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Israel's spy agency is one of the best. How did it not foresee Hamas' attacks?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Three thousand. That's the number of Hamas fighters who took part in the unprecedented attack on this country, Israel, one month ago. And that's what the IDF, Israel's military, tells NPR. Again, that number - 3,000 fighters - it puts into perspective the size of the intelligence failure that the October 7 attacks represent for security services here in Israel. And it prompts a question - why didn't they see it coming? Well, that's something we're going to put now to a woman who has held senior posts at the Israeli espionage agency, Mossad. Sima Shine was head of research and analysis for Mossad. Today we met her at a think tank tied to Tel Aviv University, the Institute for National Security Studies, where she works now.

Israel has intelligence services that are famous around the world, has the most powerful military in the region. How did you not see it coming?

SIMA SHINE: Yeah, that's the question. Probably I have only half answers because it's very difficult to explain. So let me say a word before. All the training that Hamas was doing in order to perform this event was understood and was seen by the Israeli intelligence. And the question was, are they doing it in order just to be - you know, you have your army, so you train it or if it has to be accomplished for a date. And many, many small indications that were very close to the event were seen but were explained as...

KELLY: They're training. They're...

SHINE: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Practicing.

SHINE: Yeah, exactly. And there was a feeling - and here it comes to the conceptual failure - there was a feeling for some years - for many years, I would say - that Hamas, in spite of the fact that it's a terror organization, now it has responsibility for Gaza. And it has 2 million people, and they have to feed them. They have to educate them and others. So they begin to be like - starting to be more - how should I say? - more civilian administration or something like that.

KELLY: I want to put this number to you that Israel's military has given NPR. They say the number of Hamas fighters who were involved on October 7 was 3,000. It's a very large number of people who were read in on some part of this plan, for Israeli intelligence not to know this is coming and it's real.

SHINE: The answer to that is that - and I think it's a correct answer - is that they have been training these people for a long time. Very small number knew that it is going to be translated from a training into an operation. I would guess that it's not more than one hand, number of people that knew it.

KELLY: A specific question, and you may or may not be able to answer this, but I have seen reports that Israeli intelligence had stopped monitoring, for example, handheld radios used by Hamas because the volume of information was so huge compared to what Israel was getting from it. Is that true?

SHINE: I think it's true. I heard it. I cannot confirm completely.

KELLY: But it makes sense to you?

SHINE: But it makes sense to me. It makes sense to me. And...

KELLY: I have also seen that - reports that Hamas has intentionally moved a lot of its communications into the tunnels, so it's harder to eavesdrop on even if you were trying.

SHINE: We know that we have been trying because there was an operation some years ago that was revealed by Hamas, and this was the aim of this operation. So we know that Israel tried to get to that. And I think that, yeah, it was much more difficult.

KELLY: You said there was no sense of urgency October 6 on the side of Israel. And I wonder, what about now? I reported on the CIA in the days and years after 9/11. And a large organization - I obviously can't speak for everyone - but I think fair to say, there was a sense of being stunned, but then also a sense of the gloves come off. As you speak to former colleagues, is that a similar conversation unfolding?

SHINE: First of all, there is a feeling of we have to perform much better now because of the failure. The problem is that we have - first of all, we are not concentrating only on one border, on Gaza. We have the northern border, which is a huge, huge problem, much...

KELLY: You're talking about Lebanon.

SHINE: Lebanon and Hezbollah, exactly. By any means, it's much more than Hamas - more soldiers, more equipped - better-equipped, precise missiles, all these things. So we have a huge problem there. And I think the intelligence, as well as the army, are very much stretched on these two fronts. You know, we had an event with - from Yemen - not one, many others. But I don't know how these people can - how they sleep at night because it's a - it's not by chance that you mentioned 9/11. It's such a traumatic feeling in Israel. In a way, it's more than that because at the end of the day, 9/11 was an event - terrible one, terrible, terrible - but it started, and it was finished. Here, it doesn't finish.

KELLY: Last thing - I came to see you today because of your vast national security experience. But I want people to know you're also a grandmother. I don't know how old your grandkids are, but I wonder how you're talking to them about this moment, what your hopes are for them...

SHINE: Yeah.

KELLY: ...As you look at the future...

SHINE: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Of this country.

SHINE: Yeah. That's the only issue that brings tears in my eyes because it's really very difficult. Now we are trying for the - since my granddaughters are small, we are trying to make it like a play. There is an alarm, a siren, so we go now inside the shelter.

KELLY: When the air raid sirens...

SHINE: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Go, you mean? Yeah.

SHINE: Exactly. We go to - into the - but, you know, it's - it could be a play during the day but not during the nights when they are asleep. And they understand that something is happening. If their parents not - I being their parents - are taking them from the beds and go to the shelter, they understand that it's something different.

KELLY: Sima Shine. Thank you.

SHINE: Thank you.

KELLY: She is a former senior official at Mossad and on Israel's National Security Council and now runs the Iran desk here at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.