The Israeli army on Wednesday revealed that the Military Intelligence Unit 8200 foiled an Islamic State attempt to bomb a flight from Australia last August.
“The unit provided exclusive intelligence that led to the prevention of an air attack by the Islamic State in 2017 in Australia,” a senior IDF officer said.
“The foiling of the attack saved dozens of innocent lives and proved Unit 8200’s position as a major player in the intelligence fight against the Islamic State,” the officer said, on condition of anonymity.
Wednesday’s revelation was an unusual move for the Israeli army, which generally keeps mum on the operations of the secretive Unit 8200, which is similar to the American National Security Agency, collecting information from electronic communication, also referred to as signals intelligence.
Later in the day Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the unit for foiling the attack.
“Thank you to the Israeli intelligence services. We revealed today that the security agencies prevented the shooting down of an Australian airliner. This is just one of the dozens of terrorist attacks that we have stopped around the world. [The intelligence services] deserve all the support we can give, not only for protecting the citizens of Israel, but for protecting people all over the world,” he said in a speech to American Jewish leaders.
Indeed, this prowess in intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism is a central selling point for Israel in its efforts to create and maintain relationships with foreign countries.
The foiled attack
In August, Australian security forces arrested two men suspected of trying to place an improvised explosive device on an Etihad Airways flight out of Sydney in a plot directed by Islamic State.
One of the men, a 49-year-old from Sydney, brought the device to Sydney airport on July 15 in a piece of luggage that he had asked his brother to take with him on the flight — without telling the brother that the bag contained explosives, Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Michael Phelan said at the time. But the bag never got past the check-in counter. Instead, Phelan said, the 49-year-old man left the airport with the bag, and his brother continued onto the flight without it.
“This is one of the most sophisticated plots that has ever been attempted on Australian soil,” Phelan told reporters at the time. “If it hadn’t been for the great work of our intelligence agencies and law enforcement over a very quick period of time, then we could well have a catastrophic event in this country.”
The components of the device they planned to use, including what Phelan described as a “military-grade explosive,” were sent by a senior Islamic State member to the men in Sydney via air cargo from Turkey. An Islamic State commander then instructed the two men how to assemble the device, which police later recovered, Phelan said.
According to Australian authorities, when that attack failed, the suspects then planned to release highly toxic hydrogen sulfide gas in order to poison people. But they were arrested before their plot could advance significantly.
No specific targets had been chosen for the planned hydrogen sulfide attack, though an Islamic State member overseas had given the men suggestions about where such devices could be placed, such as crowded areas or on public transportation, Phelan said.
Police had no idea either of the plans were in the works until they received the tip from Israel on July 26. They arrested the men on July 29.
The big Unit 8200
On Wednesday, the IDF also revealed it thwarted a recent Iranian cyber attack against Israeli public and private systems, though it did not provide additional details on what was targeted and when.
“This foiling was possible thanks to the close tracking of the Iranian network’s activities,” the officer said.
The intelligence unit also credited itself with helping reduce the number of terror attacks in the West Bank by so-called lone wolves — people who act independently, without direction from a terrorist group — through special algorithms that identify potential assailants.
“We work closely with all the divisions and regional commands. The unit’s products are critically and operationally relevant, directly assisting the activities of forces in the field,” the officer said.
Unit 8200 is one of the largest units in the IDF.
According to the prime minister, the unit is the “second largest” national security agency in the world, after only that of the United States.
“The United States is 42 times larger than the State of Israel. Its NSA is not 42 times the size of Israel’s NSA, it’s not even 10 times the size,” Netanyahu boasted to business leaders in Munich on Friday.
Agencies contributed to this report.