Learning from the War on Terror


At the height of the “Global War on Terror,” I spent over 10 years as an intelligence analyst. My work informed military counter-terrorism operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and supported the development and implementation of counter-terrorism policy at the Pentagon.

As I watched Israel’s operations in Gaza against Hamas — designated as a terrorist organization by not just Israel, but also the United States, the European Union, Britain, and NATO — I couldn’t help but be stunned. The invasion of Gaza proceeded as if combatting a terrorist group in an urban environment was a novel experience. Frank Sobchak recently pointed out in these pages how Israel’s war echoes the U.S. failure to plan how to manage Iraq after the fall of president Saddam Hussein. My perspective is similar, but I might go further: What’s been happening in Gaza suggests none of the lessons from 20 years of global counter-terrorism conflicts were implemented.



After almost six months of military operations in Gaza, the lessons below are relevant whether a ceasefire is eventually reached between Hamas and Israel or not. (The latest reporting indicates negotiations are stalled.) In the event of a pause in fighting and hostage release, Israeli forces can review operations in Gaza and revise military strategy and doctrine using the lessons learned in two decades of the Global War on Terror. If hostilities continue, Israeli forces should learn from these same lessons and prioritize reducing civilian harm — which includes limiting civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure — in their operations.

Lessons Learned from the Global War on Terror

If lessons from the Global War on Terror were learned, Israel wouldn’t have commenced military operations in Gaza without a firm strategy and clear objective. “Destroy Hamas” was not, and is not, a sound military objective.

“Destroying” a terrorist organization through military force alone is impossible. The most common way for a terrorist group to be defeated, according to research, is through a transition to the political process. In 43 percent of the cases between 1968 and 2008 where terrorist groups were brought into the political process, political goals were achieved and the groups ended. Another 40 percent of the time, the arrest or killing of key leaders by law enforcement or intelligence agencies led to the end of terrorist groups. The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was territorially defeated in Syria in 2019 using military force, but its members are still carrying out attacks in Iraq and Syria. Likewise, Israel conducted four major military operations in Gaza in the last 15 years but never eliminated Hamas or even permanently reduced its military capabilities. Religiously motivated terrorist organizations are particularly persistent; only 32 percent of religiously motivated groups ended between 1968 and 2008, a rate half that of secularly motivated groups.

Hamas is a designated foreign terrorist organization, but it has also governed the Gaza Strip for over a decade. It is intertwined in the local economy, governance, and society. Thus, the group’s defeat calls for a military campaign with multiple, complementary lines of effort. One line is a direct targeting effort focusing on the capture or killing of Hamas leadership, such as the one conducted against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State throughout the Middle East and East Africa. While this can certainly cause splintering and decentralization of groups, the deaths of charismatic leaders such as Osama bin Ladin and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also precipitated the overall decline in effectiveness for their groups. However, fully eradicating Hamas’ influence and presence will require a multifaceted effort, more akin to a counter-insurgency operation — Hamas is integrated into society in Gaza as many insurgent groups like the Taliban and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka were. This effort would place a higher emphasis on reducing civilian harm and preserving and protecting local societies and economies, while also looking beyond the immediate stage of fighting.

If lessons from the Global War on Terror were learned, operations in Gaza would be precise, supported by detailed intelligence and precision weapons.

Instead, in just the first week following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, the Israel Defense Forces said it dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza. (For comparison, the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State dropped 10,000 bombs in Raqqa, Syria, over a four-month period. Even that, using precision weaponry and targeting, left 60 to 80 percent of the city uninhabitable.) Despite the Israel Defense Forces’ public insistence that it was using precision weapons, 40 to 45 percent of the munitions it fired in the first two months of the war had no guidance system. Fighting in a densely populated urban environment against an adversary that uses civilians and their infrastructure as shields demands accuracy, as seen in Mosul and Raqqa against the Islamic State. This is the only way to limit civilian harm to humans and infrastructure and is required by international law, as previously noted by Amos Fox.

If lessons from the Global War on Terror were learned, the Israel Defense Forces also would take the time necessary to precisely target Hamas’ senior leadership. Establishing a pattern of life for such targets requires significant time and intelligence, but it is also the best way to correctly identify locations and targets and to limit civilian harm, including hostages.

