Hamas’s devastating terrorist attack against Israel has unleashed the most violent and serious conflict the country has seen in half a century. Already, at least 1,300 Israelis have been killed as so far stated in the media. It is an astronomical number for such a small country. About 2,900 more Israelis have been injured and an estimated 150 others, including toddlers, grandmothers, and foreign nationals, have been taken hostage. Meanwhile, at least 1900 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip, and another 14,500 have been injured.
These figures are likely to rise. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared war, launched deadly airstrikes on the Gaza Strip—a densely populated Palestinian area controlled by Hamas that has been blockaded by Egypt and Israel for 16 years—and vowed to turn Hamas strongholds into ruins. With Hamas rockets raining down on Israeli cities, Israeli shells bombarding Gaza, and Hamas fighters threatening to execute hostages, fears of a broader regional conflagration are mounting.
In these early days, the fog of war is thick, and it is hard to anticipate exactly how the conflict will unfold. But this much is already clear: Hamas’s attack came as a shocking surprise. Israel’s billion-dollar, high-tech Gaza border wall was easily and quickly breached. Early reports suggest that Hamas fighters used unsophisticated weapons to overrun border security with cheap drones, bulldozers, and bombs, and that they travelled to inflict violence and take hostages on paragliders, motorcycles, and in a golf cart. Yet this was not an amateur-hour operation. The assault came by air, land, and sea, and attackers fanned out to capture and kill across multiple sites simultaneously. That kind of large-scale sophisticated operation takes careful planning, coordination, time, and practice.
How did Israel’s intelligence agencies and leaders miss it?
It is hard to overstate the magnitude of this failure. Although lone wolf terrorist attacks are notoriously difficult to uncover, larger plots are more likely to leave digital traces and other telltale clues. What’s more, the possibility of Hamas attacking Israel was not some far-fetched, black swan event hatched by unknown adversaries in distant lands. This was a white swan event plotted by notorious terrorists next door. It was precisely the kind of worst-case disaster scenario that Israeli intelligence and defence officials were supposed to worry about, plan for, and prevent.
Hamas’s offensive is not the first time that a country has catastrophically missed an enemy attack. Japan launched a deadly surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, decimating the Pacific fleet, leading U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to declare war. The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies squandered 23 chances to disrupt al Qaeda’s September 11 plot, which killed nearly 3,000 people, traumatized the United States, and led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel itself was caught by surprise almost 50 years ago to the day, when Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked it during a Jewish holiday and ignited the Yom Kippur War.
Although every surprise attack is unique, they have two features in common: they are, by definition, consequential events with cascading, long-term geopolitical consequences, and they are almost never really surprises. Postmortems invariably find that warning signs existed but were hard to identify before disaster struck. The question is why these signs were missed and how to do better the next time.
In the days to come, investigations will undoubtedly examine what went wrong in Israel and what lessons the Israeli government (and the rest of the world) should draw. To do so, analysts must determine whether it was intelligence agencies that failed or whether intelligence officers uncovered Hamas’s plans only for policymakers to ignore them. They need to figure out whether Israeli intelligence agencies understood that Hamas’s capabilities were changing, as well as determine the potential effect of Israel’s own domestic political crisis on adversary perceptions and actions. They need to evaluate whether Israeli intelligence officials have become too reliant on technology. And they need to understand what Hamas got so catastrophically right.
The first question facing Israel is whether this intelligence disaster was primarily a failure to warn or a failure to act. The number one mission of intelligence agencies is preventing strategic surprises. But for warnings to succeed, it is not enough for intelligence collectors and analysts to sound the alarm. To better understand the intelligence side of Israel’s failure, investigators must examine collection and analysis—and where intelligence officials may have been blindsided. A good place to start is by asking whether the country’s intelligence agencies were focused sufficiently on understanding discontinuous change: when an actor’s behaviour makes a sudden break with the past. Humans tend to assume that history is a good guide to the future. That is often true, but it can also be dangerously wrong—which is why identifying indicators of discontinuous change is such hard and vital intelligence work.
This problem is not new. In the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, U.S. spy agencies collected reams of intelligence over months indicating that Soviet arms shipments were heading to Cuba. But they concluded that Soviet officials would not dare place nuclear missiles there because they had never made such a risky deployment on foreign soil before. It was not until U-2 spy planes found incontrovertible evidence of nuclear missile sites in Cuba that United States intelligence officials realized they were wrong.
In the current conflict, Hamas attacked Israel with much greater sophistication and scale than ever before—a massive, discontinuous change. It will be important to unpack whether Israeli intelligence agencies saw this shift coming, whether they missed it, and, if so, why.
