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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Were Hamas’s October 7th Terrorist Attacks Really Unexpected?

The October 7th massacre of Hamas occupies a special place in the list of terrorist attacks in terms of its preparations, planning, casualties, and intelligence failure. In the view of intelligence experts, it took at least 12 months to analyze and shed light on every detail of the September 11th attacks. It will likely take up to 12 or 18 months to figure out (a) how Hamas was prepared for the massacre, (b) how Hamas intercepted IDF’s technological system, (c) what tactics the organization used, (d) how Hamas procured arms and weapons, (e) how it funded the attacks, and (f) what states were involved in sponsoring and plotting the attacks. However, current indicators stress that intelligence units have missed the detection and prevention of the attacks despite existing flashing red lights in global terrorism databases. One of these databases is the GTTAC (Global Terrorism Trends Analysis Center) Records of Incidents Database (GRID), and this article uses GRID to analyze terrorist attacks in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip and aims to answer the question of whether October 7th attacks were really unexpected.   

The October 7th attacks are still blurry on how Hamas planned and carried out them. The government sources and media still report conflicting numbers about casualty counts of people killed and wounded. The examination of existing sources demonstrates that Hamas’s Complex Coordinated Terrorist Attacks (CCTA) took a longer time to prepare and plan attacks and constituted of several phases: First, Hamas bombed Israeli observation towers and weapons systems on the border crossing drones. Second, an estimated 2,200 rockets were fired toward southern and central Israel as Hamas militants on paragliders flew over the border. Third, Hamas attempted to attack from the sea in the region of Zikim. Fourth, finally, Hamas militants breached the security fences and targeted the Israeli army and civilians. Spatial and temporal analyses from the media sources indicated that Hamas’s coordinated attacks took place in more than 30 locations that resulted in the killing of 1,400 Israelis and wounding more than 3,400 others. In addition, 240 Israelis were taken hostage, and 32 Americans lost their lives in the attacks.

In the meantime, the Israeli retaliation against Hamas has been accused of committing war crimes. According to experts, the offensive strikes should discriminately have targeted Hamas’s resources, but its harsh policies included overreactions. Likely, the rising tension in the region will impact and have consequences over current counterterrorism policies against jihadist terrorist groups. Undoubtedly, these groups will benefit from existing opportunities to inflame hatred against the Western world and intensify their recruiting and funding activities.     

Active Terror Groups in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip

The Israeli-Palestine conflict is an ongoing military and political conflict in the Middle East. It began in the mid-20th century and has been one of the world’s most prolonged continuing conflicts. Various attempts have failed to resolve the conflict as part of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Tensions grew into open sectarian violence between Jews and Arabs. The current status quo between Israelis and Palestinians began following Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six-Day War. Since then, Palestinians have resorted to violence, and their act of violence has been classified as an act of terrorism by international terrorism databases.

The ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis recorded the occurrence of around 20 perpetrator groups that were under the influence of nationalism and secularism in the early years. For example, the Abu Nidal Organization used nationalistic language in its attacks, but it was Marxism for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and secularism for the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. However, the consequences of the September 11th attacks paved the way for the spread of jihadism that also affected groups in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, such as the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas. Table 1 below lists active Palestinian groups recorded in GRID from 2018 to September 8, 2023.   

Table 1: Perpetrators in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip from 2018 to September 8, 2023

Perpetrators Incidents
Ahfad Al-Nasser (The Descendants of Nasser) 1
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (AAMB) 41
Al-Ayyash Brigade 3
Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) 5
Hezbollah 20
Ibna Al-Zuwairi 1
Individual (Self-radicalized) 244
Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) 145
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) 14
Popular Resistance Committees 2
The Lion’s Den 28
Unknown 632
Wa’ed al-Tahrir (Promise of Liberation) 1
Grand Total 1381


According to Table 1, the most active perpetrators are Gaza-based groups such as Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad, which are also behind the October 7th attacks. Figure 1 below shows the number of attacks by PIJ and Hamas, and both groups have increased their capacities since 2021. PIJ attacks rose from 4 in 2021 to 66 in the first eight months of 2023. Hamas followed suit, and its attacks went up from 11 to 35 in the same period of 2023.   

Were Hamas’s October 7th Terrorist Attacks Really Unexpected? Homeland Security Today

Figure 1: Hamas and PIJ Attacks from 2021 to September 8, 2023

The West Bank-based groups also were the perpetrators of the increasing number of attacks. The Lion’s Den and AAMB are two groups based in the West Bank, and the latter were the perpetrators of 41 attacks, as seen in Table 1. The October 7th attacks were planned and executed from the Gaza Strip, and it, according to security experts, was likely a Hamas tactic to intensify attacks in the West Bank to divert attention from Gaza. AAMB attacks skyrocketed from 1 in 2021 to 31 in the first eight months of 2023.  

Were Hamas’s October 7th Terrorist Attacks Really Unexpected? Homeland Security Today

Figure 2: AAMB and the Lion’s Den Attacks from 2021 to September 8, 2023

Further analyses of the terrorist incidents confirmed the number of increasing attacks in the West Bank. The comparison of attacks in 2022 and the first eight months of 2023 recorded around 85 percent increase in the West Bank, as seen in Figure 3. 

Were Hamas’s October 7th Terrorist Attacks Really Unexpected? Homeland Security Today

Figure 3: Terrorist Incidents in the West Bank from 2021 to September 8, 2023

Figure 4 below shows the intensification of terrorist attacks in the West Bank before the October 7th attacks. The breakdown of attacks by months in 2022 and September 8, 2023 underscores the growing number of attacks five months before the October 7th attacks. For example, the number of attacks increased from 9 in July 2022 to 29 in July 2023, and it jumped from 10 in August 2022 to 41 attacks in August 2023. It would not be wrong to say that the increasing activities of Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza were the harbingers of the October 7th attacks.   

