| Inside Israel |

For Shin Bet, a Race Against Time

How the Shin Bet nailed Gaza’s top terrorist

he photos from the aftermath of the targeted strike on Islamic Jihad commander Bahu Abu el-Bata show a three-story apartment building with its top floor blown off.

That is where el-Bata, Islamic Jihad’s commander in the northern Gaza Strip, and his wife were sleeping when the Israeli Air Force attacked last Tuesday morning at 4 a.m. He had been on Israel’s hit list for two years, often changing residences to escape Israeli detection. From the day his picture was publicized earlier this month, however, his days were numbered. He knew it himself. Although he tried to evade Israeli intelligence, the missile found him.

The man behind the operation was Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman, who has revolutionized the domestic intelligence agency since taking the helm in February 2016. He’s done so by emphasizing cyber operations as much as agents on the ground. In his view, a determined hacker can cause more damage to Israel than any lone wolf. And hacking the server of a terror organization can prove as useful as infiltrating a spy into its top ranks.

“The agency has reached a new level technologically,” says an intelligence figure in the know. “Not only in the classical technology that helps operatives on the ground, but also in cyber and in electronic intelligence gathering. There have been substantial improvements.”

Gathering intelligence in Gaza no easy affair, says Ilan Lotan, a former senior Shin Bet figure. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are “cruel and cunning,” he says, and employ stealthy counterintelligence tactics against the Jewish state.

“Happily, they’re not always so successful, as this last event proves,” he says. “The fact that we could manage such surgical precision — only the room where el-Ata was staying was destroyed — points to an extraordinary level of intelligence gathering, as well as to Israel’s intelligence reach. This isn’t something that’s built up in a day. Aside from human sources, there’s a whole system of electronic intelligence gathering.”

According to foreign news reports, the operation was carried out simultaneously with another targeted killing: Akram al-Ajouri, an Islamic Jihad commander, was eliminated in Damascus. If this information is accurate, it shows that Israel wasn’t just waiting for el-Ata to pop up, but had been tracked for some time, making the Shin Bet’s achievement all the more impressive.

The Head of the Snake

Argaman, say those close to him, is a big believer in targeted killings. But not at any cost: There have been instances in which the risk of civilian casualties led the Shin Bet chief to call off an operation. For instance, El-Ata has been in Israel’s sights for years. The trouble was that he always took care to sleep in the same room as his children. Argaman was opposed to harming them, and Prime Minister Netanyahu deferred to his opinion.

Today’s reality dictates that Israel’s enemies are as often terror groups as countries. “It’s no longer Syria and Iraq,” Argaman has said. “We’re not likely to see tank cavalcades streaming across our borders. Instead we face quasi-political entities like Hamas and Hezbollah, which can easily acquire the technological resources of independent countries. In a certain sense, Hamas is as technologically equipped as we are. They have cyber warriors who attack us, and we have to handle that.”

To maximize the Shin Bet’s ability to prevent these attacks, Argaman has united all of the agency’s technological units and engaged in a massive recruitment of cyber warriors. The agency has placed special emphasis on tracking social media. The trick is to sort out the massive reams of data to create a behavioral pattern and reach an individual before it’s too late.

“The Shin Bet has succeeded through technological, intelligence, and operational coordination to detect and prevent potential lone wolf attacks,” Argaman said recently at a closed-door meeting of the Shin Bet. “Most [planned attacks come] from teenagers without criminal records. Some received warning messages that were shared with their parents, and hundreds of others were arrested.”

In the past year alone, the Shin Bet foiled 450 terror attacks, among them attempted kidnappings and suicide bombings.

No Rest

But state actors cannot be ignored. Shin Bet’s main concern today comes from cyber superpowers Russia and China. Both are gathering as much information in as many places as possible. And it isn’t just military intelligence that interests them, but also technological knowhow (the Chinese), and political intelligence (the Russians). Three months ago, an Israeli missile boat discovered a Russian submarine in Israel’s territorial waters, just eight miles (15 kilometers) off the coast of Gush Dan. Israel’s naval commanders immediately contacted their Russian counterparts, and the submarine left the area.

The defense establishment refuses to discuss the incident, but has emphasized that it doesn’t believe that either Moscow or Beijing are enemies, certainly not on the level of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which employs hackers to cause harm the state of Israel and its citizens.

Over the past decade, in intelligence agencies across the world, there has been an ongoing debate over the value of human intelligence (known in professional jargon as HUMINT), versus “signals intelligence” (SIGINT), which is gathered through bugging, hacking, and other methods. Some Israeli officials have publicly expressed concern that Argaman is steering the organization too far toward SIGINT.

But Argaman does not agree with that assessment. He is convinced that human intelligence — which in Israel comes in the form of on-the-ground operators in the Arab sector — will always be indispensable. “If a spy is discovered tomorrow in a political position of power or in the corridors of the defense establishment — it will be as damaging to the country as any cyber-attack,” Argaman said at a recent forum. “There’s always a niggling fear in your mind that maybe there’s a plant in some senior position that you haven’t discovered. And with that fear I go to sleep at night.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 786)

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