Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 9, Issue 3, What Would the Greats Say About War in the 21st Century  /  

Michael Handel, October 7, and The Theory of Surprise

Michael Handel, October 7, and The Theory of Surprise Michael Handel, October 7, and The Theory of Surprise
To cite this article: Wirtz, James J., “Michael Handel, October 7, and The Theory of Surprise,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 3, Special Issue, ‘What Would the Greats Say About War in the 21st Century’, spring 2024, pages 4- 10.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent the position of any government, government agency, commercial firm, or group.

The place to begin is with a chance encounter with Tom Mahnken in the lobby of San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko in August 2001. Tom mentioned that he was working on a festschrift for Michael Handel, his colleague at the U.S. Naval War College, who had recently passed away tragically from an especially aggressive form of cancer. Handel had been kind to me as a graduate student, offering advice, opportunities, and introductions – I immediately asked if I could contribute a chapter on his “Theory of Surprise.” Tom said he never heard of the theory, but I reassured him that it was embedded in Handel’s many works on intelligence failure and strategic surprise. Contemporary events gave the project a sense of urgency. “The Theory of Surprise” focused on the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attacks. It was published along with other essays in Paradoxes of Intelligence, which honored Handel’s contribution to the field of intelligence studies.[i]

Today’s reader might be unaware of Handel’s link to the intelligence field; he is probably best remembered for his comparative study of strategy, especially the works of “classical strategic thought.” He began with a volume on Clausewitz,[ii] followed by a comparison of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz,[iii] and then by increasingly comprehensive editions of his monograph Masters of War, which surveyed the ideas of Mau Zedong, Antoine-Henri Jomini, Niccolo Machiavelli, Alfred T. Mahan, Julian Corbett and even Casper Weinberger, among others.[iv] Nevertheless, as a founding editor of the journal Intelligence and National Security, Handel was an early leader in the field of intelligence studies, scholarship that was energized by the searing experience of the surprise suffered by Israel at the outset of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He wrote extensively about the subjects of intelligence analysis, intelligence failure, and strategic surprise, including unique treatments of military intelligence, and technological surprise.[v]

Mahnken was of course correct, there is no theory of surprise in this literature, although Handel ruminated about the nature of such a theory and identified most of its key components. Despite his many achievements, we will never know what Handel might have said about Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or, for that matter, the October 7, 2023, strategic surprise attack launched by Hamas against Israel. Or do we? Handel would have responded positively to this question; note how he favorably referenced the idea that scholars inevitably apply, advance, and adapt the work of others in their own research.

Even the most creative theories in history were not conceived in a vacuum; one way or another, they owe something to the works of others . . .. Scientists such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, for example, either synthesized and combined the work of others, while adding their own ideas, or were heuristically stimulated by existing ideas to develop their own original concepts. The same is true for those whose creative and analytical thought processes have “transformed” the intricacies of strategy . . . into an innovative theory or body of work.[vi]

So, what insights might Handel provide about the most recent example of a strategic surprise attack – the tragic events surrounding the October 7 Hamas raid on Israel? What insights can Handel’s work offer about the intelligence-policy failure surrounding the tragedy?

The Theory of Surprise and October 7

As the vast literature on the intelligence failure surrounding the 1973 October War demonstrates, the Israeli government and scholarly community are more than capable of identifying the errors of omission and commission that contributed to the operational and tactical success enjoyed by Hamas during the October 7 raid that killed about 1200 Israeli civilians and soldiers and enabled the taking of over 250 hostages.[vii] When the full record is available for analysis years or even decades from now, there will undoubtedly be many twists and turns in the story of why the Israeli intelligence community and military and political authorities were caught flat-footed as armed units conducted a mad dash across the Gaza border hellbent on killing and capturing Israeli civilians in an act of terrorism that still seems to defy strategic logic. Nevertheless, it is possible to observe that events surrounding the October 7 raid generally conform to a pattern common in instances of strategic surprise attacks. Handel described aspects of this pattern in his writings on intelligence. The fact that the October 7 raid appears to make little strategic sense, that it seems to have achieved its immediate tactical and operational goals and is culminating in an attritional conflict all fits neatly within the five propositions of the theory of surprise.