Hamas is not the only entity that intelligence officials could have misjudged. Israeli intelligence might also have failed to understand Israel itself. Intelligence agencies, especially in democracies, focus their collection and analysis on understanding foreign adversaries. But domestic politics and problems can embolden enemies and alter their risk-reward calculus.
It is not enough for intelligence officials to understand “them.” Intelligence must also understand “us,” and how what happens in an agency’s own country can change enemy perceptions and behaviours. Israeli intelligence agencies, for example, might not have known whether or how their country’s unprecedented domestic political crisis was perceived by its enemies, including Hamas. And the crisis may also have helped Hamas’s attack succeed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed overhaul of Israel’s judiciary roiled Israeli society, leading to massive public protests. Hundreds of essential military reservists pledged to refuse to show up for duty if the overhaul passed. Investigators must ask whether this domestic turmoil weakened Israeli deterrence not only by influencing enemy perceptions but also by eroding Israel’s actual intelligence capabilities and military readiness.
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Investigators should also look at Israeli intelligence methods—in particular, whether Israeli intelligence agencies relied too much on technology. Emerging technologies are transforming the world, as well as the ability of spy agencies to understand it. They are generating more threats, more speed, more data, more customers outside of governments who need intelligence, and more competitors in the open-source intelligence arena. In this technological era, intelligence agencies must understand and embrace new technologies faster and better to generate insight.
But like everything in intelligence, new tools carry risks as well as benefits. Chief among the risks is that spy agencies may end up placing too much weight on intelligence that is easier to obtain, measure, and analyse by technical means and not enough weight on intelligence that is more difficult to collect and impossible to quantify.
As analysts study this surprise attack, they should not just focus on what went wrong for Israel. The attack also appears to be a major Hamas counterintelligence success, and investigators must figure out what Hamas got right. They will have to determine how Hamas managed to keep such a large-scale, complex operation secret from one of the world’s best intelligence services.
It is possible, of course, that Hamas was more lucky than skilled, that the failure truly was Israel’s, and that Hamas did nothing remarkable to hide its intentions or capabilities.
Israel is at war, and its urgent task is finding a pathway to peace, security, and healing. The right time to thoroughly investigate why a surprise attack succeeded is when the immediate threat has subsided.
But Israel will, eventually, need to examine what happened. Interrogating the past—systematically, thoughtfully, and independently—will be essential for enabling a more secure future for Israel and its people.
Lessons for India
There is also a lesson for the Intelligence agencies across the spectrum and especially for India which is surrounded by inimical neighbours and gigantic asymmetric threats.
Its geography is complex and challenging with 15107 Kms land borders and a coastline of 7517 Kms with 197 islands accounting for 2094 Kms of additional coastline. The borders comprise a variety of terrain encompassing deserts, plains, riverine deltas, hills, mountains, high altitude and glaciated regions. Many borders are very porous due to the terrain and ethnic affinities of population on both sides.
Borders with hostile neighbours; Pakistan – 3323 Kms and China – 3380 Kms extending from a few feet above Mean Sea Level (MSL) to Siachen, the highest battlefield in the world (average altitude 20,000 Feet above MSL). Consequently, Indian Security Forces operate in all types of terrains from the sea to blue skies and all that lies in between. In addition, relations with these neighbours are fouled by unresolved boundary disputes and historic differences with no solution in sight. India also shares its borders with other countries; Bangladesh – 4097 Kms, Myanmar – 1643 Kms, Nepal 1758 Kms and Bhutan – 600 Kms.
Such complexities of terrain will always lure an enemy to indulge in low-cost proxy war and asymmetric strikes using terrain to his advantage. India cannot deploy expensive ‘Iron Domes’ and ‘Impregnable Fences’ across its entire land frontiers of 15107 Kms and a coastline of 9611 KMs. Israel – Gaza Strip border is a mere 51 Kms.
Deterrence shapes perceptions of an adversary to see alternatives to aggression as more attractive. The ‘Strategy of Deterrence’ however requires a muscular Military that is not perennially starving for budget. Guns or Bread & Butter debates cannot apply to a nation facing multi-dimensional threats. Kautaliya in his Arthashstra 2000 years ago warned of four threats: the external threat externally abetted, the external threat internally abetted, the internal threat externally abetted and the internal threat internally abetted.
Without doubt, India faces all threats that Kautaliya predicted, and the quagmire of strategic inevitabilities is challenging. To recollect, India has faced a sea borne attack in Mumbai – the 26/11 attack. Drones are daily dropping weapons, drugs, fake currency etc along the western borders, mostly with impunity. A “pink flamingo” event is therefore waiting to happen – the known known, an inevitable surprise.