U.S. intelligence agencies let their attention wander away from Iran-backed terror groups in their pursuit of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and ISIS in Iraq over the past two decades, leaving them vulnerable to plots by Hamas and Hezbollah for attacks here as passions rage over U.S. backing for Israel’s onslaught in Gaza, former FBI and CIA officials tell SpyTalk.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon in 2001, the CIA effectively subcontracted surveillance and intelligence-gathering on Hamas to the Israelis, says former CIA operations officer Marc Polymeropoulos. So when Israeli intelligence failed to prevent the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed at least 1,200 people and took 240 hostages, Israel’s intelligence blunder also exposed a U.S. intelligence failure—one that could now cost American lives, Polymeropoulos, as well as present and former FBI officials say.
Pretty much ceding collection on Hamas to the Israelis was “understandable, considering the threats to us from Al Qaeda, and later ISIS, but it was still a mistake,” says Polymeropoulos, who retired in 2019 after several postings in the Middle East, among other assignments. “The massive intelligence failure on Oct. 7 was mainly Israel’s, but we share in that, too,” he told SpyTalk.
Indeed, the gruesome death toll in Gaza, clocked so far at nearly 13,000 people, according to the Hamas-run enclave’s Health Ministry, has inflamed pro-Palestinian passions and raised concerns that Hamas and Hezbollah, both previously regarded as regional threats, may take aim at targets in the U.S., according to FBI Director Christopher Wray. “We cannot—and do not—discount the possibility that Hamas or another foreign terrorist organization may exploit the current conflict to conduct attacks here, on our own soil,” Wray said in testimony last week before the House Homeland Security Committee.
U.S. officials were already on alert for possible terrorist violence on Wednesday when a vehicle exploded on the American side of a border crossing near Niagara Falls, New York, killing its two occupants and wounding a Border Patrol officer. According to news reports, investigators found no explosives and ruled the incident was not terrorist-related. But the explosion triggered the closure of multiple border crossings and heightened security at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, underscoring official jitters over possible terrorist attacks during the Thanksgiving holiday.
Despite the FBI’s efforts to run down what Wray called “a large number of tips and leads related specifically to Hamas and radicalization and recruitment,” the bureau’s counterterrorism division is essentially starting from scratch when it comes to collecting intelligence on the group’s activities inside the United States, multiple sources tell SpyTalk.