By mid-February of this year, an investigation team of journalists from 30 outlets, including the London Guardian, The Washington Post, Le Monde and the Israeli daily Haaretz, under the supervision of the French-based non-profit Forbidden Stories revealed that an Israeli firm tried to influence more than 30 elections around the world – with the two-thirds in Africa – by hacking, sabotage
and disinformation inter alia.
The company, with no legal existence, was dubbed ‘Team Jorge’ by journalists who posed as potential clients. They chose this nickname after the pseudonym of its boss, 51 years old Tal Hanan. The company, who offers a range of ‘black ops’ to intelligence agencies, political campaigns and private companies. Its offices are located in Modi’in, in an industrial area between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Hanan is also CEO of Demoman, an Israeli private security company, founded in 1999 whose skills are political and corporate intelligence and disinformation with offices in the US, Switzerland, Spain, Mexico, Colombia and Ukraine.
Tal Hanan served in as an explosive ordnance disposal officer in the Israeli Army special forces (IDF). He has also been the IDF’s liaison officer to the US Sixth Fleet Special Forces Command.
According to its website, Demoman offers consulting services for government agencies around the globe, in North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia. Demoman’s motto is ‘the best defense is offense’.
Its assistance also involves countering complex threats, using sophisticated intelligence and covert operational services. Its management team includes former senior security, intelligence, military and law enforcement officers from Israel, United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada, and Spain. However, write the investigative journalists, Tal Hanan, cannot use directly Demoman’s hacking skills because the company is registered with the Israeli Defence Ministry and because the activity he performs through Team Jorge, is illegal.
Another important figure of Team Jorge is 63 year old Mashy Meidan aka Max, specialized in psychological warfare and influence operations. He is the former boss of an Israeli Security company in Panama. Beforehand, he worked with Shin Bet home intelligence service as another Team Jorge’s member called Shuki Friedman.
Eventually, there is Hanan’s 55 year old brother, Zohar, a specialist in Intelligence and hacking-for-hire, influence operations and former intelligence officer and polygraph expert
Clients include multinational firms in Europe or African governments who wish to influence an election. In order to do that, one of the tools used by Team Jorge is a platform called AIMS for ‘Advanced Impact Media Solutions’ used to create fake profiles on Instagram, Twitter, Bitcoin, Amazon, YouTube or Facebook.
According to the investigators, by 2023, it had set up 40,000 fake profiles to manipulate the social media and created an army of cyborgs or avatars who post comments or intervene in debates. Team Jorge reportedly began such job in 2017, as a subcontractor of the British consultancy Cambridge Analytica which was accused to have spread fake news on Donald Trump’s adversaries.
According to the consortium of journalists, Team Jorge hacked the mailboxes of several African leaders and when asked by a potential client if it could postpone of cancel the result of elections it said it would charge the client 6 million Euros for the job. Reportedly, Tal Hanan is using the most sophisticated tools on the market, namely for the personal data collection and the location of users, enabling thus hackers to access data from mobile phones. However, the investigators were unable to find a list of Team Jorge’s clients. Last but not least, Team Jorge has developed mediatic intelligence. That means detecting that for instance a media is writing a story on a client, meet the journalist who is investigating the story and warn the client about a looming crisis. Then, set up a retaliation, either by creating a distraction from the topic or by undermining the credibility of the information or of its author.
Hanan’s main success: Macky Sall’s reelection in Senegal in 2019
In Africa, Team Jorge’s main success was the reelection of President Macky Sall in Senegal, in 2019.
According to Le Monde, Hanan and his team helped him to secure a victory, while The Guardian claims that the team spread disinformation through digital robots. The former Israeli intelligence officer told proudly his visitors that he was hired by Macky Sall to influence the election through the dissemination of fake news, the hacking of political rivals, the creation of fake accounts and the manipulation of media.
It is difficult to estimate precisely Team Jorge’s real influence in the campaign. Yet, Macky Sall was reelected for a five-year mandate with 52.26 percent of the votes.
“The Great Hack” in Nigeria
Previously, Team Jorge was subcontracted by Cambridge Analytica to influence the presidential election in 2015 and help President Goodluck Jonathan to be reelected and win against Muhammadu Buhari. A few weeks before the ballot, Hanan travelled to Nigeria and exchanged e-mails to that effect with Cambridge Analytica’s expert Brittany Kaiser, which were published in a Netflix documentary titled “The Great Hack”.
Team Jorge’s task consisted in the search for intelligence which could be used against Buhari, say the authors of the investigation.
According to The Guardian, Buhari’s e-mails were hacked during the campaign. The Forbidden Stories investigation also reveals that Hanan told its reporters that the cell phones of Buhari’s party leaders stopped working on Election Day.
A partial victory was achieved by Team Jorge which managed after the publication of a report on women who had not been able to cast their votes on time to obtain a six weeks postponement of the ballot. Hanan does not disclose the name of its clients but reporters note that during the campaign, Cambridge Analytica was working with Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign team. Former Cambridge Analytica employees also claimed that “Israeli hackers” gave them medical and financial documents relating to Buhari. But all in vain, since Goodluck Jonathan was severely defeated.
Hacking Kenyan presidential candidate’s aides
More recently, Team Jorge was involved in the August 2022 presidential election in Kenya. Several aides to the candidate William Ruto who eventually won the ballot were hacked by Team Jorge. One of them, the investigation revealed, was Farouk Kibet – the right-hand man of the now Kenyan President William Ruto.
Jorge and his staff also showed to undercover journalists hacked email and Telegram accounts of Davis Chirchir, at the time head of Ruto’s campaign and presently Minister of Energy, of former MP James Omingo Magara and of the election campaign adviser Dennis Itumbi.
However, the destabilization attempt failed since eventually Ruto won the election by a narrow margin against his rival, Raila Odinga (50.49% against 48.45%). Yet, the material hacked by Team Jorge was used in the delegitimization campaign that followed the announcement of the results and led to violence and a legal battle contesting the outcome. Raila Odinga’s campaign was indeed partly based on allegations that named two individuals whose accounts had been hacked.
Launching an anti-Polisario campaign on behalf of Morocco
Team Jorge does not only try to influence elections but carries out also operations. Hanan’s cyborgs army conducted a campaign in 2022 with the hashtag #PolisarioCrime, claiming that the movement for the liberation of Western Sahara (the Polisario Front) has ties to Hezbollah and Iran. Team Jorge encouraged the broadcast by the French news channel BFM-TV of a documentary voicing the Kingdom of Morocco’s propaganda over Western Sahara. According to the Paris daily Libération, BFM-TV’s anchorman Rachid M’Barki who is a French-Moroccan binational broadcasted this turnkey footage over an Economic Forum which took place at Dakhla, the capital of the portion of Western Saharan which is not considered as Moroccan territory by the international community. M’Barki who referred nevertheless to the “recognition by Spain of the Moroccan Sahara”, was sacked in February after being exposed by the Forbidden Stories investigation.
In another episode of this saga, undercover reporters were shown by Hanan how to generate a smear campaign against the Chadian government. In a few seconds, Hanan managed to produce ten negative tweets, dubbing the “incompetence and nepotism” of the Chadian President, Idriss Deby Junior. Since a Team Jorge operator can manage simultaneously up to 300 fake profiles, in two hour time, a country can be flooded with this kind of narrative.
Tal Hanan also hacked the Gmail account of the Mozambican Agriculture Minister Celso Ismael Correia. According to Zohar Hanan, there are only three no-go areas for Team Jorge: Israel’s territory because “we don’t shit where we sleep”, accordingly. The others are American domestic politics and “Mr Putin”.