Proposition 1: Surprise Suspends War’s Dialectic

Although strategists universally look for force multipliers, including tactical and operational surprise, to improve their battlefield prospects, they understand the risks of relying too heavily on the success of some maneuver, stratagem, or innovation to achieve their objectives. Clausewitz judged that ambitious stratagem rarely succeeded and often consumed disproportionate resources compared to the battlefield gains they generated. Sometimes, however, strategists accept this significant risk. They launch operations that are based on achieving a surprise so pervasive that it literally eliminates a responsive opponent from the field. By eliminating active opposition, or any opposition at all, they temporarily transcend the nature of war – because the opponent is absent from the scene of some action, war is no longer a duel, as Clausewitz tells us, but becomes an administrative act, allowing a military unit to approximate the theoretical limits of its destructive potential.[viii] With no opposition, for instance, it was possible for two, five-man teams armed with box-cutters to destroy the World Trade Center in an operation that lasted a few hours. Strategic surprise, which often occurs at the onset of hostilities, allows the attacker to achieve objectives that cannot be realistically achieved in war, that is, in the face of opposition from an alert opponent. Other theorists have noticed how strategic surprise can temporarily suspend war’s dialectic. William McRaven’s theory of special operations embraces this proposition – his theory is intended to place special operators in a position to achieve their mission without opposition, and to mitigate the friction that inevitably will be encountered even when the opponent is nowhere in sight.[ix]

Surprise that suspends war’s dialectic is qualitatively different from the element of surprise that commonly serves as a force multiplier. Strategic surprise is intended to create a situation where objectives can be achieved without encountering active opposition, while the use of surprise as a force multiplier is intended to create advantages in an encounter with an active opponent by hampering or delaying the opponent’s response. As a good student of Clausewitz, Handel struggled with this distinction between strategic surprise attack and surprise as a force multiplier: he recognized the impact of a strategic surprise attack in international relations, but always tended to refer to it as a force multiplier and described Clausewitz’s observations about the limited value of stratagem as an historical artifact.[x] In any event, by removing, sidestepping, or distracting the opponent from some geospatial setting, the realm of the possible expands rapidly into what can be viewed ex ante as the realm of the fantastic.

Proposition 2: The Weaker Party is Attracted to Surprise

The weak do indeed suffer what they must in an enduring conflict with a stronger party, which explains why they are willing to gamble everything on the success of a strategic surprise attack against a vastly more powerful antagonist. Because they lack the capability to achieve their objectives in wartime, the weak are attracted to strategic surprise because it offers them a way to achieve those same objectives. They become mesmerized by what in hindsight still appear to be brilliant tactics, operational innovations, and new technologies to achieve and capitalize on surprise, while giving short shrift to the longer-term strategic consequences of a successful surprise attack.

There is no miscalculation of relative strength involved in a conflict dyad composing a strong and weak actor; surprise attack is not caused by a miscalculation of the opponent’s strength. The strong recognize their superior position and view the world from an attritional perspective: no matter what the weaker opponent does, they inevitably will encounter a superior opponent. The weak recognize their inferiority but hope to avoid a confrontation with the superior forces possessed by the opponent, or at least not before they can capitalize on strategic surprise and execute their exquisite operation. The weak focus on the opportunities created by the suspension of war’s dialectic, by contrast, the strong focus on war’s dialectic and their vastly superior position in a kinetic, attritional engagement with the weaker opponent. The theory of surprise thus links the structural setting of a conflict (strong vs. weak) with the cognitive level of analysis (how different perceptions of opportunity and risk inherent in the same conflict dyad are held by strong and weak actors). Handel was quite clear on this point, the weak, not the strong, are attracted to strategic surprise.[xi]

