Israel’s highly secretive Unit 8200 of Military Intelligence is increasingly seen to have played a leading role with the United States in developing a powerful new cyberweapon known as W32.Flame that attacked Iran’s oil industry in April.
Veterans of the unit, the equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, have in recent years been at the cutting edge of building Israel’s formidable high-tech sector into what the Financial Times calls a “global technology powerhouse.”
Indeed, the proliferation of Unit 8200 alumni across the spectrum of Israel’s high-tech industry suggests that they probably run it and that there are strong security links between the unit and civilian high-tech outfits.
Israel’s high-tech exports are estimated to be worth $18.4 billion a year, comprising more than 45 percent of the Jewish state’s exports, Central Bureau of Statistics data indicate.
Unit 8200 whiz kids have founded scores of high-tech start-ups in recent years.
Gil Schwed, reputed to be one of Israel’s youngest billionaires, launched CheckPoint, one of the country’s leading high-techs with major dealings in the United States.
The Zisapel brothers, Yehuda and Zonhar, sold and floated a dozen companies for hundreds of millions of dollars.
“It’s almost impossible to find a technology company in Israel without people from 8200 and in many cases the entrepreneur, the manager or the person who had an idea for the project will be someone from 8200,” said Yair Cohen, a former brigadier general who once commanded Unit 8200.
Cohen heads the intelligence cyber department of Elbit Systems, a leading Israeli defense company.
Yossi Vardi, who founded Israel’s first software company in 1969, observed, “More high-tech billionaires were created from Unit 8200 than from any business school in the country.”
Unit 8200, the Haaretz daily noted recently, “is the most important one for the Israeli economy” because it has produced innovative and trail-blazing high-tech entrepreneurs who have put the Jewish state’s cyber industry on the map.
Aharon Zeevi Farkash, another former commander of Unit 8200, is the founder and chief executive of FST21 set up in 2007. Seven of the 10 engineers at his company are ex-Unit 8200 personnel.
The Financial Times noted that this company’s “main product is a mix of technologies, combining hardware and software to suit a specific need.
“Such technological mash-ups have long been regarded as a specialty of Israel’s high-tech entrepreneurs.
“Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the company bears the unmistakable stamp of Israel’s most successful and secretive technology incubator … Unit 8200.”
Unit 8200 vets who launch new outfits usually recruit from the unit.
“When hiring new engineers and programmers, they typically turn to their former unit, safe in the knowledge that the military has invested heavily in selecting and training its recruits,” the Financial Times reported.
The brain drain from Unit 8200 is becoming a problem, one that also exists in the United States and other industrial countries where the brightest and the best are often lured from government work to the high-paying private sector.
Israel’s military “is losing in its struggle with high-tech and start-up companies as more talented people prefer to earn a fat salary than serve in the unit,” said Yuval Dror of Haaretz.
Military officials say efforts are under way to provide high flyers in Unit 8200 with enough incentives, though not hefty salaries, to stay in the unit.
“The army … understands that it has to invest special resources in technological manpower, that they need to get conditions, service plans, benefits,” one senior officer explained.
He stressed that Unit 8200 is a unique military institution because “we allow free thinking and creativity in order to allow the technology people to deal with their tasks.”
Unit 8200 is widely seen to have been a key player in the Flame cyber attack on Iran, and some Arab states, in recent weeks.
It was also deeply involved in the ground-breaking Stuxnet malware attack on Iran’s uranium enrichment program, a vital element in the quest for nuclear weapons, in 2009-10 that U.S. officials say was jointly mounted by Israel and the United States.
These operations have launched a new era of warfare and the Israelis, spearheaded by Unit 8200 and its alumni are certain to be leading the way in developing new and more powerful cyberweapons.