At first glance, the story of Gonen Segev, the former Israeli minister of energy and infrastructure, turned Iranian spy, may sound stereotypical.
The disgraced former minister got in trouble after various nefarious criminal schemes aimed at sating his greed and debts went wrong. He was caught, served time for smuggling drugs into Israel, got tied up with bad company and was almost abducted by Hezbullah. His other exploits included a fake diplomatic passport, credit card fraud, and producing a vote in favor of the Oslo Accord in exchange for his political position in the Rabin government. After serving time, he moved to Nigeria in 2012 where he supposedly worked as a doctor, In 2012, as the narrative goes, he was recruited by Iranian intelligence for a hefty sum of money.
Allegedly he turned over secret Israeli intelligence/security locations from all over Africa, gave information about Israeli energy industry, written up reports with names of Israeli defense officials, and even tried to recruit members of the security and defense establishment to introduce to his Iranian handlers. His justification? He claimed to have been a double agent, who was actually trying to give up Iranians to Israel. Shortly before his arrest, he attended Israel’s 70th anniversary in the Embassy in Nigeria, and was supposedly friendly with the ambassador. His medical license in Israel was revoked, but he continued to practice and maintained close ties with Jewish and Israeli ex-pat communities inside Nigeria. Some claimed that Segev held himself out to be employed as a doctor by the Embassy, which the Embassy denies. Others say that although he was not officially employed there, and despite the revocation of his medical license, he treated a number of employees there, and even saved the life of the Ambassador, Guy Feldman.
Sounds like a straight forward tale of a greedy self-interested sociopath, who kept getting caught up in his own schemes, and was bound, sooner or later, to be taken advantage of by much better manipulators and schemers. Segev seems like an ideal spy – clearly a skilled, intelligent, and enterprising individual with many flaws, financial problems, and no way out of a difficult situation – yet useful thanks to his vast array of contacts, knowledge, and eagerness to please in exhange for money. His motivations seem straight forward. He is not an ideologue; he is a sell out, whose impecunity and dependency make him easy to control. Yet, upon closer examination, nothing in this supposedly ideal case study of a simple recruitment operation adds up.
Segev’s jailbird schemer background should have raised red flags, considering his odd choice of relocating to Nigeria without a medical license. Coupled with his background as an energy minister, he would have been under scrutiny by the Israeli security from the moment he stepped out of prison. How Segev chose Nigeria remains unclear, but the country plays a central role in Israel’s energy policy – and in Iran’s geopolitical considerations. Iran is behind a growing Shi’a movement in Nigeria and other West African countries, looking to coopt the weak or corrupt leaders of the country, to spread fundamentalist Shi’a Islam through mosque, to challenge Saudi Arabia and UAE influence in the Sunni sector, and to find recruits thanks to generous humanitarian aid and takeover of local hospitals, schools, and universities.
Likely Segev already had some familiarity with Nigeria, and figured that the country’s shortage of experienced medics would provide him with ample opportunity even without a license. What is less obvious is how and why he could get away with treating the Embassy staff, which probably had experienced and licensed medics readily available, and would not have needed the services of a troubled ex-Minister. The bizarre relationship between the Likud-appointed Ambassador, who may or may not have been rescued by Segev, and a former Rabin official and ex-con may be just a typical story of the walking talking Israeli paradox – or it could be something else entirely. Why would the Ambassador endanger his own reputation by being publicly linked with such a character as Segev if he did not have any good use?
