The war between Israel and Hamas has entered Day 12 and there seems to be no sign of a de-escalation. Despite the asymmetry between Hamas and Israeli Defence Forces, there’s a secret tool Hamas can use for ambushes and ensure supply of weapons to its operatives – Tunnels.
Subterranean warfare or tunnel warfare is as old as any early civilization and has been used extensively in modern warfare as well to balance out the numbers.
From the Great Jewish Revolt from 66 to 70 AD against the Roman legionnaires to the US fighting the communist Viet Cong during the Vietnam War or fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan during the Battle of Tora Bora, for centuries, tunnels have provided both shelter and space for ambushes.
The Labyrinth opens a new domain of warfare that operates below the realms of conventional warfare on land, by sea or air.
The American Experience
During the 20-year-long Vietnam War, the Viet Cong guerillas inflicted damage to the mighty US through their ‘hit and escape’ ambushes. What helped them in these guerilla tactics were sophisticated tunnels built not just to provide shelter but also to deceive the US-led forces.
The Labyrinth was built to hide from US Air Long-range Reconnaissance and Helicopter surveillance missions.
In Cu Chi, an entire Viet Cong army could hide, train and move from one area to another without being detected by the US who had built a massive base on top of a tunnel system. These Viet Cong guerillas would hide in such tunnels and emerge to ambush the enemy and then go back undetected.
The diagram of one such tunnel shows how sophisticated the network is with wells, water systems, storage areas and even booby traps.
The US formed a specialized unit called the ‘Tunnel Rats’, trained personnel who ventured into such tunnels to find the Viet Cong and even fight venomous snakes and the Viet Cong.
Battle of Tora Bora: Escape Of Bin-Laden
The US launched Operation Enduring Freedom against al-Qaeda hideouts in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. The Center of Gravity (COG) for the US was the removal of the Taliban and the capture of Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden. The US succeeded in uprooting the Taliban in a few weeks but failed to capture Bin Laden who escaped through tunnels to Pakistan.
Tora Bora is a fortress-like section 48 km southeast of Jalalabad in Afghanistan. The sections of white mountains are approximately 9.5 km long and wide. The Tora Bora mountains had natural caves and tunnels, some of which were built by Bin Laden.
According to the US government’s declassified report, ‘Tora Bora Revisited: How we failed to get Bin Laden’, the Al-Qaeda chief escaped from East Afghanistan through a network of tunnels and caves he built. Bin Laden himself supervised the construction of tunnels in Tora Bora.
This network played a crucial role during the Soviet-Afghan war when Bin Laden turned it into a formidable stronghold.
Relentless US air strikes and even a 15,000 kg bomb, known as a Daisy Cutter, couldn’t stop the escape of Bin Laden from Tora Bora, who was within the reach of US forces who chose not to deploy more troops fearing a backlash from the Afghani residents.
The tunnels helped Osama Bin Laden get a second life in the tribal belt of Pakistan before being killed in a covert operation by US Navy SEALs in 2011.
Saddam’s Secret Tunnels
The US vowed to remove Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein after President Bush in 2003 cautioned the world about the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” Iraq possessed.
During the Second Gulf War, tunnels stretched for miles, running from houses to military bases and even Sadam’s palace. The network was so elaborate and deep that it could hide troops, ammunition, Saddam Hussein and even the so-called “Weapons of Mass Destruction” which the US never found.
Saddam Hussein was executed in 2006 and the US-led coalition overthrew the Ba’ath Party in 2011, marking an end to the war. The ashes of the war gave rise to a terror group named the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, later known as ISIS.
The Iraqi forces who once might’ve used the system were now being used by ISIS for their ‘attack and escape’ Fidayeen operations. The ISIS created a system to ambush troops and lay booby troops. ISIS terrorists used the tunnels to hide from surveillance drones, artillery shells and US-led airstrikes. The tunnels made Iraqi troops’ offensive against ISIS more difficult.
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar had claimed that the tunnel network in Gaza is 500 km long and only 5 per cent had been destroyed In 2021 by the Israel Defense Forces.
Since taking control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Hamas has worked to expand the tunnel networks within the city and also across the Gaza-Israel border.
Several experts have warned that in a ground offensive, Israel will lose its firepower edge and will have to fight the enemy on its terrain.
Owing to the elaborate network, Israeli forces refer to the tunnels as ‘Gaza Metro’. Past videos of these tunnels show lights installed inside and ample space to hide weapons and ammunition. The walls are made of cement, prompting allegations that humanitarian aid to Gaza was diverted to build infrastructure for Hamas activities.