Israel’s sophisticated intelligence capabilities have been questioned as the Hamas attack on 20 Israeli towns and several army bases on October 7, 2023, unfolds. Although Israeli intelligence detected suspicious activity on Hamas militant networks before the attack, it was not fully understood or acted upon, similar to the US terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Javed Ali, a counterterrorism and intelligence scholar, explains that intelligence analysis is like putting a thousand-piece puzzle together from individual pieces of intelligence every day and trying to make judgments for policymakers to act on those insights. He believes that Hamas must have gone to great lengths to conceal the plotting from Israeli intelligence and that Iran almost certainly played a role in supporting the operation due to the attack’s advanced features. Some U.S. officials have so far denied intelligence evidence of that happening.
Hamas, a terrorist group, is located near Israel, a stark contrast to the vast distance between Gaza and the West Bank in Iran. Israeli officials believe that Hamas was already deterred by recent counterterrorism operations and lacked the capability to launch an attack on the scale of the recent attack. Israel has a sophisticated intelligence system, similar to the U.S., with Shin Bet as the domestic security service, Mossad as the foreign security service, and an Israeli military intelligence agency.
Israel relies on a combination of different sources, including human intelligence (think spies), signals intelligence (electronic communications), imagery intelligence (satellites capturing photos of militant training camps or equipment), and open-source intelligence (publicly available information like internet chat forums). This combination of intelligence sources allows Israel to better understand the situation in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the capabilities of Hamas to launch attacks on the scale of the recent attack.
Israel lacks an overall intelligence coordinator, unlike the U.S. system, which has a director of national intelligence position and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The U.S. approach to intelligence was found to be too fragmented across different agencies and offices, leading to tough issues that no single agency could resolve alone. Israel has no equivalent to this central office and function, and Israel might consider implementing a comprehensive intelligence coordinator in the future.
The U.S. and Israel have a strong bilateral intelligence relationship, known as “Five Eyes,” with Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. However, the general rule in these strong bilateral relationships is that when one side picks up intelligence about threats, it should be passed on. This may be due to the U.S. shifting its intelligence priorities to other parts of the world, such as Ukraine, Russia, and China, which may not have had significant intelligence on the Hamas plot, leaving Israel without warning.