The Israel Defense Forces’ continued use of the AI-enabled target-creation platform called “the Gospel” led to an unprecedented number of bombings in a short period of time. During the first month of operations, the Israel Defense Forces hit more than 12,000 targets. In a quickly changing environment, in which civilians, aid workers, and Hamas fighters and leadership are all on the move, it is difficult for humans to spend enough time verifying AI-recommended targets to ensure accuracy. Moreover, excessive reliance on AI removes what little human culpability and morality currently remains in the execution of war. In contrast to the widespread violence carried out in Gaza in the first weeks after Oct. 7 is the Jan. 2 targeted killing of senior Hamas official Saleh al Arouri in Beirut. Israeli officials refused to confirm or deny responsibility for the attack, but damage to civilians and infrastructure was minimal and proven to be within presumed Israeli military capabilities.

Israeli military and intelligence forces should review targeting processes and procedures to ensure they are allowing ample time to develop a pattern of life and prioritizing reducing civilian harm. Ryan Evans previously discussed how the Israel Defense Forces are not doing this in Gaza. During operations against the Islamic State, the U.S.-led coalition typically had a threshold for acceptable number of non-combatant deaths of zero or one. If any civilian could potentially die as a result of a military strike, the local commander was required to seek higher approval to conduct the operation. After U.S.-led coalition operations in Raqqa, military officials highlighted that they prioritized unplanned, dynamic airstrikes to support ongoing military operation. This placed primacy on the protection of the coalition-supported ground forces and reducing Islamic State capabilities, which reduced the amount of time to properly and effectively establish a pattern of life to reduce civilian harm.

If lessons from the Global War on Terror were learned, maintaining public accountability for military operations would be seen as a critical foundation and building block for long-term security in Gaza.

At several junctures during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military launched investigations into allegations of misconduct and civilian casualties. Following events such as the detainee mistreatment at Abu Ghraib in Iraq or the accidental bombing of a civilian hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, the United States investigated the incident, prosecuted perpetrators as appropriate, and updated training or processes as required. Demonstrating a culture of adherence to the rule of law and rules of armed conflict was a critical step in rebuilding trust with Afghan and Iraqi partners. In early February, the Israel Defense Forces began to investigate claims of possible violations of international law concerning civilian casualties. This is a tentative first step toward demonstrating accountability, which may begin to ease global concerns over Israeli operations, including the case brought to the International Criminal Court by South Africa. Behaving in accordance with international laws and norms would also reduce the potential for retaliatory violence within Israel or the Gaza Strip by Hamas or other Palestinian terrorist groups.

Israel can and should do more to increase transparency. International press should be allowed to independently document military operations and communicate with Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, in real time. To supplement Israel Defense Forces investigations, Israel should provide unimpeded access to Gaza by international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Airwars, and Amnesty International so that they can investigate allegations of civilian harm and publish the results. Cooperation between the U.S. military and international human rights organizations during operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria pushed the United States to reduce civilian harm, to improve U.S. military investigations into civilian casualties, and to acknowledge higher numbers of civilian deaths.

If lessons from the Global War on Terror were learned, Israel would have recognized that protecting civilians is the only way to ensure its long-term security and counter support for Hamas.

The Gaza Ministry of Health data indicates that over 100,000 residents of Gaza have been killed or injured — about 4 in 100 Palestinians in the territory. The United Nations estimated in December that 60 percent of homes have been destroyed; others suggest that the war has destroyed more than 80 percent of all structures in northern Gaza. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, drawing on his experience as a four-star general overseeing the battle against terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Iraq, summed up the risk that this kind of violence toward civilians presents on Dec. 12: “In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

Polling indicates that more Palestinians now support Hamas than did before the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. But support for the terrorist organization still remains below 50 percent in both Gaza and the West Bank. To decrease support for terrorist and insurgent organizations, civilians should be given effective political and social options. They need homes, businesses, educational facilities, and communities to rebuild. Uneven and insufficient reconstruction efforts in northeastern Syria since 2017, coupled with the ongoing Syrian civil war, have provided the Islamic State an opportunity to maintain insurgent activities and pressure against civilians and local governing authorities.

Instead, 85 percent of Palestinians, almost 2 million people, have been displaced since Oct. 7. Many have moved multiple times. They have been pushed into areas of southern Gaza that have no humanitarian infrastructure. Evacuation routes are not safe and secure. Aid organizations say continued fighting and slow border crossings are producing a severe hunger and public health crisis. Over 90 percent of children under the age of 24 months as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women eat food of the “lowest nutritional value and from only two or fewer food groups,” a result of severe food insecurity. According to the same United Nations Children’s Fund report, 90 percent of children are suffering from one or more infectious diseases.

