Hamas’ October 7 Attack: The Tactics, Targets, and Strategy of Terrorists
This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on November 7, 2023. Watch the full video here.
Emily Harding: Thanks for joining us today for a conversation about Hamas’ tactics, targets, and strategy in the recent October 7th attacks on the state of Israel. The public discussion about the fighting between Israel and Hamas has really moved on to Israeli military tactics and tunnel warfare. There’s a brutal fight ahead, to be sure, but we wanted to take a minute today to look back at the day that started this conflict, October 7th.
The events of that day were a horrific human tragedy. Hamas fighters killed an estimated 1,400 Israelis, largely civilians. In the ongoing fighting, an estimated 10,000 Palestinians have died. October 7th represented something else as well, a dramatic change in tactics and strategy for a terrorist group many thought was dormant. It was the culmination of an intelligence failure, the launch of an audacious multidomain attack, and the reignition of a conflict that has already killed so many people.
We have here today to discuss the tactics, targets, and strategy of this terrorist group two gentlemen who have studied terrorism for decades.
First of all, we have Mike Leiter, who was the director of the National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011, under two different presidents. He started his career in the Navy, served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and is now a partner at Skadden Arps.
We also have Dan Byman, who’s a senior fellow here at CSIS – a proud recent addition to our team. He’s with the Transnational Threats Project. He’s also a professor at Georgetown. Previously, he served as a professional staff member with the 9/11 Commission and is renowned in this town as an expert on terrorism.
Before we get into our discussion, we want to recognize that this conflict touches on some deep historical wounds and sparks emotional responses. Our goal here today is an academic one. As such, we seek to be analytically focused on what it means for the future of terrorism and the future of warfare. We’re going to talk about the human toll of terror attacks and their aftermath with a set of charts. We will move onto a discussion about Hamas’ tactics on October 7th and how they were new and old in the realm of terrorism. And one caution. We will be showing images from October 7th. We will not show human casualties, but we will show pictures of Hamas attacks.
So let’s start off with our first graphic. Gentleman, thanks for being here. The first graphic is really about terrorist attacks ranked by the number of fatalities. This is about the human toll, putting the scale of this attack into context. So, Dan, can you take us through this chart?
Daniel Bymam: Well, let me highlight a few things. As I think everyone knows, 9/11 still remains the single worst today in the history of terrorism. But the majority of other attacks occur in the context of war and conflict in general. So many Americans think of terrorism, we’re thinking about 9/11. Really what seemed, to most of us, like an attack out of the blue. But most of the other high-casualty attacks involve conflict where there are really armies going back and forth, and existing conflicts that are years or in some cases even decades old. And you see mass killing of civilians in these, often in horrific ways.
Another thing I’d like to highlight is that I think many of these attacks are not well known to most Americans, despite our greater awareness of terrorism in general. These often occur with only limited media coverage, very brief media coverage and, unfortunately, don’t get the attention they deserve. The last thing I would say is that it’s amazing how many of these high-casualty attacks are recent. So if we think about 9/11 happening just over 20 years ago, almost all of the top attacks – not all of them, but almost all of the ones featured on this chart –occurred after 9/11. So it shows that we’re seeing these sorts of atrocities happen really, it seems, more frequently. And they’re just, unfortunately, a part of our world today.
Ms. Harding: Right. I think the only one on here that’s pre-9/11 is this one, the Cinema Rex Theater in Iran in 1978. The rest are ones that I remember vividly.
Michael Leiter: Dan, I’d add one thing. I agree with everything you said. And part of this is repeating in a slightly different way, that you noted that most of these occurred during a period of active conflict, which is undoubtedly true for Somalia and the ISIS attacks. I’d say one more thing about most of them, not all of them. They marked either the turning point or a country being in the midst of some of its greatest upheaval in its history; Somalia and what Somalia went through. I mean, this was a period of enormous really ground-shaking terrorism and political instability in Somalia. Clearly this period of sort of 2014 to 2016 in Iraq, there was – it made everything else pale; for 9/11, truly a turning point which drove U.S. foreign policy for 10 if not 20 years.
I think it’s interesting to think about it in that way when we now look in 2023 about Israel. It’s not quite in the midst of a conflict. So what does it mean? Will it have the same historical, regional consequences as what some of these others marked? And I think the likely answer is yes.
Ms. Harding: I expect yes. I mean, just the shocking nature of the attack, I think, shakes the consciousness in the way that, sadly, a big-casualty attack in the midst of a war seems like just so many more deaths among so many deaths. But this one, I think the way that it struck, at least for the Israeli side unexpectedly, will reshape the way that Israelis think about the future of security in the region.
Mr. Leiter: Yeah. I agree with you, Emily. And I wonder if, in fact, as we talk about these major attacks as being in the midst of conflict, to some extent that’s true of this Israeli attack as well. But that conflict was, whether we talk about the Israeli strategy of mowing the grass, it was fundamentally suppressed. It was kept away from most of the Israeli population. It was sufficiently suppressed to allow some regional political developments that are important. But again, I think it does – it marks a pivot point of really broader political instability.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. So let’s look at this in a different, slightly different context. This is the number of fatalities per capita. This really jumped out at us because of the way that the October 7th attack shot to the top of the list and how many of these are different than the attacks on the previous page. Commentary on this one?
Mr. Leiter: I think this is – kudos to CSIS for putting this together. The other – the prior chart to me is interesting. This is incredibly telling and critical for non-Israelis to understand. First of all, some of these are – again, the scale of them, if it’s a big enough scale, it likely will lead to enormous instability. Look at Beirut in 1983. We’ve already talked about ISIS in 2014; 2017, Somalia.
