By Eric Silver in Tel Aviv, Jewish Chronicle
In a Tel Aviv office, under-cover agents are infiltrating the world’s Islamist websites
Shortly before Manchester United footballers flew to Saudi Arabia for an exhibition match in January, Israeli internet monitors overheard Islamic extremists plotting an attack while the team was in Riyadh. They tipped off British intelligence. Sir Alex Ferguson’s boys strutted their stuff, peddled their club shirts, signed their autographs — and flew safely home to Old Trafford. The cyberspies hope they had helped.
They were working for Terrogence, a private Israeli company that sells its product to police and intelligence services, as well as private clients, in Israel and around the world. Its 25 full-time and 20 part-time experts, almost all graduates of military intelligence, have fabricated radical Muslim identities to talk their way into hundreds of closely guarded global jihad websites and forums. Here the fanatics recruit and instruct, spread their ideas and techniques, plan their operations and brag of their prowess.
Terrogence is based in a converted chicken house a short drive north of Tel Aviv. The company was founded three years ago by Gad Aviran, a weapons specialist who had spent his adult life in counter-terrorism. Until recently, he was one of the Israel Defence Forces’ top bomb-disposal experts and a researcher into terrorist capabilities. He paints a chilling picture of a vulnerable 21st-century world.
“In the last four or five years,” Aviran reflects, “terrorist activity has shifted to the virtual world. The terrorists have harnessed the internet to their purposes, creating a flat world without borders and without time zones. There’s no need for a terrorist to train in another country. He can find all the information he needs on the internet. He doesn’t even have to have a computer. A smart-phone provides him with the exact access to exactly the same places.
“An incident in one part of the world can be duplicated in hours somewhere else. We’re seeing an increasingly rapid information flow, with regard to ideology, doctrine, tactics, chemistry, physics. All the information is there. All you’ve got to do is lift your finger and tap the layers of information.”
What Terrogence has done, he says, is move in with the terrorists. “We live in those worlds. We surf the same forums, we surf the same websites. We see what the terrorists see when they seek information. Then we analyse.
“We try to work out who are the players. You can be completely anonymous on the internet. You can have 20 identities, but you are the same person. We want to know where they live, what they do, how good they are professionally and how far their information goes.”
Analysts also scour their networks, Aviran adds. “On what platforms do they talk? What do they say? What effects do they have on those platforms, the forums and the websites? If somebody tells somebody else: ‘Take chemical A and chemical B and you will have an explosive called XYZ’, we test it. If it works, we produce it and we pass that on as intelligence to our customers.”
During its short life, Terrogence has proved itself at home and abroad. It warned French security services about a potential plot to destroy the thin wall between the Paris sewage system and the Metro. A high-ranking jihadi activist spotted the chance after watching a National Geographic documentary.
He posted the film, dubbed into Arabic for Al Jazeera, and gloated: “The film shows Paris’s dark side. It shows how even a small malfunction of the sewage system would destroy the city and turn it into a third-world city. Paris can be brought back to the 13th century this way.”
The Israeli company helped the Vatican thwart a computer attack on its banking system. The plan was to put the banking network out of action for a long time, using a programme devised by an activist in Saudi Arabia. The hackers posted an announcement calling on surfers to download the programme and use it at a designated time. The attack began as scheduled, but because of the warning it was only partly successful. The server was slowed, but not shut down. The cyberspooks alerted an Israeli bank to a similar attack.
Less dramatically, they alerted Britain to a camera-toting Islamist radical touring London to map possible sites for bombers — and showing them off to his friends via the internet.
Eavesdropping on a Hamas video, one of the team noticed a vehicle with a machine-gun that could shoot at aircraft. “No one knew that Hamas had this kind of capability,” says Noam, an expert on weapons of mass destruction who does not want his full name published. “When we called the army, they were really surprised. We gave them the details, the pictures, all the images. It took them only one week to track and stop this vehicle. Then they took it out.”
The internet, Noam explains, can be thought of as a castle with 1,000 rooms. “Everybody can walk into every room. But we know how to take our customers to the specific room where the terrorists are discussing a manual to build explosives. We take them into the specific drawers where you can find the missile, the explosives ingredients, whatever.”
Infiltrating the terrorist world takes special skills, more readily found in multilingual Israel than most other countries. “You have to understand intelligence and you have to understand Islam,” says Tzahi, an expert on global jihad. “Most of us have a background in intelligence. We have mastered either the Arabic language, or the Farsi or Turkish languages. We even know dialects. We have to know the terminology those jihadists use in those forums and the specific terms they use.”
To win the trust of its foreign clients, Terrogence takes steps to convince them that it is not spreading Israeli disinformation. Transparency is all. The researchers supply a translation of their findings together with the raw material. The client can check it for himself.
“Our core business is capabilities,” Noam says. “We don’t go into why Al Qaeda would want to attack a particular target.”
So far, all of Terrogence’s digital agents remain online. None of their covers has been blown. In their operations room, a central computer constantly supervises the many fictional identities, often more than one to a person, to make sure there are no slip-ups.
But the cyber spies know they are engaged in a never-ending battle of wits. The terrorists, says Gad Aviran, are always one jump ahead of governments.
Wanted: online espionage experts
A visit to the job-offers section on the Mossad website shows that Israel’s spy service is more eager to hire computer programmers than the next James Bond. The leap in the electronic eavesdropping capabilities of western espionage agencies has enabled them to listen in on to the private conversations of the international terrorist networks. The electronic intelligence-gathering organisations — the NSA in the US, Britain’s GCHQ and Israel’s unit 8200 of military intelligence — have built up massive super-computers capable of sifting through billions of words daily. But they still need something to look for: a key phrase, a number known to belong to an operative, any detail that will give the geeks something to work on. The hottest trade on the international intelligence exchange, where the spymasters peddle their wares, is in “magic words”, which will enable the electronic brain to pick out one seemingly innocent exchange. Which brings us back to old-fashioned spy in the field — from whom the magic word is going to come. Anshel Pfeffer