An Iranian engineer who was recruited by Dutch intelligence helped the United States and Israel infect computers used in Iran’s nuclear program with the Stuxnet cyber weapon, according to a new report. Discovered by researchers in 2010, Stuxnet is believed to have been designed with the aim of sabotaging the nuclear program of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The virus targeted the industrial computers —known as programmable logic controllers— that regulated mechanical and electronic hardware in Iranian nuclear installations. By compromising the software installed on these computers, Stuxnet manipulated the rotor speed of nuclear centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. By increasing the centrifuges’ rotor speed to unmanageable levels, Stuxnet rendered many of these machines permanently inoperable.
Most observers agree that Stuxnet was a joint cyber sabotage program that was devised and executed by the United States and Israel, with crucial assistance from Germany and France. But now a new report from Yahoo News claims that the contribution of Dutch intelligence was central in the Stuxnet operation. Citing “four intelligence sources”, Yahoo News’ Kim Zetter and Huib Modderkolk said on Monday that Holland’s General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) was brought into the Stuxnet operation in 2004. In November of that year, a secret meeting took place in The Hague that involved representatives from the AIVD, the United States Central Intelligence Agency, and Israel’s Mossad.
It was known that the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons program was crucially assisted by A.Q. Khan, a Pakistani nuclear physicist and engineer. In 1996, Khan sold the Iranians designs and hardware for uranium enrichment, which were based on blueprints he had access to while working for a Dutch company in the 1970s. By 2004, when the Dutch were consulted by the CIA and the Mossad, the AIVD had already infiltrated Khan’s supply network in Europe and elsewhere, according to Yahoo News. It also had recruited an Iranian engineer who was able to apply for work in the Iranian nuclear program as a contractor. This individual was provided with proprietary cover, said Yahoo News, which included two “dummy compan[ies] with employees, customers and records showing a history of activity”. The goal of the AIVD, CIA and Mossad was to have at least one of these companies be hired to provide services at the Natanz nuclear facility.
That is precisely what happened, according to Yahoo News. By the summer of 2007, the AIVD mole was working as a mechanic inside Natanz. The information he provided to the AIVD helped the designers of Stuxnet configure the virus in accordance with the specifications of Natanz’s industrial computers and networks. Later that year, the AIVD mole was able to install the virus on Natanz’s air-gapped computer network using a USB flash drive. It is not clear whether he was able to install the virus himself or whether he was able to infect the personal computer of a fellow engineer, who then unwittingly infected the nuclear facility’s system. The Yahoo News article quotes an intelligence source as saying that “the Dutch mole was the most important way of getting the virus into Natanz”.
It is believed that, upon discovering Stuxnet, the Iranian government arrested and probably executed a number of personnel working at Natanz. The Yahoo News article confirms that there was “loss of life over the Stuxnet program”, but does not specify whether the AIVD mole was among those who were executed. The website said it contacted the CIA and the Mossad to inquire about the role of the AIVD in the Stuxnet operation, but received no response. The AIVD declined to discuss its alleged involvement in the operation.