Israeli Cyber Prevented Etihad Airline Bombing and Multiple ISIS Attacks, PM Says
By Zak Doffman
“The way we used to protect planes,” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Cyber Week conference in Tel Aviv last week—a slide depicting photographs of several hijacked planes on the screen behind him, “was armed guards and security forces ready to burst in… and locked doors to keep pilots and passengers apart.”
The image on the screen changed to show an Etihad Airlines A380 set against Sydney’s skyline. ”That plane,” Netanyahu said, “was not going to be hijacked. That plane from Sydney to Abu Dhabi was going to be exploded in midair. We found out through our cyber activities that ISIS was going to do this and we alerted the Australian police and they stopped it before it could happen.”
Last year, Israel’s military confirmed that “soldiers of Unit 8200, along with the country’s intelligence community,” had provided the Australian authorities with information on a major ISIS plot in 2017 “to down a civilian plane heading from Australia to Abu Dhabi,” with “security forces able to arrest the terrorists, who were in the final stages of executing the attack.”
In a statement, the IDF said of that attack that “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.” In May, Khaled Khayat—one of two brothers charged over that incident—was found guilty in Australia of conspiring to plant a bomb on the Etihad flight, using a device hidden in a meat grinder. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on Mahmoud Khayat’s involvement.
It is unclear whether Netanyahu was referencing the same incident or claiming an additional plot had been thwarted specifically by cyber activity—the prevention of the 2017 incident included traditional intelligence gathering techniques. The explosives were flown to Australia from Turkey before being assembled, and Australian police said at the time that intercepted communications—provided by a foreign intelligence agency—from the Syrian jihadist behind the attack proved critical.
In his comments, Netanyahu described the U.S. as Israel’s “great and irreplaceable ally,” adding that the two countries now “cooperate on cybersecurity like never before,” and that Israel is also “encouraging broader international collaboration on cybersecurity.” The prime minister highlighted the country’s incubation of start-ups and its continued investment in Be’er Sheva in the Negev, where [the presence of] military, academic and commercial institutions [enable] a fermentation to take place.”
Netanyahu acknowledged that the investments being made are necessitated by “national defense,” but the upshot of those investments has been the foiling of terrorist incidents around the world. If you take the Abu Dhabi terror plot, Netanyahu said, “and multiply that fifty-times, that will give you an idea of the contribution Israel has made to prevent major terrorist activities—mainly by ISIS—in dozens of countries, and most were foiled by our cyber activities.”
There has been significant speculation as to the role Israeli intelligence is playing in gathering information from Iran, as tensions continue to escalate in the Gulf. And the country has also provided intel on Iranian operations overseas, including the planned assassination of the leader of an Iranian opposition group in Denmark.
Cybersecurity “affects every country in the world, every person in the world,” the prime minister said as he concluded his speech, adding that “with IoT, that means literally everything.”