Skip to Content

US intelligence analysis warns Hamas’ influence has grown since its attack on Israel


By Katie Bo Lillis, CNN

Washington (CNN) — A flurry of new analysis by US intelligence agencies has warned that Hamas’ credibility and influence has grown dramatically in the two months since the October 7 terror attack and the onset of Israel’s military response in the Middle East and beyond.

As Israel’s relentless air campaign has killed thousands of civilians inside Gaza, Hamas – which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States and Europe – has been able to cast itself as the lone armed group fighting back against a brutal oppressor killing women and children. Officials familiar with the different assessments say the group has successfully positioned itself across some parts of the Arab and Muslim world as a defender of the Palestinian cause and an effective fighter against Israel.

Hamas’ growing influence comes in the wake of its ghastly October attack on Israel that killed about 1,200 men, women and children. The US has staunchly defended Israel’s right to defend itself in the wake of the attack, including its campaign to eliminate Hamas entirely.

From Hamas’ perspective, the October 7 attack on southern Israel was a stunning operational success. And in the months since, it has received credit — particularly in the occupied West Bank — for negotiating the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and detainees held by Israel, in exchange for some of the hostages the group holds from the attack, these sources say.

Meanwhile, Hamas propaganda videos casting the group as highly moral fighters who follow the teachings of Islam – despite the horrific details of the October 7 attack and the descriptions of sexual violence against Israeli women reported by eyewitnesses from that day – coupled with a flood of devastating images of civilian suffering inside Gaza, have gone viral on Arab social media.

Before October 7, a senior administration official said, “Hamas [was] not a wildly popular organization. Today it’s more popular.”

It’s possible the conflict will do more to boost Hamas’ influence outside of Gaza than within it, where years of poor governance have bred mistrust.

poll conducted during the first week of November found that strong support for the October 7 attacks was much higher amongst Palestinians in the West Bank compared to Gaza — 68% compared to 47%. While conducting surveys is challenging during wartime, as many Gazans have been displaced from their homes due to the Israeli bombing, this finding has been echoed by other polling.

The various assessments have circulated inside the US government as Biden administration officials have begun publicly warning that the civilian death toll from Israeli bombing risks further elevating the popularity of Hamas in the Palestinian territories and as analysts warn that the bombardment may serve only to inspire more terrorism there and abroad.

“In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said earlier this month. “And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

Officials are closely monitoring several key indicators that suggest that support for Hamas has grown both in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere in the region.

Polling from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research has shown support for Hamas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank has surged from 12% in September to around 44% in December. In Jordan, where more than half of the population is of Palestinian origin, protesters in the street have chanted support for Hamas.

Now, especially in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Hamas is increasingly “viewed as the one group actually doing something about Israeli occupation,” said Jonathan Panikoff, a former intelligence official specializing in the region.

Meanwhile, US counterterrorism officials are also deeply concerned that Hamas’ success may make it an inspiration for terrorist groups dotted across the globe. In the United States, the FBI is working “around the clock” to identify and disrupt lone-wolf attackers inspired by Hamas, Director Chris Wray told Congress in recent weeks.

“I see blinking lights everywhere I turn,” Wray said.

Wray’s law enforcement colleagues in Europe have also had their guard up. Four alleged Hamas members suspected of plotting terror attacks in Europe were arrested in Germany and The Netherlands last week on suspicion of planning attacks on Jewish institutions in Europe.

Those stark assessments underscore the inherent difficulty — if not impossibility, some critics of Jerusalem say — of Israel’s insistence that it will “eradicate” Hamas.

Hamas’ military leadership can be defeated, State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said last week, but “you can’t defeat an idea on the battlefield.”

Several US officials who spoke to CNN about the broad views of the intelligence community about popular support for Hamas emphasized that it is incredibly difficult to measure “influence.” And the senior administration official noted that past assessments about a rise in popularity for terror groups following high-profile attacks have proved “ephemeral.” A key question for the intelligence community is how long this boost in credibility will last.

Before October 7, there were signs that Hamas’ political support inside Gaza, which it has governed since 2007, was in peril.

A poll completed, remarkably, on October 6 found that 67% of Palestinians in Gaza reported having either “no trust at all” or “not a lot of trust” in Hamas – something that some analysts believe might have been a factor in Hamas’ motivation for the attack. Palestinians inside Gaza were more likely to blame persistent food shortages on Hamas’ leadership than on the Israeli blockade that has limited supplies into Gaza since 2007, for example.

“I think this is one of the more underreported stories,” said Panikoff. “There was some data showing [Hamas] were struggling in Gaza on a governance perspective. And this is a tried-and-true manner of … distraction.”

A key question for US intelligence analysts now is how the Israeli handling of the conflict is likely to affect public opinion both inside of Gaza and the West Bank, and across the broader Arab and Muslim world.

Some past polling data suggests that in periods when Israel enforces stricter policies toward Gaza — including during past cycles of violence — Hamas’ popularity rises.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken nodded to the pressure being applied to Israel to stop the war as opposed to Hamas.

“What is striking to me is that even as, again, we hear many countries urging the end to this conflict, which we would all like to see, I hear virtually no one saying – demanding of Hamas that it stop hiding behind civilians, that it lay down its arms, that it surrender,” Blinken said Wednesday. “This is over tomorrow if Hamas does that. This would have been over a month ago, six weeks ago, if Hamas had done that. And how could it – how can it be that there are no demands made of the aggressor and only demands made of the victim.”

Hinting at a recognition that Hamas’ political ideology is unlikely to be “defeated,” even Hamas’ Palestinian political opponents are raising the possibility that Hamas will retain some power in the post-conflict governance of Gaza.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has said Israel’s goal of fully defeating Hamas is unrealistic and that it should instead be incorporated as a junior partner in the Palestine Liberation Organization in any post-conflict governance structure. Hamas in 2006 won legislative elections in Gaza and the West Bank and refused to form a governing coalition with the Fatah party, which now dominates the PLO. It later seized control of the Gaza Strip.

Some analysts within the US government privately fear that Israel’s prosecution of its war against Hamas — including a punishing air campaign that has killed nearly 20,000 people, according to the Hamas-run Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza — will have the unintended effect of legitimizing Hamas politically and inspiring more terrorism.

“The Israelis are damned if they do, damned if they don’t,” Panikoff said. “It may breed more terrorism over the long-term. But I don’t know what country would expect its government to sit idly by after this either.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: Politics

Jump to comments ↓

Author Profile Photo



KVIA ABC 7 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content