The Hamas attack was a complex, extensive, well-planned, and well-rehearsed combined-arms operation involving coordinated rocket attacks, seaborne assault, airborne attacks (using powered paragliders and drones), mechanized units (trucks, bulldozers, and motorcycles), and infantry. The attack was intended to reach remarkably ambitious objectives that would have been impossible to achieve in the presence of an alert Israel Defense Force (IDF): to take and hold Israeli territory between Gaza and the West Bank. Although the attack petered out in the Western Negev near the city of Ofakim, about halfway to the objective, Hamas was able to achieve secondary goals of killing a large number of civilians, capturing hostages, and delivering a profound political shock to supporters, competitors, and opponents across the globe.[xii] Hamas units breached the border between Gaza and Israel in upwards of 30 locations.[xiii] About 4,000 raiders participated in the attack, which overwhelmed border defenses. The attack achieved complete surprise across the entire border; nowhere were Israeli forces alerted, while the IDF’s initial response was piecemeal. In fact, units positioned to defend the border were at half strength on 7 October because of the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah and the Sabbath.[xiv] Sometimes the limited organic defense of the bases and Kubutzes near Gaza managed to deter or slow the attacks, sometimes they did not. The real payoff came with a combined air and ground assault on the Re’im music festival, which resulted in the worst civilian massacre in Israeli history.

Against an alert defense, Hamas had no prospect of taking, holding, and “cleansing” territory between Gaza and the West Bank. It could not hope to achieve that objective in wartime. Strategic surprise, enabled by stratagem, accompanied by a concerted combined-arms assault, put that objective within reach. Hamas leaders were mesmerized by the raid’s potential, the unifying force of the plan (it was an all-out attack that brought various factions and units on board), and its audacious nature. If there was a shortcoming in the plan, it probably lay in the realm of transportation and logistics – the West Bank could not be reached in a day-long mad dash.

Proposition 3: Handel’s Risk Paradox

The explanation for how Hamas achieved a strategic surprise is found in Handel’s risk paradox, which is produced by the perceptual divergence that occurs in a conflict dyad between the strong and the weak. Because a strategic surprise attack is an extremely risky evolution, especially because it allows actors to contemplate initiatives that are far beyond their capability in wartime, the stronger party will often dismiss warnings of what is about to unfold as harebrained or too farfetched to take seriously. This asymmetry in the perception of what is plausible and implausible leads to Handel’s risk paradox, which lies at the heart of the theory of surprise: “The greater the risk, the less likely it seems and the less risky it becomes. In fact, the greater the risk, the smaller it becomes.”[xv] In other words, the more audacious the operation, the more unlikely the victim is to stage an effective response to a warning. This occurred – the IDF and Israeli intelligence possessed some compelling signals that Hamas wanted to launch a major attack, but they dismissed those indications as fundamentally irrational and unlikely to materialize. Most telling is that the IDF apparently did not even have a plan to respond to a “large scale” surprise attack, suggesting that such an attack was deemed so far-fetched, that it never merited serious consideration. As Yaakov Amidor, a former national security advisor stated, “the army does not prepare itself for things it thinks are impossible.[xvi]

The risk paradox also explains why denial and deception works well in the lead up to a strategic surprise attack. For example, in the months before the assault, Hamas confined communications about the upcoming raid to couriers or secure landlines, while they spoke openly on compromised systems about a decision not to renew hostilities with Israel.[xvii] It is not difficult for the weaker party to convince a stronger opponent that it will not undertake a reckless and self-destructive attack, which helps to explain why denial and deception enjoys a remarkable record of success.[xviii] There is also reason to believe that Hamas’s denial and deception strategy capitalized on a bit of Israeli mirror imaging. As one anonymous reviewer noted, Israeli analysts believed (hoped?) that Hamas had undergone a transformation as it took responsibility for its civilians’ well-being and now preferred improved economic relations with Israel over an escalation in fighting.

