Soldiers in the IDF’s Unit 8200 played a large role in thwarting a major Islamic State terrorist attack this past summer, which aimed to bring down a civilian airliner headed from Sydney to Abu Dhabi, the army has revealed.
In cooperation with Israel’s intelligence community, soldiers provided exclusive intelligence that they had gathered on an attack that was being planned. The intelligence led to the arrest of the suspects, who were in a very advanced stage in executing the plot, the army said.
“The thwarting of the attack led to the saving of the lives of dozens of innocent people and demonstrated that Unit 8200 is a player in the intelligence war against Islamic State,” the army said. Regarded as Israel’s equivalent of the National Security Agency in the US, the soldiers of one of the IDF’s most prestigious units, Unit 8200, intercept and collect digital communication and intelligence on Israel’s enemies.
Spread across the country, these online soldiers of Unit 8200 are on the front line of Israel’s cyberwars 24/7, 365 days a year, to identify possible threats and effectively neutralize them.
“About half of Unit 8200 is engaged in operational activity beyond Israel’s borders,” a senior officer in Unit 8200 told military reporters on Tuesday, referring to the interception and analysis of signal intelligence gathered by troops. “Because of our abilities, we are very attractive to foreign countries,” he added.
The ISIS-inspired attack against an Etihad Airways flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi was thwarted, according to Australian officials, in July. Four men were arrested in Sydney suburbs for planning two separate attacks, including one where a bomb, which was to be carried onboard the plane by an unwitting “mule,” would be detonated while in the air.
Local press at the time quoted Australian police as stating that one suspect planned to plant military-grade explosives inside a meat-grinding machine. The explosives were sent by a senior ISIS operative through international air cargo to the suspects in Australia.
The New South Wales Joint Counterterrorism Team charged 49-year-old Khaled Mahmoud Khayat and 32-year-old Mahmoud Khayat with two counts each of acts in preparation for a terrorist act for that foiled plot.
While Islamic State’s territorial “caliphate” may have crumbled, the IDF does not believe it to be the end of the threat posed by the terrorist group, as terrorists have moved from Syria and Iraq to places like Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula, which borders Israel.
Unit 8200 soldiers were also responsible for thwarting a recent Iranian hacking attack against private and public organizations in Israel.
The attack by a hacking group was thwarted in cooperation with the defense division of the IDF’s telecommunications department by the “close monitoring of the operations of the Iranian network and the early identification of attempts to attack Israel,” the IDF said.
According to ClearSky, an Israeli cybersecurity company that has studied the malware behind cyberattacks across the region, the hacking group has been targeting multiple organizations in Israel and other Middle Eastern countries such as in Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon since 2015.
In one attack against the UAE government uncovered by Palo Alto Networks, another cybersecurity company, the hacking group sent spear-phishing emails with the subject line “Important Issue” which in reality were malware-infected documents.
A January 2017 report by ClearSky stated that the hacking group set up a fake VPN Web portal and targeted several Israeli IT vendors, financial institutions and the Israel Post since the end of 2015.
“Today, cyber is an additional front in which Israel has significant offensive and defensive capabilities,” a senior officer in Unit 8200 said Tuesday.
“Iran is a very smart country with advanced technology and a lot of motivation,” the officer said, adding that he respects the intelligence of his enemy, which is “increasing in its offensive capabilities.”
According to the senior officer, the unit has also been very effective in thwarting dozens of attacks by lone-wolf Palestinians in the West Bank since the beginning of the latest wave of violence that broke out in 2015.
“When we see talk of an attack that could happen in the next 10 minutes, we need to act in an effective and quick manner in order to stop it,” he said. “There is a lot of responsibility sitting on the shoulders of these young officers.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday evening that Israel’s intelligence service deserve thanks for not only protecting Israel, but also for “protecting people everywhere around the world.”
Netanyahu, speaking at the annual meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the downing of the plane would have led to a major tragedy and to a massive disruption of civilian air traffic.
Netanyahu said this was just one of many attacks that Israel has thwarted throughout the world.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.
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