But unless you see this and note, of course, 9/11 is nowhere to be seen in the top 10 and would be pretty far below Palmyra in Syria. This per capita death rate in Israel guides, in my view, the Israeli response. And nations have to understand these consequences to realistically assess the likelihood of them truly guiding or trying to restrain Israel.
This is catastrophic compared to any historical terrorism attack in the region. Again, Lebanon, many of those were Americans and not actually Lebanese. I think it is impossible to downplay or exaggerate how significant this was on the Israeli population and the political consequences. And in that sense, Hamas accomplished its mission quite effectively.
Dr. Byman: I’ll add, just if you think about numbers, from a U.S. point of view it’s probably around 40,000 people, all right. And so, in the Israeli context –
Ms. Harding: Just to clarify that, it would be – if 9/11 had happened at the same scale as October the 7th, 40,000 Americans would have died.
Dr. Byman: Forty thousand. So it’s completely a clear statement. (Laughs.) I jumped way ahead of myself.
Ms. Harding: We’re following you, Dan. We’re following you.
Dr. Byman: Exactly.
Mr. Leiter: You’re always ahead of us, Dan, so that’s OK.
Dr. Byman: Sometimes too far, yes.
So, yes, if we think about – if we go back to 9/11, we think of 40,000 people dying. And we think about how 3,000 kind of rightly shook our nation, but if you added more than a zero to that and how utterly devastating that would be.
And in an Israeli context, it’s a small country. It’s – people know one another very well. And so people, if they didn’t lose a family member themselves, they know someone who did. And, of course, you have a military that relies very heavily on conscription and the reserves. So when you call up the reserves, really everyone knows someone who is in it. So this is something that is not just shaping the nation in terms of mourning the losses of October 7th, but on a day-to-day basis people’s sons and daughters are fighting and people are incredibly focused on this.
And to go to Mike’s point about how much this shapes the Israeli response, in contrast to past attacks this is something that from an Israeli point of view simply can’t stand – that they can’t simply say, yeah, you know, we suffered but we’ll be OK; we’ll go back to how things were before. They have to try to find some new answer to all this.
Ms. Harding: Mmm hmm. That point about everybody knows somebody, you know, even just here in D.C. there are a lot of people who are dual citizens or who have, you know, friends in Israel and even they know somebody who lost a family member or who now has been called up and is who knows where on a front line somewhere.
It’s deeply personal, I think, for the entire country and that is going to influence the way that they respond, to be sure.
Mr. Leiter: The failure is also deeply personal to them. In the U.S. when you had significant failure on 9/11 most people still didn’t know people at the CIA or the FBI, and more and more people don’t even know someone in the military.
In Israel everyone knows someone who’s in the military. All their families are in the military. Everyone knows people who are in the security services or the police and everyone identifies to some extent with the failure because it was a political failure, an intelligence failure, and an operational failure, and that’s also something I think the political response reacts to that pain of failure to say we are still strong.
Dr. Byman: And one difference, I would say, with the U.S. – again, going back to 9/11 – I think, obviously, there were professionals in the counterterrorism community focused on this but it was a relatively small number.
Israelis, of course, knew of the Hamas threat. It wasn’t like they didn’t know that right next door to them there was a – Gaza was run by an organization very hostile to Israel. An Israeli friend of mine said it’s kind of a mix of 9/11 and the Tet offensive where it was not just a general shock in terms of the scale of the attack but also we thought we knew the capabilities of this group and we simply did not.
Mr. Leiter: Can I build on that, Dan? Because I’ve been out of government for some time now, but we in the U.S. intelligence community and counterterrorism community, of course, thought about Hamas, thought about Hezbollah, watched Hezbollah much more so than Hamas and one of the reasons – probably two basic reasons we didn’t look at Hamas that much, one, it wasn’t really a threat to the United States; it was a threat to Israel. The second was, though, that the Israeli understanding of Hamas was eye watering.
There was simply very little, if any, that the U.S. could add. Whereas we were trying to track individuals, the Israelis knew the individuals; they knew families. They knew Hamas as an organization vastly better than we ever understood al-Qaeda or the like, which did – to me, with the tragedy of October 7th was just that much more shocking. I couldn’t imagine how they had gone from such a deep, thorough, nuanced understanding of the group to having this happen.
Ms. Harding: I think that’s true. One of the things about living side by side with somebody who’s been an adversary for a long time is that it gives plenty of opportunity for each to go to school on the other one’s tactics and to figure out how to engage in some surprise.
We’re going to talk about tactics in just a minute but first I want to talk a little bit about Israel being no stranger to terrorist attacks but just how out of scale this is compared to the ones that we’ve seen that get even close.
I mean, looking back, you know, ’78, ’74, ’72, and then 2002 being the most recent one that had anywhere close to a number of casualties that would fit on this chart. Your point about this being a failure of being able to anticipate this kind of attack is absolutely true and just the scale of it impossible to wrap your head around.
Mr. Leiter: This is like comparing Puerto Rican nationalism in the ’70s to 9/11. If one thought that we were accustomed to terrorism because Puerto Rican nationalism and then 9/11 is no big deal we should understand this is no more extreme.
Ms. Harding: Right.
Dr. Byman: I’d note that the last attack in 2002, the Park Hotel massacre, that prompted a massive Israeli military operation, that after that attack it was seen as the culmination of a series of smaller attacks. They reoccupied much of the West Bank. They did operations in Jenin and other places that were kind of risky militarily and costly for Israel’s international reputation. And really led them to change their strategy where they simply said: We’re going to crush these groups in the West Bank. And that was 30 people, right? I mean, and you know, now – and that was, of course, in the context of the Second Intifada, where there were more day-to-day attacks. So it’s not quite the contrast. But nevertheless, 30 people compared to 1,400.
