‘We need to see these terrorist groups through their own mindsets’ — in conversation with John Sawers

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Intelligence

EI’s Angus Reilly talks to Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6, about understanding the nature and aims of Hamas, Israel's lack of a political strategy, Iran's Axis of Resistance, and the responsibilities of intelligence agencies and leaders in international politics.

A young boy stands by a poster of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar.
A young boy stands by a poster of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Sir John Sawers served as the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service from 2009 to 2014. Prior to that he served as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (2007-9), Director-General for Political Affairs at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2003-7), Ambassador to Egypt (2001-3), and as Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

AR: Before 7 October, it has been argued, the Israelis had a particular theory of what kind of an entity Hamas was: that it was a political party focused mainly on the governance of Gaza, hostile to Israel but not fixated on conflict. Then, suddenly, that theory was upended with tragic consequences. Do you agree with that characterisation? What were the errors made by Israeli and Western intelligence services in understanding Hamas’ motivations?

JS: I certainly think the Israelis had too benign an understanding of Hamas’ intentions. That’s not just with hindsight: Hamas is a terrorist organisation with a political movement as part of it.

Hamas was not going to rest easy on its laurels in a difficult situation. These organisations have a wider perspective than we might expect. The terrorist groups that I used to have to deal with as Chief of MI6 are based in a specific area, but they have a global ideology, however fanciful that might seem from our point of view.

My understanding – though I have never talked to Hamas myself – is that they were concerned that the strategic situation with the Palestinians was continuing to worsen. The Israeli government and the settler militias were tightening the screws on Palestinians in the West Bank. And they didn’t like the way the Palestinian question was being marginalised in the Middle East with the normalisation of relations by Israel with the United Arab Emirates and, so it appeared, with Saudi Arabia.

I don’t know when planning for the brutal assault of 7 October actually started, but it may be that Hamas had all these capabilities in place and made the decision fairly late in the day as to exactly how it was going to use them.

Certainly, it seems nobody outside Gaza was aware of what was going on and that was part of the way in which the Israelis were taken by surprise, because it was a very tightly held operational plan. Hamas is part of the so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’, and they meet regularly with representatives of Hizbollah and Iran in Beirut, but it seems the Hamas representative didn’t have a clue what was about to happen.

There was clearly a division between the intentions of Hamas’ political leadership and the military leadership. This is similar to the Taliban, who also had a political office in Qatar and military operations in Afghanistan, and it was often unclear where the central authority for the conflict and peace efforts lay.

My sense is that Hamas’s so-called political leadership in Doha didn’t know that this was coming either. 7 October has the hallmarks of something that was driven by Hamas leaders inside Gaza, with no outside consultation, and with a wider agenda beyond just committing an atrocious terrorist attack.

I don’t think the Hamas representatives abroad should be seen as the political ‘leadership’. When we talk about leadership, we need to be clear that leaders are those who take decisions and those who don’t take decisions are representatives.

It’s pretty clear that the Israelis now see Yahya Sinwar – the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, who they released in a prisoner swap in 2011 – as the driving intellectual force behind Hamas. Ismail Haniyeh, Khalad Mashal, and others in Doha didn’t even know that this attack was going to happen.

There is a parallel with the Taliban. The Americans, during their negotiations with Mullah Barader to end the Afghanistan conflict, thought they were talking to the Taliban leadership. Actually, the Taliban representatives then went back to Kabul and Kandahar and weren’t able to persuade their superiors to meet the commitments they had made in the Doha negotiations. They, too, were representatives rather than decision making leaders.

The concepts of ‘rationality’ and ‘irrationality’ are regularly invoked in international politics. As we have discussed, there was an assumption that Hamas was acting ‘rationally’ with a focus on the political and economic governance of Gaza and that they were aware that a breakout of war would set back those goals and potentially lead to their destruction.

