Like so many stories in the world of digital security, this one began with simple human carelessness. In 2006, a senior official in the Syrian government brought his computer with him on a visit to London. One day, he stepped out of the hotel and left the laptop behind. While he was out, agents from Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, snuck into his room and installed a Trojan horse onto the machine, which allowed them to monitor any communications.
For the Syrians, that would have been bad enough, but when the Israelis began to examine the official’s files, a photo caught their attention. It showed an Asian man in a blue tracksuit standing next to an Arab man in the middle of the desert. It could have been an innocuous meeting of friends, even a vacation photo. But Mossad identified the two men as Chon Chibu, a leader of North Korea’s nuclear program, and Ibrahim Othman, director of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission. When they paired the image with other documents lifted from the hard drive, such as construction plans and photos of a type of pipe used for work on fissile material, the Israelis came to a disturbing conclusion: With aid from North Korea, the Syrians were secretly constructing a facility at al Kibar to process plutonium, a crucial step in assembling a nuclear bomb. An International Atomic Energy Agency investigation would later confirm their suspicions.
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