The intrusion of hundreds of Hamas fighters into the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border areas of Southern Israel on October 7, 2023, and attacking defence bases and settlements, killing and kidnapping Israeli soldiers and civilians, have raised serious questions about how Israel’s formidable intelligence network failed to generate ‘warning intelligence’. The gravity of intelligence failure can be gauged from the fact that the HAMAS made month long planning and preparations to execute the surprise attack; manufactured or procured weapons through clandestine channels; neutralised or tactically overcame the hi-tech 24/7 surveillance and monitoring mechanisms, including the advanced ground to air Air-defence mechanism, namely the ‘iron-dome’ in Gaza- Israel border; and infiltrated into Israel’s territory through land-air-sea- borders using boats and motorised paragliders. The casualties inflicted on the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were high, as a number of commanders and senior officers, including a General, were taken as prisoners. Thus, Major General Tamir Heyman, the former Military Intelligence Chief of Israel, had no reservations to openly acknowledge that ‘there was intelligence failure’ but was optimistic that ‘the remaining campaign would be on solid intelligence’. (The Times of India, dated October 11, 2023)
Different theories have been attributed to this grave intelligence failure. Perhaps Antony Loewenstein (the author of ‘The Palestine Laboratory’ who made an in-depth analysis of Israel’s advanced spy-technologies) has succinctly put it as the catastrophic failure of ‘Human Intelligence (Hum-int) and ‘surveillance mechanisms’ of the intelligence network. No doubt, other inter-related factors such as faulty analysis and assessment of the ground level situation, especially the moves, preparations, logistics, and resourcefulness of adversaries and/or allies, have also contributed to the failure. Israel has never anticipated that Hamas, weakened by years of Gaza blockade and constantly haunted by Israeli counter offensive operations, would venture into such a large-scale surprise attack. On the contrary, they felt Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon was a potential threat. Added to this were the internal developments in Israel, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-orthodox religious government’s efforts to scuttle secular and liberal thoughts in the Jewish community.
The ‘Hamas attack’ has given the deadliest blow to Mossad, whose image and achievements in Israel and across the globe are legendary. It was formed in 1949, at the instance of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, just after the genesis of Israel in May 1948. Initially known as the Central Institute for Coordination, it was reorganised in 1951 and made a part of the Prime Minister’s office. The motto of the Mossad is based on Biblical scripture, which says, “Where there is no guidance, a nation falls, but in an abundance of counsellors there is safety”. True to the motto, the survival and progress of Israel are closely intertwined with the functioning of the Mossad and other intelligence bodies, namely ‘Aman’ (dealing with military intelligence) and Shin Bet (internal security), as the new born Israel, encircled by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and their allies in the Arab world, has been perpetually under threat, endangering its very existence on the global map. No doubt, over the last seventy years, the Mossad has served fearlessly and secretly against all the major dangers threatening Israel.
Much has not been known about the organisational profile of Mossad or their operations, which are highly secretive. However, they have specialised wings for counter offensive operations or cover assignments for the neutralisation of potential enemies of Israel or their destructive weapons like nuclear reactors; liaison with foreign intelligence agencies; psychological warfare/deception; and Research and Development on highly sensitive and sophisticated technological devices, sensors, surveillance and monitoring mechanisms, including the latest innovations in the areas of Robotics and Artificial intelligence. The Mossad’s hands were suspected in the elimination of a number of ‘enemies of Israel’ who included Dr. Wadie Haddad, the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the mastermind of the 1976 hijacking of an Air France plane on the way from Tel Aviv to Paris, Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah leader wanted in 9/11 and a series of other explosions, Mahmoud Abdel Rauf Al-Mabhouh, Hamas Military wing chief and the linchpin in smuggling of weapons into the Gaza strip, General Muhammad Suleiman, Advisor of Syrian President Assad who was associated with the development of Syrian-nuclear reactor, Fathi Shaqaqi, founder of Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, Khaled Mash’al the head of the Hamas Political Bureau and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian Nuclear scientist, etc. The detection and execution of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in 1960 from his secret hideout in Argentina had all the ingredients of a Hollywood James Bond thriller. Same was the case with the 1976 ‘Entebbe Operation’ (Operation Thunderbolt), in which Mossad led Israeli commandos/ paratroopers freed more than 100 hostages held by Palestinian terrorists from the hijacked Airbus force-landed in Entebbe airport, Uganda.
Mossad agents spread across the world have developed potential ‘informers’- a few of them had even access to the seats of power or military hierarchy in enemy/hostile countries, as in the case of ‘Angel’ who supplied Israel with first-rate intelligence when the Yom Kippur war broke out in 1973. Mossad’s undercover agents shuttled between different locations, mainly in West Asia and the Gulf nations, and used various tradecraft tools such as ‘honey-trap’, blackmail, kidnapping, etc. for carrying out daring operations, even risking their own lives. In the fight against global terrorism, they joined hands with the US and other western powers and were instrumental in capturing and eliminating scores of terrorists in their strongholds in West Asia, Europe, and elsewhere.