Ms. Harding: Right. OK, you guys helpfully previewed tactics, so let’s move on and talk a little bit about tactics. We have a couple of photos we want to show here. This, to me, was really interesting, because it showed not only a clear understanding of Hamas’ adversary in Israel, and how Israel fights, but also how both sides have attempted to use technology in the current phase of the fight. This is a picture of the border wall between Israel and Gaza. And what you see on the left is a turret of sorts on top of the wall, where they have a remotely operated machine gun.
And the idea is that the cameras along the wall will see a potential attack moving towards the wall, and then the Israeli military can respond somewhat remotely with a machine gun to, in theory, push people back away from the wall, so you can’t do things like lay explosives along the bottom. And then what you see on the right is Hamas understanding exactly what this turret was for, and then disabling it, dropping an explosive from a drone to be sure that Israel couldn’t use it to push back the troops.
So in my view, technology success and failure, in some ways. The Israelis weren’t able to recover from this capability to take out its first line of defense, basically. And then Hamas, using a drone that I think has yet to be identified – we were talking about whether or not maybe some Iranian technology or whether it was indigenously produced – for a quite dramatic effect. So talk a little bit about Hamas’ tactics when it came to this border fence. And then I want to show another picture.
Mr. Leiter: Well, this is a – this is a fascinating evolution. And I had to say, I think it is another piece of, frankly, a failed Israeli intelligence and operational response. I mean, this is the equivalent of Blitzkrieg around the Maginot Line. And the reason, I think, to me it exemplifies a failure is because we’ve had Russia and Ukraine over the past 18 months.
Ms. Harding: And clearly, they’ve been paying attention.
Mr. Leiter: That’s right.
Ms. Harding: Yeah.
Mr. Leiter: One side was, and I’m not sure the other side fully incorporated that into their defenses and their operational planning. Pre-Russia and Ukraine, one might have thought the use of cheap drones to attack sites like this would be a little bit more unexpected. But it’s certainly not over the past 18 months. The plethora of YouTube videos and the like of either custom-made drones, some advanced Western drones, Iranian drones, but also cheap drones delivering hand grenades and the like are still quite effective. And against a fixed position like this incredibly effective.
And my sense is – from the outside – is that the Israelis did not appreciate the extent to which Hamas was learning from that experience, incorporating that into their tactics. And, again, the modern-day Maginot Line could be easily overcome, routed, and bypassed using some of that technology. This is – you know, a fixed machine gun is not something extremely advanced. It’s remote controlled. It’s useful. But if you don’t have an operational plan to reinforce that, to respond quickly to that, then these cheap drones and other similar weapons can easily out-maneuver that fixed entity.
This is what the Israelis didn’t see coming. They didn’t adjust the defenses, in my sense. And perhaps the answer was, we can’t defend against this in the short run. But then, of course, you have to shift your operational forces in a way that you can respond more quickly. And you did this on a fixed machine gun nest. You could have also done it to a multimillion-dollar Israeli tank, that also suffered, reportedly, losses through cheap drones. So this is a deeply problematic experience, especially given Hamas has been an innovator for some time. Whether it’s tunnels or other seed delivery, the Israelis have watched them innovate. This was, in some ways, a predictable innovation. And I don’t think that the Israelis had the corresponding innovation on their intelligence and defense side.
Ms. Harding: One thing that I want to point out here, too: We are using Hamas propaganda photos, basically, to show the before and after, which is probably something else they’ve learned from Ukraine, from the Ukrainians’ ability to follow a munition all the way into a Russian tank and then use that to show how innovative they are being.
I also want to get to a point in probably the next slide where we talk about the layers of Hamas tactics and how this was an intensively planned operation, clearly, and how they had – they had picked apart the Israeli defenses layer by layer and figured out how to attack each one of them. But, sorry, here about the – jump in here?
Dr. Byman: No, I’ll just kind of briefly add, on Mike’s last point, terrorist groups that survive are learning organizations, right? Hamas has been around for over 35 years. And it’s kind of a Darwinian situation where, facing a very competent Israeli military and security services, for it to be around, to be running Gaza, meant that it had to have some ability to adjust and adapt.
I have to confess my own, frankly, mistakes here, where I remember several years ago the big threat from Hamas seemed to be flaming kites, some of you may recall, where they were launching them over the border. And you know, I don’t particularly want a flaming kite to land on my house or in my yard, but I thought, well, if that’s the big terrorism threat to Israel, I think the state will survive, right? And yet, several years later we see, you know – I’m going to say exponentially, but you know, dramatic exponentially increase in capacity. And it shows that the group recognized the problems it was facing, recognized where Israel was putting pressure on it, and came up with an effective way to respond.
Mr. Leiter: And can I – one more piece just about the terminology we’re using, which I think is appropriate. Hamas is clearly a terrorist organization, catastrophic terrorist attack against civilians. But when we think – thought back to al-Qaeda post-9/11 and to a lesser extent ISIS, other parts of al-Qaeda, they fit what I think is the more traditional model of terrorists. And innovation there was actually quite risky for terrorist organizations, and they tended to be quite careful about innovation. As my old deputy used to say, terrorists like things that work, and things that work are things they’ve done before. Why do they keep going back trying to blow up planes? Because they knew it worked. Why do they use suicide vests? Because it was simple and it worked.
