A report last week accusing a private Israeli intelligence firm of impersonating journalists in order to elicit information from opponents of an Emirati royal family shines a spotlight on Israeli cyber intelligence firms that reportedly do business in authoritarian regimes.
A Times of Israel investigation has revealed that the owner of the firm in question, Bluehawk CI, has a history of prior fraud prosecutions in Israel. The Defense Ministry chose not to respond to a Times of Israel inquiry as to why it had not regulated the firm’s activities abroad.
According to the April 6 report in The Daily Beast, in early 2020 individuals pretending to be a Fox News researcher and a reporter for Italy’s La Stampa newspaper approached two individuals who have fallen afoul of the leadership of Ras Al Khaimah, one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE). According to the Daily Beast, the journalist impersonators tried to trick the two men into divulging information about their legal disputes with the emirate.
The report underlines how Israel has in recent years spawned an industry of seemingly unregulated spy-for-hire firms, with former Israeli military officers privatizing skills they acquired in secretive intelligence units and often selling their know-how to sketchy individuals or authoritarian regimes.
The Daily Beast reportedly established the identity of the private intelligence firm by contacting Facebook, which revealed that accounts used by the two supposed journalists were associated with the Israeli firm Bluehawk CI.
Bluehawk CI did not respond to The Times of Israel’s request for comment.
A spokesperson for Israel’s Ministry of Defense said that Bluehawk CI does not appear on its list of approved vendors, but did not answer a follow-up question as to whether the ministry is supposed to be regulating the company in the first place.
According to Israel’s Defense Export Control Law, anyone exporting defense equipment or know-how abroad must register with and receive permission from Israel’s Defense Export Control Agency.
Bluehawk CI is one of the less well-known Israeli private intelligence firms. Founded in June 2018, it offers cyber technologies and intelligence solutions, including “social engineering & PR campaign management” and “complex intelligence investigations,” according to its website.
The company was founded and is owned by Guy Klisman, a former major in the Israel Defense Forces. Klisman is also the academic director of the Pafos Innovation Institute in Cyprus, a cybersecurity studies institute founded by Uriel Reichman, a law professor who heads the Interdisciplinary Institute in Herzliya. Klisman’s company, Bluehawk CI, is a sponsor of the Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball team.
Court filings show that before founding the company, Klisman was twice indicted by Israeli prosecutors, once for forgery and separately for multiple unauthorized charges to an acquaintance’s credit card. He acknowledged guilt in the forgery case while the second indictment was ultimately withdrawn.
According to The Daily Beast, in February 2020, someone claiming to be named “Samantha,” a FOX News journalist, contacted a man named Oussama El Omari by email. El Omari is the former chief executive and director general of the Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone Authority in the United Arab Emirates. He was convicted in absentia in the UAE for “embezzlement and abuse of position” following a succession battle in Ras Al Khaimah. El Omari claims the charges are politically motivated.
“Samantha” reportedly tried to elicit information about his legal disputes with Ras Al Khaimah. When contacted by The Daily Beast, Facebook reportedly told news site that “Smantha’s” account was in fact associated with Bluehawk CI.
According to the Daily Beast, another Facebook user pretending to be a reporter for Italy’s La Stampa newspaper contacted Khater Massaad, another foe of the current Ras Al Khaimah regime. Massaad was the head of Ras Al Khaimah’s sovereign wealth fund, RAKIA until 2012. He was convicted by an Emirati court in 2015 of embezzlement from RAKIA, charges Massaad likewise claims were trumped up and politically motivated.
The fake reporter, whom Facebook tied to Bluehawk CI, likewise tried to elicit information about his relationship with the rulers of Ras Al Khaimah, The Daily Beast reported.
‘High cost of living’
The recent normalization of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has been a boon for Israeli intelligence and cybersecurity firms, with companies like the iPhone-hacking NSO Group, venture capital firm Synaptech Capital and Cellebrite all reportedly making lucrative deals in the desert sheikhdoms.
Cybersecurity is Israel’s leading high-tech sector in terms of the amount of venture capital it attracts, according to the Israel Innovation Authority [Hebrew link].
For Bluehawk CI, work in the UAE may have been a source of desperately needed cash.
In 2015, prior to founding Blackhawk CI, Klisman and his then-wife declared bankruptcy, according to Israeli court filings. The couple had hundreds of thousands of shekels in consumer debt, which they attributed to Israel’s “high cost of living.”
In 2016, Israeli prosecutors indicted Klisman for counterfeiting bailiffs’ and court documents in an effort to prevent the IDF from garnishing his salary to pay off creditors. A judge deemed him guilty of the crimes but did not officially convict him, sentencing him to 250 hours of community service. Klisman retired from the Israel Defense Forces at the end of 2017 and founded his company six months later.
In January 2018, Klisman was charged by fraud police with using the credit card number of a woman he met in a Whatsapp tennis group to make NIS 1,577 (about $450) in unauthorized purchases. A year later the government withdrew the indictment.
Klisman did not respond to The Times of Israel’s request for comment.
While it is unclear who may or may not have hired Bluehawk, Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, a company that represents clients in legal disputes with UAE governments, believes the government of Ras Al Khaimah is responsible.
“This is monstrous,” said Stirling in a press release.
“By contracting the espionage out to a private firm, the government of Ras Al Khaimah is trying to avoid accountability for spying on foreign nationals outside their jurisdiction; but this is a major breach and the UAE and Israel must be called to account,” Stirling said.
Where to draw the ethical red line?
According to a 2019 report by Israel’s cyber directorate, at the end of 2018, Israel had 421 active cyber companies of which 7 percent, or about 30, are engaged in “cyber intelligence.”
Elad Ratson, a former Israeli diplomat who is the Founder and CEO of Vayehee, a company that uses technology to counter fake news, foreign misinformation and what he describes as “online weapons of mass obstruction,” told The Times of Israel that in his estimate the number of such companies is higher.
“Most Israeli cyber intelligence companies specialize in OSINT or open-source intelligence,” he said. “This is an area of expertise of the Israeli intelligence services. There are huge amounts of openly available data online, and Israel’s intelligence services are reputable for their effective use of machine learning and artificial intelligence to extract quality intelligence from the sea of available big-data out there.”
The majority of Israeli cyberintelligence companies focus on passive OSINT, he said, merely scraping data that is freely available.
Some, however, also engage in what he calls “perception engineering,” or the manipulation of a target’s point of view through methods of “online deception.” Such companies, he said, one of the most famous of which is Black Cube, can often earn a bad reputation as a result of their activities.
Nevertheless, Ratson believes that many Israeli cyberintelligence companies do have ethical red lines they won’t cross.
“Unlike other government ministries in Israel, the Israeli Defense Ministry has a strong export regulatory arm. Israeli cyber companies are cautious about working for the ‘wrong’ type of clients and falling afoul of the Defense Ministry,” he said.
Nevertheless, “the temptation is high,” Ratson added. “Sometimes when there are large sums of money on the table, some companies have attempted to cut ethical corners. That’s when you start to see negative international press associated with Israeli cyber companies.