having patchy intelligence, in particular the conviction that Saddam Hussein was totally committed to obtaining WMD.

This illustrates the extent to which these constructs revolve around assessments of an adversary’s intentions as much as their capabilities. This can be seen in two instances in which there was no doubting the capabilities. As Iraq built up its forces close to Kuwait in July 1990 and Russia threatened Ukraine in early 2022 the situation on the ground was plain to see. The issue was whether their leaders were bluffing. In 1990, largely because negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait were still ongoing, the erroneous conclusion was drawn that Saddam Hussein was bluffing. In 2022 the controversial though correct judgement was drawn, at least in the US and UK and belatedly in Ukraine, that this was the real thing. The intense debate leading up to the war was about the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s strategic calculations.

[See also: Benjamin Netanyahu’s war test]

Not all such constructs are wrong – after all, most countries most of the time are not subject to surprise attacks. We are talking about exceptional cases. The most exceptional, as with al-Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, are those that are barely imagined as possibilities. Prior to 9/11 American agencies were aware that terrorists might strike but they did not anticipate anything so brutal and bold. What remains startling is how little effort those preparing the attack put into operational security; they used their own names and contacted other known terrorists. Numerous pieces of information were gathered and filed but nobody pulled it all together – which led to the post 9/11 conclusion that joining the dots required joining the different parts of the intelligence community together.

Japan’s strike against the US Pearl Harbor naval base, 7 December 1941. Photo by Fox Photos / Getty Images

The task for intelligence agencies becomes harder when the would-be attacker seeks to mask its intentions and prepare in secrecy: limiting the numbers of people who know about the plan, identifying routes for forces to get into position undetected, and timing the attack so that the target will not be alert or able to respond quickly.

This is how Hamas prepared for the attack of 7 October. The plans were tightly held by a few in the leadership group, and were only discussed in rooms and on paper so that Israeli intelligence was unable to listen in. Before the attack, the designated fighters were kept away from external contacts, their electronic devices confiscated, and only informed of their roles in the operation hours before it took place. The timing reflected the symbolic 50-year anniversary of the 1973 war, except that this time the festival distracting Israelis was not the sombre Yom Kippur but the usually more joyous Simchat Torah.

This worked in part because the Hamas leadership deliberately and systematically encouraged an Israeli construct that reinforced complacency. The belief in Israel was that after the last bout of fighting in May 2021, Hamas had decided that it did not want Gaza to be battered any more but instead wanted to focus on economic recovery. Israeli strategy reflected this hope as it encouraged Qatar to pay out to keep the Gazan government afloat, although this was never quite as much as Gaza needed, while allowing more Gazans permits to work in Israel – up to 18,000 daily – although this still left Palestinians largely poor and unemployed.

When earlier this year Islamic Jihad, the other militant group operating from the territory, mounted rocket attacks Hamas refrained from getting involved, further supporting the view that it had taken a more moderate turn. When there was rioting close to the border in September, Hamas helped to calm the situation, working with Qatar acting as an intermediary. When they were confident that the Israelis were listening in to their conversations Hamas leaders spoke about their desire not to go to war. Deception was a vital part of the plan.

Israel assumed that Hamas had changed its approach because it was deterred by Israel’s past responses to its rocket attacks. In this Israel was fortified by the thought that even if Hamas reverted to type this would probably mean further rocket attacks, which could be handled by the country’s Iron Dome air defences. This is why when Egypt reportedly warned that Palestinian anger was growing, the concern was dismissed: Hamas appeared to be deterred and the worst it could do would be to test the Iron Dome a bit more.

There was a further factor, and this is where policy failure added to intelligence failure. It suited the Israeli government to believe in its optimistic construct because its security forces had become preoccupied with the tense situations developing in the West Bank and Jerusalem, where extremist settler groups had been stirring up trouble and were now demanding protection. As the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and police units dealt with these disturbances their bosses warned that this meant neglecting other threats. These tensions were aggravated by the uproar caused by Benjamin Netanyahu’s going into coalition as prime minister with hard right-wing parties in pursuit of judicial reforms. This had led to regular mass demonstrations, denouncing Netanyahu for putting the country’s democracy in jeopardy to escape from his own corruption trial. The disarray in Israel provided an additional reason Hamas might have thought that this was a good time to strike.

