Al-Aqsa Storm Heralds the Rise of Non-state Special Operations


The shock of Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault continues to reverberate around the world amidst fears it will be the catalyst for a wider regional war. Many observers are comparing it to the 1973 Yom Kippur war, arguing that Israel repeated many of the same mistakes in failing to anticipate the attack. But this was more than an intelligence failure. It was failure of imagination. Israel grew comfortable managing its relationship with Hamas in Gaza, keeping rocket attacks and suicide bombings to a relatively low level for almost a decade. Moreover, as we saw in a visit last month, Israel’s top security officials are obsessed with the non-state threat posed by Hizballah to the north and concerned with unrest in the occupied West Bank. There was little expectation that Hamas could launch anything Israeli forces couldn’t handle with their then-limited security posture near Gaza.

What Israel missed is the growing democratization of technology, which is rapidly providing new and dangerous capabilities to non-state actors. Stephen Biddle, in his book Nonstate Warfare, argues that this is allowing violent non-state actors to achieve military capabilities that had previously been reserved for states. When carefully integrated into hybrid military-terror campaigns, these can challenge states that insist on maintaining dated misperceptions of their foes. Our research finds non-state actors are increasingly developing special operations capabilities, which are creating strategic and political effects beyond their tactical use. 



(Under)estimating Actors Like Hamas

Hamas’ surprise attack had two dimensions. The first was “strategic surprise.” This refers to an adversary achieving strategic effects by attacking a known enemy using known methods but catching them unaware “at an unexpected time or place.” For example, the Pearl Harbor attack achieved strategic surprise even though the possibility of Japan using carrier-based aircraft was anticipated as a potential threat. The second dimension of the Hamas attack was “doctrinal surprise.” This refers to an actor employing “known technologies and capabilities in unexpected ways to produce powerful new effects.” Hamas achieved this by combining many elements of what the U.S. military refers to as a multi-domain military operation — and did so with a level of precision, coordination, and planning that shocked observers.

How were the extensive preparations necessary to plan and execute such an attack missed by Israel and others? The essential logic of generating military force is predicated on amassing physical and human capital. Nation-states have performed this task extraordinarily well for the last 1,000 years, and some consider this effort to be the defining activity of states. Other entities, such as multinational corporations, social movements, and extremist groups, by contrast, are commonly believed to face systematic barriers — legal, normative, fiscal, organizational, and human — that prevent them from generating and sustaining such military force. Despite the inherent advantage that nation-states enjoy, however, they are in turn inherently vulnerable to such force. With a fixed geographic footprint, population, infrastructure, and economic base, nations are susceptible to attack in a way that non-state actors generally are not.

Non-state actors use terrorism to leverage state vulnerabilities to achieve political and psychological effects through the application of purposeful violence without the machinery and resourcing associated with conventional military power. This is why so many observers are concerned about terrorist groups acquiring “magic bullet” technology, such as nuclear weapons and strategic cyber effects, or repurposing readily available tech, such as flying commercial airliners into skyscrapers, to scale up their acts of terror.

What is less understood is how non-state groups seek to overcome the challenge of generating military power through the leveraging of established techniques, such as basic military training and detailed planning, alongside easily acquired technology like AK-47s and motorcycles. This can allow a non-state group to generate an approximation of military power to achieve strategic effects, even if they cannot sustain it for long periods of time. If such approximated military power is applied at the right time and place, it may have an outsized impact. As one of us wrote in these pages five years ago, “marginal improvement of tactical prowess in violent non-state groups may lead to outcomes that have strategic implications.” Indeed, Israel has underestimated non-state actor capability more recently. Despite its claims to have humbled Hizballah in the 2006 war, even supporters like former President George W. Bush wrote in his memoirs that Israel had underperformed in the conflict against a capable non-state actor. 

There are several possible reasons for Israel’s underestimation of Hamas. The first reason is that non-state actors have an inherent advantage in concealing their choices in investments, doctrine, and force structure. The second relates to a general tendency in recent years for security professionals in the West to focus on cutting-edge technology while neglecting the “mundane” (but still important) bases of generating force. The final reason is a seemingly inescapable prejudice when considering actors such as Hamas or the Islamic State that conflates such groups’ ideologies and perverse actions with their competence. This underestimation provides expanded policy options for the political and military leadership of a non-state actor like Hamas. 

