Israel is widely recognized as having highly sophisticated intelligence capabilities, both in terms of its ability to collect information about potential threats within its own country and outside of it. And so as details unfold about the full extent of Hamas’ unprecedented and surprise attack on 20 Israeli towns and several army bases on Oct. 7, 2023, the question lingers: How did Israel fail to piece together clues about this large-scale and highly complex plot in advance?
Israeli intelligence did detect some suspicious activity on Hamas militant networks before the attack, The New York Times reported on Oct. 10, 2023. But the warning wasn’t acted upon or fully understood in its entirety – similar to what happened in the United States shortly before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Intelligence analysis is like putting a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle together from individual pieces of intelligence every day and trying to make judgments for policymakers to actually do something with those insights,” said Javed Ali, a counterterrorism and intelligence scholar who spent years working in U.S. intelligence.
We spoke with Ali to try to better understand how Israeli intelligence works and the potential gaps in the system that paved the way for the Hamas incursion.
1. What questions did you have as you watched the attacks unfold?
This took an enormous amount of deliberate and careful planning, and Hamas must have gone to great lengths to conceal the plotting from Israeli intelligence. This plotting may indeed have been hidden as the plot was being coordinated.
Because of the attack’s advanced features, I also thought that Iran almost certainly played a role in supporting the operation – although some U.S. officials have so far said they do not have intelligence evidence of that happening.
Finally, Hamas is on Israel’s doorstep. One would think Israel could better understand what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank, as opposed to 1,000 miles away in Iran. How did Israel not see something this advanced right next door? Some Israeli officials have said they believed Hamas was already deterred by recent Israeli counterterrorism operations, and that the group lacked the capability to launch an attack on the scope and scale of what occurred.
2. How does Israeli intelligence work, and how is it regarded internationally?
Israel has one of the most capable and sophisticated intelligence enterprises at the international level. The current design and functioning of Israel’s intelligence system broadly mirrors that in the U.S., with respect to roles and responsibilities.
In Israel, Shin Bet is the Israeli domestic security service, so the equivalent of the FBI, which monitors threats within the country. On the foreign security side, Israel has Mossad, which is equivalent to the CIA. Third, there is an Israeli military intelligence agency, similar to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency – and there are other, smaller organizations within military intelligence that are focused on different intelligence issues.
Like most Western countries, Israel relies on a combination of different intelligence sources. This includes recruiting people to provide intelligence agencies with the sensitive information they have direct access to, which is known as human intelligence – think spies. There is what is called signals intelligence, which can be different forms of electronic communications like phone calls, emails or texts that the Israelis gain access to. Then there is imagery intelligence, which could be a satellite, for example, that captures photos of, say, militant training camps or equipment.
A fourth kind of intelligence is open source, or publicly available information that is already out there for anyone to get, such as internet chat forums. While I was winding down my work in intelligence a few years ago, there was a shift to seeing much more publicly available intelligence than other kinds of traditional intelligence.
3. How does Israel’s intelligence system differ from the US system?
Unlike the U.S., one thing that Israel doesn’t have is an overall intelligence coordinator, a single representative who knows about and oversees all of the different intelligence components.
The U.S. system has a director of national intelligence position, who runs the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which was created in 2004. These were both recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, after it found that the U.S. approach to intelligence was too fragmented across different agencies and offices.
So, when there are tough issues that no one agency could resolve on its own, or analytic differences in intelligence, you need an independent office of experts to help work through those issues. That’s what this office does.
I spent several years working within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In one of my jobs there, I reported to the director of national intelligence.
There is no equivalent to that central office and function in Israel. In my opinion, Israel might consider down the road how a comprehensive intelligence coordinator could help avoid this challenge in the future.
4. What role does the US have in monitoring threats to Israel, if any?
The U.S. and Israel have a very strong intelligence relationship. That partnership is bilateral, meaning it is just between the two countries. It is not part of a larger international group of countries that share intelligence.
The U.S. also has a broader intelligence partnership, known as “Five Eyes,” with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Nevertheless, the general rule in these strong bilateral relationships is that when one side picks up intelligence about threats to the other, it should automatically get passed on.
This may be a case where the U.S. is shifting its intelligence priorities to other parts of the world, like Ukraine, Russia and China. As a result, we may not have had significant intelligence on this particular Hamas plot, and so there was nothing to pass to Israel to warn them.