On April 22, 2004, Former Israeli energy minister Gonen Segev (C) appeared at the Tel Aviv district tribunal after being arrested for drug trafficking. He has now been charged with spying for Iran. Photo: AFP/Yariv Hatz
On April 22, 2004, Former Israeli energy minister Gonen Segev (C) appeared at the Tel Aviv district tribunal after being arrested for drug trafficking. He has now been charged with spying for Iran. Photo: AFP/Yariv Hatz

Israel has arrested its former energy minister, Gonen Segev, for allegedly spying for the Iranian government. The former Member of the Knesset was detained during a visit to Equatorial Guinea in May and extradited following a request by Israeli police.

According to the internal Israeli security services, Segev made contact with officials in the Iranian embassy in Nigeria in 2012 and has twice traveled to Iran meet his handlers.

It is not surprising that Segev was willing to cooperate with Israel’s most hated foe. Since leaving politics in the mid-1990s, he has been involved in a number of sordid affairs.

In 2003, while in Hong Kong, he reported that several thousand dollars had been withdrawn from his account illegally and demanded compensation from an Israeli credit card company. However, security footage showed he had made the withdrawals himself and Segev was charged with fraud.

The M&M’s drug run

In 2004, the good doctor was arrested trying to smuggle 32,000 tablets of ecstasy into the country while claiming they were M&M’s. He spent two years in jail and had his medical license revoked. No one was surprised that the former minister had shown a lack of moral fiber and agreed to work against his homeland.

What was surprising was the ability of Iran to recruit an asset of Segev’s caliber. The Israeli police called the case “one of the most severe security cases in the history of the state.” Indeed, Segev was a minister in a sensitive portfolio and member of the cabinet.

Traditionally, Israel has been a notoriously difficult place for foreign intelligence agencies to recruit assets. Due to the internal solidarity and commitment to the Zionist ideal amongst its official elites, officials willing to commit treason have been hard to come by.

Notably, Segev was not recruited in Israel. The former minister had a thriving medical practice in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. A great many of his patients were Israeli businessmen and arms dealers, including former senior officials in the security forces. The network of personal connections he made in Nigeria was probably a greater asset to Tehran than his outdated knowledge from the 1990s.

Indeed, the former minister appears to have done his best to elicit information useful to the Iranians from his connections with ties to the Israeli security establishment. An Israeli source high up in the security forces explained that “if they paid him with a credit card, sent him an email, used their cellphones or left a bag outside the room during treatment (in Segev’s clinic) – they were significantly exposed to Iranian espionage.”

International arms trade

The presence of a large community of Israeli security officials in Nigeria of all places was puzzling at first. But it is intimately tied to the growing importance of the Jewish State in the international arms trade. Israel is the seventh largest exporter of arms in the world and is officially responsible for roughly 3% of global arms sales worth $9.1 billion. Out of this, only 5% are earmarked for export to Africa.

However, the sale of arms to recognized African governments is only part of the story of Israeli involvement in the African arms trade. Sub-Saharan African states have traditionally been quite weak – although the trends are changing somewhat – and have often faced resistance from rebel groups. Unable to obtain arms from responsible Western governments due to moral and legal issues, rebel groups have had to look elsewhere for arms.

However, non-Western countries, such as China or Russia, often produce inferior products. Former Israeli security officials have stepped into the breach and utilize their connections to provide high-quality arms to rebel groups at competitive prices.

The government in Jerusalem has officially distanced itself from these sales. Support and sale of arms to them would serve as an embarrassment to Israel. In addition, the support of rebel groups can have a detrimental effect on relations with sub-Saharan African governments.

However, it is clear that the Israeli government tolerates the sales and may be involved in some cases. Ties between official Israel and some of its shadiest expats in the continent are all too common. In fact, days before his arrest he was seen celebrating Israeli Independence Day at the Abuja embassy and was spotted conversing with the ambassador.

Communities of Israeli expats, many – but certainly not all – of whom are involved in the illicit trade have emerged in various spots throughout Africa. One source in Abuja said: “He knew about all sorts of activities which are typically done in Africa, if you catch my drift.” It is clear that the types of former security officials attracted to the illegal arms trade in Africa are some of the least savory and scrupulous individuals the Israeli ruling elite has to offer.

It is not clear exactly how Segev was recruited, but individuals involved in criminal activity are susceptible to foreign intelligence agencies for two often mutually reinforcing reasons. First, criminals and smugglers are obviously less likely to have compunctions about betraying their countries. Second, individuals involved in shady practices are more open to blackmail and provide Israel’s enemies with leverage for manipulation.

The Segev case reveals that these colonies of unsavory former members of its security establishment in Africa present a security risk to Israel. The very same nod and a wink towards former officials engaged in the arms trade allowed its enemies to recruit contacts.

If Israel has not bothered to tighten its rain on its expat communities in Africa for moral reasons, it may want to do so for its own security interests.