In September 2017, Palestine Legal attorneys received nearly 30 emails from students, teachers and even librarians who were justifiably concerned about an anonymous message they had received.
The emails contained threats from outlawbds.com that recipients had been “marked” and “identified as a BDS promoter” and had a “limited window of opportunity to cease and desist or face the consequences of your actions in legal proceedings.”
The origin of the attack was a mystery.
Additionally, we have further confirmation that former Israeli intelligence agents were paid to spy on US students and activists engaged in BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – campaigns.
The organization responsible compiled dossiers on activists and published a Canary Mission-like blacklist site, as well as defamatory sites that attempted to discredit Muslim activists, among others.
The New Yorker first published an article by Adam Entous and Ronan Farrow on Psy-Group, which used former Israeli military, intelligence and governmental advisers to influence politics around the US.
Psy-Group, which reportedly ceased operations in 2018 following an FBI investigation into possible 2016 US election interference reported on previously by The Electronic Intifada, used shadowy and coercive methods to attempt to undermine the Palestine solidarity movement in the US.
Psy-Group raised at least $1.2 million to conduct dark web surveillance, in-person intimidation, online blacklists and smear campaigns against Palestinian rights activists.
According to The New Yorker, Psy-Group asked private donors for an additional $1.3 million in funding in 2017 for “Project Butterfly” and told potential donors that a successful campaign would “make it look as though Israel, and the Jewish-American community, had nothing to do with the effort.”
The overall goal, according to a company document (see below), was to “destabilize and disrupt anti-Israel movements from within.”
Some donors asked the group to target students who supported BDS campaigns on campuses where their children studied. Project Butterfly concentrated its efforts on up to 10 college campuses, including the University of California, Berkeley.
The second article, authored solely by Entous, focuses on Psy-Group’s work against Palestinian rights activists.
It profiles UC Berkeley lecturer, Zaytuna College professor and American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) founder Hatem Bazian, who in May 2017 found fliers of himself saying “He supports terror” outside his home.
Around the same time, Psy-Group advertised to a potential partner, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, that it had compiled intelligence dossiers on nine Palestinian rights activists, including a lecturer at UC Berkeley, presumably Bazian (see second document below).
In Al Jazeera’s leaked undercover documentary The Lobby–USA, Sima Vaknin-Gil, the director-general of Israel’s strategic affairs ministry, identifies the Foundation for Defense of Democracies as one of the organizations collaborating directly with her department’s efforts to thwart activists.
Psy-Group’s primary method for disruption was doxing students and professors by anonymously publishing derogatory or personal information about them online.
The New Yorker writes: “If a student claimed to be a pious Muslim, for example, Psy-Group operatives would look for photographs of him engaging in behavior unacceptable to many pious Muslims, such as drinking alcohol or having an affair. Psy-Group would then release the information online using avatars and websites that couldn’t be traced back to the company or its donors.”
Mirrors smears in Indiana
This exact pattern mirrors a case at Purdue University in 2016, when anonymous sites targeted a Muslim woman who was active with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
Anonymous websites alleged she engaged in “partying, drinking” and “promiscuity.” This student experienced tension with her family, who encouraged her to leave SJP as a result of the smears.
At the same time, Purdue professor Bill Mullen and two other student activists in Indiana were also victims of online doxing attempts. In Mullen’s case, smear sites were created with fabricated accusations of sexual harassment and anti-Semitism.
Messages from the site’s creators targeted Mullen’s wife and young daughter.
Approximately two dozen websites were created against Mullen and the students from similar IP addresses. Other sites with the same IP addresses have domain names made to sound affiliated with the Palestinian rights movement, such as “Interfaith Coalition for Palestine.”
No evidence was ever offered towards any of the claims against Mullen or the Muslim student.
Mullen and the anonymous student spoke about this experience in the leaked Al Jazeera documentary on the Israel lobby.
During the same year, an SJP leader at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) was also the target of anonymous blog posts claiming she and her chapter supported violence and terrorism.
While Psy-Group affiliated sources claimed the firm did not engage in illegal activity or disseminate false information, this could not be independently verified, according to The Times of Israel.
If the Purdue campaign was a Psy-Group project, this claim would be false.
