Israel's intelligence suffered 'cognitive closure' failures before deadly Hamas assault

Israel’s unwavering belief in the reliability and quality of its intelligence proved its undoing

Israeli air strikes on Gaza city. The attacks were precipitated by the country's intelligence failures that former spies told The National are possible in even the most capable agencies. AFP
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Mossad and Shin Bet are two names with a formidable legend in the espionage world, yet the Israeli intelligence agencies’ reputations were shattered by their failure on October 7 to detect a Hamas attack.

What led to that is a question that will be asked for decades, as it was after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and Pearl Harbour in the Second World War.

Most glaringly, and a warning to other western agencies, is that it was Israel’s unwavering belief in the reliability and quality of its intelligence that proved its undoing.

Former operatives from Britain’s MI6, Mossad and security analysts have spoken to The National to unpick the intelligence lessons learnt after Hamas mounted a major operation undetected that led to the deaths of 1,300 Israelis. As Israel imposed a siege on Gaza and launched retaliatory military action the overall death toll passed 3,000 on Friday.

“It is the most capable intelligence agencies that are always going to be prone to the largest possible failures because they've got so much information that sometimes they're drawing the wrong conclusions,” said Justin Crump, director of Sibylline, a British intelligence company. “And because they have this feeling of certainty.”

There is also a quandary for many western intelligence agencies of their over-reliance on “sigint” (signals intelligence), over “humint” (human intelligence) sources, in that their enemies understand their surveillance capabilities and have adapted.

Cognitive closure

Intelligence failures are always going to happen, as most recently witnessed in Europe last year when both Germany’s and France’s spies insisted that Russia would not invade Ukraine.

This is what Prof Yossi Mekelberg suggests is “cognitive closure”, in that what the security services agencies read and wanted to believe overrode the reality.

“If you don't believe it's going to happen, even if I put the information in front of you, you will still deny it,” said the international relations expert at the Chatham House think tank. “People dupe themselves into what we call cognitive closure. They also stick to the status quo, which is probably the biggest enemy of an intelligence community.”

This might have included the suggestion that Egypt had warned Israel the night before the October 7 attacks.

People dupe themselves into what we call cognitive closure
Prof Yossi Mekelberg

But Britain’s and America’s intelligence agencies had the Ukraine invasion timing down the exact hour, allowing them to warn their ally – and the wider world – giving Kyiv the ability to move key equipment and put defences into place.

Those two countries had probably learnt from intelligence failures. America from 9/11 and Britain from its inaccurate weapons-of-mass-destruction dossier before the 2003 Iraq invasion, although both still got it badly wrong on the Taliban conquering Afghanistan in 2021.

“Ultimately, none of us can predict the future with absolute accuracy,” said Mr Crump, a former British army officer. “You have to make an assessment based on what you can see, what you know and patterns and sometimes that's going to be wrong. Intelligence failures will happen.”

Hamas tradecraft

Crucial to Hamas’s success was that whatever information leaked it was not enough to alert Israel to the impending disaster, suggesting their operational security and spycraft were excellent.

“This was the case when I was in MI6 and remains so, that despite the advances in technology, the bigger the secret the less inclined one is to put it on to anything electronic,” said Matthew Dunn, who operated in the Middle East. “Always assume somebody out there can crack it.”

The former MI6 officer suggested Hamas adapted the old CIA Cold War idiom of “Moscow Rules” that state: “Assume nothing. Never go against your gut. Everyone is potentially under opposition control.”

“Hamas’s starting principle would have been that Israel has complete electronic coverage of everything,” he said.

It was therefore likely that all operational information was written down and only given to key figures before being burnt, “really sort of old school stuff”, he said.

Always assume somebody out there can crack it.
Matthew Dunn, former MI6 operative

Anyone attending a high-level planning meeting would have been followed to and from it to ensure they did not have a tail or might be leaking secrets.

The “need to know” basis for passing on information would have been exceptionally tight. Commanders would have known precise timings and targets but the fighters would only have been informed possibly 24 hours before the action and then locked down.

“If you want to construct a kidnap and assault operation then you send nothing, absolutely nothing, by telephone or email or social media, absolutely nothing,” added the spy-turned-best-selling novelist.

Joining dots

Accurate intelligence gathering is based on linking information to conclude on future enemy action. Israel most likely had the information suggesting an attack was imminent, as did American intelligence on the 9/11 or indeed 1941 Japanese attack, but failed to draw the right conclusion.

“There are parallels to those intelligent failures in the past, where dots were there but drawn up in the wrong direction,” Mr Crump said.

A former MI6 officer who worked in the Middle East agreed. “Often you get flashing lights but something is missed, so it’s always a judgment of what is real. You're also dealing with adversaries that know your capabilities.”

Informant failure

Israel’s intelligence has been known for its ability to recruit informers, but the absence of clear and sustained “humint” suggests that this resource has weakened.

“A source is in an extremely fraught position where one loose word or even an understandable loss of nerve and you've lost an intelligence officer. That operating environment for Israel is exceptionally difficult,” he said.

Prof Mekelberg agreed. “In a close-knit group like Hamas, human intelligence is hard and digital surveillance is always easier and that’s why people rely on it.”

While previously Israeli intelligence agents could go undercover, this has become more fraught with much greater risk as Hamas and others develop counter-intelligence skills, Mr Dunn said.

“It's no surprise they've missed this because these agencies are not the giants or at the top table [of] intelligence, as has been lauded in the press or in fiction,” he added.

There is also the possibility that the informants were “compromised or played” with misinformation or that signals were “lost in the noise”, Mr Crump said.

For example, unusual activity in the Gaza microlight club was not picked up, a similar example to an FBI agent’s report of a person on flight simulator training only practising take-offs, who turned out to be one of the 9/11 terrorists.

“That tactical information was being disregarded, because there was something happening at strategic level that led the people doing the assessments to say ‘that isn’t relevant, we've already got information from the highest best place sources’,” Mr Crump said.

“Hamas was also extraordinarily lucky that Israel persistently misinterpreted this but they laid enough of a trail of misdirection and cover that it was incorrectly interpreted,” he added.

“You need to have humility for intelligence work always, and accept that despite how much you think you know nothing is certain.”

Tehran’s hand

But the former MI6 operative argued that the failing was not solely based in one area.

“From my experience I’d be very surprised if this was just overreliance on technology surveillance,” said the officer, who also operated in the Middle East. “Mossad and Shin Bet both have humint, and saying that this was rubbish is not my experience of them.”

Lack of Israeli inter-agency co-operation could have been a failure, as it was in 9/11, but it was also highly likely that Iran played a role in allowing the planning and meetings to be “siloed elsewhere”, the retired officer said

There was also a suggestion that the attack showed that Iran was “farther forward than people thought they were” after the January 2020 assassination of intelligence chief Qassem Suleimani, who had been instrumental in organising foreign operations.

We see you

A measure of the invasive nature of Mossad’s “sigint” can be found in their surveillance of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

“We could read his emails, that were very weird,” a Mossad-connected source said.

The agency even had a device they could use in a shopping mall that could see everything people were reading on their mobile phones, he added. The eavesdropping was widespread, “when they talk over mobile phones we just hoovered up the data”, but terrorist groups had “quickly learnt to adapt”.

The source added that Iran might have supplied ultra-encrypted phones that the sigint failed to intercept. “If Mossad didn't know about it, then they can't crack it.”

Updated: October 14, 2023, 7:18 AM