Lapses in Israeli intelligence amid Hamas attack come as 'a complete shock,' says analyst
Many people are questioning how Israeli intelligence services were unable to detect and deter Hamas's attack on Saturday that left hundreds of Israelis dead, while others were taken hostage. Subsequent Israeli airstrikes killed hundreds of Palestinians. Colin Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consultancy, discussed the possibilities with The World's host Marco Werman.
Two robotic guns sit atop a guard tower bristling with surveillance cameras pointed at the Aroub refugee camp in the West Bank, Oct. 6, 2022.
Mahmoud Illean/AP/File photo
A big question on a lot of minds in Israel is how Hamas was able to pull off its attack on Saturday with Israel's exceptional intelligence capabilities.
Hamas's assault was brazen. Hundreds of militants from the Gaza Strip breached the wall separating it from Israel, breaking through with bulldozers. They killed hundreds of Israelis, while taking others hostage. And all this seemed to come as a total surprise to authorities in Israel.
Colin Clarke is director of research at The Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consultancy. He discussed the lapse in intelligence with The World's host Marco Werman.
Marco Werman: Are the appearances here correct, Colin? Did Israel have absolutely no idea this attack was coming?
It certainly seems like it, which is really a major shock. I mean, if you were to ask me, "Which intelligence service was this least likely to happen to?" I would put the Israelis at the very top, if not the top. They're that renowned for their capabilities. So, a complete shock, not only that it happened, but the magnitude and the scale of the attack and lethality that resulted.
Right, and even basic stuff. This came a day after the 50th anniversary of the start of the Yom Kippur War when Israel faced a surprise attack from a coalition of Arab countries. I mean, anniversaries are notorious red lights for intelligence agencies. So, how could this be the case?
I absolutely agree — the symbolism there. There are so many indicators that something potentially could have been in the works. There's clearly a major breakdown of the Israeli side of the house. There's going to be a lot of people losing their jobs in the aftermath of this conflict. And there's very likely, almost certainly, going to be some kind of national commission where they look to place blame, point fingers, figure out exactly what happened and get to the root of the problem. And they need to fix this immediately.
So, what is the range of intelligence apparatus that Israel has that it uses to monitor what's happening in Gaza?
Well, it's vast. I mean, they have human intelligence, which is traditional spies that are recruited. There's signals intelligence, which is electronic intercepts. There's drones and sensors. Israel has redundancy built in between Shin Bet and the Mossad. And, you know, at the end of the day, Gaza is not that big — 25 square miles by four square miles, a relatively contained place to monitor. I mean, it is densely populated, so that makes it a bit more difficult. But the Israelis, this is their backyard. They've run spy networks in these groups like Hamas [and the Palestinian] Islamic Jihad for years. They also get help from regional intelligence services. So, again, this is just utterly shocking that this could have happened to the Israelis. And, as you mentioned, at the timing of the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.
As far as human intelligence in Gaza, I imagine that is a risky role to be taking and one that Hamas is not going to tolerate. How reliable is the human intelligence?
Well, I guess we're finding out that's not as reliable as the Israelis thought. There could be double agents at work, so they could have had individuals feeding them false information. There's also a lot of speculation that Hamas has been aided by the Iranians in what we call OPSEC or operational security. The Israelis are known to be world-class in, kind of, hacking into phones and even breaking really solid encryption. And so, Hamas, instead of trying to go smart, may have gone, quote unquote, "dumb," ditched cell phones, ditched any kind of electronic communication and went back old school, you know, couriers, face-to-face meetings and such. And that could have been why the Israelis were unable to learn about this in advance.
Yeah, let me ask you about this, because we're hearing a lot of speculation. But do you think, Colin, that Hamas had help in planning this?
I'd say the way I described Iran's relationship to Hamas is similar to what the US Army calls mission command. So, we train our soldiers, we equip them, but at the tactical level, we trust them to make the right decision to seize opportunities. It's very cumbersome to run any kind of operation all the way up the chain of command to, you know, the top general. And I think that's an analogy for the way that Iran and Hamas work. They understand that Hamas knows the terrain better than the Iranians do. And this seems to be bearing fruit, that model. They've replicated this in other places in Iraq, in Yemen, in Lebanon and elsewhere.
Given the scale of what Hamas militants carried out on Saturday, how long do you suppose it would have taken to plan such an attack?
I mean, something like this, it had to have taken months. I mean, you had individuals coming in on hang gliders. It was really a sophisticated and complex attack that had to have taken, I would guess, months, if not longer, for them to plan and prepare for.
What does Saturday's attack by Hamas reveal, Colin, about Hamas's capabilities that was not known before?
Well, clearly, I think the Israelis, and probably large portions of the international community, significantly underestimated Hamas. So, partly this is about Hamas's capabilities, which have improved quite a bit from two years ago, the last time Israel and Hamas got into a skirmish. But it also shows that the Israelis were distracted politically and really suffered from the protests that have been taking place in the country. You know, Netanyahu's focus on trying to revamp the Supreme Court, the judiciary really drained resources from the Israelis. They've spoken out, including reservists and retired military officers, about how it was negatively impacting readiness. Which also could feed into why the Israelis were so slow to respond. They've also shifted resources away from Gaza to the West Bank to deal with [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad. So, it was really the perfect storm of a lot of factors that kind of lined up that led to this outcome.
And the fact that Israel's Iron Dome — a defensive air missile system — which intercepts air attacks, why was that not effective on Saturday?
I think the Israelis were just overwhelmed. I mean, think about it. It was the Sabbath. It was coming off of a major holiday. You know, they had been looking elsewhere. And so, the fact that it was combined arms — so, air, sea, land — there was just various vectors that Hamas was able to kind of push through on. And then once hostages started being captured, I think that really must have consumed Israeli military and intelligence and really, kind of, caused a panic in the upper reaches of the Israeli government of how to respond and what to do next.
Finally, Colin, the Hamas ground attack on Israel for now has been stymied, but Hamas still holds Israelis hostage. What kind of intelligence capabilities has Israel marshaled to find them?
It's going to be incredibly complex if the Israelis launch some kind of a ground invasion to go into Gaza to attempt to rescue these hostages. There is a massive subterranean tunnel network. They're likely divvying up hostages in twosies and threesies. I would imagine right now the Israelis are relying on regional intelligence services, also the United States and others, to get as much information as possible about these hostages before they decide what to do next.
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