Court filing links spy exposed by AP to Israel's Black Cube

RAPHAEL SATTER and ARON HELLER
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In this image from video, a man identified as former Israeli intelligence officer Aharon Almog-Assouline speaks during an interview at a restaurant in New York on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. Newly filed Canadian court documents say Almog-Assouline bears a “striking resemblance” to a spy active in Toronto in 2017. (AP Photo/Joseph Frederick)

LONDON (AP) — A Canadian attorney says he appears to have been targeted by the same undercover operative unmasked by The Associated Press at a New York hotel last month , drawing a line between the man and the notorious Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube.

In a court filing made public last week, Toronto attorney Darryl Levitt says that the spy, whose real name is Aharon Almog-Assouline, "bears a striking similarity" to a man he identified as an alleged Black Cube operative.

Levitt says he was targeted because of his involvement in a long-running legal battle between two Canadian private equity firms, Catalyst Capital and West Face Capital. Previous media reports have hinted at a link between Almog-Assouline and Black Cube, but Levitt's Feb. 21 claim before Ontario's Superior Court of Justice is the first attempt to substantiate the connection by requesting receipts and surveillance footage.

Black Cube has previously acknowledged doing work on the Catalyst case, which centers on allegations of stock market manipulation. In an email, Black Cube's Canadian lawyer, John Adair, said he had no comment on Levitt's filing. Almog-Assouline also didn't immediately return messages Wednesday.

Levitt made his claim after reading the AP's account of how Almog-Assouline was caught trying to extract information from an employee of Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity research group, at the Peninsula Hotel in New York on Jan. 24. Levitt declined to comment for this article, but in his 115-page filing he said the photograph published by AP bore a powerful resemblance to a man he knew as Victor Petrov.

Petrov masqueraded as a London consultant and invited Levitt to Toronto's Hazelton Hotel under false pretenses on Oct. 11, 2017. Levitt said in the court filing that he was asked "a series of increasingly suspicious questions which appeared designed to elicit confidential and/or embarrassing information."

Almog-Assouline hasn't answered any questions from the AP since last month's ambush, when — while still masquerading as a French consultant named Michel Lambert — he denied working for Black Cube.

He was unmasked shortly after sitting down to lunch with Citizen Lab's John Scott-Railton and asking pointed questions about his group's role in documenting the use of Israeli hacking tools to spy on slain Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi's inner circle.

The Lambert and Petrov aliases appeared to use some of the same cover stories during their undercover operations.

Levitt said Petrov boasted of his "enormous experience" in Africa; Lambert told Scott-Railton he knew the continent well. The names of their fictitious companies sounded similar: Petrov said he worked for KWE Consulting; Lambert said his employer was CPW Consulting. Neither company was found in corporate databases examined by the AP or at addresses visited by reporters.

Some of the small talk used by the Lambert and Petrov personas appears to be drawn from Almog-Assouline's real life experiences. Lambert claimed Morocco as his native country; a former colleague said that's where Almog-Assouline lived until his move to Israel as a teenager. Lambert had also claimed to be a fan of Punch cigars; on WhatsApp, the mobile messaging service, Almog-Assouline's profile photo consisted of a Punch cigar logo which he deleted after reporters began sending him messages.

Almog-Assouline had served on the municipal council of the upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon between 2013 and 2018, where former associates said it was an open secret that Almog-Assouline was a veteran of Israel's intelligence services.

Fellow councilman Marc Mimouni said Almog-Assouline served in the Mossad, the Jewish state's storied external espionage agency. The Israeli prime minister's office, which oversees the Mossad, didn't return a message seeking comment.

Mimouni said he didn't think Almog-Assouline had it in him to be a dirty trickster, saying he was a good friend and a fun, friendly "team player."

"The man I know gave the impression of a patriot who would not do anything bad for the country," Mimouni said.

Others familiar with Almog-Assouline take a different view.

Ramat Hasharon's former deputy mayor, Nurit Avner, said Almog-Assouline had ridden her coattails into local politics and then ditched her party after the pair were elected, a move she described as a cynical betrayal.

"I had a bad experience with the man," she said. "Nothing connected to him would surprise me."

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Aron Heller reported from Ramat Hasharon, Israel.

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Online:

Darryl Levitt's court filing: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5750598-Darryl-Levitt-s-Court-Filing.html

More documents on the undercover operatives: https://www.documentcloud.org/search/projectid:42174-Citizen-Lab-Undercover-Op

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Do you know anything about Almog-Assouline, Black Cube or the undercover operatives? Raphael Satter is reachable at: http://raphaelsatter.com