Proposition 4: The Stronger Actor Focuses on Attrition and War’s Dialectic

Although the record is years away from completeness and clarity, there are reports that Israeli intelligence possessed a copy of the October 7 invasion plan, codenamed “Jericho Wall” at least a year before the actual attack.[xix] It is unclear if the plan, which was dismissed by the Israeli military as unrealistic and aspirational, was circulated among Israeli civilian officials.[xx] In July 2023, an Israeli intelligence analyst reported that Hamas training exercises were geared toward implementing at least part of the Jericho Wall plan. Intelligence officers of the units stationed along the Gaza border received this warning.[xxi] Border monitors also issued a steady stream of reports about ongoing Hamas assessments of border fortifications and breaching rehearsals.[xxii] Reports of unusual activity were forwarded to senior military officials but were described as signs of ordinary terrorist activity, which was not an uncommon occurrence.[xxiii] This also prompted the usual response – recalling senior unit commanders back to their headquarters. There also are reports that the Egyptian government warned Israel days before of an impending attack and that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency observed unusual activity near the Gaza Strip on or about 6 October 2023, but there are no details about the contents of these warnings.

The response of virtually all the officials and officers who received this reporting shared one thing in common – it dismissed signs of an impending attack as both unrealistic and aspirational, that is, that Hamas lacked the capability to execute such an ambitious attack.[xxiv] In fact, just days before the raid, Israeli intelligence assessed that Hamas possessed the capability to breach no more than a few spots along the barrier running between Gaza and Israel. Even if they were wrong and a more substantial attack unfolded, it would be nothing that the IDF could not handle. In a sense, officials did not dispute the accuracy of the reporting or the existence of the reported planning and training, they assessed that Hamas lacked the capability to undertake such an ambitious evolution, especially in the face of an alerted IDF. Hamas might manage to breach the fence in a few places, but they would not get very far. They assessed signals of the impending assault within the context of an alerted and prepared IDF. Within this “attritional” context, the Hamas assault constituted little more than a harebrained stunt.

Analysts, officers, and officials alike adopted an attritional mindset. They assessed reporting with the idea that Hamas would have to fight its way through the IDF first before they could get to killing civilians, and that was not a fight that Hamas would win. They did not view the situation from an asymmetric mindset, the mindset that shapes the perceptions of the weak, and consider what would happen if Hamas could sidestep the IDF and move across the countryside without opposition, or if it reached virtually undefended mass gatherings of civilians. What is key is that they based their judgment of the Hamas plan on their accurate assessment of the military balance, not on an assessment of the ability of Hamas to stage a strategic surprise attack. They failed to assess what might transpire if they completely ceded the opening move to Hamas.

Proposition 5: War Returns as Surprise Fades

Figure 1
Note: image attributions are listed in the endnotes of this article.

As surprise fades, war returns, which takes the form of an attritional contest between a strong and weak opponent with predictable results. When launching their surprise attack, the weak recognize that such an outcome is possible, but they deem it unlikely for reasons that appear implausible in hindsight. In other words, the weak know that the strong might go all in and bring their military power fully to bear, but they assess that various factors will prevent the strong from doing so.[xxv] As an anonymous reviewer noted, Hamas might have gathered from Israel’s restraint in the face of earlier provocations that a response to the 7 October attack would take the form of an air strike, not an invasion with its ensuing, military, humanitarian and political costs. The cause of this tendency is probably linked to some form of irrational consistency, that is a failure to accept “value tradeoffs,” or the tendency to believe that “all good things go together.”[xxvi] There are reports that Hamas leaders accepted the fact that the Israelis would respond by striking Gaza, but it is unlikely that they anticipated the ensuing siege and the war of annihilation that has been underway for months as the IDF works to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip. In a sense, the aftermath of surprise validates the stronger party’s ex ante assessment of the military balance and the “irrationality” of the weaker party’s decision to launch a strategic surprise attack against a stronger opponent.


