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Hamas and the New Lessons of Irregular Warfare

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On Oct. 7, the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched its most audacious attack on Israel, catching the country by surprise. Militants poured into Israeli towns, leaving horrific carnage in their wake as a barrage of thousands of missiles complemented the land assault. While the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) initially mounted a sluggish response, the conflict is now conflagrating further, with a death toll of thousands that is sure to rise with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow that Hamas will be “crushed.”

Hamas’s offensive powerfully demonstrates the impact and importance of irregular warfare. Based on the group’s success in bleeding Israel, the conflict highlights several key lessons on this type of warfare—and how to counter it.

Irregular warfare, like hybrid warfare, gray-zone competition, and other nebulous concepts, has a hazy definition. U.S. military strategists and planners have struggled to define irregular warfare and have adopted a multitude of meanings, resulting in a lack of strategic focus that has hampered Washington and its allies from adequately addressing the spectrum of irregular threats.

That said, the characteristics of irregular warfare are fairly clear: the utilization of asymmetric, multidimensional, and indirect means to achieve a desired outcome, usually by a country or force that lacks the means to succeed in a conventional military clash. Asymmetric means are unconventional tactics that seek to close the gap between capabilities; multidimensional refers to simultaneous activities in military, political, informational, and other realms; indirect describes tactics that seek to avoid a conventional, head-to-head military clash. By these benchmarks, Hamas’s offensive against Israel is a classic irregular warfare scenario.

Hamas attacked simultaneously across air, land, and sea, circumventing the much more powerful Israeli Defense Forces. Pumping an estimated 2,200 rockets into Israeli territory in the early morning on Oct. 7, Hamas overwhelmed Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome missile defense system. Under cover of the missile barrage, bulldozers tore through the supposedly well-fortified border of the Gaza Strip, allowing hundreds of militants through.

Those militants then attacked IDF bases and rampaged Israeli towns, utilizing extreme violence for a shock-and-awe effect that had the intended byproduct of boxing Israel into a heavy military response. To that end, Hamas indiscriminately killed or mutilated civilians, advertising its murder spree by quickly releasing abundant videos. Other Israelis were abducted back to Gaza as hostages, presumably to use as human shields, another irregular tactic that Hamas has long favored. As Israeli airstrikes attempt to decimate the militants, Hamas will be able to point to the images of civilian casualties that it seeks as it fights its war in another domain—that of narratives and information, allowing the group to chip away at international support for Israel. Its operatives will simply go underground into Gaza’s network of tunnels to move and conduct attacks, demonstrating the group’s progress in clandestine logistics.

Months and even years of planning, tradecraft, training, and coordination preceded the attack under the supposedly watchful eye of Israel’s Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence agencies. Documents reportedly found by Israeli soldiers suggest that the plan was hatched in October 2022. Hence, it is difficult to believe that Hamas does not have an underlying objective. Surely the group war-gamed Israel’s response and figured that Israel’s inevitable counterattack against Gaza would give Hamas—and its external supporter, Iran—the grand prize: stopping the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Hamas did not utilize any never-before-seen irregular warfare techniques, tactics, or doctrine. Instead, it uniquely combined existing irregular tactics for great strategic gains. Nonstate actors fight with what they have and get creative regarding what they do not. As they usually do not possess tanks, helicopters, fighter planes, or other equipment in their arsenals, they avoid direct attacks on security and defense forces, instead opting for indirect means and methods. And through its usage of indirect means, Hamas illuminates four key lessons on irregular warfare and its future evolution for the international community.

First, high-tech tools do not always guarantee an advantage; low-tech means used effectively can trump more advanced defenses. Hamas employed traditional clandestine tradecraft to beat Israel’s technological edge. Utilizing human intelligence, Hamas gathered granular data on its Israeli targets, including vulnerabilities in military equipment and detailed layouts of the bases and towns it attacked. Israel’s super-fortified border with Gaza, replete with sensor technology, cameras, and other features, was no match for Hamas’s combination of drones, paragliders, bulldozers, motorcycles, and rockets.

Indeed, Hamas fighters even filmed a video near the border fence and posted it just days before the attack, foreshadowing the exact steps they utilized in the assault. Ultimately, Israel likely overrelied on the protection afforded by its advanced capabilities, turning a blind eye to the possibility of low-tech innovation.