Hamas at this point, core terrorist organization, but really I think operating much more like a Hezbollah and a paramilitary terrorist organization, which leads to time to develop tactics, a multifaceted force, and they weren’t being pressured by the Israelis in the same way that an al-Qaeda was or an al-Shabaab was. So they’re operating as terrorists when they go and kill civilians, but they’re developing their capabilities much more, I think, like a military force. And I’m not sure that the Israeli preparation and response was ready for that.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. There’s that whole debate about what counts as terrorism. Is terrorism a tactic or is it an outcome? But you’re right. There was a story in War on the Rocks recently about taking this apart as a special forces attack as opposed to as a classic terrorist attack, and you can see that influence. Hezbollah, of course – was it Obama who famously referred to them as the A team? Yeah.
Mr. Leiter: Yeah.
Ms. Harding: With their capability to be a governance structure, a military, a social structure, and a terrorist group all at the same time. Hamas seems to be learning some lessons there.
So this is the other photo that we wanted to show. Again, a Hamas propaganda photo of sorts, but what we wanted to show here is the combination of tactics used at the same time. And here we have a rocket attack coming out of Gaza, and the red circle is pointing to a paraglider who was coming across the border at the same time. It would be, I think, probably overly dramatic to call this coordinated multidomain warfare, but in a sense it is. Can you guys say a few words about what we see here as the sophistication of this attack?
Dr. Byman: And going back to our recent discussion on innovation, this is also part of what surprised me, was multiple innovations, right? So it’s not simply: Hey, there’s a wall. We’ll use paragliders and get a few people in. Which would have been, like, OK; that’s very impressive, actually. It wasn’t simply that they were able to bring in a number of rockets and missiles to overwhelm Israeli defenses, which also was impressive. It wasn’t simply the destruction of the border barriers. So it was multiple innovations, which, you know, going back to what works, is also somewhat risky from Hamas’ point of view because if one of them is detected, right, it’s a possibility all of it would unravel. So it shows – I mean, I think we’ll still find out, you know, at some point how they kind of hid all this from Israeli intelligence – but it was a very bold gamble, because they were innovating in multiple domains simultaneously. And it certainly paid off on October 7th for Hamas. But to me they were rolling the dice.
Mr. Leiter: I think the only thing I’d add is it shows a similarity, in a different way, with Pearl Harbor, 9/11, not on the defensive-failure side, but this is for all the marbles for Hamas. They were putting everything into this, in the same way the Japanese knew they had to knock out the Pacific fleet or they were going to have problems. Al-Qaeda, to a great extent, said we must hit them so hard that they’ll be frightened to respond.
Now, obviously, Pearl Harbor and 9/11, they were wrong about the defenders in that case. I think Hamas probably wrong, definitely wrong, about Israel’s response. Whether or not Hamas will be successful in knocking some of the regional political movements that they were hoping to disrupt, TBD. But they threw everything at it.
I’m not saying that they don’t have some things still hidden up their sleeve. But they were willing to risk a catastrophic response and use everything they could to make this as large an attack as possible. And I think that certainly tells us something about Hamas; a bit of desperation on their part; probably feeling emboldened with some Iranian support, an ongoing military support; probably seeing an opportunity as well as risk in the regional politics and an opportunity with Israeli political dysfunction. But this was not, you know, day one. This was we’re all in to try to make this a successful attack. And that’s also why I think you end up with this very complex, multipronged maneuver.
Ms. Harding: We should say that the estimates of how long this took to plan range from a year to 18 months to multiple years with deciding – I mean, to put something together like this, first of all, is just a ton of planning. Second of all, it’s a lot of people. And then trying to keep all that planning and all those people quiet so that the Israelis don’t see it coming is an impressive feat. I hate to call a terrorist group impressive, but it is an impressive feat.
On the why-now question, two years ago, when perhaps the planning started for this, what could they possibly have been going for? Why was that the moment to start this planning? Do you have thoughts?
Dr. Byman: So I think there’s a lot we don’t know here. But I begin by saying I think when they began the planning, it’s at least possible that they simply wanted it as an option, right; that two years ago, or whenever it was, they didn’t say, OK, if we develop this capacity, we’re definitely going to use it.
But I think they felt that they no longer had the ability to strike Israel effectively, that systems like Iron Dome had really stopped the threat of the rockets and missiles. The border barrier meant that they couldn’t do cross-border attacks or suicide bombings. And in general, the kind of Israeli complacency was correct, that Hamas was weak and off balance.
And with that in mind, Hamas had lost one of its most appealing characteristics, at least in its own view, which was what it would call its resistance credentials, right; that it was more than simply a political actor. It was an organization that could take the fight to the Israelis. And they were, in some ways, in the worst of both worlds. They’re governing Gaza, but they’re really not succeeding in bringing any prosperity to the strip. And at the same time, they can’t really hit the Israelis. And in order to keep the peace in Gaza and prevent other groups from hitting Israel, they’re almost acting as the Israelis’ policemen. So they were suffering credibility blows on multiple fronts. And I think they wanted this as at least an option for rectifying this.
Mr. Leiter: Well, first of all, I basically never disagree with Dan. I hope we can disagree on something. I’m not going to disagree with Dan’s reading on this because he’s much smarter than I am.
I think the regional political dynamics probably did also play into likely the decision to plan and the decision to execute. There has been a progressive warming of relations between the Gulf nations and Israel. For those of us in the security community, we know it’s actually been much warmer than people imagined for a long time; but the business ties, the Abraham Accords. There were a number of dynamics that were making it less and less likely that Hamas was going to be viewed as a legitimate – a legitimate defender of the Palestinian people, that we’re supporting, unless you were Iran. Put Iran in a separate category. But for everyone else in the region, those days were quickly dissipating, if not already gone.