How do governments and intelligence services analyse, understand, and respond to actions that we would consider ‘irrational’, such as those motivated by political or religious fundamentalism and which entail self-destruction?

We need to be careful not to impose our own concepts of rationality and irrationality on these actors. I think Osama bin Laden would have been quite satisfied with the consequences of 9/11. Yes, the Taliban were removed from Afghanistan but, twenty years later, they are back in power. America over-reached in the Islamic world and has had to pull back. Al Qaeda has morphed into a series of other organisations and is alive and well in places like the Sahel, Somalia and Yemen, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These groups see themselves in a millennial struggle against the West. We need to see them through their own mindsets and not simply impose our own Western or Cartesian logic on their thinking and decisions.

It won’t be clear for several years, I suspect, whether Hamas have achieved their objectives or not from 7 October. I think in the actual operation they probably exceeded their expectations: more Hamas fighters flooded through the breach in the wall than they had anticipated, and the Israelis were much slower to respond. More Israeli civilians were killed and more hostages were taken than Hamas is actually able to deal with. However, these things cannot be measured immediately.

I think Hamas is disappointed that Iran and Hizbollah haven’t joined in the fight. The messages from Tehran and Beirut have been pretty clear: we wish you well Hamas, but you didn’t consult us and you’re on your own. We will see if that is sustained, but at the moment the pressures on escalation are being managed.

The Washington Post reported that Hamas were certainly prepared to go further into Israel. They had the ammunition, maps and equipment to attack Israeli cities and even push through to the West Bank with the aim of toppling the Palestinian Authority.

I’m not sure. Those options may have been possibilities in the back of their minds, but the 7 October attack was not designed to achieve those goals.

I think they see this as a long-term struggle. One of the most depressing aspects of the situation in the Middle East is that the one-state advocates, on both the Israeli and Palestinian side, are making far more progress than the two-state advocates. Each side has their own vision of what a single state would look like. For a growing number of Israelis, it’s the expulsion of the Palestinians; for Hamas, it’s the expulsion of the Jews.

Those of us who have worked on these issues for the last thirty or forty years still believe that the two peoples can live alongside one another in the area of historic Palestine, each with their own state. That should be manageable, it has been achieved elsewhere in the world and should be achievable there.

You have said that the issues with a ‘War on Terror’ is that you cannot wage war on an idea or an ideology. Therefore, if not a ‘War on Terror’, what are the Israelis waging war on?

At the moment this is an attempt by Israel to destroy the military capabilities of Hamas. They talk about destroying Hamas as a whole but they know that, through military action, they can’t destroy a political idea or a political movement.

Ultimately, as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, and so on, military action can only take you so far. You can weaken your opponent but the only way you can solve the problem is through some form of political process.

Israel has launched an invasion of northern Gaza, utilising its air power and targeting Hamas’ military leaders. Reporting indicates that, as the Hamas leadership is moving down from Gaza City to Khan Younis, the Israeli Defence Forces will follow southwards. However, the government is yet to present any plan for the occupation or reconstruction of Gaza. How would you evaluate the current Israeli strategy?

I don’t think the Israelis have a strategic plan.

One of their problems is that this caught them so off guard that they haven’t worked out a proper strategy. Alongside the defence and security agenda that they are wrestling with is a political crisis centred on Netanyahu’s future. They have cobbled together a military plan, which they are executing quite effectively, if ruthlessly, with a lot of civilian deaths. But I don’t think they have a concept as to what comes next.

When I floated the idea of some form of international security presence in Gaza led by the Arab states, my Arab friends told me to forget the idea. The Jordanians and Egyptians have said there is no chance of that happening and that they are not going to side with Israel in destroying Hamas. Mohammed bin Salman had an opportunity at the Riyadh summit he convened in mid-November to lay out some form of wider strategy, but he opted not to do that.

My friends in Egypt are concerned that this kettling up of the Palestinian people closer and closer to the Rafah border crossing, which connects Gaza with the Sinai, is a prelude to the Israelis just driving them out and pushing the civilians of Gaza into Egypt.

