By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
The academic study of intelligence has grown tenfold in the recent past. At our University, this discipline is represented not only in an undergraduate program, a master’s program and a doctoral program, but also in a wide array of other programs related to the study of intelligence.
However, the academic study of intelligence has some inherent challenges. For example, it is not easy to obtain primary sources. Many times, intelligence scholars need to use memoirs or journalistic sources since more official records are classified and will not be released in archives for many years.
This week, Israeli news outlets published information about espionage charges that have been brought against several Israeli women who were in contact with Iranian intelligence services. The information that can be gleaned from these reports can teach us about how human intelligence (HUMINT) works in the era of social media.
MOIS Recruited Several Women from Social Media Sites
Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, revealed that an Iranian handler apparently working for Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) recruited several women of Iranian descent living in Israel. The BBC reported, “The women were allegedly paid thousands of dollars to take photos of sensitive sites, monitor security arrangements, and make connections with politicians. Lawyers for the women said they did not know the man was an Iranian operative. They also insisted that the women had no intention of harming Israel’s security.”
Shin Bet described how the spy recruitment process evolved. A suspected Iranian intelligence operative identified himself as Rambod Namdar on Facebook and claimed to be a Jewish man living in Israel. He appears to have targeted Israelis of Iranian descent.
From Shin Bet’s description, Namdar gave the female recruits very basic tasks. For example, he ordered a 40-year-old Israeli woman to photograph the U.S. Embassy when it was in Tel Aviv, as well as an Israeli government office and a shopping mall. Namdar also asked the woman to encourage her son to join military intelligence for his mandatory service and even spoke to him by phone to evaluate his Persian language skills.
Another woman, who the handler cultivated for four years, was paid a total of $5,000 for similar tasks. A third woman was asked to establish a club for Israelis of Iranian descent in order to gather information about them and to cultivate ties with a member of Israel’s parliament.
Iran Has Previously Used Israeli Citizens as Spies
It is not the first time that Iranian intelligence has attempted to recruit agents in Israel. MOIS operates a Persian language website and has used its proxy Hezbollah to recruit Arab Israelis in the past.
Also, there have been reports of espionage charges brought against Israeli Arabs who were tasked with various assignments by Hezbollah. These Israeli Arabs used social media sites and drop-off points in places like Turkey to create an intelligence network inside Israel.
In addition, The Jerusalem Post reported in 2020 that “Hezbollah in Lebanon is trying to recruit Israeli civilians to carry out terrorist activities, according to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). The Hezbollah cell, as well as the identity of Hezbollah detainees and recruits, was discovered following the June 6 arrest of two Israeli civilians from the northern Arab town of Majd el-Kurum and their subsequent interrogation by the Shin Bet.”
But MOIS sometimes works more directly. For instance, the BBC published a 2019 article that Israeli counterintelligence forces uncovered a spy for Iran: Israeli cabinet minister Gonen Segev.
Segev was an Israeli doctor who became a junior politician and had a short stint as Israel’s energy minister. After Segev failed reelection, he got involved in smuggling drugs, served time in prison and had his medical license revoked.
Unable to practice medicine in Israel, he moved to Nigeria to be a doctor and was recruited by MOIS. He was extradited to Israel in 2018 and was sentenced to 11 years in jail.
Related link: The Current State of Israeli-Palestinian Relations
What Intelligence Lessons Can We Learn from This Espionage?
It does not take an expert to see that this “espionage ring” is far from the material for a John Grisham novel. As Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported, “As far as can be ascertained, this network of matrons didn’t give the Iranians much that would be helpful. Even the mission to photograph the U.S. Embassy buildings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (the latter a location that also interested the Iranians a decade ago in another case) didn’t go well.
“One time, the security guards’ suspicions were aroused, holding up the doomed mission. On another occasion, a video clip was rather unfocused in the view of their Iranian contact.”
So why would Iran spend time, energy and a little money on recruiting these very low-key assets? The answer is simple. In this day and age with the use of social media, such efforts are part of a long-term effort by Iran to cast a wide net.
To quote Israeli veteran military reporter Amos Harel: “First, as far as is known, the Iranians so far have had difficulty enlisting high-level agents deep inside the Israeli security or political establishment. Secondly, they haven’t despaired and are casting their net as widely as possible in an effort to collect any information they can get. Somebody, sometime, might still be successful.”