Hamas Attack on Israel: Where Did the Intelligence Fail?

Intelligence agencies are expected to never make mistakes: why is this the only profession subject to such an impossible standard?

Most people, I imagine, want to succeed in what they do. Whether we are talking about professional careers or personal goals, doing well has to be a better outcome than not doing well. In other words, we try to avoid failure at all costs.

What, then, do we do when we believe that someone has failed us? Do we cast an accusing finger? Do we try to understand why the failure occurred and learn from it, thus possibly preventing future shortcomings? Do we express disappointment at the responsible parties? Or all of the above?

Welcome to the world of intelligence gathering and analysis. This is the one field where failure of any kind is simply unacceptable. Whether or not that is a fair approach is something I will return to later.

The most recent example of a perceived intelligence blunder is the ongoing Hamas terrorist action in Israel. As we all know, Hamas launched attacks into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip within the last day or two. There have been at least 300 Israelis killed and an equal number of Palestinians in Gaza as Israel counterattacked. Those numbers are unfortunately guaranteed to rise in the next few days.

As soon as the Hamas action began, the headlines screamed that this was a “historic failure” on the part of Israel’s intelligence agencies (among which are Shin Bet, the internal service, and Mossad, its foreign counterpart). Parallels are being drawn to the Yom Kippur war of 1973 when Egypt and Syria led a surprise attack against Israel.

For many, Israel’s spies are amongst the best in the world and have one, and only one, priority: to protect the Jewish state from its enemies (which historically have been many, even if Israel has been cozying up to countries such as Saudi Arabia of late). If it fails to do so, as this latest Hamas attack shows, why did this transpire? Why, as some are asking, were Israel’s intelligence agencies caught napping?

I have no idea what Shin Bet, Mossad, and others have been up to of late. My last contact with them was over a decade ago when I was in Israel for an intelligence exchange. I would imagine that they were busy doing what they have always done, collecting intelligence on known terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, running human sources into those groups, passing their information on to the Israeli police and military for use in “kinetic” operations, and keeping the government of Benjamin Netanyahu informed on the threat level (unlike in Canada, I am confident Israeli officials take the time to read the intelligence offered to them).

I can only speculate what may have happened here. Only some, or perhaps none, of these issues may have had any role in this alleged intelligence fiasco. The Netanyahu government has for months been beset by legal issues, some of which are linked to corruption charges against the prime minister, while others are linked to efforts to change the composition of the Supreme Court. Tens of thousands of Israelis have been protesting against what many see as the most far right regime in the country’s history. Has this diverted attention away from external threats?

And then there is the rise of Jewish extremism. Religious zealots have not only been building illegal “settlements” in the West Bank and attacking Palestinians but have become a necessary and inexorable part of the government’s coalition. Netanyahu has no choice but to allow them to do what they want to keep their support in his minority government. Have Israel’s services had to devote resources to monitoring this form of terrorism as well, implying that there are fewer agents looking at jihadis? A very good question I would imagine.

At the end of the day, however, the majority seem to have concluded that Israel’s spies have dropped the ball significantly and as a consequence the country is at war with Islamist terrorists—again. No one wants to hear excuses: They only want to see their spies stop attacks from occurring.

Intelligence organizations may be the only profession where failure is never acceptable. I would go one further: All such agencies are subjected to the rule that they are only as good as their last (perceived) failure. I cannot think of another group where this applies. As a former intelligence analyst for more than three decades in Canada I find this unfair, but it is what it is. We seldom get credit for our successes—and often even then are criticized for our efforts and methods—and always get the blame when things go wrong.

The next few days and weeks will be crucial for Israel. Will Hezballah, which has already according to some reports launched missiles into northern Israel, also attack? Will Islamic ijhad invade from the West Bank? What will happen to Israel’s burgeoning ties with Arab states, whose populations will not take too kindly to a rapprochement while fellow Arabs (i.e., Palestinians) are being killed? Tough times ahead indeed.

At the same time, Israel’s spies will continue to do their best to keep their officials apprised of the latest intelligence. No, they won’t get everything right, but they will stay at their posts because that is their mandate. I wish them well.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.