The Americans have said they wouldn’t accept that. The Egyptians would, I think, take up arms to stop that happening. That won’t necessarily stop the Israelis though, if that’s what they’re intent on doing.

There would be a huge political cost to Israel if they did that and I don’t think it’s likely they will. But they don’t have many options at the moment as to what happens in Gaza. They’re going to be left with responsibility for security and they’re leaving behind a devastated territory.

When the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan and Iraq there was an elite in both countries willing to work with the occupying authorities to establish a political settlement and civilian government. It does not seem, however, that the Israelis have the same potential partners in a domestic political elite who would work with them in the occupation and reconstruction of Gaza.

There are candidates for a new Palestinian Authority which would have some credibility in Gaza. The name that is circulating is Marwan Barghouti, who has been in an Israeli prison for twenty years for orchestrating attacks against military and civilian targets. He is the one person who has the stature on the Palestinian side to unite all the various factions, from the Palestinian Authority to the more extremist groups as well.

Barghouti is no Nelson Mandela, but he is a respected political leader. If the Israelis could ever bring themselves to using him as an asset, rather than locking him away, then we might be in different territory.

We are a long way from that. There would need to be new leadership on the Israeli side and stable, concerted and wise leadership from Washington – which isn’t guaranteed after next year’s election. There would also need to be some change in the Palestinian leadership with strong Arab backing as well. All these elements need to come together, but I’m not particularly optimistic.

Not only is there a lack of political will for reconstruction, however, but little discussion of the scale of economic support that will be required.

The Gulf Arabs are going to be reticent about rebuilding Gaza if there is a risk of it being destroyed again – they would just be throwing good money after bad. What the Israelis have done over the past five years is ensure that essential services are delivered in Gaza and Qatar has been willing to pay for that. The Israelis have managed that situation to keep Gaza stable.

If you can get back to a political framework leading to a political settlement of the Palestinian question, then the one thing the Gulf states are not short of is money. There are resources available to put into a stabilisation plan, but everybody has to be convinced that it is credible and not just a sticking plaster.

Do the Arab states actually want the destruction of Hamas? It is a close partner of Iran and a potential threat to the nations that have succeeded, in recent years, of suppressing domestic Islamist dissent.

I don’t think that Hamas will be completely disowned. Hamas has achieved a certain standing on the Arab street and it will remain an entity in Palestinian politics.

There is no easy way through and nobody really has a strategy. The Palestinian question has been parked for the past ten years and it has suddenly been put back on the political agenda.

It was a conscious political strategy, by the United States, Israel and many Arab states, to ignore the Palestinian question. The Abraham Accords were developed on the assumption that if the Palestinians were securely fenced in, in Gaza and the West Bank, the relevant states could build new partnerships.

The Arab states involved in the Abraham Accords have accustomed themselves to Israel’s existence. They saw Israel’s strengths that they wanted to buy into, and their biggest security concerns related to Iran more than they did to Israel.

They were concerned about the threat of Iran, but Iran’s approach has been to engage with Hamas and resuscitate the Palestinian question as part of its own regional strategy. How would you characterise Iran’s actions over the past two months?

First of all, it looks as though the Iranians weren’t aware of Hamas’ plans for the 7 October attack and they have distanced themselves, to some extent, from that.

The biggest concern for Iran at the moment is how they manage the leadership transition that is coming up at some point. They don’t know when and they haven’t worked out the answer to the question: who is their next leader?

There was a time when Qasem Soleimani – the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, responsible for covert military actions – was the obvious centre of power to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei. Soleimani wasn’t a cleric so could not have been the Supreme Leader, but he would have, in practice, been the driving force of the Iranian regime.