It is unclear at this time which other universities were targeted.
It was around the time that the New York state legislature was discussing an anti-boycott measure that a Psy-Group operative registered the now-defunct site “outlawbds.com,” which contained a blacklist with the photos and contact information of supposed BDS supporters.
Among those listed on the site were Black, Jewish and Palestinian activists. Intimidation emails sent to activists by outlawbds.com cited the New York legislation.
In one potentially telling typo, the contact page for the site reads: “Our goal is to spread accurate information regarding the BDS movement, if you would lie to assist don’t hesitate to reach out.”
While outlawbds.com never gained the reach or notoriety of Canary Mission, both sites sought to delegitimize and intimidate movement activists through fear and smears. It is uncertain what role the Israeli government has played in either site.
But in The Lobby–USA documentary, Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, claimed that the ICC had a budget of $2 million for “research” for smear campaigns against activists and that the ICC coordinated with Israel’s strategic affairs ministry. He admitted that these campaigns were “psychological warfare.”
Indeed, many of the actors behind Psy-Group served in high-ranking positions within Israeli government and spy agencies.
Royi Burstien, who founded Psy-Group in 2014, served as an intelligence officer for the Israeli military, including in an elite unit that focused on psychological operations (PsyOps).
Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy director of Mossad and ex-director-general of Israel’s strategic affairs ministry, served as an adviser to Psy-Group. In The New Yorker article, he likened the fight against BDS to “a war,” commenting, “you don’t kill them but you do have to deal with them in other ways.”
Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu, was another adviser to Psy-Group.
According to The New Yorker, “While active Israeli intelligence operatives aren’t supposed to spy on the United States, Amidror said, he saw nothing improper about former Israeli intelligence officers conducting operations against American college students. ‘If it’s legal, I don’t see any problem,’ Amidror said with a shrug. ‘If people are ready to finance it, it is OK with me.’”
Taken in this light, former agents with ties to the Israeli government have been engaging in psychological warfare against US citizens.
The information revealed about Psy-Group demonstrates yet another Palestine exception in US policy, where it is perfectly permissible for former Israeli agents to spy on and attempt to harm the work and livelihood of US citizens.
Coast to coast attacks
Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, was targeted on posters in New York City alongside Bazian in 2017.
She said this latest exposé is proof of why blacklists like Canary Mission “should close up shop.”
“It’s utterly unacceptable that ex-Mossad agents were hired to target myself and AMP Director Hatem Bazian,” Vilkomerson said.
“Although Psy-Group no longer exists, we are still concerned about similar initiatives like the anonymous online blacklist Canary Mission, which targets students,” Vilkomerson stated.
“Canary Mission is a form of online harassment, and like all cyberbullying, it has real-world consequences for the victims.”
Palestinian poet and activist Remi Kanazi was also targeted by Psy-Group and said that extralegal efforts like these are due to the inability to stop the growing movement for Palestine.
“When attacking our constitutional rights head-on proves fruitless, outfits like Psy-Group resort to covert operations and fraud to protect support for Israeli military occupation and apartheid,” Kanazi said.
“Despite their best attempts, blacklisting efforts and smear tactics like [those of] Psy-Group and Canary Mission have not thwarted the chorus of voices who continue to stand for Palestinian freedom,” Kanazi added.
“From college campuses to local communities to the halls of Congress, countless individuals are starting to embrace the call for Palestinian rights and equality.”
With Congress seeking to “protect” its largest ally from boycotts, and targeting Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for challenging calls that she show allegiance to Israel, it is doubtful that the institution will protect its own citizens from foreign spies and threats.
Kristian Davis Bailey is an organizer and writer based in Chicago. He is currently the communications manager at Palestine Legal and a co-founder of Black for Palestine.
- Palestine Legal
- Adam Entous
- Ronan Farrow
- UC Berkeley
- Hatem Bazian
- American Muslims for Palestine
- Foundation for Defense of Democracies
- Sima Vaknin-Gil
- Ministry of Strategic Affairs
- Purdue University
- Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
- Bill Mullen
- The Lobby--USA
- Canary Mission
- Israel on Campus Coalition
- Jacob Baime
- Yaakov Amidror
- Royi Burstien
- Rebecca Vilkomerson
- Remi Kanazi