The story continues to fall apart under close scrutiny. The beleaguered ex-minister fell upon hard times in 2012, and, somehow evading the seemingly ubiquitous Mossad’s counterintelligence, managed to make and maintain contact with the Iranian intelligence, providing them with vital information that only a limited number of people could have access to. Some of it may have been explained away by other suspects, cybersecurity breaches, or bad luck, but giving away the locations of secret headquarters would beg the explanation of a mole and would have instantly raided alarms in the appropriate quarters. At some point, of course, Segev’s behavior became suspicious – for instance, the attempted introductions of defense and security personnel to the Iranian spooks likely would have raised an eyebrow or two even under the best of circumstances, much less in the context of suspicious security breaches, rising stakes in light of the nuclear deal, and Segev’s own status. T
he fact that he persisted in this endeavor, allegedly claiming the possibility of extracting information out of the Iranians for Israel’s benefit could only have added to the aura of suspicion. What would a former energy minister know about the intelligence gathering process and why would he be getting involved in something like that? Any Israeli security official worth his salt would have discouraged him from participating in such activity, because even a well meaning but inexperienced intelligence gatherer is much more likely to get used than be useful when dealing with highly skilled adversarial professionals.
Let’s say, however, that at some point Segev was trained by Iranians, and knew how to respond to inquiries in a way that avoided attention. Let’s say he managed to convince the Israelis, that he, an ex-con, somehow managed to figure out the Iranians, establish their bona fides, figure out what they wanted, and come out a hero. Still, even if Israelis somehow found such a story even remotely plausible, they would have worked to corroborate it prior to making any commitments. It’s unclear whether Segev ever succeeded in getting anyone to actually meet with the Iranians, but the fact that he even allowed such a possibility to linger in the air, would in itself have been worthy of interrogations. Why did he approach the people he did? What kind of promises did he make to the Iranians? Who initiated that line of discussion? What were the Iranians hoping to get out of it? Did they request anyone specific or did he make any suggestions? Unless Segev is a highly accomplished liar – and from his prior poor record it doesn’t sound like it – he probably would have failed sooner rather than later.
The plot thickens. Why did the Israelis not arrest him immediately? Why did he have an opportunity to make contacts with Iranians, with Mossadniks and others, and why was he free to attend big public events, with his reputation intact? Furthermore, why was he allowed to continue doing damage? At what point did it become obvious that he was the source of dangerous leaks concerning security locales? And how did the former energy minister gain access to information of such sensitivity that ordinarily it would only be given out on a need-to-know basis to select groups of particular intelligence operatives? Would that information not have become outdated since he “graduated” from his ministerial position and prison? OR, did Segev first get training by Iranians, and then, somehow gain trust of Israeli security officials and simply stolen that information? Your guess is as good as mine, but common sense suggests that Segev is no James Bond and would not have been able to pull off nearly as much as the prosecution claims he did without significant help.
What is highly probable is the following:
Segev, unmoored from his secure position in the government, decided to look for greener pastures, but thanks to poor past habits, quickly got into some trouble with the locals. Facing some rather unattractive choices, he preferred to seek help from his former government contacts, some of whom were already keeping an eye on him to begin with. He was likely asked to assist with some low level tasks, such as keeping an eye on anything suspicious “in the field” in exchange for partial or complete resolution of his problems. Perhaps he was even encouraged to make contacts with criminals, rivals to Israeli energy industry, or even Iranians. His cover consisted of being assigned as a doctor to the Embassy. The Embassy may have facilitated this by spearheading the rumor that he had saved the life of an important high ranking diplomat, was close — publicly so — with many important and knowledgeable people, and thanks to his work, probably had access to some good information.
In other words, Segev’s claims may not be altogether off base. He may have started out as a double agent — for Israel. Indeed, someone like Segev appeared to be a perfect and attractive bait for Iranians. Perhaps they overestimated his importance. Perhaps they figured that if they trained him well enough he could regain the trust of his former employers. Perhaps, in the paranoid worldview of the Islamic Republic, every former Israeli official is in reality an embedded Mossad spy with access to unlimited clandestine information. Either way, Iranians sooner or later started demanding increasingly sensitive information — which Israelis, who were interested in both finding out what the Iranians wanted and in misleading them, were only too happy to feed through Segev. Here’s where it may have gotten complicated, however. The life of an agent, particularly a double agent, is not for everyone. Segev was never a trustworthy character. He was greedy, opportunistic, and unscrupulous. He also likely had trouble coping with the responsibility thrust upon him. For that reason, Israelis likely were not completely open to him; Segev may have at some point thought that he was giving Iranians real information.