I think knowing – I can’t try to predict the exact reasons why they went now, whether it was out of desperation or preparedness. I think overall, terrorist organizations tend to go when they’re really ready. And we sort of imagine that it might be on an anniversary or things like that, but largely if you plan something and you’re ready to go and you don’t go, every day that you don’t go there’s a greater risk that someone’s going to detect it. So readiness drives performance, in most cases, more so than anything else. I think, again, the trajectory towards warming relations in the region was relatively constant at this point. And in that sense, I think there was desperation and readiness.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. There’s certain fragility of planning, especially when you have what may have been 2,000 people involved in some way, shape, or form. Where the more – the closer you get, the more likely it is that you’re going to be uncovered.
Mr. Leiter: It really is. It’s just – I keep thinking about this, trying to come up with an explanation of how it was missed. And I want to raise my hand for someone who has been in intelligence, counterterrorism jobs, and missed stuff before. So I definitely – as someone once said when asking someone – an answer in the White House Situation Room once, why haven’t you found Bin Laden yet? And someone a – crusty old agency officer – said, because he’s hiding. (Laughter.) These things are hard. And we both criticize the Israeli preparation and response, but neither one of us, I think, wants to underestimate how hard it is.
That being said, I still can’t get my head around not detecting and being significantly concerned, prepositioning – even if you don’t know exactly what it is – when you have so many people involved on so many fronts. I think it is sort of telling that, my own view, about whether or not the Iranians and Hezbollah were directly related, and I’m sure we’ll talk about that. But on the Hamas-Israeli front, how an operation of this scale was missed, even compared to 9/11. Not in terms of the death, in terms of the number of people. This just makes it pale by comparison. And that’s going to – there’s going to be a lot of soul searching in Israel when this conflict, I hope, comes to an end.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. I’m highly sympathetic as well. It will be really interesting from an academic perspective to look at the after-action report and see what was collected that was not analyzed, and what was analyzed that was not listened to, and then how the operational failure unfolded on top of that.
But you brought up Iran, so let’s talk about Iran. I mean, there’s a lot of theories out there about just how involved Iran and Hezbollah may or may not have been in the planning piece of it. We all watched Hassan Nasrallah’s speech with interest. And it was – a friend of mine summarized it by saying that Nasrallah basically just said: Good on you, Hamas. And I want to be clear, we had no idea this was happening at all and have no intention of being involved. (Laughter.) It was about as conciliatory as you’ll ever see him get.
That said, you know, this – the equipment required, the planning required, the denial and deception techniques required, I have suspicions about Iran’s cyber capability and whether they helped Hamas with their cyber defense against Israeli technical operations. There are a lot of fingerprints here that just seem to point back towards at least Iranian assistance, if not an Iranian, like, go for it, guys. We approve it. But what’s your read on this one?
Mr. Leiter: Well, I start with the foundation that Hamas is in Iranian-sponsored, supported, enabled proxy. No doubt about it. All the material support, this is horrendous, and Iran has been deeply involved with enabling Hamas, really, in every facet – their weapons, communications, training. All of these things, for decades now. So we accept that. I tend to think that Iran was not involved in the specific planning and launch of this operation. Again, that’s already saying they’ve been involved in a lot of other things. And I say that, again, from the outside, for two reasons.
One, although the Israelis came out quite strongly initially after the attack blaming Iran and the U.S. pushed back in a politically correct way, the Israelis have not continued down that same line of verbal attack. I think that reversal is telling.
Second, although I’m confounded by the Israeli intelligence operation here, I simply cannot believe that the Israelis would have missed this operation had there been operational coordination with either Hezbollah and Iran, because about the only things the Israelis watch more than Hamas are Hezbollah and Iran. And it is those geographically distributed tentacles which are particularly vulnerable to intelligence interception and analysis. These aren’t things that initiated this call with Iran, Tehran, you say: Yeah, don’t worry about that, Bob. Right? This is something that goes to the front of the line.
So my sense is the likelihood of surprise was already very low, given all that we’ve talked about, but the likelihood of surprise was fundamentally nil were there a direct Hezbollah-Iranian link. I really believe that the Israelis would have collected that, analyzed it, and prioritized it. That they didn’t, not good for Israel, but to me suggests a lack of operational involvement by those two powers.
Ms. Harding: That’s interesting flipped around that way.
Dr. Byman: Yeah. And I stress, I’ll say, a couple points Mike made.
So one is, you know, we know Iran arms Hamas. We know Iran funds Hamas. We know Iran trains Hamas. So Hamas has greater capacity. Iran deserves credit or blame for that. And in some ways, this is almost an ideal outcome for Iran, where right now the discourse in the region has changed fundamentally. You know, several years ago it was: Are you on the side of the Syrian people or this illegitimate regime and their Iranian backers, right? And now it’s: Are you on the side of the evil United States and its puppet Israeli government as they slaughter thousands of Palestinians? And that’s the discourse that Iran wants in the region. It’s a way of hitting Israel without Iran itself being, I’ll say, particularly vulnerable to a massive Israeli or U.S. response. And Iran has kind of multiple types of proxies it works with, some of which, like Hezbollah, you know, they’re bound at the hip, but others where it simply scatters money and resources and says, you know, go do bad things that we – that we agree on. And Hamas is a good example of this paying off. And it benefits Iran politically to be able to say, look, we’re the ones clearly on the side of this group, while all these other Arab regimes, they’re on the side of Israel.
Ms. Harding: Yeah.
Mr. Leiter: I agree with everything you said but one piece that –
Ms. Harding: Oh, there we found it. We found the thing you guys disagree about. There you go.
Dr. Byman: Exactly.