The current and next generations of Palestinians are at risk of disease, starvation and malnutrition, under-education, and generational trauma. The Gaza Strip is facing an imminent famine. Despite warnings that it would cause long-term environmental damage to local agriculture and the water table, Israel began pumping seawater to flood some of the tunnels under Gaza in early February. This will limit Gazans’ ability to restart the economy and maintain public health.

If lessons from the Global War on Terror were learned, Israel and its Western partners and allies would work with trusted and vetted aid organizations to create safe zones for civilians. These areas would remain as demilitarized humanitarian evacuation zones so Palestinians would not have to move again until they can return home. The safe zones would contain adequate housing, water and food supplies, sanitation and hygiene, and medical resources. Israel should also provide international aid organizations consistent and secure daily access to the Gaza Strip to support humanitarian aid deliveries. Humanitarian aid to Gaza prior to Oct. 7 was already insufficient, and now the situation is even more dire. Instead, the Israel Defense Forces plan to conduct military operations in Rafah, where almost half of Gaza’s population has sought refuge, having been told by Israeli authorities to evacuate there from northern and central Gaza.

If lessons from the Global War on Terrorism were learned, Israel would already be working with international and local partners to prepare for future governance, stabilization, and reconstruction in Gaza.

Planning for what happens after the end of hostilities should begin now. Reconstruction of Gaza is critical for the future stability and safety not only of Palestinians, but also of Israel. Ensuring that Gaza has a viable economy, government, and civil society respects the humanity of Palestinians, will provide them a future, and will help ensure the security of Israel. Both Israelis and Palestinians should be involved in any post-conflict stabilization planning, but this planning should not occur along separate paths. The United States and European partners, regional Arab countries, and trusted nongovernmental organizations and commercial partners should also be included in the planning to ensure success. Provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan and Iraq could provide a template for integrating multiple stakeholders into stabilization and reconstruction processes, especially local leaders. Plans for the reconstruction of Ukraine, Yemen, and Mosul could also provide roadmaps for Gaza.

Unfortunately, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest plan for post-conflict Gaza does not provide for stabilization or reconstruction. It prioritizes Israeli security control, access, and demilitarization — at the expense of Palestinians — of the Gaza Strip. It does not give Palestinians agency or a voice in their own future, which will likely undercut long-term security in Israel, the Gaza Strip, and possibly the West Bank. Credible Palestinian political representatives, identified by Palestinians themselves, should also be involved in crafting a reconstruction and governance structure following the end of hostilities. In Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S.-led coalitions appointed interim, mostly formerly expatriate, leaders, prior to national elections, which did not provide accurate or effective representation. There should be free and fair elections in Gaza — the first since 2006 — which would provide Palestinians a voice in their leadership.

In Syria, local partners to the U.S.-led coalition prioritized protecting civilians and pushed the military to do the same during counter–Islamic State operations. This partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces brought together local Arab and Kurdish leaders and fighting forces. While combatting the Islamic State was the priority, these coalition forces also were concerned about stabilization and reconstruction upon the territorial defeat of the terrorist organization. Unfortunately, in Gaza, Israel has few local partners of the same stature. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip also lack a government that prioritizes their interests, welfare, and security. And yet, local support is the only way to achieve long-lasting security. After the end of fighting and during the reconstruction of Gaza, the establishment of a truth and reconciliation committee could help achieve peace and identify local partners committed to stability. These have been successful globally, such as in South Africa, Canada, and throughout Latin America.

If lessons from the Global War on Terror were learned, warnings by veteran soldiers, intelligence officers, diplomats, and humanitarian workers about these and other issues with the war in Gaza would have been heeded. Their calls for a ceasefire would have been answered. These experts — including myself — have 20 years of experience trying to keep the world secure. In addition to the needless destruction and tragic loss of life in Gaza, from a military and intelligence perspective, all the hard-gained lessons from the Global War on Terror have been wasted.



Karen M. Sudkamp is a national security researcher at RAND, a nonprofit, non-partisan policy think tank, with a focus on how to limit the impacts of conflict on civilian populations. She spent over a decade in the U.S. intelligence community supporting political-military and counter-terrorism analysis, operations, and policy focused on the Middle East.

Image: Fars News