At some point, Iranians may have offered him enough to buy him off, and he may have gotten in way above his head. He likely was continuing with his spending habits and other issues that got him in trouble originally and needed more money than whatever he was getting in his semi-official capacity as the resident “doctor”, making on the side, or getting from Israelis and even Iranians. He may have gotten into even more trouble of the sort that even Israelis couldn’t or wouldn’t have bailed him out of. He may have at some point had to turn to the Iranians for help. Israelis, meanwhile, to keep Iranians on the hook, had to have set up some pretty elaborate scenarios to make their games look plausible. The security locations may very well have been real, but only to a point. At some point, however, it had to have become obvious that Segev was going off-script. He may have started utilizing his energy context to get information that went far beyond what he and his Israeli handlers had agreed upon sharing with Iranians. He may have started pressuring Israelis for increasingly more sensitive, recent, and “real” information, supposedly for the sake of validating his bona fides and retaining the trust of the Iranians. He may have tried to pressure the Israelis into meetings with the Iranians, in a way that made it obvious that nothing except propaganda for the regime could have been gained from these meetings.
In short, Segev’s scheming caught up with him. The damage he actually did was probably significantly less than what it appears to be simply because at least some of what the prosecution claims he did was part of the setup. However, he could have still done a significant amount of damage in other ways that we will not know for extended amount of times. It is not what the prosecution claims he has done, but what they are silent about that is disconcerting. That said, the Israelis appeared to have had Segev under control, unbeknownst to him, up until the point of his arrest. For whatever reason, it seemed important to let him believe that he retained the trust of his handlers. He was allowed to attend a big event and once again, to appear to be close to the Ambassador. All this time he was already being investigated for the violations of his agreement.
Iranians, however, had no reason to believe that anything was wrong. What happened to his Iranian handlers? That, too, will remain secret, at least for the time being. However, there is no question that some moves had to be made by the Israelis prior to or soon after Segev’s arrest, unless, of course Segev himself blew everything and there was no longer any point in keeping up appearances. Until that point, however, Segev made many trips to Europe, possibly to meet his Iranian handlers, asked suspicious questions about salaries of Mossad and Shin Bet officers, asked about their health insurance arrangements, and made inquiries into the sort of thing no disgraced former official would have any reasons for knowing. The fact that he even got to the point of being in position to ask anything of that sort (if any of this is even true) shows that likely there was some sort of a relationship between Segev and these agencies.
Allegedly, also, Segev had tried to connect private businessmen with the Iranian handlers, and that the businessmen were supposedly mostly uninterested in making such contacts. According to the publicly available information, one of them became suspicious and informed the authorities, which finally started an investigation. That is the evidence of Segev going off script; possibly he was trying to make extra money for himself. Private deals and involvement of people not directly under the Israeli intelligence’s control likely would not have been part of any official arrangement, and would have endangered the ongoing operation, and of course, much else. That Segev started at some point doing that made it clear to the Israelis that he could no longer be trusted, and that quite possibly, whatever of value he would have been given as part of his training and ongoing relationship would at some point likewise have been given away. Of course, yanking him altogether would have been out of the question so as not to disrupt the ongoing operation; for that reason, as the story goes, he continued to operate for over a year, until all the suspicions were confirmed, and the operation was wrapped up neatly.
He was caught red-handed, traveling from Nigeria to Equatorial Guinea, where he was arrested and extradited to Israel. Was he attempting to flee? Meet his handlers? That is not known, but as the story points out, he was eventually placed in a regular prison, which may indicate that he did not pass any information of significant value to Iranians — confirming that he likely started out working for Israelis, went off script but did not do any significant damage, though he may have intended and been willing to do so.
