There was not much doubt.
Enough Israeli intelligence sources, even if off the record, had spoken to the global media and to The Jerusalem Post, expressing their anger at US President Donald Trump for leaking Israeli intelligence to Russia in May.
But until Tuesday, no Israeli official had officially confirmed that Israel was the source of the March 2017 worldwide warning about ISIS trying to down airplanes by smuggling bombs onboard, concealed in laptop computers – the background to the information that Trump leaked to Russia.
Speaking to a conference of NATO ambassadors on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all but spelled it out.
“When we talk about ISIS, it’s important to understand that Israel helps Europe in two fundamental ways,” Netanyahu said.
He continued: “The first is... we have, through our intelligence services, provided information that has stopped several dozen major terrorist attacks, many of them in European countries. Some of these could have been mass attacks, of the worst kind... even worse, because they involve civil aviation. Israel has prevented that, and thereby helped save many European lives.”
Nowhere did Netanyahu say the word “laptops.” He also did not confirm Vanity Fair’
s November 2017 story about the daring raid by Mossad and IDF special forces deep into Syria to bug the ISIS cellphone from which IDF Unit 8200 reportedly eavesdropped in on the laptop plot.
But the reference to ISIS, attacks on Europe and civil aviation were undeniable.
For a long time, Israel’s major public officials kept silent about Trump’s leak, which violated the rules of the intelligence sharing game. Special rare intelligence given by an ally should not be shared with any other country, let alone a potential rival like Russia, without getting the source country’s approval.
The closest official confirmation came from Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who hinted that an intelligence breach between the US and Israel was being addressed, but said it was no more than a bump in generally stellar relations.
Playing the issue down made sense at a time when Israel’s main concern was avoiding ruffling Trump’s feathers over his breach, hoping he would come through for Israel in the even-higher-stakes diplomatic arena.
The prime minister surely would not have risked drawing attention to Israel’s part in providing the laptop-threat warning when it was still trying to keep its head down about Trump’s leak.
But now Netanyahu may feel more comfortable that Trump has come through, having recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and having provided several signs that he will adopt much of Israel’s narrative in its dispute with the Palestinians.
And Netanyahu has bigger fish to fry – trying to convince Europe to relax some of its pressure on Israel as things with the Palestinians heat up.
Reminding them that Israel helped save Europe from potentially devastating terror attacks is one way to do that, even if he has essentially also thereby confirmed that when Trump leaked the ISIS plot to Russia, he was leaking Israeli intelligence’s penetration of ISIS.
Netanyahu, though, did not resolve all of the mysteries.
There are still questions about whether only Israel, or some combination of Israel and Jordan, was involved in uncovering the ISIS plot.
Moreover, past reports mentioned that Israel had recruited an ISIS asset or that it had simply hacked into ISIS’s systems to uncover the plot – in contrast to Vanity Fair’s daring infiltration tale.
At least one top former intelligence official has expressed doubt to the Post
about the Vanity Fair
story, saying that the sources of the story may be intentionally providing disinformation to cover up for what really happened.
Resolving that mystery is not just a point of fascination.
In an article by S.A. and D.D., two former Israeli military intelligence officers, titled “The Phenomenon of Shelf Attacks as a Challenge to Early Warnings” and published by the Israel Intelligence Community Commemoration and Heritage Center, the officers delve deeply into our vulnerabilities to “shelf attacks.”
“Shelf attacks” refer to sleeper cells, previously planted explosives or long-term planned attacks that terrorist masterminds partially put in motion, but then wait to activate until an opportune moment.
They are among the hardest to prevent because they do not leave behind many of the signs of an imminent attack, in terms of purchasing weapons, money transfers and increased communications.
They do not leave these signs behind because often much of this activity was done long ago or gradually over time.
S.A. and D.D. say that it is in these cases where there are no clear warnings that even the best intelligence analysts “may well miss the first indicative sign and ignore others that may follow until the day [of the attack] itself.”
If Israel undertook the daring Vanity Fair operation to get confirmation of the attack, this indicates it is taking an aggressive posture to prevent even shelf attacks.
If the information was stumbled on by a cyber hack, however, then Israel may have gotten lucky this time, but may be surprised in the future by an operation that is not entirely decipherable by the country’s cyber abilities.
While Netanyahu’s confirmation closes one mystery, additional mysteries and revelations regarding this story are likely to continue for some time.
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