Thus, the crucial question arises: Why did Mossad and Shin Bet fail to avert the October 7 tragedy? In the present scenario, nobody from the Israeli-hierarchy is likely to respond to such questions. Perhaps we have to wait for years to get a true, realistic picture of what led to this catastrophe. But the past has unfolded some insights centred on the 1973 ‘Yom Kippur War’. It was yet another debacle that struck Israel when a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria made a surprise attack on Israel, which was construed as an ‘intelligence failure’. Subsequently, many heads in the political and security establishments had rolled off, including the legendary Isser Harel, the then Director of Mossad.
A Board of Enquiry headed by Supreme Court Judge Shimon Agranat had brought out many stunning truths about the decision-making process in the Yom Kippur war. There was ‘warning intelligence’ on the surprise attack. The input had originated from a high-level agent who had access to the war establishment in Egypt. However, its reliability was under clouds as the agent had twice in the immediate past of the war flashed Israel of similar inputs, which he retracted at the last moment. Such lapses do occur in high level intelligence operations. But,more than that, internal issues and political compulsions influenced the crucial decision-making process. Golda Meir was much more interested in the imminent elections in Israel, and her Labour Party campaigned under the slogan “All is Quiet on the Suez Canal.” In such a scenario of peace and tranquility, Yom Kippur—the holiday of prayer, fasting, and atonement—all work had ceased in Israel; the television and radio had stopped their broadcasts, and no cars moved on the roads. Skeleton army units manned the borders. But a seething volcano was going to explode. Perhaps the ‘Yom Kippur episode’ is the best testimony to the arguments of the ‘orthodox school of thought’ that intelligence failures and surprise attacks are inevitable considering the irreparable nature of the psychological factors of intelligence analysts and the political dimensions of the decision making process.
We are not sure whether such factors have influenced the October 7 episode or not. But one thing is clear. Both the Mossad and Shin Bet could not generate adequate ‘warning intelligence’ to prevent the attack. Thus, it was a ‘total surprise’ attack that incapacitated the Army and security forces to take quick countermeasures, as was clear from the response time taken by them in combating the Hamas intruders/ fighters within Israeli territory. The lapses from the side of Counter Intelligence (CI), which should have functioned both as a shield (defensive) and sword (offensive) in safeguarding the nation, were obvious. The much- hyped Human Intelligence (Hum-Int) and ‘Technology-Oriented Intelligence’ showed their weakness in generating actionable or tactical intelligence. The flow of intelligence from human assets into the month-long preparations for the attack—procurement of raw materials, manufacture of weapons, production sites, warehouses and storage centres of weapons, movement of vehicles, mobilisation of cadres, hectic activity in border areas, etc.—was limited. It is not known how the advanced Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) system and Electronic-warfare mechanisms have failed to intercept the exceptionally high activity of Hamas cadres on the eve of the attack. The gravity of these lapses seems to be higher if we consider the fact that Israel has a border of only 51 km with the Gaza Strip, which has an area of 365 square km and a population of over 23 lakhs. The thousand-dollar question is how has a country like Israel, with unlimited financial resources, human resources with super cerebral knowledge and skills, access to ultra modern technology, and prime intelligence agencies of the world like the Mossad, virtually failed to build up a foolproof ‘security-framework’ especially against their permanent enemies from the small areas of the Gaza Strip or the West Bank?
While searching for answers to such questions, strategic and intelligence experts touch upon core geopolitical issues closely connected with Israel. Over the years, Israel has become a major exporter of surveillance and electronic equipment and armaments to a large range of countries, shifting its focus from the domestic to the international arena. As a key player in the fight against global terror, Mossad and its ‘secret commandos’ had been busy with a number of clandestine operations across the globe. No doubt, they have attained spectacular success in many such operations. Analysts hold that this shift in counterintelligence strategy, focusing more on geo-strategic challenges, particularly radicalism and terrorism, had an adverse impact on its domestic priorities or core tasks related to national security. Gloating over the success of such operations and the halo of past generations, many of the Security/ intelligence personnel remained less sensitive to local developments. In a nutshell, micro level intelligence generation, which is vital in preventing threats like ‘surprise attacks’ across the border, has seriously suffered. This shows the need for reprioritization of intelligence tasks in order to avoid future shocks such as the one that occurred on October 7. Perhaps the words of former US President Donald Trump echoed this reality: ‘Israel has to strengthen itself up. They have got to straighten it out because they are fighting potentially, a very big force’. (‘Times of India’ dated October, 13, 2023)
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.