It is now much harder. Soleimani was killed by the Americans in Baghdad in January 2020. The effort to groom President Raisi doesn’t carry much credibility – he hasn’t really achieved anything – so the regime remains brittle. There was talk about Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, stepping up but, the Iranian people fought a revolution to overthrow a hereditary dynasty and it would be quite ironic if they replaced it with another.

Iran has built up a range of militias in the Middle East, some of them very deliberately, like Hizbollah and the groups in Iraq. The Houthis, in Yemen, fell into their laps because of some misguided decisions by Saudi Arabia.

There is not, however, some sort of command-and-control system operating out of the Quds Force’s headquarters directing these militias. Iran supported them in building up their capabilities, but, as the Hamas operation showed, they don’t check back with Tehran before they take action. They have their own agendas, their own approaches and, overall, the picture suits Iran.

I don’t think Iran has a regional strategy for transformation. It’s trying to stabilise its relationship with the United States, even after President Trump walked away from the nuclear accords in 2018. They’ve stabilised their relationship with Saudi Arabia and accepted a degree of Chinese monitoring which, in return, has offered beneficial access to Chinese investment and credit.

The Iranians have that agenda in mind, geared towards the stability of the Islamic regime in Tehran, as they head towards a crucial leadership change.

As some outlets have reported, it is possible that news of the planning for the attack did make its way back to a part of the Quds Force, but that was not fed to the Iranian political leadership. Could the events in Israel cast a light back onto the court politics of Tehran and the succession battle between the political and military elements of the regime, each with different aims?

I’m always a bit wary of the ‘black hat, white hat’ school of analysis, in which there are good guys in regimes and bad guys in regimes. It’s a single regime. There are debates that go on, as there are in Western political parties, but that doesn’t stop it being a single entity with a certain amount of discipline around that singularity.

There is a debate in Iran about what is the best direction for the country. Some of the people who took part in the Revolution in 1979, like Hassan Rouhani or Javad Zarif, have a different vision for how the system should evolve than Qasem Soleimani had, for example, or indeed the Supreme Leader. They have been schooled in a system, however, that requires compromise and puts a premium on consensus.

I don’t think you will see parts of the regime acting in an aggressive or violent way to undermine other parts of the regime, but you will see a lot of political competition. How it ends up, and how much power remains centred on the Supreme Leader’s office, will determine how Iran evolves over the next two decades.

The phrase ‘Axis of Resistance’ is popularly used to describe Iran, its allies and their opposition to the United States and Israel. It could be a useful term, but it does have connotations of the ‘Axis of Evil’ that George W. Bush invoked in the wake of 9/11, and which did alienate the Iranians and stymied negotiations on their nuclear programme. How do you feel, therefore, about the employment of ‘Axis of Resistance’ as a description of Iran’s partnerships?

‘Axis of Evil’ was an American term used by George W. Bush, ‘Axis of Resistance’ is the term used by the Iranians and their allies to describe themselves. So, there is a key difference there.

There has been a tradition in the Middle East of a ‘Steadfastness Front’ or a ‘Resistance Front’ over the past four decades, where groups with overlapping agendas form a bloc within the Muslim world.

The so-called Axis of Resistance is a way of bringing together groups with different aims. There is no way that Hamas and the Houthis and Hizbollah have similar political objectives, but they can all agree on a rallying cry of opposition to Israel, which is what underlies the Axis of Resistance. The Iranians are very happy to be the centre of gravity of that because it gives them faux legitimacy to their concept of ongoing revolution, even though all these revolutionaries are now in their seventies and eighties.

It’s anchored less by ideology than a shared set of basic positions that these groups can unite around.

Your focus there is on the peripheral groups and their relationship with the core state of Iran, rather than this being something orchestrated by Tehran towards the ultimate destruction of Israel or dismantling of American power.

The Iranian’s top priority is the preservation of their regime. They do that through a strategy of aggressive defence: they ensure their defence by action beyond their borders, and they keep their enemies off balance by building up these various militias.