Mr. Leiter: Exactly. The one piece that the Iranians, I think, want and now will not get is a relaxing of U.S./Western sanctions related to their nuclear capabilities. The Biden administration has really tried to keep the nuclear issue separate from the terrorism issues and material support issues. That path is dead.
Dr. Byman: That’s fair.
Mr. Leiter: No American administration for the next 10 years, absent massive political change in Iran, is going to have the desire, the political wherewithal, in my view, to advance those talks. So on that front, Iran is also a big loser. I think they probably figured, it’s OK; it’s worth it. But that path is gone.
Dr. Byman: That’s fair.
Ms. Harding: I am looking forward to the after action and seeing if we had any indication of what those conversations between the Iranians and Hamas and Hezbollah actually looked like, where Hamas was saying: Well, we would like X number of drone pieces. And Iran says: What for? And they say: Don’t you worry about that; we’ll handle that. And Iran says: Maybe it’s best that we don’t know. (Laughs.) You know, I could picture that kind of conversation being the way that this played out. But you know, we’ll – I guess we’ll see in history.
Mr. Leiter: And as you know, being a very astute academic and practitioner, it’s pretty incredible after an attack what you could piece together, what has fallen on the floor. Whether it – again, the classic work, Roberta Wohlstetter on Pearl Harbor, and everything’s there; to a great extent the 9/11 commission report; it will be there. And I think the Israelis are going to look at it.
My guess is, also, just – I don’t know anything; I have not been briefed. But the reaction of the U.S. officials suggests to me – because we, of course, also listen to Iranian and Hezbollah discussions, perhaps not always as effectively as the Israelis but we do – my guess is that we saw surprise on the part of the Iranians and Hezbollah. And that is often – unless people are really good actors, you have a good sense of the knowledge when you’re listening and they say: Wait, what just happened; turn on CNN and watch; and they’re shocked by it, too.
Ms. Harding: Right.
Mr. Leiter: I can say I think we saw that in other attacks, both attacks against us but also operations we took, and got a much better sense of how potentially cooperating nations or groups were caught unaware. And my guess is that we’d have some insights from that.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. There will be no crisp, clear answer on this. It’s going to be a muddle of the previous support for a great number of years, inspiration perhaps, and then, you know, whatever happened in the days leading up to October 7th.
Mr. Leiter: And I think at least for now at this stage of the war my sense – again, Dan, Emily, you may know – I’m sure you do know better. I think at this stage of the war it’s still really important. I mean, this is not a I wonder what for, you know, after action.
This – their involvement will directly lead to some Israeli choices about retaliation. Right now it looks to be that with Hezbollah it’s stay back. We’re going to respond if you do but we’re not going in.
If they discover that Nasrallah was actively involved or if that statement had been different I think the Israeli reaction would have been kinetic similarly into Tehran. I have no doubts that if there was a strong tie the Israelis will not simply be happy with a U.N. resolution or something similar. So this has real-world consequences, going forward, about how this plays out.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. On that note, let’s look at one more what we’re calling a tactic but is really a feature – a defining feature of this conflict, and that’s the hostages. The instructions that have come out recently is that found pocket letter on some of the Hamas terrorists who were killed on the battlefield: You know, kill as many people as you can. Take as many hostages as you can.
So we took a look at select modern multi-hostage incidents by duration and outcome. So what you have at the bottom here is the duration in days so the further the bar extends to the right the more days that the hostage crisis went on. And then the color coding is about how it ended. The Iran hostage crisis, of course, was negotiated; the Samal Island was mixed; and then we have some violent ones as well. The Japanese embassy crisis in Peru – I’m sure some of our watchers will remember as well. And then here we are with the Gaza crisis in Israel. We’re now at day, what, 30 something it looks like and, you know, we will see what the outcome is here.
And then if you look at the next chart this flips it on its head a little bit and looks at hostage incidents by number of hostages and outcome. So we have the Gaza crisis down here as ongoing with 200 hostages and then you have the rising tide up here, and one sort of interesting comparison between these two charts is just how many more of these large number hostage takings are violent in their ending.
Dan, you want to say anything about what this chart said to you?
Dr. Byman: Sure. So it does stress your point. Many of these ended sometimes with the deaths of the hostage takers but often with a lot of innocent people dying, and so when you have these huge hostage crises it enables the terrorist group to kind of dribble out the hostages, right.
So in the current Hamas case, you know, Hamas can release, you know, five hostages a week, right, which in most cases would be a very significant number. But here you could talk about this crisis kind of going on many weeks, many months, years even, and this gives Hamas tremendous leverage because they can say, OK, you know, we will release all the elderly hostages in response for this concession. We’ll release children in response to this concession. We’ll release noncombatants from non-Israeli countries in response to this.
And it’s also a massive hostage crisis for multiple countries, right, and so, you know, in contrast to many of these, as horrible as these were these were usually involving the nationals of the particular country involved and it was making decisions about its own people.
One thing I should add is in most of these cases a number of them involve Russia but most of these cases you’re talking about undemocratic or semi-democratic governments that are much more cavalier about the lives of their own citizens than Israel would be or the United States would be, and in the current Israeli case they have a situation where people are in multiple locations, where they are from multiple nationalities, and all in the context of ongoing military operations. So as negative as this chart is, in terms of the level of the violence, I don’t know if I can say even more pessimistic, but pessimistic on the hostage situation right now in Gaza.
Mr. Leiter: So I complimented your first two charts significantly, especially the second on the per capita because I think it’s so telling. I don’t like this chart. And I don’t like the prior chart, because I think that there are too many differences between this hostage scenario and so many of the other ones. Dan, you identified some of them, multiple nationalities. But in most of these others, almost all of these others, you were talking about hostages in an isolated location. We don’t have that. We have them spread across miles and miles, undoubtedly.
