It was largely by chance that Israel scored one of its greatest ever intelligence coups in 2007.
At the time, Mossad was running surveillance on the director general of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, a pudgy, bespectacled bureaucrat named Ibrahim Othman. Othman was visiting Vienna that winter to attend meetings of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and Mossad sought to learn more about his secretive activities. The Israelis hacked the Syrian’s personal computer after he left his hotel for meetings in the Austrian capital.
The Israeli government was shocked by what Mossad found on Othman’s laptop. A trove of downloaded photos detailed a box-like building being constructed on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria. Israeli and American spy satellites had detected the mysterious structure during earlier scans of Syria, but derived no special significance to it. Othman’s photos, however, revealed the building, located near a Syrian trading town called Al Kibar, to be a virtual replica of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor, a plutonium-producing facility that the U.S. viewed as a virtual bomb-making factory. The facility had no real civilian applications. The Israelis’ concern about the North Korea link was only amplified by a photo Othman stored on his laptop. It showed him standing arm-in-arm with an Asian man whom the Mossad identified as Chon Chibu, a North Korean nuclear scientist who worked at the Yongbyon facility. Chon had previously taken part in disarmament talks with the U.S. and other world powers.
While the discovery of the Al Kibar nuclear reactor sparked panic among Israeli and U.S. officials, the fact that North Korea appeared to be taking an active role in providing lethal weapons expertise to one of Israel’s enemies could not have come as a surprise. In fact, while North Korea is not often thought of in the ranks of Israel’s enemies or, for that matter, as a player in Middle Eastern affairs, the so-called Hermit Kingdom in Pyongyang has been actively bolstering states hostile to Israel, and facilitating attacks on the Jewish state, since the 1960s.