Islamic Jihad Hacker Accused of Accessing Israeli Drone Communications

Islamic Jihad activist said to have infiltrated drone communication system.

An Israeli Skylark drone near the Gaza border, July 17, 2014.
Moti Milrod

An Islamic Jihad activist has been charged with hacking the Israel Defense Forces’ drone communication system by writing software that the terror group used to monitor unmanned aircraft transmissions for two years.

Majad Awidah, 23, of Gaza, was arrested in February by the Shin Bet security service and is accused of a series of security violations, including infiltrating computer systems, espionage and membership in a terror organization.

From the charge sheet it emerges that Islamic Jihad was trying to obtain information about road traffic and air traffic to guide its rocket launchers and to have general information about Israeli security forces activity.

Awida was asked to write software that would infiltrate the systems by which drones operating over the Gaza Strip broadcast images back to their operators. For this purpose Awida purchased a satellite dish and a frequency reader from the United States, smuggled them into Gaza via Rafah, and began to write the software. He tried to hack the system twice and failed, but on the third try he succeeded in reading the transmissions of a drone.

“The product allowed the accused to see the transmissions that the drone was seeing over Gaza in real time, in full HD quality,” the indictment says. “While watching the transmissions, the accused saw that the drone was collecting intelligence information about terror operatives who were operating in the field of gunfire and missile storage in the Gaza Strip.”

Awida was paid for his software, and Islamic Jihad used it from 2012 to 2014, until the frequency reader stopped working.

In fact, not all the IDF’s drone communications systems were encrypted during that period. Recently a senior officer in the telecommunications branch said that after the publication Intercept ran a piece on this issue, the matter was investigated and it emerged that Israeli systems had not actually been compromised, but that there were systems that it was decided in advance not to encrypt, and these systems were monitored.

In another case, in 2013, Awida was asked to intercept cell phone conversations made through Cellcom and Orange, as well as on the Palestinian cellular provider Jawal. The indictment says that the reason for this was to identify Islamic Jihad activists acting as Israeli informants. Awida succeeded in intercepting Jawal conversations, but not those of the Israeli companies. Awida was paid for this work as well.

In 2011, Awida was asked to write software through which one could see the transmissions of Israeli road cameras. Although these broadcasts can be seen on the Internet, Awida used a relatively simple hacking program to record the transmissions on video, allowing vehicle movements to be tracked over time, and not just viewed in real time. According to the indictment the objective was to find out where missiles and rockets had fallen in Israeli territory and to monitor the movements of the security forces.

The prosecution described Awida, an electrical engineer, as a “cyber expert,” but the indictment doesn’t indicate that he used advanced cyber capabilities. Some of the tools described are popular among young computer geeks and don’t demonstrate an advanced ability to collect data or carry out cyber attacks.

Nevertheless, the descriptions indicate that Islamic Jihad, like other terror organizations, is investing resources in trying to penetrate Israel systems and collect intelligence electronically.