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The Lessons of 9/11 Can Help the U.S. Dismantle Hamas
Mixing diplomatic, military, economic, intelligence, and law enforcement power can shred the terrorist network.
HAMAS’S SAVAGE ATTACK ON ISRAEL on October 7 has pulled the world’s attention back to the menace of international terrorism. Although it did not disappear in the twenty-two years since al Qaeda attacked New York City and Washington, D.C., it had appeared to recede as U.S. and coalition forces degraded al Qaeda and its progeny. And the threat is not just against Israel and Israelis. Citizens of at least 29 countries were killed or are missing as a result of the attack, including at least 30 Americans killed and an unknown number held as hostages by Hamas in Gaza.
Since 9/11, the United States has developed an arsenal of military, diplomatic, intelligence, and economic tools to use against terrorist organizations. It’s time to use them against Hamas. No one counterterrorism approach works on its own. Defeating international terrorist organizations requires using every kind of government power at once—diplomacy, intelligence, military power, and economic might. The Department of Defense has already begun providing military support to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to help it destroy Hamas’s capability to attack Israel again. The redirection of two carrier battle groups, a Marine Expeditionary Unit, and fighter aircraft to the Middle East may help deter Hezbollah, and the terrorists’ state sponsor, Iran, from expanding the conflict. Although the IDF will most likely conduct hostage rescue activities independently—Israeli special forces are already in Gaza searching for hostages—U.S. military personnel could also attempt a rescue of American hostages if the opportunity presents itself.
Dismantling Hamas, however, will take more than tanks and missiles and bullets. In a useful development, The Treasury Department announced new sanctions. Though by no means a substitute for military action under circumstances where appropriate, intelligence-sharing and criminal prosecution also have important roles to play in disrupting terrorist networks. American justice should have a far reach and a sharp sting.
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With respect to foreign intelligence collection, much of it takes place under activities authorized by Executive Order 12333. But Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act enables collection against foreign targets outside the United States who use the U.S. communications infrastructure. It is set to expire at the end of the year, but the U.S. intelligence community needs this legal authority to do its job effectively. It must be renewed, especially now.
The U.S. intelligence community has traditionally viewed Israeli intelligence as highly competent in monitoring and uncovering plots in its own backyard. Something in the collection and analysis of intelligence concerning Hamas clearly went terribly wrong. The U.S. intelligence community will need to comprehensively review its reliance on Israel as a reliable intelligence provider on threats in the region. At the same time, U.S. intelligence will need to increase its targeting and analysis as it relates to Hamas and Hezbollah (the Iranian-backed terrorist organization breathing down Israel’s neck in the north) activities worldwide. That will include intelligence from all sources, including those authorized under Section 702. The Israelis will presumably review and reform their collection and analysis practices as they relate to Hamas—and perhaps more broadly—but until then, the United States should share with Israel the intelligence it needs to conduct its operations against Hamas effectively, efficiently, and humanely.
Although out of vogue, law enforcement may in some circumstances be the most effective mechanism to dismantle Hamas’s international network. One of the lessons of 9/11 was that treating terrorism primarily as a law enforcement matter was insufficient. There are undoubtedly some senior Hamas leaders who have or will find safe haven in countries beyond the reach of either Israeli or U.S. military engagement. Other senior or low-level fighters may have already or in the near future exit Gaza disguised among fleeing civilians. To be crystal clear: This is not a suggestion that the U.S. revert to a pre-9/11 law enforcement mindset to counter international terrorism. Criminal indictment and future apprehension may be the only lawful route to holding some subset of them accountable.
Among the other apposite lessons from the post-9/11 experience: Adherence to the rule of law is essential to maintaining the credibility of the nation executing the war. The shameful abuses of Abu Ghraib, enhanced interrogation techniques, and interminable detention at Guantanamo Bay cannot be repeated.
The Israeli government needs to direct its energy toward conducting the war on Hamas on the ground. Moreover, Israeli civilians and civil society all need to mobilize in support of that war effort; this will be a multi-generation, all-of-country effort to defend itself and support their warfighters. One of many ways the United States can play a useful role is by taking on the location, apprehension and prosecution of Hamas leaders and operatives in the court of law, under circumstances where some of those individuals may be located in countries where military activities are unrealistic or impossible.
Omar Abdel-Rahman, the infamous “blind sheikh” who was the global face of Islamist terrorism in the 1990s and who plotted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six Americans, died an old man in U.S. federal prison in 2017. Although perhaps not as emotionally satisfying a way of meeting his fate as at the end of a missile, it may serve the interests of justice if his cell is soon filled by one or more of his Hamas successors.
Correction (October 19, 2023, 1:07 p.m. EDT): A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Ramzi Yousef was Omar Abdel-Rahman’s nephew. That line has been deleted, as Yousef was the nephew of a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, not Abdel-Rahman, the plotter of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.