Tal Dilian — A Former Career IDF Intelligence Officer Turned Spy Technology Entrepreneur

Murad Jandali | a year ago




Many newspapers recently reported on what was revealed by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz about a wide international network led by the former commander of the Israeli intelligence unit, Tal Dilian, which spreads its spy techniques and hacking software in different countries of the world, including the spy shipment sent to the commander of the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, nicknamed Hemedti.

Tal Dilian, who had spent nearly a quarter of a decade (from 1979 to 2002) in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), made public the name of his empire in the world of hacking following the spy van scandal in Cyprus in 2019.

According to reports, Dilian is seeking to create a strong and competitive entity for NSO, the owner of the famous spyware program (Pegasus), which prompted him to provide spy services and equipment to the intelligence of countries and dictatorial regimes in different regions around the world.


Spy Empire

The first public appearance of Tal Dilian came with the eavesdropping van with its spying equipment, which he boasted about in an interview with the American Forbes magazine in August 2019, and it is the same van that will cause him and his company huge problems with the Cypriot police and courts.

The van costs between $3.5 and $9 million, and the price varies according to how much spy technology and equipment the customer wants.

The van’s equipment can eavesdrop on electronic devices within a 500-meter radius, hack any phone and eavesdrop on conversations no matter what level of encryption they have or how much protection the apps provide, according to Forbes.

To substantiate the allegations, Dilian asked a colleague to move 183 meters away from the van, boasting that he would be able to track and intercept the colleague’s device and then infect the device with spy tools.

In the interview, Dilian forces this colleague’s Huawei phone to connect to his Wi-Fi hotspot then hacks the device from there and silently installs the monitoring software.

Dilian’s technology succeeded in hacking the phone without the victim clicking on any links, and within seconds, WhatsApp messages from the victim’s device appeared on the screen ahead of Dilian in the spy van.

This van also contains a wide range of spyware tools that Dilian provides as part of his Intellexa services, built to be the one-stop-shop for what police and intelligence agencies would need in the field.

This includes Android hacking tools, facial recognition technology on the go, listening in on calls of targets, locating all phones in an entire country in minutes, and knowing the location of a target every 15 minutes, as Dilian himself claims.

The concerned authorities in Cyprus did not receive the news of the presence of the spy van on its territory with any approval, and the biggest question came from the Progressive Party of the Working People about what the government would do about this van.

This prompted the Cypriot police to confiscate the van, open an investigation into the case in November 2019, and arrest some of the company’s workers. Then, the police sought to interrogate Tal Dilian months after his interview with Forbes became public, and the repercussions of the case aggravated.

However, the investigation into the van ended with a fine for WiSpear Ltd, in whose name the van was registered at the time; the case prompted Dilian to move his company to its new location in Greece, and then change its name later.

The previous scandal followed the observation of Greek journalist Thanasis Koukakis that his phone was not working properly, as his battery began to drain quickly and conversations were interrupted for no reason, which raised the journalist’s suspicions that he was being monitored, especially with his critical writing of the economic policies of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Indeed, the Citizen Lab research institute discovered that Koukakis had been subjected to a hacking attempt by the Predator spyware, also produced by Cytrox, a subsidiary of Tal Dilian, and this program was not known before this incident.

Spying scandals soon followed in Greece, as the leader of the opposition Greek Socialist Party and member of the European Parliament, Nikos Androulakis, discovered in June 2022 that he had been subjected to a hacking attempt by the same spyware, which was after the European Parliament established a special service for parliamentarians to check their phones after discovering the Pegasus scandals.

The repercussions of Dilian’s spyware and new evidence continue to emerge in both Cyprus and Greece.

“Bangladesh and an Arab country, whose name was not disclosed, are among Intellexa’s customers. In addition to that, the company and its associated companies have also carried out their activities in Egypt and Ghana, and perhaps in Turkiye,” as reported by the investigation published in Haaretz newspaper.

A previous report by the Citizen Lab also showed a high probability of Predator customers in Greece, Egypt, Indonesia, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Armenia, Madagascar, and Serbia.

Illustration by Mark Harris, The New York Times

Israeli Hacker

On his personal website, Dilian identifies himself as an intelligence expert, community builder, and serial entrepreneur.

He says he uses his more than 25 years of experience in elite units of the IDF to improve intelligence practices for the public and private sectors.

He stresses that his tremendous success in the high-tech business will not make him forget his roots and that he works to improve the lives of disadvantaged youth in “Israel” through his charitable initiatives.

His website lists the addresses of his commercial activities, ranging from technology that serves intelligence and security technologies, as well as production systems for various manufacturers, drugs, solar energy devices, skin care products, and organizations working to develop the Negev and Galilee regions.

Tal Dilian was born in 1961 in occupied Jerusalem to Jewish immigrant parents from Europe, who worked as teachers at the famous Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem during Dilian’s childhood.

In 1979, Dilian began his intelligence career at the age of 18 in a special combat unit, and rose to become the chief commander of the technological unit of the IDF’s Intelligence Corps, known as Unit 81, and received the Defense Award for his outstanding contributions to the security of “Israel.”

Dilian had a promising military career that could have led him to assume the position of head of Israeli military intelligence.

However, his involvement in the mismanagement of funds in Unit 81 delayed his promotion, forcing him to retire from the Army in 2003, when he had managed an annual budget of $150 million.

Subsequently, Dilian founded and co-founded several non-profit organizations, such as Atidim, an educational project for Jewish youth.

Dilian is also the co-founder and senior director on strategic regional development projects in the periphery of northern and southern “Israel.”

In 2005, Dilian entered the world of trading and investments from the gateway of the private information technology sector, where he co-founded several startups such as Solar Edge and Vidyo.

In 2009 and 2010, Dilian also worked as a Principal Security Engineer at American AGT and as a Special Advisor to the President of Punj Lloyd Ltd, a Singapore-based infrastructure company.

He is also a member of the board of directors of Objet, the world’s leading 3D printing company.

During those years, Dilian has founded several innovative and forward-thinking companies in the field of cyber intelligence, including Circles Technologies Ltd, Sirbal Ltd, and WiSpear Ltd.

After the spy van scandal, the Cypriot authorities issued a request for the arrest of Tal Dilian through Interpol, but Dilian’s lawyer settled the case after paying a fine of one million euros, according to the New York Times on December 8, 2022.

In 2020, Dilian moved to Athens and founded Intellexa in collaboration with Avraham Shahak Avni and Merom Harpaz, who headed Unit 81 before Dilian.

Among Dilian’s announced activities, its most important project is Intellexa, which describes itself as licensed and headquartered in the European Union.

Allegedly, Intellexa was set up to fight crime and help intelligence protect communities through surveillance and hacking, but evidence indicates that this project is nothing more than a large hacking organization.

Intellexa is a marketing brand that unites multiple names of suppliers and makers of paid spy technology, companies, and entities that remain shrouded in mystery, with the goal of creating a one-stop shop for all aspiring spy customers.

Illustration by Haaretz

Dilian’s ambition focused on competing with the biggest names in the Israeli spy industry market, specifically the NSO Group, which is famous for its Pegasus mobile phone spying software, in which the Citizen Lab tracked its intrusions into the phones of journalists, activists, and officials in 45 different countries.

As for the size of the company’s spread, Haaretz revealed that it includes Greece, Indonesia, the UAE, “Israel,” Greece, North Macedonia, Hungary, France, Ireland, and the Virgin Islands.

It is noteworthy that Intellexa can have a broader customer base because it does not comply with Israeli law or any other regulation, a source in the Israeli spyware industry told Haaretz.