Hizbollah is the most important and it was created by the Iranians in 1982 and, the following year, they had what they regarded as a tremendous success with the destruction of the US Marine barracks in Beirut. That was an example to the Iranians of how you can use these groups to support the Revolution, which at this point was only four years old, and drive the Americans out of Lebanon – an event with wide political connotations at the time. That is the model they have built on ever since, with a lot of the same individuals still in place.

Iran doesn’t have a serious strategy to wipe Israel off the map. Its close engagement with groups like Hizbollah and Hamas is an extension of its forward defence strategy to protect the regime back home.

Saudi Arabia is the other major player in the region, but they have not expressed a political strategy on Gaza, despite what one might expect considering their economic success and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitions. How do you interpret the Saudi position?

Mohammed bin Salman is focused on success at home. His Vision 2030 has been more successful than I initially expected and he has genuinely transformed aspects of Saudi Arabia through the empowerment of women and young people, and cutting off funding for the religious organisations that had become a crucible for terrorism around the world.

At the same time, he also made a series of mistakes in his first five years in power: launching the war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, the seizure of the Lebanese Prime Minister, and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

I think he has learnt his lessons from that and I had thought he might want to take a leadership position in the present crisis, but so far he hasn’t done so. His focus has been on keeping the oil price high enough to fund his projects and ensure stability at home. I believe that he is personally open to some normalisation with Israel, though that is postponed for now, but it could easily come back onto the agenda.

I don’t think MbS has a wider vision for the Middle East. His goal is to strengthen Saudi Arabia and his own power. The ‘grand vision’ is yet to follow and we will see if it ever does.

As long as Iran doesn’t step in to back Hamas, the broad response of Middle Eastern states has been quite limited and the conflict has not changed their strategies that much. 

I think there is a sense of helplessness in Arab countries about events in Gaza. They can’t stop the war; they’re frustrated and angry at the West and Israel for treating the deaths of Israeli civilians as more important than the deaths of Palestinian civilians.

So far, the Arabs have not sought to use energy markets to punish the West over the Gaza crisis, and I don’t think they will. At the moment, the Gulf countries, the Egyptians and the Jordanians are looking to defend themselves to the challenges in their own countries that the crisis in Gaza is creating. They want the Americans to set limits on what Israel does, and to launch a new political process when the time is right. They will help in the transition of leadership on the Palestinian side, although they may not agree as to who the future leader might be.

Arab countries are realistic that there is not a great deal that they can actually change. The critical country here is Egypt, which has had its own security problems for the past 50 years. It has a weak economy and is facing very real domestic pressure. If you were President Sisi, you will be wanting to preserve stability in Egypt, which is challenging enough without thinking there is a wider agenda you can prosecute on behalf of the Palestinians.

Should we be concerned that the conflict will inspire other Jihadist groups, in Western countries, or domestic disorder in states like Egypt by organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood?

There has been a cycle of Islamic extremism over the past 25 years – 9/11 was the starting point in many ways, and the American reaction, supported by the British and other countries, in Afghanistan and Iraq gave way to another round of terrorism in the mid-2000s.

The Syrian Civil War had a radicalising effect in Western societies and we saw terrorist attacks in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and so on. It is possible that what is happening in Gaza gives rise to another cycle of support for extremist groups.

I think, in Western security and intelligence agencies we have learnt how to combat terrorism much more effectively than we did in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s not a coincidence that the terrorist incidents that you see now are perpetrated by lone actors with knives or trucks rather than orchestrated plans to bring down planes in midair.

That’s a mark of the progress that the international community has made to deal with terrorism, but the underlying pressures have always been driven by events in the Middle East. And there’s nothing more central to the narratives used by terrorists than the Palestinian question.

The responsibilities of prediction and prevention are such a central role for intelligence agencies. As well as on terrorism, Western intelligence agencies were able to predict Russia’s imminent invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. That phenomenal success, however, is contrasted by the failure to predict Hamas’ attack. How would you evaluate the state of intelligence prediction and preparedness in light of these various events?

