In a stunning claim that would suggest far-reaching worldwide reliance on Israel’s intelligence agencies, Economy Minister Eli Cohen (Kulanu) on Sunday said that Israel warned 30 countries worldwide about specific terror plots in the course of 2017.
“You all heard last week that Australia got a phone call from the state of Israel [with a specific warning that terrorists] intend to blow up a plane. Actually, 30 countries got phone calls from Israel in 2017, in which the State of Israel called them, and said to them: You need to know, this and that [are being planned], in this and that place, pay attention, there’s going to be an attack,” he said, in a recording (Hebrew) of his speech aired by Army Radio on Monday morning.
Cohen made the remarks at a law conference at Tel Aviv University in the wake of reports that Israeli military intelligence foiled an Islamic State attempt to bomb flight from Australia last year. The event was well-attended and open to the public, the radio report noted.
Cohen’s claim, however, was immediately refuted by Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who is a member of the high-level security cabinet.
In a subsequent interview on Army Radio, Elkin questioned Cohen’s credibility on security matters, saying he wasn’t aware of the figures the economy minister cited in his remarks to the conference a day earlier.
“He’s not a member of the security cabinet so he isn’t privy to all the information given by security and intelligence officials,” Elkin said of Cohen. “I’m not sure where he got those figures from.”
In the same speech, Cohen also described the Iranian drone infiltration into Israel two weeks ago as “an Iranian ambush” that, he said, was designed to provoke an Israeli response and an ongoing escalation.
Noting that Israel did indeed hit back at targets in Syria after it had downed the Iranian drone, and lost an F-16, Cohen said 11 people were killed in the Israeli retaliation. (Army Radio noted that Lebanese media offered a similar report at the time of the flare-up up, claiming that 12 Iranians were killed in the Israeli strikes. Cohen did not clarify the nationality of the 11 ostensible fatalities. Israel had not previously commented officially on such fatalities.)
Last week, the IDF revealed that its Military Intelligence Unit 8200 foiled an attempt by the Islamic State jihadist group to bomb a flight from Australia last August.
The 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.
According to the IDF, Australian security forces in August 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.
Israel’s prowess in intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism is a central selling point for the Jewish state in its efforts to create and maintain relationships with foreign countries.
Judah Ari Gross and Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.