[See also: Israel, Gaza and a war without limit]

Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf / Anadolu via Getty Images

Iran appears to have encouraged this view, although there is no evidence that it was involved directly in any of the planning. Hamas is part of its regional network, along with Hezbollah, the Shia militia based in Lebanon. If Tehran had orchestrated the attacks and wanted to maximise hurt to Israel, it would have had the two militant groups attacking together on two fronts, at least with rockets (Hezbollah’s are more numerous and accurate than Hamas’s). Israel had hitherto assumed that Hezbollah was also deterred, with Lebanon already in a fragile state and with no interest in a war with Israel. It also assumed that Iran has held Hezbollah back in case of a wider war with the US. But Iran has now warned Israel that it may not show restraint if the situation in Gaza gets worse. This complicates Israeli military planning, along with other uncertainties, such as the prospect of increased tension in the West Bank. How much can Israel commit to Gaza with the possibility of other fronts opening up?

The need to prioritise security on the West Bank to protect settler groups will be one criticism in the inquiries into Israel’s lack of readiness. Another, closely linked, will be that too much reliance was placed on an elaborate, high-tech surveillance system that had been put together along the Gaza border, with cameras on watch towers and remote-controlled machine guns. The barriers to infiltration above ground were complemented by barriers below to block any tunnels being dug under the border fence, as had happened in previous Hamas attacks. Unfortunately, because this was a remote-controlled defence it was vulnerable to a remote-controlled strike. Drones were used to attack the surveillance and communications systems. New tunnels stopped just before the fence, so that when the fighters emerged, they could use explosives and bulldozers to create a way through the fence. They destroyed any sensors that might have picked them up.

[See also: “Long Corbyn” is shaping Labour’s judgements on the Middle East]

Just before the Hamas attack, there do appear to have been some clues, noticed by the Americans, about something big in the offing. Until 6 October the presumption remained that this might largely be another round of rocket attacks. On the eve of the attacks unusual activity around Hamas operatives was detected, although still without any detail of what it was about.

Israeli intelligence observed the same signs, but after discussions about what it might mean officers decided the available information was not definite enough to raise the alert status. They would wait for more. Messages were sent to the Israeli soldiers guarding the Gazan border, but they were not acted upon, either because they were not received or read. The local Israeli command centre was blinded before it was attacked and its soldiers murdered without a chance to sound the alarm. Away from Gaza the Israeli security system faltered and with no idea what was going on, other than a surge of activity on Hamas networks, it was unable to coordinate a response. Hours passed before the IDF could reach the scene of the attacks.

Because it was caught out so badly, Israel’s responses to the attack were improvised and impetuous, with promises made to assuage public anger that will be difficult to keep. While humanitarian agencies in Gaza have also been surprised by the sudden escalation (they received no warning), and are struggling to cope with the region becoming a battle zone once again, Hamas will be following its own plans to resist Israeli pressure from the air and ground. The lack of good intelligence on what Hamas was up to prior to 7 October raises questions about Israel’s knowledge of what it will face if it launches a ground attack.

All the ingredients for a classic intelligence failure were present: successful deception on the one hand and sparse information, complacency and lack of imagination on the other. There is another factor, which helps to explain why the constructs through which a potential adversary is viewed can be so wrong. Surprise attacks may not be anticipated because they do represent a poor choice for the perpetrators. They can be both great tactical achievements and deep strategic failures. During 1945 both Japan and Germany surrendered and were occupied. Israel still defeated the Egyptian and Syrian armies in 1973. Britain liberated the Falkland Islands in 1982 and, as part of an international coalition, helped to liberate Kuwait in 1991. Putin seized the initiative in February 2022, but the expected quick victory failed to materialise and his forces are still stuck in Ukraine. Hamas will have expected a harsh Israeli response, but the extent to which it has shocked and hurt its enemy means that the group has already lost much military capability as it fights to stay in control of Gaza.

[See also: The revenge of history – Robert D Kaplan]

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts