UAE firm hiring Israeli spies who ruined Palestinian lives

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Emirati cybersecurity company DarkMatter reportedly hires former NSA agents and veteran Israeli spies. (via Twitter)

Israeli spies and spyware are helping Arab governments monitor their citizens.

DarkMatter Group, a United Arab Emirates cybersecurity company with ties to the government, is luring veterans of a high-tech spy branch of the Israeli military.

Unit 8200 is seen as the Israeli equivalent of the US National Security Agency.

Veterans of Unit 8200 have described themselves as “tools in deepening the military control over the occupied [Palestinian] territories.” They have also admitted that information they have collected and stored “harms innocent people.”

In a letter to The Guardian in 2014, the veterans stated that data gathered by Unit 8200 “is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself.”

This record of repression may be precisely what makes former members of the unit so attractive to some governments.

DarkMatter is offering veterans of Unit 8200 million-dollar contracts, signing bonuses and luxury homes in Cyprus in exchange for their expertise, reports in Israeli media recently revealed.

According to Israeli media, DarkMatter is among several firms headhunting Unit 8200 veterans, but it is the only company that has been named.

Meanwhile, the Moroccan government is using technology it obtained from Israeli cyber warfare company NSO Group, founded by Unit 8200 veterans, to spy on its own citizens and human rights activists.

What is DarkMatter?

Faisal Al Bannai, son of an Emirati police general and founder of one of the region’s leading telecoms distributors, founded DarkMatter in 2014.

With 650 workers in the Emirates, Singapore, Cyprus, Finland and other countries, DarkMatter maintains close ties with the UAE government, which Al Bannai calls “an alignment of the stars.”

In 2016, DarkMatter took over a top-secret spying program with more than a dozen former US intelligence officers operating out of Abu Dhabi.

Emirati officials wanted the spy program, called Project Raven, to be run by a domestic firm, a Reuters investigation revealed earlier this year.

Project Raven was helping the Emirati government spy on domestic targets as well as foreign governments. When the American intelligence agents were given the choice to “join DarkMatter or go home,” some did leave the Emirates while others joined DarkMatter.

When some of the surveillance targets were revealed to be American, some US agents left the company because they were reportedly uncomfortable with spying on other Americans.

When DarkMatter took over, the group still operated in the Aldar headquarters building in Abu Dhabi, a couple of floors away from the National Electronic Security Authority, the Emirati equivalent of the NSA.

“The only country in the region that’s strong in cybersecurity is Israel,” Al Bannai told journalists last year.

“Other than that, it’s blank.”

DarkMatter’s founder has reportedly made several trips to Israel in past years to meet with intelligence corporations, but Israeli business news website The Marker was not able to confirm this.

Recruiting former Israeli spies

When recruiting Israeli developers, DarkMatter makes them offers they can’t refuse, prompting them to leave positions at elite Israeli companies.

Notably, NSO witnessed a wave of resignations of its employees in 2017, The New York Times reported in March.

A private investigation by NSO found a group of former employees, all veterans of Unit 8200, working at a Limassol building owned by DarkMatter and run by a German citizen of Dubai.

NSO reportedly questioned DarkMatter about the poaching of its employees.

Emirati officials told NSO that Israeli officers sought to join DarkMatter, adding that some Israeli employees are also stationed in Singapore and other offices.

Mutual interest

The UAE and Israel have no formal diplomatic relations but they do share a mutual enmity towards Iran that brought ties out of the shadows in recent years.

Informal relations between Israel and the UAE trace back to the 1990s and include military and intelligence cooperation.

The two states also engaged in joint military exercises over the past couple of years, and the Emirates actually purchased two surveillance jets from an Israeli billionaire to spy on Iran.

Israel will also participate in next year’s Expo 2020 in Dubai.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Israel’s participation “another expression of Israel’s rising status in the world and the region.”

Notably, DarkMatter will oversee cybersecurity at the event.

Using Israeli malware

The UAE also used software made by NSO Group in attempts to spy on Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a Saudi prince, The New York Times reported last year.

The software, called Pegasus hacks smartphones and installs sophisticated malware on the device that can go undetected and send a frightening amount of data to those doing the spying.

Data that can be obtained through Pegasus includes locations, recordings, screenshots, email and text messages, passwords and photographs.

Previously, those doing the hacking would send a compelling message that contains a link to the targeted device.

If the recipient clicks on the link, the system installs the hacking malware.

An advanced version of Pegasus does not rely on the target to click on a link before the malware infects the device.

NSO attempted to sell this latest version to Saudi Arabia, and reportedly reached a $55 million agreement.

Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz filed a lawsuit against NSO in Tel Aviv last year, on the basis that the company’s malware intercepted conversations between the activist and slain Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

On Monday, The Washington Post named Juliette Kayyem, a senior adviser of NSO Group, as a new contributing writer in its opinion section.

By doing so, the newspaper hired someone linked to a company that Abdulaziz believes was involved in the killing of Khashoggi, another Washington Post columnist.

Earlier this month, Amnesty International revealed that two Moroccan activists were also targeted by Pegasus.

Given NSO Group’s insistence that it sells its malware only to government agencies, Amnesty says the Moroccan government likely did the spying.

The BDS National Committee, the steering group of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and human rights groups in Morocco, condemned the targeting and harassment of human rights activists using Israeli espionage technology.

Amnesty is pursuing legal action over NSO Group by taking Israel’s ministry of defense to court and demanding its export license be revoked.

This comes after one of Amnesty’s staff was targeted by Pegasus in an effort to spy on them last year.

Bahrain hosts Israeli official

In another sign of warming ties, the director of the regional security and counterterrorism department at Israel’s foreign ministry attended a conference in Bahrain.

Dana Benvenisti-Gabay took part in the Working Group on Maritime and Aviation Security in Manama, which is co-hosted by the US, Poland and Bahrain.

The Times of Israel reported that the conference “was originally billed as part of global efforts to counter Iran,” but was later toned down.

The Manama meeting follows a conference earlier this year in Warsaw, where Gulf officials showcased their hostility towards Iran and their affection for Israel in a closed session.

The Bahraini Society Against Normalization with the Zionist Enemy asserted its rejection of the presence of the Israeli representative at the conference.

It lamented that normalization has become the norm for the Bahraini government.

“All statements made by government officials on their commitment to principled positions regarding the Palestinian cause and anti-normalization with the criminal entity are empty, meaningless and contradict all facts on the ground,” the group stated.

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.