Hostage Crisis in Gaza: What to expect in the critical days ahead

As many as 150 people are being held hostage by Hamas in locations across Gaza following attacks on Israel on Saturday, including reports of three Canadian civilians. In this Expert series, we consider the tactical, operational, intelligence, and political implications with Major-General (Ret’d) Denis Thompson; Dr. Col. (Ret’d) Paul Taillon; Former National Security and Intelligence Advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada and CDA Institute Board Member Daniel Jean; and Former Defence Minister and CDA Honorary Member Hon. Peter MacKay.

Major-General (Ret’d) Denis Thompson: Tactical considerations for mission success

Israel’s primary objective in the ongoing response is likely to involve halting and weakening the military capabilities of Hamas. However, the presence of potentially over 100 hostages, some of whom might be used as human shields, adds complexity to Israel’s operational dynamics.

The F3EAD (Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, and Disseminate) procedure, which was employed to locate and eliminate Osama bin Laden, has also been applied in various hostage rescue operations. Given the dispersion of hostages across the Gaza Strip, comprehensive surveillance efforts will be crucial, utilizing signals and image intelligence. Tracking targets is a critical element of the operation planning stage, with any intelligence gathered exploited for analysis and dissemination to inform future offensive actions.

In hostage crises, mission success often hinges on zero casualties and the capture or elimination of hostage-takers. However, given the sheer number and dispersal of hostages in this scenario, achieving a zero-casualty outcome may be extremely difficult.

Israel boasts extensive surveillance capabilities over the Gaza Strip and can use signals and image intelligence to target potential Hamas headquarters or rocket launch sites. Full-motion video drones and various aircraft are at their disposal, and they maintain a dedicated surveillance battalion focused on the Gaza Strip.

Should hostages be located, they must be continuously monitored to ensure awareness of their whereabouts when an operation is initiated. It is possible that Special Forces would be deployed to the objective, utilizing helicopters and air packages. However, the question of whether hostages can be extracted simultaneously remains uncertain.

Canada may have the capacity to launch at least one of these special operations task forces. In such operations, the Crown Prerogative could endow the Prime Minister with the authority to order the Canadian Armed Forces to conduct military operations overseas. We would then seek close cooperation with the Israeli security and intelligence apparatus.

Dr. Col. (Ret’d) Paul Taillon: Operational aspects of Hamas’ attack and tactical considerations in a hostage rescue

The attacks carried out by Hamas against Israel on Saturday appear to be a highly orchestrated operation, requiring extensive planning. The coordinated assault following the surprise attack was likely made possible by extensive operational security, intelligence, and training.

Leading up to the attack, Hamas maintained a low profile and fed deception messages through their normal channels, knowing they would be intercepted by Israel’s intelligence apparatus. This kept Israel focused on the West Bank -where it was presumed the greatest potential threat resided -believing Hamas leadership to be focused on issues internal to Gaza. The planning and execution of Hamas’ deception campaign and the subsequent assault were exceptional from an operational standpoint. Not only did Hamas succeed in carrying out their mission under the nose of Israeli intelligence, but also Western intelligence in the region.

There are reportedly 150 hostages in Gaza of several nationalities, a number of whom are dual citizens, which represents a political and jurisdictional issue with regard to which country is responsible for rescuing which individuals. Gaza is a densely populated region with 2.3 million people. The high urban and population density demands that intelligence for an operation be exact. This poses a significant challenge for human intelligence as well as imagery and geospatial intelligence. Hamas will likely use their tunnel network used to obtain weapons from Hezbollah and Iran, to hide and move hostages.

In a hostage situation, it is critical that the operation be rehearsed, and that politicians and bureaucrats are educated in the decisions involved in such a scenario. Everyone must know their role and who bears responsibility for what.

Successful hostage rescues, such as Operation Nimrod in 1980, conducted by the British Army’s SAS (Special Air Service), offer important lessons. A dual-track operation was initiated to carry out negotiations alongside a hostage rescue at the Iranian Embassy in London, facilitated by complete coordination across the British intelligence apparatus, special forces, military, police, and senior government leadership. Operation Nimrod constituted an extremely well-trained counterterrorism force backed by sound intelligence and a government that understood the jurisdictional issues. Underpinning the success of the operation was also access to excellent translators and the ability to practice the extraction in a mock-up scenario of the building layout.

Former NSIA to the Prime Minister of Canada Daniel Jean:  NSA’s role in crisis situations and the Machinery of Government

The NSA acts as an independent advisor to the Prime Minister, supporting relevant cabinet committees on national security matters. Their responsibilities encompass delivering intelligence assessments, facilitating interdepartmental peer reviews, and ensuring policy coherence during crises. Daily, intelligence assessments are provided to the Prime Minister and key ministers, with input from interdepartmental discussions. In certain scenarios, the NSA may offer written briefings or oral updates.

Crises involving a military dimension will see the NSA collaborating with senior leadership, such as the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), Global Affairs, and the Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister. In crisis situations, the Deputy Minister’s Committee on Operational Coordination (DMOC) can rapidly convene with the intent to establish facts, address knowledge gaps, and recommend necessary actions. Interagency coordination is essential in such scenarios.

The NSA evaluates advice to present to the Prime Minister and cabinet committees. Decisions must also be made regarding internal and external communications. A challenge in crises is dealing with unreliable or incomplete information, especially in complex hostage situations, further complicated by the dissemination of sometimes inaccurate data.

Former Defence Minister Hon. Peter MacKay: Political and Minister-level considerations in crisis situations

In crisis situations, Foreign Affairs is at the forefront. Public Safety Canada is involved in some cases, as well as the Department of National Defence. The Harper government had a national security cabinet committee that met on an as-needed basis, and in the midst of Afghanistan, that basis was regular. The Prime Minister would share information with the Canadian Armed Forces in that context, and meet with the Chief of Defence Staff, representatives from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and sometimes Communications Security Establishment (CSE), and the Prime Minister’s clerk and national security advisor would be there as well.

Extractions are high-risk and involve unique skill sets that we are fortunate to have in JTF2 (Joint Task Force 2) and our special forces. It is something that you need extensive planning and input from the military leadership at the commander level to carry out, especially when the supply lines stretch across the globe to get into the region and embark on the mission. In the Fowler and Guay case, there were a number of preparations being made that involved JTF2 and CSOR (Canadian Special Operations Regiment). Canada also works closely with allies in intelligence gathering and sometimes with rescue operations as well.

The situation is complicated with Canadians having been taken out of Israel and into Palestinian territory. There is no ability to have a meaningful high-level discussion with a terrorist organization, and Hamas is the de facto governing authority. The longstanding position is that you cannot negotiate with terrorists or enter into prisoner exchanges. The threat of death or injury is heightened, which is the last thing you want, but at the same time, you cannot give in to terrorist blackmail.

You need to look for escalations in certain signals. Sometimes human intelligence will tip you off even if you don’t have the actual communications because an uptick in communications is itself indicative of something. In retrospect, there were certain indications that Iran was active on this file. Comments were being made at the highest levels by the Ayatollah and the IRI that they were planning something, and Iran has been using proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah for a long time.

External forces were at play—Iran, and Hezbollah—to impede the negotiations taking place between Israel and Saudi Arabia. There is concern that this could spill over into the region and become a much broader conflict and humanitarian crisis. Canada is among the countries who have strongly condemned the actions of Hamas and we must continue to stand strong with Israel and work with them.

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