Gaza campaign-The IDF’s gap in understanding the importance of OSINT stands out

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In recent months, several senior figures in the American intelligence community have emphasized the importance of Open Source Intelligence (known as OSINT) as a key intelligence-gathering component of their agencies.

The characteristics of this method of collection (primarily an extensive amount of public information) make it no less important than other intelligence gathering methods. However, these experts don’t discuss OSINT only as a gathering / collecting method.The events of the 2016 and later 2020 U.S. election and its aftermath shaped the views of senior members of the U.S. intelligence community on social media platforms.

The vulnerabilities of the internet to foreign and domestic actors as potential threat vectors for disinformation in support of political goals became increasingly clear following Russian intervention in 2016 and 2020 and the rise of a domestic insurrection movement in the US. These events were eminently investigable by open-source sleuths and entities while missed in real-time by formal government agencies.

It seems that the understanding of OSINT as a threat vector for disinformation in service of political goals as a central component of the collection and influence, is still lacking / missing in the Israeli government, Israel Defense Forces and especially the IDF Spokesperson’s Branch. The recent campaign in Gaza has only served to highlight this issue.

It is not at all clear what the IDF Spokesperson’s collection capabilities are when it comes to public opinion in the Gaza Strip. From various reports, it can be inferred that the various spokespersons of the IDF rely on intelligence reports based upon traditional methods such as SIGINT, HUMINT and so on, but not OSINT.

In the context of social media awareness and influence, it seems that the IDF Spokesperson is still in the stone age.  

Take for example the recent case of disinformation intrigue carried out by the IDF. The IDF sought to mislead Hamas into thinking that its forces were preparing to enter the Gaza Strip to prod them into entering predefined defensive positions in the “Gaza Metro” tunnels. According to some media reports in Israel (That the IDF Spokesperson denied), the IDF Spokesperson misled (Intentionally or unintentionally) some reporters in Israel to achieve this goal. Regardless whether this fact is true or not, the question arises –  why the IDF didn’t use a sophisticated network of “Influence tools” in order to increase Hamas’s “deception”. For example, one might think that a network of a douzens (or more) of “artificial entities” in a certain area that are posting pictures of the Army crossing into Gaza can make a huge effect on the population and especially Hamas terrorists and make them think the IDF “is coming”. 

Generally speaking, It seems that the military preferred to invest in the development of tactical OSINT capabilities in order to find the next terrorist and neglected the “strategic” capabilities of the Open Source collection tools.

In addition, properly utilizing strategic OSINT would be a boon to the IDF’s own propaganda efforts. Understanding what is being said and by whom in Gaza and abroad regarding the recent conflagration would enable the IDF and other Israeli government actors to tailor their responses to key audiences as well as promote them in the right places. Utilizing extant and commercially-available social media listening tools and other big-data solutions to identify what is being said and where and by whom would enable propaganda efforts to be exponentially more effective than they are currently.

The current operation in Gaza is a “wake-up call” to the IDF regarding the need to upgrade its collection capabilities on social networks, capabilities that should be based on the following components:

  1. Significant monitoring capabilities in the social networks that can analyze a broad mass of information in a given area and to “transform” them into “strategic” insights.
  2. Construction of  mass number of assets in relevant social media networks, that enable the military to implement his objectives, without the need to “mislead” those who follow the military’s official accounts. 
  3. Building a methodology aimed at “elevating” OSINT from the tactical level and implementing an operational framework aimed at using these capabilities for “strategic” purposes.
  4. Building a special / independent unit (separate from SIGINT collection) to oversee all OSINT capabilities.

If the IDF wants to become an “Influencer” then it needs to upgrade its OSINT capabilities. The days of relying solely on official accounts are long gone.   

About the Author
Danny (Dennis) Citrinowicz is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and a senior WEBINT instructor at Cyberpro. Previously, he was senior fellow at the Institute of Policy and Strategy (IPS) and the Abba Eban institute at Reichman University. Danny served 25 years in a variety of command positions units in Israel Defense Intelligence (IDI) including as the head of the Iran branch in the Research and Analysis Division (RAD) in the Israeli defense intelligence and as the division’s representative in the United States.
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