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US focused on hunting down Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar, in bid to end Gaza war

Officials say Biden administration is roughly one month behind on last known location of Hamas's Gaza chief
Yahya Sinwar, Hamas's Gaza chief, shakes hands with a masked fighter in Gaza City, on 14 December 2022 (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The United States is focused on tracking down Hamas's Gaza chief, Yahya Sinwar, amid a new push by the White House to help Israel declare "total victory" so it can bring an end to the war on Gaza, US officials have told Middle East Eye. 

Current and former US officials, who spoke with MEE on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the mission, said the US was expanding its search efforts across the region, after believing the 61-year-old was hiding in tunnels deep below Gaza.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media, told MEE that the Biden administration is now exploring possibilities that Sinwar fled to Egypt's Sinai peninsula, and from there may have even escaped to either Lebanon or Syria. 

The White House referred MEE to comments from US national security advisor Jake Sullivan earlier this week, that he wouldn't comment on intelligence about Sinwar.

The current and former officials did not reference any specific intelligence but said one factor driving the debate was that US intelligence was lagging on Sinwar's last whereabouts. 

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According to the officials, the Biden administration is roughly one month behind on tracking Sinwar's last known location, which was within the Gaza Strip. 

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who also advised four US presidents on national security, told MEE that the lack of clarity surrounding Sinwar's last location was "pretty bad."

When asked about the timeframe, he said: "One month means you aren't even close to real-time information."

Last month, a Hamas official said that Sinwar had visited combat zones above ground and had held deliberations with the group's leadership abroad. 

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Speaking to the pan-Arab news outlet Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed (or The New Arab), the Hamas official said Sinwar was not always staying in tunnels, as claimed by Israel, but also performing his duties in the field.

MEE could not independently verify the reports on his whereabouts. 

Tracking Sinwar has taken on a new urgency within the US intelligence community because the Biden administration believes it could help pressure Israel to end the war by declaring victory, the officials said.

US President Joe Biden alluded to that strategy last week when he told CNN: "I said to Bibi (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), 'Don't make the same mistake we made in America. We wanted to get bin Laden. We'll help you get Sinwar'."

The parallel between hunting Sinwar and al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden underlines the extreme difficulty the US and Israel face trying to find Sinwar.

The hunt for Bin Laden took ten years, and when he was located, he was in Pakistan, roughly one kilometre away from a military academy of the US's counterterrorism ally.

Sinwar Egypt
Yahya Sinwar (L) embraces General Abbas Kamel (R), Egypt's intelligence chief, on 31 May 2021 (AFP)

According to the officials, Washington wants to focus Israel's energy on finding key Hamas leaders such as Sinwar and Mohammad Deif, the head of the al-Qassam Brigades, as a way to avert a wider full-scale assault on Rafah.

The Biden administration, which continues to provide Israel with military and intelligence support, has said it would withhold offensive arms from Israel if it attacks "population centres", referring to Rafah, the southern Gaza border city which currently houses around 1.4 million displaced Palestinians.

On Sunday, The New York Times reported that US officials believed Sinwar was not in Rafah but likely remains in Khan Younis, a city that Israeli forces laid siege to between December and April.

'[Sinwar] is from a different generation who is used to communicating off the grid'

- Arab official

Sinwar himself previously bragged in 2021 that there were 310 miles of tunnels in the Gaza Strip.

A former US intelligence official familiar with Hamas told MEE that one of Sinwar's brothers, Mohammad, oversaw tunnel construction between Sinai and Gaza and has deep ties to smuggling networks in Sinai, a factor that could aid Sinwar's escape. 

William Usher, a former senior Middle East analyst at the CIA, told MEE, "Right up until 7 October, Hamas had pretty unimpeded access to the tunnel network. They had contingency plans to put key leaders out of harm's way," he said.

"In the past, Hamas went to Lebanon, Syria and even Iran," Usher said. "It wouldn't shock me if Sinwar was hiding there."

US boosts intelligence-sharing with Israel

On Monday, The Washington Post reported that the US was offering Israel new intelligence to help track Hamas leaders in exchange for Israel not launching the assault on Rafah.

That report was carried by some Israeli news outlets under the title: US withholding "sensitive intelligence" on Hamas from Israel. However, several current and former US and Arab diplomats, as well as defence and intelligence officials, told MEE it was highly unlikely the US would withhold information on Hamas from Israel.

In January, The New York Times reported that US national security advisor Jake Sullivan ordered the creation of a new task force to collect information on senior Hamas leaders and the location of hostages in Gaza, and share that intelligence with Israel.

One of the main challenges for the US is that it paid little attention to Hamas in the lead-up to 7 October, analysts and former US officials said.

The Palestinian movement is a designated terrorist organisation by the US, but whilst it was boxed into ruling the impoverished Gaza Strip, it was never considered a major threat to the US.

The last time the US faced a major security threat in Gaza was in 2003, when a US diplomatic convoy was bombed there, killing three Americans.

"The US depends on Israel to a large extent to share intelligence with us on what’s happening in Gaza because it has historically been their priority," Usher said.

The US officials said that the Biden administration had accelerated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) coordination with Israel. Meanwhile, a former US official said that Israel would be particularly interested in tapping into the US’s geospatial intelligence capabilities.

Leverage over talks

One of the routes the US is exploring to track Sinwar is the ceasefire talks, the sources said. While the face-to-face negotiators on Hamas's behalf are the political leaders based in Qatar, Sinwar is widely believed to have the final say on any agreement, as the group holds captives in Gaza and exercises control over military units.

Current and former Arab and US officials told MEE that Sinwar is probably relying on a circuitous network of couriers and potentially messaging apps to communicate with Hamas officials abroad.

"If he was using a mobile phone, he'd be dead already," Riedel told MEE.

An Arab official familiar with Hamas told MEE that the group has had years of experience learning to cloak its communication during previous wars with Israel.

"This is a guy from a different generation who is used to communicating off the grid," the official said.

According to US officials, whilst Algeria and Turkey also maintain dialogue with Hamas, Washington is leaning on Egypt to rule out whether Sinwar fled to Sinai.

Egypt's military intelligence talks directly to Hamas's armed wing, giving them better access to Hamas than any of Washington's other Arab partners. 

The current and former US and Arab officials told MEE that if Sinwar fled the Gaza Strip, it could be a blow to Hamas's morale. 

Although he has been described as "prepared to die in Gaza", one US official said that Hamas's endurance on the battlefield after seven months may be impacting his decision-making.

"He might want to reconstitute for Hamas 3.0," the US official said. 

Despite the US effort, some doubt that killing Sinwar would be enough for the US to press Israel into a ceasefire agreement.

Jonathan Panikoff, the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told MEE, "killing Sinwar might be sufficient for the US to decide its time for Israel to declare victory and move on, but it's not clear that it would be sufficient for Netanyahu’s political survival".

"Ultranationalists like Ben Gvir and Smotrich will likely still demand a military operation in Rafah." 

MEE also reached out to Syria's UN mission in New York, and Lebanon and Egypt's embassies in Washington DC for comment on Sinwar's whereabouts, but didn't receive a reply by the time of publication. 

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