Second, the low-tech innovation methods, tactics, and capabilities that Hamas utilized are not new. The group simply found a way to implement them in a lethal and effective combination. The paragliders, drones, snipers, missiles, motorcycle assault troops, and rubber boats that Hamas used were applied in a combined, coordinated, multidimensional, and asymmetric fashion.

In the words of a senior retired Israeli officer, Israel knew the individual tactics that Hamas used; the shock “was the coordination between all those systems.” That adversaries will adapt their tactics, and in the process produce new evolutions in their overall modus operandi, should be understood as a hallmark of irregular warfare. When it comes to preparing for and countering this type of warfare, actors need to track how their adversaries might give older means a facelift or combine familiar tactics in such a way as to effectively create new ones—for which defenders might be unprepared.

Third, and relatedly, irregular adversaries will eventually learn how to beat their target’s capabilities. Or, if not quite beat them, at least overwhelm the target long enough to notch a strategic advantage, as Hamas did, knocking out Iron Dome through its sheer volume of attacks. Indeed, one of irregular warfare’s defining traits is how actors utilize asymmetric and indirect tactics to circumvent stronger capabilities.

Ukraine provides another example of this maxim, with Kyiv innovatively turning commercial drones into explosive-bearing weapons that have damaged much more expensive Russian equipment. Thus, states must constantly evolve and strengthen their capabilities while developing new ones. Steps need to be taken to proactively prepare for adversarial encroachment, such as through war-gaming and red teaming what an adversary can or will do in the future. And these preparations need to account for irregular tactics—no matter the adversary—instead of focusing only on conventional military capabilities.

Fourth, it is essential for actors to preemptively develop and maintain nonmilitary options to respond in an irregular warfare scenario. Israel currently finds itself in a bind: Military means are its main option to squash Hamas in the short term, yet the damage that these means will wreak on the lives of Gaza’s civilians and civil infrastructure will certainly cause blowback. Nonmilitary optionality—such as conducting information operations to chip away at adversarial messaging, or utilizing economic tactics, as China has done, to chip away at an adversary’s economic foundations—that can deliver near-term wins will be vitally important in future irregular warfare scenarios.

Hamas’s offensive is replete with lessons on irregular warfare. This tactic is likely to play a defining role in future conflicts, especially ones with an asymmetry in power, reputation, or legitimacy among their actors.

Russia’s war in Ukraine also bears powerful witness to the salience of irregular warfare. On one side, Russia utilizes asymmetric means—Iranian-made drones—to knock out key nodes of Ukrainian infrastructure, such as power plants, and to grind down the Ukrainian population’s morale.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has also used asymmetric means to defend itself. Kyiv carries out massed attacks using its aforementioned inexpensive drones, which can penetrate far into Russian territory and bomb airbases, damaging the equipment that Russia would use against Kyiv. Lacking a navy and long-range anti-ship missiles to defeat the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Ukraine has also come up with an innovative, inexpensive, and domestically produced sea drone to destroy Russian warships.

Other countries are taking note of emerging irregular warfare tactics. Taiwan has been a careful observer of the Ukrainian conflict to distill lessons that can help the island nation defend itself against a possible future Chinese hybrid warfare assault. Inspired—or, perhaps, forewarned—by the Ukrainian example, Taiwan has launched an ambitious drone strategy to build up its domestic manufacturing capabilities, with Taiwanese leaders extolling the concept of asymmetric warfare to make Taiwan that much harder for China to capture.

The dynamics of interstate competition are drastically changing, taking on traits more frequently found in indirect strategies and irregular tactics. This shift is glaringly seen in the ongoing confrontation between Israel and Hamas, the latter of which personifies the traditional characteristics of a violent nonstate actor waging irregular warfare.

The growing trend of states having to contend with various irregular forces or proxies serves as a resounding call to action for military planners and security strategists. It is imperative that they diligently explore and strengthen their defenses against the intricate challenges posed by irregular warfare. Importantly, this should be done now, by taking a close look at the ongoing conflicts—so that nations can glean these complex lessons without having to enter the crucible of actual combat.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not reflect the policy or views of the Irregular Warfare Center, Defense Department, or U.S. Government.

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