Computer hackers likely working for the Syrian regime and Hezbollah have managed to penetrate the computers of Israeli and American activists working with the Syrian opposition, exposing sensitive contacts between the sides.
Al-Akhbar, a newspaper serving as Hezbollah’s mouthpiece in Lebanon, published a series of articles over the weekend purporting to divulge correspondence between Mendi Safadi, a Druze Israeli and former political adviser to Deputy Regional Cooperation Minister Ayoub Kara, with members of the Syrian opposition around the world, taken from taken from Safadi’s computer.
The article also contains screenshots of word documents and text message exchanges saved on Safadi’s computer.
The article alleged that Safadi, working on behalf of the Israeli government, tried to recruit Israeli agents in Syria and Lebanon, smuggle weapons into the hands of Islamist rebel groups in Syria, and locate targets within Syria to be bombed by coalition forces.
Speaking to The Times of Israel on Sunday, Safadi acknowledged that his computer was indeed hacked approximately seven months ago by agents of Hezbollah and Assad’s cyber-warfare units, a fact first discovered by Israeli security agencies.
He said that Syrian and Hezbollah intelligence had repeatedly tried to hack his computer as early as six months into the Syrian revolution, which erupted in March 2011.
“It is only natural for the Syrian regime and Hezbollah to go after me in every possible way considering the successes I have had in my work,” said Safadi, who is no longer employed by the government and now defines himself “an international diplomacy lobbyist” focusing on Syria.
According to the daily, Safadi’s connection with the Syrian opposition was discovered by chance, when an unnamed hacker planted a “Trojan horse” — a malware program intended to erase or steal data from a specific target — in the computer of an Islamic State leader in Iraq, who was reportedly in touch with Safadi amid negotiations to free a Jordanian hostage.
Al-Akhbar accused Safadi of trying to sign arms deals with the Islamic State and Nusra Front — two radical Islamist organizations active in Syria — in the Czech Republic’s capital Prague. It claimed that the deal never materialized due to Nusra Front’s refusal to sign it outside Syrian territory.
It also claimed that in December 2014 Safadi contacted a man with connections to the Islamic State nicknamed Abu Manaf in an attempt to free Jordanian pilot Muaz Kasasbeh, who was later burnt alive by the Islamic State.
Speaking to The Times of Israel on Sunday, Safadi denied the paper’s allegation of arms trade, but confirmed that he had indeed tried to secure Kasasbeh’s release through a man with ties to the Islamic State.
“I inquired once about an option to release [Kasasbeh],” Safadi said. “The matter was examined and it turned out that they [the Islamic State] had no interest in releasing him.”
Kasasbeh was burnt alive on January 3, 2015; the gruesome video of his execution emerged a month later.
Though Al-Akhbar’s articles contain dozens of names, nicknames and telephone numbers of Syrians and others who were in touch with Safadi, he maintained they face no real danger of reprisal. Some of the names, such as oppositionists Kamal al-Labwani and Moussa Nabhan, have publicized their contacts with Israelis or their visits to Israel, he said. Others are small fry, insignificant activists merely seeking financial support which they never received.
“There is no danger in their exposure, neither to me nor to them,” he insisted. In most cases, Safadi continued, he would use nicknames in his correspondence in an attempt to mask the identity of his interlocutors.
“Those who stood to be harmed by the article are people still [officially] working alongside the [Assad] regime. No such names were revealed, which is good,’ he said. “There are so many Abu Muhammad’s and Abu Abdo’s in Syria that there’s no way to reach them.”
But a Syrian opposition activist currently residing in Europe and mentioned by name in the al-Akhbar article, told The Times of Israel that he feared for the lives of 23 family members still living in Syria.
‘Treason is not necessarily the result of ill intentions. Stupidity and naivete can also sometimes be considered treason’
“I’m really scared,” the oppositionist, speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, said on Sunday in a Skype conversation. “The Assad regime executes people over songs found on their cellphones, so all the more so over something like this.”
The man is now frantically trying to accelerate the extraction of his family members from Syria.
“Treason is not necessarily the result of ill intentions,” the oppositionist said of Safadi. “Stupidity and naivete can also sometimes be considered treason.”
The computer of Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman and political activist lobbying the American government to enforce a no-fly zone in southern Syria, was also hacked in recent months.
Kahana, whose name appears in the Al-Akhbar article alongside Safadi’s as an “Israeli intelligence officer,” told The Times of Israel that last month he returned home from a business trip to discover that screenshots from his desktop computer had been uploaded in his absence.
“I’m sure they took everything,” Kahana said of the hackers. “This can risk people’s lives, including American citizens.”
Kahana said he is now examining the legal ramifications of the hack under American law.
“I think American authorities should prevent terrorists like Iran and Hezbollah from breaking into American homes,” he said. “If Iran or Hezbollah hacked my computer in New Jersey, they were breaking American law, and I will pursue them legally. This is very serious.”
The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office had no comment on the matter at time of publication.