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Israeli cyber mercenaries interfere in elections around the world but refuse to campaign 'against Mr. Putin'

By Sergey Varchenko
February 17, 2023

Journalists from TheMarker, Radio France and Haaretz posed as potential clients and contacted an Israeli group of online influencers who call themselves Team Jorge.

Journalists confirmed that the group interfered in the presidential elections in Kenya, was able to access the accounts of high-ranking officials in Telegram and Gmail, and conducted influence campaigns on social networks using bots.

Highlights from the investigation

The journalists confirmed that Team Jorge has access to the accounts of important political figures and uses bots in their campaigns.

Team Jorge employs employees with experience in the Israeli intelligence services.

The "Team Jorge" apparently organized a social media campaign for Belarusian businessman Alexander Zingman.

Below is a summary and overview of the main findings of the investigation. Read the main version in English here.

"Team Jorge" operates primarily in Africa, but promotional presentations also include countries in Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean

Team leader Tal Khanan, who introduced himself as Jorge, told undercover reporters that his specialists had carried out "33 presidential-level campaigns" - 27 of them "successfully." They hack into electronic devices, collect blackmail material, spread disinformation, interfere with elections, and run influencer campaigns on social media. Hanan said his team's meddling in the presidential election is worth about $15 million.

"Jorge" whose real name is Tal Hanan

The journalists acted as representatives of a potential client from Africa. Khanan estimated two months of work on the described order at a minimum of six million dollars and said that the money could be transferred through a French non-profit organization, a law firm in Dubai or Islamic schools.

Hanan's brother, Zohar, noted that they do not take up work only in three cases: in Israel (“We do not shit where we eat”) if the order is related to American party politics (Israelis claim they refused to help former US President Donald Trump) and if they are asked to organize “something against Mr. Putin.”

Team Jorge members told reporters they have six offices and at least 100 employees, most with intelligence experience.

According to open sources, Hanan was an explosives specialist in the Israeli special forces, and his brother Zohar worked as a polygraph examiner.

Sources in Israel have confirmed that some members of Team Jorge worked for the Israeli security service, known as the Shabak.

One of the group members told reporters that many of his "colleagues" used to hold high positions in the fields of information and financial security.

Team Jorge office in Modiin, Israel visited by journalists

Israeli cyber mercenaries have access to dignitaries' Telegram and Gmail accounts

To hack e-mail and instant messengers like Telegram, Team Jorge members work directly with mobile providers: they install devices on their equipment that allow them to send commands to OKS-7 (a set of signaling telephone protocols that ensure that a call or SMS reaches the desired addressee) and receive SMS for authorization in the desired account.

Hanan showed potential clients the Gmail account of Mozambique's Minister of the Environment, Celso Correia, who later confirmed to reporters that the provided address and contents of the mailbox were the same as his email.

Journalists Confirm 'Team Jorge' Intervened in Elections in Kenya

In July 2022, during a Zoom call, Hanan brought up the Telegram account of Kenyan political adviser Dennis Itumbi, who was then working on the campaign of William Ruto, who won the presidential election a few weeks later.

William Ruto (left) and Dennis Itumbi (center) shortly after Ruto took office as President of Kenya in September 2022
The Israeli showed reporters that he not only has access to Itumbi's correspondence and files, but can also send messages from his account.

It is not known to what extent Team Jorge influenced the elections in Kenya, but after Ruto's victory, his opponents complained to the courts about numerous electoral irregularities, and an anonymous complainant said that Itumbi orchestrated a ballot fraud scheme.

Kenya's High Court dismissed the lawsuits and upheld the election results.

Hanan said the influencer software developed by Team Jorge has been bought by the intelligence services of more than a dozen countries.

The software is called Advanced Impact Media Solutions (AIMS). It allows you to create bots that use photos of real people and can run disinformation campaigns on any social media. Journalists identified more than 1,700 Twitter accounts involved in 21 campaigns involving AIMS - together they published tens of thousands of posts.

In December, Team Jorge members told reporters that AIMS can now generate fake news based on keywords and topics using artificial intelligence.

The AIMS presentation talked about the campaign in favor of Alexander Zingman, a businessman from the close circle of Alexander Lukashenko

In March 2021, Zingman was arrested in the Congo on suspicion of arms trafficking, but was later released.

Shannon Aiken's AIMS profile: data is fake, and the photo is stolen from a real person

In October of that year, OCCRP disclosed that Zingman and another ally of the Belarusian president used offshore companies to hide a lucrative deal with a mining company in Zimbabwe.

It turned out that a year earlier, AIMS bots had launched an influence campaign in social networks in favor of Zingman - some of the materials they published were directed against his rival Vitaly Fishman. Through materials in a libel case that Fishman won in the United States, journalists identified 35 bots associated with Team Jorge.

AIMS bot-like accounts promoted articles accusing Burgess Yachts of serving sanctioned oligarchs linked to Vladimir Putin

Journalists also revealed the activity of accounts associated with Team Jorge to discredit the company, the operator of expensive yachts Burgess Yachts. In particular, a number of suspicious threads appeared on Reddit. Among the materials was a video of the alleged protests in Monaco, which, apparently, was filmed in London.

It is not known who ordered the campaign, but some bots also published laudatory articles about Julia Stewart, the head of competitor Imperial Yachts. In June, the US sanctioned the firm for providing services to members of Vladimir Putin's inner circle.