Were Hamas’s October 7th Terrorist Attacks Really Unexpected? Homeland Security Today

Figure 4: Monthly Breakdown of Terrorist Incidents in the West Bank from 2018 to September 8, 2023

Tracking terrorist attacks by individuals is critical since it has messages on emerging radicalization trends and rising tensions in any region. The Individual category in Table 1 recorded 244 incidents in the region. This category in GRID shows the number of self-radicalized individuals whose acts of violence fit terrorism inclusion criteria. They are inspired by a terrorist ideology and are also known as lone actors who operate according to their own timetable. They do not have any formal connection with any organization. This type of terrorism has been a trend in the region. Self-radicalized Palestinians randomly targeted Israeli law enforcement or civilians, using tactics of stabbing and car-ramming. The individually perpetrated incidents rose from 30 in 2021 to 52 in 2022, reaching almost the same number in the first eight months of 2023, as seen below. 

Were Hamas’s October 7th Terrorist Attacks Really Unexpected? Homeland Security Today

Figure 5: Attacks By Self-radicalized Individuals from 2018 to September 8, 2023

Tactic and Weapon Types

Tactic and weapon types are the indicators of the operational capacity of any terrorist group. Competent terrorist groups tend to conduct CCTAs, suicide bombings, ambushes, car ramming, bombing, planting IEDs, assassinations, and storming. In contrast, relatively weaker groups employ basic tactics such as shooting or stabbing. The examination of the top five terrorist tactics in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza lists bombing as the largest category, followed by shooting, stabbing, and planting IEDs, as seen in Figure below. Since 2018, only two incidents have recorded the deployment of suicide bombers, and four incidents the use of ambush as a terrorist tactic.  

Were Hamas’s October 7th Terrorist Attacks Really Unexpected? Homeland Security Today

Figure 6: Top Five Terrorist Tactics Used by Terror Groups 2018 to September 8, 2023

Terror groups in the region tend to use weapons on par with terror tactics. These attacks recorded explosives in 449 attacks, followed by firearms in 395 incidents, and melee—a category for blunt and bladed objects—in 242 attacks, as seen below. 

Were Hamas’s October 7th Terrorist Attacks Really Unexpected? Homeland Security Today

Figure 7: Top Five Weapon Types Used by Terror Groups from 2018 to September 8, 2023

Contrary to a common belief that Palestinian groups predominantly use missiles and drones in the region, GRID recorded rockets as the leading category, as seen below. Drones and missiles were used in 28 incidents. It seems that arms and weapons used by Palestinian groups can be easily smuggled from the porous borders in the region.  

Were Hamas’s October 7th Terrorist Attacks Really Unexpected? Homeland Security Today

Figure 8: Drones and Missiles and the Breakdown of Explosives from 2018 to September 8, 2023

Post-October 7th Attacks Period

October 7th attacks indicate the involvement of states sponsoring terrorism. State terrorism has been a trend since the emergence of jihadist groups, which presents the opportunity for plausible deniability for states that pursue their interests. It is crucial that the Western World should give severe treatment to every state, enabling and sponsoring terrorism. There are many states whose violent acts may fit the inclusion criteria of state terrorism, yet the US Government lists only several states linked to terrorism: Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Cuba. Among these states, Iran is actively involved in supporting and sponsoring terrorism across the globe. The early debates on the October 7th attacks pointed out the involvement of Iran.

The Middle East region has recorded solid traces of Iran in terrorist activities. For example, the police report in 2012 that investigated the terrorist activities of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corpse (IRGC) in Turkiye not only mentioned IRGC and its accomplices but shared essential details on how IRGC had strong relations with Hamas starting from the 2010s in the Middle East. According to the author’s interview with Yusuf Gunay, a former police chief who did many investigations on Al Qaeda and was involved in IRGC investigation in Istanbul, said, “Salam Tawhid Quds Force was a terrorist organization formed by IRGC and operated in Turkiye. The group made plans to target the American Consulate and a Nuclear Research Center in Istanbul. The police report made 23 references to Hamas in the police report and underlined that IRGC treated Hamas like Hezbollah and gave comparable attention to both organizations. Despite solid evidence placed in the police report, the Turkish government unlawfully shut down the investigation and sentenced its investigators to life imprisonment.”

The post-October 7th attacks recorded the activities of Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq and Syria that targeted American facilities. These militia groups formed an umbrella group, Islamic Resistance in Iraq, and made a series of attacks targeting American military bases. Similarly, Hezbollah has targeted Israel with missiles and rockets. In the first month after the October 7th attacks, Hezbollah conducted more than 50 attacks targeting Israel.  

To conclude, the analyses of terrorist attacks in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip reveal increasing activities of Palestinian groups in the region. GRID presents critical data that helps understand the growing capacities of groups based in the region. These groups are already experienced with using complex terrorist tactics and technological weapons. The GRID data proves the vital footsteps of a terrorist attack and flashing red lights in the region. In addition, GRID has alarming records of emerging Al Qaeda and ISIS threats in Africa, spreading ISIS’K’s attacks in Pakistan, and expanding the operational capacity of Iran-backed militia groups in the Middle East. It is crucial for intelligence officers and practitioners to pay sufficient attention to what international terrorism databases record and where they point out flashing red lights of imminent risks and dangers.

Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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