The hierarchy of Israel’s intelligence negligence—why the Israeli government did not operate more preemptively on at least one available intelligence warning—is almost as stunning as the brutality and victory of the Hamas attack itself on October 7. As the Israel Defense Forces extend their ground invasion into Gaza, and with the death toll in the subsequent war already in the thousands, it is not too early to reflect on the distinctive missteps that made “Israel’s 9/11” viable.
A complete analysis will need months, if not years, of examination, but scholars of terrorism, armed conflict, and political science stress three potential major intelligence failures that any intelligence investigation should focus on to learn from this failure. Amy Zegart observes that major surprise aggressions are “rarely surprises.” Such seems to be the case with the October 7 attack.
Hamas preferences may have been, and may still be, harshly misunderstood. Israeli leaders may have figured that Hamas would not launch such an attack in part because Israel was delivering economic inducements for peace (namely, by managing the transfer of Qatari grant to Gaza). Israel may have come to acknowledge that Hamas’s intentions had softened or that Hamas could be managed without improvement toward a two-state solution.
Denial and masquerade activities strive to mislead intelligence operations by degrading intelligence channels with disinformation. Hamas accomplished this in at least two identifiable methods. First, according to one Israeli authority, Hamas misled Israel by giving “a public appearance that it was not willing to go into a fight or conflict with Israel while training for this massive operation.”
Second, Hamas used enhanced operational security tactics. Intelligence communicated with the United States means that a small cell of Hamas detectives communicated for two years through hardwired phones implanted in the network of tunnels beneath Gaza; this group reportedly bypassed using cell phones and computers to dodge detection. This denied grouping by Israeli intelligence officials. As a consequence, Hamas was able to design the October 7 attack in the unknown without arousing Israeli suspicions.
If it took years to prepare for the October 7 attack, as seems to be the case, how did no one caution? Despite Hamas’s rejection and deception actions and improved operational security, some troubling needles existed. Why were they ignored? One likely culprit is verification bias, leading intelligence critics “to undervalue or ignore evidence rejecting an early judgment and value proof that tends to confirm already carried assessments.”
For example, a CNN investigation examined propaganda tape and satellite imagery that revealed the development of and increased activity at numerous Hamas training camps in Gaza over the past two years.
When asked, an Israel Defense Forces spokesperson asserted the conclusions were “nothing new.” This indicates that Israeli analysts saw what they had witnessed before—training that did not signal a disastrous event. One cannot help but wonder how shady the clouds were before the storm.
Many queries remain, demanding after-action reviews and an investigation like that shown by the 9/11 Commission to examine these intelligence and security comprehensively collapses. But there are lessons to be understood—not just for the Israeli intelligence and security machine but for intelligence usefulness globally.
Countering terrorism demands intelligence agencies to encounter biases, resist complacency, and think creatively about the evolving character of terrorist attacks and how, when, and why terrorist corps will deploy a scope of tactics in the future.