What can we learn from this curious and mysterious case? First, not everything is what it may first appear to be. In fact, much of the time, nothing is quite what it seems. Second, people like Segev are easy marks for manipulators and foreign intelligence service. Mossad knows that better than anyone, but private individuals unrelated to that line of work should be wary of getting too close to such people and getting drawn into something that they never would have normally intended to partake in. Third, the timing of the arrest and announcement of the prosecution is interesting — it happened soon after Israel’s 70th anniversary, following US withdrawal from the JCPOA, the inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, Morocco’s break with Iran, and a whole host of other relevant matters.
Why did the Israelis let Segev flee to another country where he was arrested, instead of just asking the Nigerian security to detain him? Perhaps this has to do with wanting to show his guilt; perhaps Israel has a better relationship with Equatorial Guinea — or perhaps the timing is not coincidental. At about the same time, two Iranians were allegedly assassinated supposedly by Mossad after trying to enter Libya through Tunisia to procure uranium for enrichment. Perhaps, indirectly, Israel is trying to draw international attention to Africa, and to Iran’s expansive presence in that region. Equatorial Guinea is one of the countries that has a growing relationship with Iran. In November 2017, Iran expressed interest in sharing oil and gas expertise with the country, boosting cooperation in all other economic fields as well. For more discerning readers, a story that took place in March of 2018 may give some additional food for thought. The country’s kleptocratic ruling family hired a Russian front man with links to two notable Ukrainian associates, the story goes. One is a former security official who has served time for smuggling missiles to Iran; the other is an arms dealer with business interests in various Ukrainian civilian airports. Ukrainian airplanes in the far past had been linked to smuggling of weapons to Iran. One airline was sanctioned by the US only in September 2017 for precisely that sort of activity.
The Russian, named Vladimir Kokorev, was arrested in Panama in 2015 (the Panama Papers scandal comes to mind), for playing a key role in looting the West African country. He was extradited in Spain, where he was released on bail and is awaiting trial. Allegedly, Kokorev laundered 26.5 million USD in oil money embezzled from Equatorial Guinea into Spanish real estate. He is also being accused of facilitating corrupt weapons sales, including helicopters and missiles. The corruption of the ruling family runs deep. The president’s son, Teodorin Obiang, was convicted of embezzlement in a French court, to the tune of 100 million USD in his assets seized inside France. The schemes of the ruling family, involving Kokorev, include a business network spanning Eastern Europe.
The Ukrainians, meanwhile, are tied to the scheme via companies in Panama, in a supersecret offshore jurisdiction. They have sold military and other equipment to Equatorial Guinea. More interestingly, however, Yevdokimov’s airplanes were known to have carried weapons from North Korea to Iran and were intercepted in the Bangkok airport. In the early 2000s, he was selling 12 Kh-55 nuclear missiles to Iran and China, the type that can carry nuclear warheads and would have directly endangered Israeli security. Was Iran back to its old schemes again? And was Equatorial Guinea involved? This may not be such a wild guess, since Equatorial Guinea, along with Angola, and DRC are considered to be North Korea’s close allies — and that’s as late as 2016, and despite Equatorial Guinea’s supposedly firm stand against nuclear armament — on record in numerous ways at the UN. North Korea enjoys an embassy in Equatorial Guinea…. a country, which based on its epic level of corruption, is ideal for weapons smuggling, clandestine meetings with Iranian officials, and much else. Investigations of its explicit business ties with North Korea caused Equatorial Guinea in more recent times to call for suspending business ties with that country — but so far no action has been taken.
There is no clear public connection between any of these events. Perhaps Iranians and North Koreans never met in Equatorial Guinea. Perhaps Iran’s energy interests in that country are just a coincidence. Just because Segev’s energy background made him ideal for exploring these issues on behalf of Israeli intelligence does not make it true. But if one adds up all the coincidences, the pattern that emerges makes this theory at least worth a second glance. Meanwhile, Israelis, Americans, and others, should be taking a much closer look at Iran’s and North Korea’s activities in Africa….those relationships are in place by design, and not by accident, and unlike clandestine intelligence operations, can be examined, verified, and analyzed towards understanding the bigger picture of the threats we are all facing from the least expected of places.