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Israel says it foiled Iranian operation to lure Israelis abroad, possibly nab them

Security service says operatives used spoof emails to invite academics, business people, former defense officials to Europe, some under the guise of a conference

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A spoof email sent by alleged Iranian operatives to an Israeli academic, in a video published by the Shin Bet on May 19, 2022. (Shin Bet)
A spoof email sent by alleged Iranian operatives to an Israeli academic, in a video published by the Shin Bet on May 19, 2022. (Shin Bet)

The Shin Bet security agency said Thursday it had uncovered an attempt by Iranian operatives to lure Israeli academics, business people, and former defense officials abroad, in an effort to kidnap or otherwise harm them.

The agency has warned in the past that Iran has attempted to lure Israelis abroad. “It is a well-known method of operation of the Iranian intelligence and security bodies, headed by the Intelligence Organization of the Revolutionary Guards, Quds Force and the Ministry of Intelligence,” the Shin Bet charged on Thursday.

The agency said the operatives used spoofed emails, pretending to be academics, journalists, businessmen, and philanthropists.

According to the Shin Bet, the operatives attempted to gather information about the Israelis and possibly lure them abroad with the intention of kidnapping or harming them.

A number of targets were duped and nearly went abroad, the Shin Bet said.

In some of the cases listed by the Shin Bet, the operatives invited the potential victims to a conference in Europe, using email addresses similar to official institutes and with their logos.

Once establishing an initial connection, conversations would continue over WhatsApp, the Shin Bet said.

A spoof email sent by alleged Iranian operatives to an Israeli academic, in a video published by the Shin Bet on May 19, 2022. (Shin Bet)

In another case, the operatives pretended to be the assistant of a Russian billionaire, named “Nikolai.” They contacted Israelis of Russian descent and attempted to convince them to meet abroad, the Shin Bet said.

The secretive security agency did not name the academics, business people, and former defense officials targeted or how many had been contacted, nor did it say how long the alleged scheme had been ongoing.

It also did not say what evidence tied the alleged operation to Iran.

Yossi Melman, a veteran Israeli reporter who writes about spycraft, told Channel 12 news that he was contacted by one of the alleged operatives, going under the name of a real Swiss researcher named Oliver Thränert, who offered to fly him to Switzerland for a conference.

Earlier this month, the Shin Bet said it uncovered an Iranian operation that tried to recruit Israeli civilians to collect information on targets in Israel, using a fake social media profile.

The agency said it had been monitoring that alleged Iranian operation from the start.

It was not the first time Iran has allegedly used fake social media profiles to attempt to recruit Israelis for intelligence or terror activities. Earlier this year, five Israelis were arrested for assisting an Iranian operative, who often pretended to be a Jewish man, in gathering intelligence and making connections in Israel.

The Shin Bet warned that Iranian intelligence was constantly looking to recruit Israelis through the internet in order to collect information about the country.

“Security officials call on Israeli citizens to be vigilant and cautious amid the threat posed by various terrorist elements on social media and to report any unusual request to the Israel Police,” the agency said.

Last year, an Israeli man was nearly tricked by an Iranian operative into traveling to the United Arab Emirates, but called off his trip after hearing of Iranian efforts to kidnap or otherwise harm Israeli citizens.

In 2020, the Shin Bet arrested another Israeli citizen suspected of spying for Iran.

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