Small Wars Journal


Mon, 10/16/2023 - 9:51am


Brigadier General (RET) Russ Howard

The word “if” is a conjunction and a noun. Its brevity belies its importance as a forecaster of important events. As a result of the Hamas invasion of Israel, several "ifs" must be weighing on the minds of US security professionals, including government officials and military leaders, particularly those in the special operations community. This is what I mean.

If, as some are reporting, Americans are being held hostage in Gaza by Hamas, many in the US electorate will be calling for the United States to rescue them.

If, as the Wall Street Journal is reporting, Iran is behind the Hamas attacks, many in the US electorate will feel it is necessary to punish Iran in some fashion—particularly since the United States recently returned $6 billion of seized Iranian funds to the rogue theocracy.[1]

The rescue capabilities of the United States and Israel are the best in the world. However, a hostage rescue in the Gaza Strip would be no easy task. Gaza is the third most densely populated area in the world. Its two million citizens are hostile to Israel (an understatement) and to the United States. Its urban and metropolitan areas are well fortified, and, by its own admission, Hamas uses schools and hospitals in Gaza as shields for rocket launchers and military formations. It is more than likely that Hamas will now use the hostages as human shields.

The rough terrain is only part of the problem in conducting a rescue. There are four generally accepted principles that are essential to a successful hostage rescue mission: intelligence, deception, surprise, and the operators’ skill. One out of these four—operators’ skill—does not guarantee success. There also will be no surprise, as Hamas will know the hostage rescuers are coming and they want them to come—that is why they took hostages in the first place! Deception also will be difficult. Misleading Hamas about the hostage rescue operations would be nearly impossible because, again, Hamas will know the rescuers are coming. And, unlike the rescuers, Hamas knows exactly where the hostages are. Finally, the intelligence is questionable…very questionable. One of the major questions being asked by all is, How did Israeli intelligence not see this coming? The follow-on question will certainly be, is the location of the hostages known? For all the stated reasons and more, a hostage rescue operation in Gaza will be no easy task.

One can understand the hesitation of the Biden administration to accuse Iran of being an accomplice to the Hamas invasion. Raising the temperature at this early stage could be counter-productive, particularly until more of the facts are known. However, if subsequent reports confirm Iran’s support for Hamas and its possible culpability in the attack, many US citizens will be disappointed if Iran merely receives a diplomatic tongue-lashing. 

Many questions resonate. Where did Hamas get the thousands of rockets now raining down on Israel? Did Iran, as the Wall Street Journal reported, actually help Hamas plan the attack? More importantly, did Iran assist in the attack? Most of the tactics employed by Hamas—using fast boats, taking hostages, and swarming an adversary—are known Iranian tactics. As one senior US military official reported to NBC, “The sophistication and the complexity of the attack seems beyond what Hamas could do on its own.”[2]

Iran’s possible motivation seems clear. First, both the US and Israeli political establishments are in disarray, which is an opportune time for Iran to act aggressively. Second, many speculate that Iran acted now against Israel to stifle ongoing peace negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Rapprochement between the long-time adversaries would shake Iran to its core. 

So, what is the United States to do? The US response to the hostage situation will depend on the details. If American hostages are being held in Gaza it’s one thing; if they are being mistreated it is another altogether. If the American hostages are being subjected to anything like the massacre and mutilation Hamas inflicted on the Israeli citizenry this past weekend, it would—in this author’s view—demand an immediate US response. A US response to any involvement by Iran would also depend on the details. If the Iranians helped plan the attack, that would be one thing. It would be quite another if they directed or commanded the attack.

Two things are certain, at least to this author. One is that those in the US security establishment who are calling for a reduction in US special operations personnel and funding should be rethinking their position. The other is that, if either of the scenarios highlighted in this commentary come to task, it will be US special operators who either provide or aggressively support the nation’s response.

About the Author(s)

Brigadier General (RET) Russ Howard is an American veteran Special Forces officer, academic, tutor, writer and counter-terrorism strategist. He is a former Special Forces Group Commander, the co-founder of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Joint Special Operations University. He is also the co-editor of seven counter terrorism related books published by McGraw Hill.