The events surrounding the 7 October attack hold much in common with other instances of 20th and 21st century strategic surprise and accompanying intelligence failure. While Hamas leadership became mesmerized by the opportunities created by strategic surprise, Israeli analysts and officials became dismissive of indications that Hamas seemed preoccupied with planning for an offensive so audacious, that it strained credulity. The more such an attack succeeded, the greater the ferocity of the Israeli response, and the greater the ultimate damage to Hamas and its interests. Nevertheless, by removing effective opposition from a significant geospatial area, Hamas nearly created a land corridor to the West Bank, while methodically killing or capturing as many of its occupants as it could find. As surprise faded, war has indeed returned, leaving those who have not read this article to wonder how such a seemingly irrational course of events could occur in the first place. The events surrounding October 7 constitute a run-of-the-mill example of intelligence failure and strategic surprise attack,

One caveat to the above observation is in order. There is a relatively unique, and ironic, facet of the intelligence story of 7 October. Israeli intelligence is actually very good, especially when it comes to monitoring its environment. It possessed many accurate signals – from actual plans, to observations of training exercises and breaching preparations, to internal alarms, to warnings from external parties – that might have prompted an effective response, or at least led to a plan to develop an effective response, which of course is an issue that lies beyond the theory of surprise. Indeed, there is an eerie similarity between 7 October and events surrounding the 1973 Yom Kippur War — here too Israel possessed a startling array of high-quality signals and still was caught unprepared to meet the ensuing onslaught.[xxvii] These cases are ripe for comparison and exploitation by scholars – given the wealth of information available to analysts and officers, both events probably reflect the fundamental causes of intelligence failure.

Finally, given the legacy of destruction and human suffering that follows when a weak actor attacks a stronger opponent, a strategic surprise attack must be considered as one of the most dangerous and irresponsible actions that can be undertaken by states and non-state actors. It constitutes an affront to humanity and an embarrassment to both the military and diplomatic profession. Deliberately attacking and provoking a stronger opponent is strategically bankrupt, despite the visions of a complacent and lethargic victim that accompany brilliant schemes that capitalize on surprise to achieve grandiose objectives. Handel’s work reflected this assessment: he treated surprise attack as a danger to the attacker and attacked alike, a pernicious threat that haunts world politics and international security. States are obviously hurt when they fall victim to intelligence failure and the strategic surprise attack that follows in its wake, but everyone potentially suffers when others are victimized, and a major conflagration follows.

In the nearly twenty-five years since Handel’s passing, intelligence studies have advanced in its understanding of strategic surprise attack. While intelligence failures are still inevitable,[xxviii] Handel’s insights have helped produce a theory of surprise that can explain the conditions that lead to intelligence failure and surprise attack, who is likely to be the target, why surprise succeeds, and what happens when war returns.[xxix] The trick now lies in making operational use of the theory of surprise.


