On May 12, 2021, Bassem Issa – Gaza City Brigade commander since 2017 and senior military official in the city, got a rude awakening.
After years of his leading a large group of Hamas fighters against Israel and involvement in approving rocket and other attacks on Israeli civilians, IDF intelligence and the air force removed him from the playing field.
A joint Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency)-IDF operation targeted four senior members of the Hamas “General Staff Forum.” Besides Issa, the senior commanders targeted in the attack included Jamaa Tahla, head of Hamas’s cyber command, leader of its missile improvement project and head of its R&D department; Jamal Zebeda, head of projects and development for Hamas’s production network, who was also a main force behind the organization’s rocket production network; and Hazzem Hatib, chief engineer and deputy head of Hamas’s production network.
Hitting all four of these key officials in a short period of time was considered a leap forward in the IDF’s intelligence targeting capabilities.
The Jerusalem Post recently visited the IDF’s new secret intelligence target bank headquarters and was given a deep and detailed debriefing about how the elite unit functions in 2023 as well as the revolutionary changes that have taken place dating back to 2019 and including the May 2021 conflict with Hamas.
The presentation was eye-opening and portrayed the IDF as shattering barriers and records with astounding efficiency that should set any enemy threatening Israel on its heels.
From the start, it is critical to understand that when speaking about set targets in peacetime that enter the bank as opposed to moving targets in wartime, the reference is usually to Hamas or Hezbollah command centers, lookout or spying stations and weapons manufacturing or storage locations.
Targets in the “bank” are not just inserted weeks or years before and relied on indefinitely. There is always a near-term or current double-checking process to make sure the military object is still at the specified location and is still of a similar character – meaning that no new civilians have ventured into the line of fire.
Information was being collected about the Hamas cyber chief Tahla during peacetime (maybe when he thought he was tracking Israelis), long before he was hit, and then was verified close to May 12, 2021, to make sure the intelligence was still current and the civilian picture had not changed.
THERE ARE three points that show the radical revolution in which this intelligence unit is transforming warfare as we know it.
First, IDF intelligence used to have hundreds of targets in its Lebanon target bank; now it has thousands. In addition, now, when a conflict breaks out with Gaza, or if there should be a conflict with Lebanon, the IDF could double the number of targets in the target bank over the course of the conflict, instead of running out of targets. For example, in past conflicts the IDF might only have had the capabilities, coverage and speed to take out Issa and Tahla at the same time, but might have missed Zebeda and Hatib.
This is hugely significant. For the last decade or so of Gaza conflicts, the IDF had a target bank that it built during peacetime.
But once a conflict broke out, the targets to hit dropped substantially either because the IDF hit most high-quality targets in the early days, or because many Hamas and Islamic Jihad personnel and weapons were moved from their hiding spots during the early days of a conflict.
Certainly, there were new targets, especially Gaza forces that revealed themselves in order to fire rockets. But new hiding spots of senior officials and new command centers required much more new intelligence.
The numbers tell the same story when one dives down to the weekly work by the IDF intelligence target bank unit.
If, before 2019 and in earlier years, the unit would find and approve 10 targets in 10 days of work, it now finds and approves around 100 targets for every 10 days of work.
Tahla was Hamas military commander Muhammad Deif’s right-hand man, a main leader of the effort to build up the organization’s strength, and targeting him was a significant blow to that effort.
Maybe he would have been missed before 2019 when the IDF’s capabilities for gathering and acting fast enough on evolving intelligence was more limited.
This leap forward not only changes the volume and pace of targets, but alters the very category of targets that IDF intelligence can seek to address. If before, a deep dive of resources and manpower could only be invested for top-tier targets like the four top Hamas officials listed above, now there are enough resources to invest substantially in locating and targeting even lower-level targets.
For example, before, no one would follow up on a vague piece of intelligence to locate a lower-level Hamas terrorist in Gaza who can be found near a partially concealed and small “green and orange wall.” The chances of finding him were so small and resources were so limited that it just would not be worth investing anything to follow up to locate such an individual, as opposed to the four senior Hamas commanders. Now, the change means that such an individual can be located, while the system still maintains all of its other searches for medium and higher-level targets.
This could certainly lead to more errors or lower standards, but the Post understands that the IDF believes the standards are higher than ever.
SECOND, ALL of the above changes in volume start with a synergy of AI and technology that takes targeting exponentially to an entirely different level. The technology side is somewhat obvious. Twenty years ago, Israel needed the CIA’s help to find the huge Karine A weapons boat because it only had a few satellites, whose resolution was weak. In fact, combined Israeli and US surveillance lost track of that enormous weapons boat twice, and its location had to be reacquired.
Drones also once played a very limited role in intelligence collection. The Shin Bet used technology, but its visibility and scope were still limited to a small number of high-value targets. Today, there are not only more Israeli satellites, drones and Shin Bet surveillance – there are astronomically more. Of the four senior Hamas officials hit in May 2021, there is a strong chance that at some point the IDF reaped some advantages from the capability of drones, or a team of drones, to hover over an area for an almost indefinite period.
Then comes the AI side. There was an earlier point in 2010, as part of a prior smaller revolution by then IDF intelligence chief Aviv Kohavi, when the IDF started to use big data and data mining to find things that it could never have found before.
But there were still significant limits until 2019. After 2019, AI started to actually be able to efficiently conquer all of that big data in a smart, educated and automatic fashion.
This means not only a jump in the quantity of intelligence, but also in the quality of making diverse connections between seemingly separate data points. At a practical level, it means being able to incriminate a new target in three minutes which before would have taken 24 hours. This means that AI is laying out all of the mines of data for intelligence analysts neatly, succinctly and at high speed.
It also means that AI can be taught to look for tiny data points like a “white closed porch.” If, before, different IDF intelligence collection mechanisms had picked up separately on activities by Hamas’s leading R&D experts and separately about movements of Zebeda, who was responsible for that R&D, it might have taken too long to put the pieces together, such that they would no longer be relevant.
But moving from 24 hours to connect the dots to minutes could be decisive in thrusting the IDF’s effectiveness forward against someone like Zebeda and those working for him.
Can cutting down the collection-to-targeting process from 24 hours to minutes take a toll in terms of cutting corners and the IDF’s legitimacy, if there is an error? So far the IDF is confident that all of these changes are positive.
THIRD, ALL of the above AI and technology jumps would have been impressive, but would not have come close to reaching the IDF intelligence target bank’s current full potential, if not for the revolution in personnel.
Prior to 2019, IDF intelligence target bank personnel were spread all over the place. Now, there are 200 highly trained targeting soldiers all at one location. This means not only breaking down the digital barriers between people, but also the physical ones and creating new levels of synergy and efficiencies that dwarf what could be achieved under the prior model of target bank soldiers being diffused into many different locations. In the past, many targets were “lost” because of physical and bureaucratic walls within IDF intelligence, whereas now information is basically never lost. People did not want to share information, debated whether to share information or could not physically get to each other to share fast enough.
Also, before, speed was reduced by the need to call another unit on a special internal-network red phone. The air force might get a call and write down the information by hand and then separately input the information into the air force system. Now, most things are transferred electronically, and a vastly larger number of communications can occur person-to-person.
Moreover, few of the target bank personnel are 18-year-olds. The average age is 24-25, meaning that personnel already have had six to seven years of IDF experience and have completed an intense three-month targeting course.
The bottom line, after all of this: targeting experts from other foreign militaries, including the best, have visited the target bank and admitted that they cannot hold a candle to where Israel has emerged. The four Hamas officials eliminated in May 2021 probably agree.