Who is Yaqoub Abu al-Qia’an, the Bedouin millionaire accused of spying for Iran?

On July 12th, Israeli Bedouin millionaire and former politician Yaqoub Abu al-Qia’an was charged with serious security offenses that include alleged espionage activity in favour of Iran. The charges brought against him by Israel’s security service, Shin Bet, suggest that al-Qia’an maintained prohibited contact with a foreign agent, a Lebanese-Iraqi man, through whom he leaked information to Iranian intelligence.

Al-Qia’an was first arrested on June 10th after an investigation by Shin Bet and Israeli Police. Shin Bet have said the al-Qia’an’s suspected activities came to light as part of an investigation into ongoing attempts by Iran and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah to enlist Israeli citizens as spies. On July 7th, the District Court scaled back a gag order on this case and permitted media outlets to report that an Israeli citizen suspected of national security offenses had been held in custody for several weeks without speaking to a lawyer, although all other identifying information was prohibited.

Al-Qia’an is considered one of the wealthiest Bedouin businessmen in Israel and is known to have widespread business connections across the Gulf states. In media-interviews in recent years he stated that he grew up in poverty before he began his professional career, eventually going on to become an extremely successful construction contractor. Politically, he has been linked to former Chief of Staff of the IDF and former Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon’s short-lived Telem party. In March of 2019, Ya’alon put al-Qia’an onto the party’s slate for election to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. He did not make it into the running for Knesset, as Telem instead formed the Blue and White coalition with the Israel Resilience Party and Yesh Atid.

The indictment alleges that al-Qia’an was initially contacted by a Lebanese-Iraqi agent, Haidar al-Mashhadani, with whom he sought new business opportunities in Arab countries. Shin Bet determined that al-Mashhadani went on to act as an intermediary middleman between Iranian intelligence figures and al-Qia’an. The indictment suggested that he asked to meet with additional associates of al-Mashhadani, despite being aware that they were Iranian nationals. In the end, however, these meetings did not materialize.

It is alleged that on many occasions al-Qia’an passed on information to al-Mashhadani concerning security operations and military transactions with the United States. The indictment also suggests that al-Qia’an provided updates regarding the activities of the current Israeli Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Benny Gantz. On one occasion al-Qia’an is suspected of reporting of Gantz’s return from a trip to the United States which had resulted in the forging of an agreement with the United Arab Emirates.

At first al-Qia’an confessed to the crimes, but he later withdrew this confession. He did, however, admit to passing on limited information that was considered to be already publicly available. Lawyers for Abu al-Qia’an have denied allegations of national security crimes to Israeli media, stating that he is loyal to the State of Israel and that he only conducted business with his contact.