Invited Commentary: The October 7th Surprise: Hamas Invades Israel By R.M. Huffstutler

Invited Commentary: The October 7th Surprise: Hamas Invades Israel By R.M. Huffstutler

The October 7th Surprise: Hamas Invades Israel By R.M. Huffstutler

Rae Huffstutler is a regular NSF contributor and the former Executive Director of the CIA.

On Saturday morning, October 7, 2023, over 1,500 Hamas military fighters breeched the border defenses enclosing the Gaza Strip and savaged nearby communal farms and military installations. Over 2,500 rockets were fired into Israel during the first week of hostilities. And, despite the presence of major Israeli air and ground force installations not far from the scene of the attack, hours passed before significant military relief forces arrived at the scene of the fighting. The sophistication of the attack in terms of its breadth, scale, timing and coordination required months of preparation and training.

The Intelligence Failure. Given the extensive preparations for this offensive, how is it that one of the world’s most capable intelligence services missed the buildup to this catastrophe and failed to give warning? That is a question that will occupy the Israeli government and military in the months to come as no one appears to have an explanation today.

Understanding Intelligence Warning. There are some general observations that can be made based upon the fragmentary reporting that is beginning to emerge. First, however, it is useful to place some of the reporting into context by means of a brief overview on the “art” of warning. I use the word “art” as I consider the issuance of a warning of war to resemble, in some ways, a medical diagnosis — the observer notes symptoms and tests and relates them to likely causes and effects. A difference, however, is that the doctor knows he has a sick patient. The intelligence observer isn’t sure.

In general, there are two types of warning; Strategic Warning that a threat to the national security is developing or that an event threatening national interests or policy is about to occur; and Tactical Warning, which describes the time and place of occurrence. In the case of the Hamas invasion, the key issue is the lack of strategic warning which might allow time for diplomacy, the repositioning of forces and some level of increased alert status.

The art of strategic warning requires conviction and belief by two parties: the giver of warning (the Intelligence function) and the recipient of warning (the key policy maker). The first party must be convinced that the information received is compelling, reliable and representative in breadth of coverage and that the opponent has the intention to proceed (the most difficult of the assessments). The policy maker must be convinced that the warning is not a false alarm

and is of sufficient import as to undertake extraordinary and disruptive preparations and responses. In the Hamas surprise, apparently neither happened.

The Warning Failure. Although observers have long warned that the situation on the Gaza Strip was boiling over, the warnings were vague and described no specific strategies considered by Hamas nor any times or events which might trigger action. Available reporting suggests that Israeli intelligence detected increased levels of Hamas activity but that they did not rise to the level of alarm, nor could they be related to a scope of related activities required for a major military incursion. Although these routine warning indicators were forwarded to political authorities, they were not recognized as noteworthy.

Factors in Failure. Undermining any strategic warning activity in Israel was the most difficult of all stumbling blocks to surmount: mind-set, the unconscious assumptions within which one reads and evaluates warning indicators In the last several years, according to reporting, Israelis have come to consider Hamas as more interested in governing than continuing an armed struggle. Hamas has been relatively quiet compared to Hezbollah and Israel has redeployed forces away from Gaza and toward the West Bank, substituting elaborate remote sensing towers along the Gaza defenses. In addition, the Netanyahu government is thoroughly distracted by fractures in public opinion and push back in the armed services for his attempt to reorganize the Court system and advance his political agenda. Taken together, these are powerful reasons to misinterpret or dismiss warning indicators even if they were acquired.

Conclusion. The size and sophistication of the Hamas attack and the failure of Israeli intelligence to detect the preparations for it suggests several things. Primarily, it suggests that Hamas went to school on Israeli intelligence capabilities and managed to avoid them. Second, Hamas managed to import thousands of rockets (or rocket manufacturing materials) while the Gaza Strip was under an embargo sealing and controlling borders and movement. Third, they trained and equipped some 1,500 disciplined fighters to attack designated targets on a cross border raid. Forth, they developed armed drones that destroyed remote observation towers and remote machine gun emplacements which denied the Israeli military the tactical warning they needed to assess the strength and location of the attacking forces and thereby delayed a coordinated response.

How Hamas spent months readying its forces for a war and positioning them for combat without anyone betraying the effort or recognizing the danger will be the stuff of investigations in Israel for years to come. Equally puzzling is the failure of the US and other countries with sophisticated intelligence capabilities focussed on the Middle East to detect the Hamas preparations. This echoes the US experience prior to the 9/11 attack where the strategic warnings were also vague — something was afoot but the time and place of an attack was unknown. As for an operational Iranian role in this attack, apart from being a long time backer and supplier of munitions to Hamas, President Biden announced on the weekend that there is as yet no evidence.

Rae Huffstutler has a distinguished career in the Intelligence Community. He served as the Executive Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Director of the National Photographic Interpretation Center, and as the Director of Soviet Research at the Agency. Among his many accolades are twice being awarded the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal and in April 2003 he was inducted into the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Hall of Fame for his contributions to imagery collection and intelligence. Rae received a BA in economics and an MA in international economics from the University of California, Berkeley. Rae is an active member and regular contributor and presenter of the National Security Forum. He lives during the snowless months, in lovely Incline Village and Truckee, CA.