The Spies of Hamas

Old-fashioned intelligence gathering keyed its success

2 mins read
Palestinian supporters of the Islamist movement Hamas take part in a rally to support people in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank city of Nablus, on Aug. 15, 2014. (Xinhua/Nidal Eshtayeh)

The was a time many years ago that I’d drive past a soccer stadium in South Vietnam looking for a chalk scratch on the wall.  Horizontal meant that my net of spies had reports for me. Posing as farmers, rice peddlers and the like, my spies eyeballed and engaged communist soldiers and units and reported back the essentials: names, numbers, weapons, uniforms, morale and so forth.

This was old-timey military espionage for sure, a legacy of the OSS and its allied spy services  in World War Two, who depended on the French underground and other partisans to track and subvert the Nazis. By the end of the century, though, advances in technology had eclipsed much of battlefield HUMINT, as human-based spying efforts are called.  In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. field commanders increasingly came to favor electronic intercepts and “overhead”—eavesdropping spy planes, satellites and eventually drones—to locate the enemy and suss out its plans. HUMINT was just too hard, too time-consuming and too unreliable against the likes of Al Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban. Better to just trace the insurgents’ cell phone calls.

Two weeks ago, however, Hamas put old-timey intelligence methods to good use against the Israelis. Documents taken from the bodies of its savage raiders showed they had carried “detailed maps of the towns and military bases that they targeted. Some also carried tactical guides identifying weak spots on Israeli army armored vehicles,” the Wall Street Journal reported. Other captured documents showed that “Hamas had been systematically gathering intelligence on each kibbutz bordering Gaza and creating specific plans of attack for each village that included the intentional targeting of women and children,”according to NBC News. “The dental office, the supermarket, the dining hall,” an Israel Defense Forces source told NBC. “The level of specificity would cause anyone in the intelligence field’s jaw to drop.”

That source had to have been born yesterday, so to speak—and/or arrogant to the point of incompetence, evidently unable to comprehend that the benighted Palestinian militants couldn’t possibly mount the kind of spy ops that Israeli intelligence had practiced against them for decades. 

Back to the Future 

As it turns out, Hamas had advanced intelligence capabilities that have generally gone unrecognized. Years ago it had “established electronic warfare units that sought to neutralize Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and disrupt IDF communications,” an Israeli think tank reported in 2021. To that end, it had a “server farm” of “hundreds or thousands of computers” running around the clock, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs reported.

Brigadier Gen. Nati Cohen, former chief of the IDF’s C4I (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence) unit, was quoted as saying that “Hamas sought to disrupt the IDF’s cybernetic superiority and established elite units for that purpose.” In May 2021, the IDF targeted at least 10 Hamas C4I and electronic warfare targets, the center said. It didn’t say whether it was able to obliterate the “server farms.” Whatever, Hamas engineers have not been able to neutralize Israeli air defenses.

But none of that explains how Hamas was able to equip its fighters with detailed maps, right down to the layouts and manpower of Israeli police stations and the location of safe rooms in kibbutzim homes. 

That could only come from old fashioned HUMINT—eyes and ears (and cell phone cameras, no doubt) inside those settlements.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the editor-in-chief of SpyTalk, a newsletter covering U.S. intelligence, defense and foreign policy, on the Substack platform. Previously, he was the SpyTalk columnist (and national security correspondent) at Newsweek, and before that, the SpyTalk blogger at The Washington Post.

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