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 1,000 Israelis (and 14 U.S. citizens) have been killed. It is an astronomical number for such a small country—equivalent to 30,000 Americans. 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 900 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip, and another 4,500 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 traveled 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.
Israel’s leaders missed 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 defense 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, and ultimately giving rise to the Central Intelligence Agency. 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. Policymakers also have to take action. Weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, for example, U.S. intelligence agencies released an unprecedented stream of detailed intelligence warning of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s impending attack. Yet even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not believe it. Zelensky’s courage under fire has been an inspiration for the world, and intelligence has proven pivotal to assisting Ukraine and rallying its allies since the war began. But it is worth asking how history might have unfolded differently if Zelensky and other world leaders had taken more action, or different actions, in response to the intelligence warnings—before disaster struck.
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.
For warnings to succeed, it is not enough for intelligence agencies to sound the alarm.
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 behavior. 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.
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 analyze by technical means and not enough weight on intelligence that is more difficult to collect and impossible to quantify. In the lead-up to the war in Ukraine, for example, part of why U.S. intelligence agencies overestimated Russia’s military capabilities and underestimated Ukraine’s is because it was easier to count tanks and troops than assess will to fight. Intelligence agencies, in other words, counted too much on the things that could be counted.
The attack also appears to be a major Hamas counterintelligence success.
The Israeli government is known for its technological sophistication. According to The New York Times, for example, in 2021, Israel assassinated Iran’s top nuclear scientist as he was driving to his vacation house by using an AI-powered, remote-controlled machine gun that was operated via satellite and placed on the side of a road. An investigation into Hamas’s surprise attack should explore to what extent, if any, Israel’s technical prowess may have generated collection and analysis blind spots.
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. My research on September 11, for example, found that al Qaeda terrorists did not need fancy counterintelligence plans or even fake names to succeed. They just needed the CIA and the FBI to operate as they usually did. When the Cold War ended and the terrorist threat grew in the 1990s, these agencies failed to adapt their structures, incentives, and cultures to detect and defeat a new enemy. As a result, the CIA and the FBI missed nearly two dozen opportunities to penetrate and possibly stop the 9/11 plot. To give just one example, in early 2000, CIA officers identified two suspected terrorists who were attending an al Qaeda planning meeting in Malaysia, learned their full names, and discovered that one held a U.S. visa and the other had traveled to the United States. More than 50 CIA officials had access to this information, yet none of them told the State Department or the FBI for more than a year. One key reason for this failure is that before 9/11, there was no formal training, clear process, or priority placed on warning other government agencies about dangerous terrorists who might travel to the United States.
Those two men would go on to crash American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. For months, they plotted their attack while hiding in plain sight inside the United States, using their true names on a variety of documents, including rental agreements, credit cards, and the San Diego telephone directory. They even made contact with several targets of FBI counterterrorism investigations and at one point lived with an FBI informant, all unknown to the bureau. Inside the FBI, counterterrorism procedures and capabilities were lagging so far behind that a highly classified internal report issued shortly before September 11 gave all 56 FBI field offices in the United States a failing grade.
PAST AND FUTURE
Now is the time to fixate on the present, not the past. 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.
Answering these questions will also be essential for the United States. In today’s complex and uncertain threat landscape, American intelligence has never been more important. Washington must study Israel’s failures so that it does not repeat them.