'De facto smuggling of Israeli intellectual property'

UAE-based intelligence firm said recruiting IDF veterans from elite cyber unit

Reports say DarkMatter offering graduates of Unit 8200 million dollar signing bonuses and beachfront properties abroad, sparking concern in defense establishment

Cadets in the IDF Cyber Defense Unit course, June 10, 2013 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Cadets in the IDF Cyber Defense Unit course, June 10, 2013 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

A private intelligence firm in the Gulf has reportedly been recruiting graduates of an Israel Defense Forces’ elite cyber unit with promises of million dollar bonuses and lavish beachfront properties, causing concern in the defense establishment.

Two recent investigative reports in Hebrew-language media claimed that the United Arab Emirates-based DarkMatter was actively headhunting Unit 8200 graduates.

According to a Yedioth Ahronoth report published Friday, graduates of the vaunted intelligence unit are regularly offered $100,000-plus a month salaries, signing bonuses and luxury homes in Cyprus to sweeten the deal.

Yedioth said several firms were recruiting the Israelis, but only named DarkMatter. Israel and the UAE do not have formal diplomatic ties, but are said to have close security cooperation largely focused on Iran, their common foe.

Several unnamed ex-soldiers told the daily how they were contacted by foreign intelligence firms “out of the blue” with lucrative employment offers. International headhunters told one 8200 graduate identified as ‘A’ that anything less than $40,000 a month was “not even worth considering,” and said the companies that were looking to hire him would “offer conditions and perks that no other company would be able to compete with.”

‘A’ and other graduates said they were recently offered $100,000 a month (excluding bonuses) as well as a “relocation with a beach view.”

In this January 30, 2018 photo, taken with a long exposure, employees walk into offices of the cybersecurity firm DarkMatter, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. DarkMatter, a growing cybersecurity company that’s recruited Western intelligence analysts, is slowly stepping out of the shadows amid activist concerns about its power. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Officially, DarkMatter bills itself as a private cyber defense company based in Abu Dhabi, but according to a 2018 Associated Press report, DarkMatter provides intelligence for the UAE government. The UAE has been accused of targeting human rights activists, journalists and other Western targets.

According to a second report, published Wednesday in TheMarker business daily, DarkMatter maintains an office in Cyprus that employs Israeli software developers.

One defense official identified as ‘Y’ warned the TheMarker about the “de facto smuggling of Israeli intellectual property without any supervision of the Defense Ministry.”

“They’re taking these young people to Cyprus, buying them off with huge salaries,” he said, adding that he knows of researchers who were offered positions at DarkMatter with salaries of close to $1 million a year.

DarkMatter did not respond to TheMarker’s request for comment.

DarkMatter was founded in 2015 by telecom entrepreneur Faisal al-Bannai, and currently employs around 650 people in several countries including Cyprus, Singapore, China, Finland and Canada.

In this January 30, 2018 photo, DarkMatter CEO Faisal al-Bannai speaks to journalists in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Al-Bannai told the AP last year that DarkMatter was entirely privately held, with a customer base that was 80 percent government agencies and 20% commercial. He declined to name specific clients, but it is widely suspected they include the Signals Intelligence Agency, the Emirati version of the NSA.

In the interview, al-Bannai acknowledged that DarkMatter was recruiting Western intelligence analysts, mainly from the NSA and CIA, for their experience.

While he made no mention of recruiting Israelis, al-Bannai said during the interview that the “only country in the region that’s strong in cybersecurity is Israel… other than that, it’s blank.”

In 2017, the New York Times reported that the private Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group mysteriously lost the services of numerous employees, all of them Unit 8200 graduates.

The report said that a private investigator hired by NSO discovered that the former employees had moved to Cyprus and were working at a research and development facility owned by DarkMatter. Sources also told the Times that Israeli programmers ran DarkMatter’s Singapore office.

Yedioth said DarkMatter was also relocating Israelis to hotels and resorts in Thailand, where they worked on a freelance basis.

It wasn’t clear if the IDF veterans obtained permission to work on foreign intelligence projects from the Defense Ministry, which declined to comment on both TheMarker and Yedioth reports.

Either way, the growing number of Israelis taking the IDF’s cyber expertise abroad has sparked concern in the defense establishment, Yedioth reported.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” a former security official told Yedioth. “When I left the IDF I had to wait two years before I was allowed to enter the private sector. For these people that doesn’t seem to be the case… You can leave your job at military intelligence one day and be working for DarkMatter the next.”

The vaunted 8200 unit — roughly equivalent to the National Security Agency in the US — is highly regarded for its computer prowess and seen as a major incubator of Israel’s high-tech startup culture.

Some graduates of Unit 8200 told TheMarker and Yedioth they turned down the lucrative offers because they felt uneasy with aiding a foreign government that could be hostile to Israel.

Soldiers of the IDF Intelligence Unit attend a ceremony for the appointment of the new chief of Intelligence at Glilot military base, near Tel Aviv, March 28, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“I got a WhatsApp message in Hebrew from [the headhunter] who knew all about me, and my unique area of expertise,” said a 8200 graduate. “He said [the IDF veterans] were doing freelance work for both Israeli and international companies.”

‘Y’ said she turned down the job offer, even though the headhunter “started offering me lots of money… crazy amounts.”

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