Intelligence is the sort of business where if you get it right, nobody thanks you, and if you get it wrong, everybody blames you!

Counterterrorism is the classic example of that. There are thousands of people around the world who are going about their normal lives with no idea that they would have been dead had the attacks planned by terrorist groups not been thwarted by intelligence agencies.

My successors at MI6 and in the CIA got it right on Ukraine, even though there were many, including the leadership in Kyiv, who didn’t really believe the Russians would invade until it actually happened. In terms of the mistakes the Israelis made, you can draw a loose parallel with the mistakes that we made in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in that you have a mindset and a set conclusion about the other side. Western agencies were convinced that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction, it was just a question of finding the stuff. We tended to set aside reports or evidence that maybe the WMD programme didn’t exist after all.

I think the Israelis made a similar mistake with Hamas. They had what turned out to be a false conception of the threat from Hamas and the snippets of intelligence which might have led them to see what was happening in the run up to 7 October they tended to dismiss. The Egyptians say they warned the Israelis in advance; the women on the watchtowers around Gaza said they saw suspicious activity. These reports were dismissed because they didn’t fit into the prevailing narrative.

That, in a sense, is the danger facing both intelligence agencies and the political leaders they serve. You have to keep a fresh mind and challenge your assumptions. The most valuable piece of intelligence is not that which confirms what you believe but that which challenges or contradicts what you believe.

If, at some point in the past fifteen years, the Americans had been attacked as the Israelis were, you would have seen the criticism levelled at the CIA that they were too focused on paramilitary activities or drone strikes, rather than analysis, evaluation and preparedness. The same criticism could be directed at Israel in its intelligence activities. How do governments and agencies prioritise these different responsibilities and resources across a wide range of obligations?

The French have a system which, when I was at MI6, I often envied, where human intelligence, signals intelligence and special forces are all in one organisation, the DGSE, run by my French counterpart. The Americans have a system in which intelligence collection and analysis are all inside the CIA.

In that sense, MI6 is different, in that we have a very singular mission which is to acquire the intelligence: to use our operational capability to penetrate hostile governments and hostile organisations, to find out what they are capable of and what they are intending to do. The assessment of that intelligence is made somewhere else.

Now, I’m not trying to absolve MI6 of blame for the false intelligence in 2003, but that was a failure of analysis as well as a failure of the collection agencies. Sometimes organisations do better when they have a single focus rather than multiple missions.

What about the role of intelligence leaders, the people who hold roles similar to yours, in this period of international disorder? For example, Bill Burns has proven to be an important emissary for President Biden as CIA Director, liaising with the Taliban and Russians as well as leading the organisation.

The first responsibility of the leader any organisation is to help it achieve its mission. When I was Chief of MI6, I had to dramatically modernise the organisation and rebuild the trust that had been lost after Iraq and the allegations of mistreatment of detainees. That was my primary task.

Bill Burns is in a great position because he is heading a brilliant organisation with tremendous capabilities, which has already gone through a reform process, led by John Brennan in the Obama era. Bill Burns has been appointed as CIA Director in part as a leader of the organisation but perhaps even more so to be an extra asset in the foreign policy and national security strategy of the United States. He is someone who has tremendous trust both inside America and internationally and can carry out difficult missions like talking to Putin or MbS without the glare of publicity at every stage.

Now to a certain extent I did that too, as my predecessors and successors have. As an intelligence chief, you can have discreet meetings with foreign leaders and deliver tough messages in private. I often had better access to foreign leaders than the Foreign Secretary (tricky to manage because he was my boss!) The role of an intelligence chief in conducting discreet diplomacy – not covert, discreet – is very powerful because of the amount of trust placed in the organisations they represent. They do that alongside their fundamental role of overseeing and leading a group of very capable women and men who are producing the intelligence which enables political leaders to take better policy decisions.


Angus Reilly