The multiple nationalities I think is a significant difference, although I’m not sure it’s one that, truthfully, the Israelis care about. They are all, in the Israeli view, terrorist victims and hostages, and they have to be rescued. But I think there’s another way in which I think this is just different. I’m not sure how much actual deterrence and power this does give Hamas. And I’m making a mistake, which is I’m kind of putting myself into the Israeli psyche, which I can’t, given what they’ve gone through. But as I think back to that second chart and the per capita suffering that they’ve experienced, the Israelis have always done as much as they can to try to rescue hostages. They have turned over thousands of prisoners, some of whom were well-established terrorists, to rescue single soldiers or onesies and twosies of hostages.
Ms. Harding: Including the current head of Hamas, right? Wasn’t he one of those political – yeah.
Mr. Leiter: That’s right. That’s right. They want to rescue these hostages. But I’m not sure that their military operations, given the scale of October 7th, are going to be affected by that deterrence. And I think they’re actually quite committed to not being deterred. So they will operate to try to save them they. They will operate to try to avoid hurting them. They will not be deterred in their ultimate strategic goal of destroying Hamas, because of the presence.
I’m not saying that they’re already killing these poor, poor victims of terrorism as people who are also going to give and could be killed. But I just don’t think that they think their strategy can be dictated by the presence of these hostages. I also do hope that countries throughout the world are careful not to distinguish their hostages versus other hostages. I think it leads – it can lead to a terrible schism between the Israelis and those countries they need to ally with them.
Finally, we have a – it’s not – they’re not hostages, but we have another problem there that we don’t have in these in these other hostage – which is there are really tens of thousands of people who are effectively hostages in Gaza. It’s the innocent Gazans, innocent other nationalities that, frankly, I hope the Israelis can get out while still not reducing the ability to destroy Hamas. But we have the possibility of tens of thousands of people becoming hostages again. And this is, of course, what Hamas has done for decades. They operate below a hospital. Those people end up being hostages. So I think there are just so many complexities to innocents and hostages in Gaza that the Israelis are going to be loath to have that drive their ultimate strategic and tactical goals.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. It does bother me that in so many of the calls for the Israelis to stand down and stop the fighting, there are so few calls by comparison for Hamas to stand down and stop the fighting. There are two parties to this conflict. Hamas could release the hostages it’s holding and agree to stand down, and the fighting would stop. So why aren’t we talking about that as well?
Mr. Leiter: I completely agree with you, Emily. And I’ve actually found slightly rich some of the commentary by people who I respect tremendously, but of late of make sure you don’t make the same mistakes we did post-9/11. First of all, we’ve already talked about the scale of the attack and the terrorism here which dwarfs 9/11, as tragic as that was. Second, imagine that al-Qaeda’s terrorists had not come from planes in the air and ultimately from countries overseas, but had come from New Jersey. (Laughs.) You really think that we were not going to respond? We were willing to go to war thousands of miles away in Afghanistan to hunt them down. Do we really think that the U.S., by any means, was going to be – would be gentle if they were still across the bridge? I mean, that’s just not realistic. And I think some of the calls for ceasefire, as well intentioned as they are to save innocents, really missed this dynamic and misunderstand the Israeli psyche on this.
Ms. Harding: And misunderstand the way that Hamas is using its own civilians as human shields.
Dr. Byman: Absolutely. Hamas has made the Gaza – the people of Gaza suffer as much as many of the Israelis, including those who’ve given their lives.
Ms. Harding: Right. So actually, on that point, we have another graphic that – you can tell us whether you like this one or not – Israeli versus Palestinian deaths in previous conflicts with Hamas. And the scale of Palestinian death is always an order of magnitude or more higher than the Israeli deaths. And Hamas knew this going into this attack. They had to know this.
We raise this in part because, you know, just the scale of human suffering cannot be ignored, and we have to talk about that, but also because the Israelis are going to treat the law of war seriously, but they’re also going to treat, as you point out, Mike, their strategy seriously and they’re going to pursue it.
Dan, if you want to start us off and talk a little bit about this horrific balance and how the Israelis think about counterterrorism operations, how Hamas calculates what they’re going to do here.
Dr. Byman: So I think there are a number of things explaining these numbers. First is simply the operating environment in Gaza, where, as Mike said, you know, Hamas will do an attack and then immediately hide behind civilians. And it’s a dense, built-up set of structures in Gaza. It’s very hard to target Hamas leadership without also targeting many civilians. Deliberate co-location of military targets and civilian targets makes that much worse. Now add a significant tunnel network to the equation, where leaders are hiding; arms are stored. All that leads to tremendous, I will say, kind of difficulties militarily, that if you’re going to target Hamas leaders, you’re going to have civilian casualties.
Also going on, though, is what Israel sees as necessary for deterrence, which is, given Israel’s own casualty sensitivity, that it wants to make clear to Hamas, but also to Hezbollah or any other actor, that if Israel gets hit, it’s going to hit back much harder. And this is in part what may actually be explaining some of the peace along the Israel-Lebanon border, where Hezbollah, for all its delight in Israel’s suffering, doesn’t want Lebanon to be getting hit the way Gaza City is being hit.
But these numbers are revealing, and they show to me that in the past we’ve seen somewhere between usually around five to 10 times as many Palestinian deaths as Israeli deaths, but in some cases goes up to over 100 times as many, right. And if you think about 1,400 Israeli deaths and what that translates to with some of those multiples, you know, right now we’re already over 10,000 Palestinian deaths, and the Israeli ground offensive is really just beginning.