[i] James J. Wirtz, “Theory of Surprise,” in Richard K. Betts and Thomas G. Mahnken (eds.), Paradoxes of Strategic Intelligence: Essays in Honor of Michael I. Handel (London: Frank Cass 2003), pp. 101-116.
[ii] Michael I. Handel (ed.), Clausewitz and Modern Strategy (London: Frank Cass 1996).
[iii] Michael I. Handel, Sun Tzu and Clausewitz Compared (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War college 1991)
[iv] Michael I. Handel, Masters of War: Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and Jomini Compared (London: Taylor & Francis, 1992); and Michael I. Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought (London: Taylor & Francis, 2001).
[v] Michael I. Handel, The Diplomacy of Surprise (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981); Michael I. Handel, “The Politics of Intelligence,” Intelligence and National Security Vol. 2, No. 4 (1987), pp. 5-46; Michael I. Handel, War, Strategy, and Intelligence (London: Routledge, 1989); Michael I. Handel, Intelligence and Military Operations (London: Frank Cass, 1990); Michael I. Handel (ed.), Leaders and Intelligence (London: Frank Cass, 1989); and Michael I. Handel, “Technological Surprise and War,” Intelligence and National Security Vol. 2, No. 1 (1987), pp. 1-53.
[vi] Michael I. Handel, “Corbett, Clausewitz, and Sun Tzu,” The Naval War College Review Vol. 53, No. 4 (2000). P. 107.
[vii] Jeremy Yonah, “IDF working on rescue ops for over 200 Israeli hostages in Gaza,” Jerusalem Post, October 20, 2023.
[viii] Edward Luttwak, Strategy the Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1987), p. 8.
[ix] James J. Wirtz, “The Abbottabad Raid and the Theory of Special Operations,” Journal of Strategic Studies Vol. 45, No. 6-7 (2022), pp. 872-992.
[x] Michael Handel, Masters of War, 2nd revised ed. (London: Frank Cass, 1996), p. 131.
[xi] Michael Handel, “Crisis and Surprise in Three Arab-Israeli Wars,” in Klaus Knorr and Patrick Morgan (eds.) Strategic Military Surprise (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1983), p. 113.
[xii] “Hamas Planned to push October 2 massacre to the West Bank Border – report,” The Jerusalem Post, November 13, 2023.
[xiii] Adam Goldman, Ronen Bergman, Mark, Mazzetti, Natan Odenheimer, Alexander Cardia, Ainara Tiefenthaler and Sheera Frenkel, “Where was the Israeli Military,” The New York Times, December 30, 2023.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Michael Handel, “The Yom Kippur War and the Inevitability of Surprise,” International Studies Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 3 (1977), p. 468.
[xvi] “Where was the Israeli Military.”
[xvii] Emily Harding, “How could Israeli Intelligence Miss the Hamas Invasion Plans,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, October 11, 2023.
[xviii] Barton Whaley, Stratagem: Deception and Surprise in War (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for International Studies, 1969.
[xix] The Jericho Wall plan was outlined in general terms and included a description of the training to support the plan. It contained no timelines for execution. Jericho Wall was apparently an adaptation of a similar plan possessed by Hizbullah – Hizbullah has conducted annual training to implement its plan for over a decade. I thank an anonymous reviewer for these observations. The relationship between the Hamas and Hizbullah plan might even suggest that Jericho Wall document was part of a stratagem on the part of Hamas to explain away preparations for the attack. The common Israeli assessment that Jericho Wall was “aspirational” might have reflected the fact that Hizbullah’s plan was in fact aspirational, a sort of an annual training exercise, not the basis of an operation that was about to happen.
[xx] Ronen Bergman and Adam Goldman, “Israel Knew Hamas’s Attack Plan Over a Year Ago, The New York Times, December 6, 2023.
[xxi] I thank an anonymous reviewer for clarifying the recipients. Press reports on who received this warning are somewhat vague, see Ben Caspit, “Inside Unit 8200: Moving forward after the October 7 intelligence failure,” The Jerusalem Post February 25, 2024.
[xxii] Alice Cuddy, “They were Israel’s ‘eyes on the border” – but their Hamas warnings went unheard, BBC January 14, 2024.
[xxiii] I thank an anonymous reviewer for describing the response to these warnings.
[xxiv] “Israeli officials repeatedly dismissed warning signs before Hamas attack, report claims,” PBS News Hour, December 1, 2023.
[xxv] James J. Wirtz, “Deterring the Weak: Problems and Prospects,” Etudes de l’fri Proliferation Papers No, 43, Fall 2012.
[xxvi] Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics new edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), pp. 128-142.
[xxvii] Uri Bar-Joseph, The Watchman Fell Asleep: The Surprise of Yom Kippur and its sources (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005); and Uri Bar-Joseph and Rose McDermott, Intelligence Success and Failure: The Human Factor (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 184-215.
[xxviii] James J. Wirtz, “Are Intelligence Failures Still Inevitable,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence Vol. 37, No. 1 (2024), pp. 307-330.
[xxix] Handel believed that a theory of surprise would be better at explaining, not preventing, disaster, “The Yom Kippur War and the Inevitability of Surprise,” p. 462.

Figure 1 - image attributions and credit

"Abbottabad 2011": The image is an apparent screenshot from the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Image found on Quora at
"Gaza City 2023": Image credit: Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa) in contract with APAimages, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons. The words “Gaza City” added to the image to provide location context for the reader. No other additions or any changes were made.