Choosing Non-state Special Operations

It is too early to know with certainty why Hamas made a major strategic pivot by preparing and launching the Oct. 7 attacks. What we do understand from our research is that the type of non-state actor matters; militant groups like Hamas, Hizballah, and Islamic State (at its peak) govern significant populations, which allows them to generate the resources to develop a variety of military capabilities. And when strategic planners are looking to change the dynamics of a conflict, they often turn to special operations. 

Hamas’ surprise operation harnessed thousands of militants infiltrating Israel by multiple means. It integrated technology to breach obstacles and suppress overwatch positions and sought to maximize death and destruction for political effect in what is best understood as a non-state version of a raid. This fits our framework for a non-state special operation. By special operations, we are referring to the individual and, in this case, collective tactical engagements that generated effects greater than the engagements themselves. In general, special operations are small unit actions that generate effects that directly support campaign outcomes and are often associated with bespoke training, equipment, and tactics that allow small units to achieve outsized results.

A classic example is the German glider-borne assault onto the concrete fortress of Ében Émael in Belgium at the start of the 1940 invasion of France. An 80-man assault engineer detachment managed to knock out the vital Belgian fortress capable of raining fire upon the approaching German columns. The assault allowed the Germans to rapidly move through the Netherlands and then Belgium to enter France from the north, but more importantly, the success of this thrust fulfilled the Allies’ preconception that the invasion was indeed following the same path as 1914. The entire effort was a feint to allow the true main effort of the invasion force to pour through the thinly defended Ardennes. In the end, a daring and innovative assault was used to initiate a larger campaign. 

Just as state actors can devise campaigns to achieve their ends, other entities can conceive and execute such tactical actions even though they do not have the same capacity and institutions. The al-Aqsa campaign has dominated the collective security studies debate in the past weeks. What is not being addressed are the structural similarities to how states organize, equip, train, and employ small units to achieve outsized effects, or what Colin Gray calls the strategic utility of special operations. Tailor-building a small unit to achieve specific outcomes can provide two main opportunities for an actor. First is economy of force. The placement of the specific element at the right time and place can generate effects that larger organizations cannot. With a relatively small number of fighters, Hamas has skillfully achieved an economy of force and managed to capture global attention through its employment of a new set of tactics against its immediate Goliath of an adversary. 

Second, employing elements to achieve outsized effects can help decision-makers reimagine the possibility of an outcome by employing innovative means. The Republic of Korea Army Special Warfare Command’s motto “Make the Impossible, Possible” directly speaks to this point of expanding options. Hamas clearly caught Israel off guard. The group possessed the imagination to develop a plan and the tactical capability to accomplish it, as the al-Aqsa campaign was a departure from the group’s typical style of attacks. Where bombings and small-scale kidnappings have been the group’s drumbeat of violence, this campaign demonstrated a willingness and skill to operate in the open above the so-called military horizon — the conceptual line where actors operate in visible military formations. 

Special operations can also provide additional options to influence the will and perception of both friendly and enemy actors. Such operations can demonstrate acumen and guile, be designed to embarrass the enemy, or bolster the morale of supporters. Arguably the most famous example that hits all these influence purposes was the 1942 Doolittle Raid against Japan, which included a premeditated media campaign to accompany the results. Similarly, Hamas supporters appear less concerned with how the attacks were carried out on innocents and more interested in Hamas’ ability to successfully conduct a surprise attack against a sleeping Israel and the emphasis on the air-land-sea approaches to initiate the assault. The best evidence available for this effect is the international rallies in support of Hamas and the return of attention to the Palestinian plight to regional discourse.


Israel is not the only state to be surprised by violent non-state special operations. The 2007 Karbala raid, for example, executed by Asaib al-Haq militia members disguised as U.S special forces, succeeded in taking hostages at a U.S. military base in Iraq. As these examples proliferate, it is becoming increasingly clear that states’ monopoly over special operations is over. The growing proliferation of military technologies, coupled with the consistent underestimation of militant groups, is allowing non-state actors to take on states and demonstrate the power to hurt. 



Leo Blanken is an associate professor in the defense analysis department at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Rational Empires: Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansionand co-editor of Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure.

Ian Rice is a lecturer in the defense analysis department at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer and researches the dynamics of military occupations and non-state special operations.

Craig Whiteside is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College resident program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is a co-author of The ISIS Reader.

Image: Fars News Agency