So I think we’re going to see very high casualty levels, again, in part just because of the nature of military operations in Gaza, but also Israel is trying to say that, look, if you’re going to attack us, we’re going to hit back very hard, and wants Palestinians, ordinary Palestinians, to say, look, we may not like Israel, but we don’t want war because it’s so destructive for our own lives.
Mr. Leiter: I think Dan has, again, nailed it. And I do like this chart, as depressing as it is.
Ms. Harding: Yeah.
Mr. Leiter: I’d just add two quick observations. First, that 8,000 –
Ms. Harding: I should point out, this was as of October 29th. So now we’re up over 10(,000).
Mr. Leiter: Yeah. Those are not all equal.
Ms. Harding: Right.
Mr. Leiter: Some of those are Hamas fighters. And that is not the same as the horrendous collateral damage of noncombatants, which we certainly hope and we should demand that the Israelis do abide by international law and avoid that. But some of those 10,000 are legitimate military targets in self-defense for the Israelis, and they count differently.
Second, what this doesn’t show is the period, of course, between largely 2021 and 2014, where the Israelis tried a very different strategy; referred to them, mowing the grass, going in as necessary to try to take out key terrorist leaders, some incursions at most, high defensive walls, technology physically. And there I think the numbers – not a lot of Israelis killed, but also not a lot of Palestinians killed during those operations. They tended to be much more targeted. It didn’t work for them. It simply didn’t work. And that is why, as terrible is that overall toll is, the Israelis are not willing to use that old strategy. It failed them and they’re not going to again. It’s horrible.
Ms. Harding: Yeah, it’s a set of bad options, honestly. Well, before we do some closing remarks, I want to look at two pictures. These are of protests, pro-Palestinian protests. This first one is in Beirut. You can see the Hezbollah flags and the Palestinian flags next to each other, and a couple of Lebanese flags scattered in there. And this one is, of course, in London, where you have people coming out into the streets to support the Palestinian people, to object to the Israeli offensive. This is a hugely emotional issue. And as we see it carry on, we’re going to see more propaganda, perhaps some mis- and disinformation as we’ve already seen before, and then emotions continue to run high. So I think conversations like this, where we can attempt to look at the issue in a balanced way and a dispassionate way, are really important. But I wanted to turn it over to you first, Dan, then to you, Mike, for any kind of closing thoughts that you have about this particular human tragedy and terrorist attack.
Dr. Byman: So the big question to me right now is, where might we be in three months, right? And how do we think about this in terms of what survives of Hamas? And, going back to Mike’s point, if you have an Israeli government that says we can’t live with these guys on our border, what does it actually mean in practice? And does that mean that for the next three months, the next three years, we’re going to see an ongoing military campaign in Gaza, and that protests like these are going to be kind of widespread and constant, that there’ll be disruption of normalization of Israel in the region, there’ll be diplomatic pressure on Israel – even from the United States – as a result?
And I don’t see a good answer for Israel, either in terms of leaving and allowing Hamas to regenerate or of staying and fighting a fight that I think it’s going to be exceptionally difficult for Israel to win. And part of the problem is, there’s no one who can really rule Gaza in Hamas’ stead. And, you know, one of the joys of being at a think tank or being a professor is I can kind of criticize any option that someone comes up with, right? (Laughter.) But when I have to, you know, say, and therefore something should be done. I don’t have particularly useful answers. So I think we’re going to end up with a bunch of very bad alternatives.
Mr. Leiter: Well, I certainly agree that the next three months are going to be quite dark for the region. But October 7th was deathly dark for the Israelis, and probably the worst – the worst day in Israel’s history, at least since 1973, and perhaps to the founding. And the Israelis are responding accordingly. I think the pictures of protests are interesting, but I don’t think they tell the whole story. I think although governments have made statements, I think the tone of those statements – especially across majority-Muslim, Arab nations in the region – had been significantly different than they would have been five or 10 years ago. They are more muted.
And I think that’s telling about where people see history going. And the longer term history for the region, I think, beyond Gaza and Israel, is more positive and actually probably a more integrated region and a less war-torn region. But that Gaza peace, and the Palestinian challenge, is something that the Israeli government has struggled with for decades, but especially tried to hem in and not solve over the past 10 to 15 years. I hope, as tragic as this war is, that at the end of it, however it ends, that there is a refocused effort on the Israelis and legitimate Palestinian leaders to find some solution there.
I think we were in an unsustainable situation. Hamas, I think, has now entered a death spiral of their own making. And the question is when that death spiral is over for Hamas, Israel will still stand. And then do we actually have a global commitment to a broader peace effort, which will undoubtedly be hugely problematic, given how awful Gaza has become and the challenges that the West Bank, but still are necessary to have any lasting, real evolution of peace in the region between Israel and its neighbors.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. Well, crossing our fingers for that lasting evolution of peace. This is one of those times where we all need to be thinking about this in timelines of a decade, not in timelines of a presidential cycle, or six months, or who can get what Nobel Peace Prize in the next two years. (Laughs.) This is going to be a generational rebuilding, if and when we get there. And I do hope that you’re right about Hamas death spiral.
Thanks to our online audience for sticking with us through no doubt a very difficult discussion. I will end by quoting John Adams, the American president, in a letter to his wife, Abigail – or, actually, misquoting him, adapting it for the modern world: We here study war so that our children can have the peace to study math and science and philosophy. We study technology so our children can study art and literature. And that is what we hope for everyone who is involved in this conflict, and also around the world. So thank you, gentlemen, for coming today and for having this conversation with us. We’ll continue it into the future. Thanks, everybody.