Yesterday, Israeli media reported that an Israeli billionaire, Teddy Sagi, age 49, who lived on Cyprus was the target of a planned hit. He was warned before the killer struck by Israeli intelligence agents and escaped the island. The suspected killer, an Azeri national with a Russian passport was arrested. He had in his possession a pistol, silencer and handcuffs. The reports offer two conflicting accounts of the murder plot.
Sagi’s fortune is based on his online gambling and gaming empire, Playtech. He also owns London’s Camden Market. Forbes estimates his net worth as $5.6-billion, and he is Israel’s fifth wealthiest individual. He owns the most expensive residential property in Israel, worth $28-million. He does have a somewhat checkered past: in 1994, before hitting the jackpot with Playtech, he was accused of stock fraud and spent nearly a year in jail and paid a $100,000 fine. His brother was convicted of murdering an investment advisor in the 1980s.
One line of speculation notes that many Israeli entrepreneurs are entering the Forex trading market and Sagi was rumored to have been muscling in on it. One theory is that existing players in that field were angered at his business moves and sought to eliminate him. Another similar rumor says that Sagi had enormous debts to the Russian mob, which hired the hit man to eliminate him. Though it’s not clear why someone with such wealth would have trouble paying such sums.
The other account says that the operation was planned by Iranian intelligence as revenge for Israel’s repeated attacks inside Iran which sabotaged its nuclear facilities, including the assassination of the father of the program, Moshen Fakhrizadeh. The murder reached the front page of the NY Times last month, with an account celebrating the ingenuity of the Mossad in devising the first ever state-sponsored murder incorporating autonomous intelligence. It might be no coincidence that Iran would seek vengeance with such an attack.
Iran has perpetrated at least two previous attacks on the interests of wealthy Israelis: most prominently an explosion aboard an oil tanker owned by one of Israel’s wealthiest families, the Ofers. It also similarly attacked a car carrier vessel owned by another wealthy Israeli, whose shipping company has reported ties to the Mossad. Regarding the failed attempt on Sagi, Israeli media report that he is not the only suspected target. And that the Iranians have other wealthy Israeli living on the island in their sites.
Iran has denied the Israeli claims.
Unlike Israel, which has both more lethal capabilities and is less constrained by geo-strategic considerations, Iran must extract costs from its enemies in more covert ways. Attacking Israeli business interests is more palatable and less provocative than targeting security or political officials.
The suspect was born in Azerbaijan, which has a long border with Iran. Both Israeli and Iranian intelligence are known to have infiltrated the country and have major presences there. It’s not hard to believe they would have been able to recruit someone from the local underworld with Russian connections to perform such a hit. Apparently, he didn’t get very far in executing the plot. As soon as he landed at the airport, local police began to track him as he moved around the island. Independently, Israeli intelligence warned Sagi’s heavy security detail, which included veterans of the IDF’s elite commando units. of the danger and they whisked him out of the country.
A few days earlier, the billionaire’s protective detail had noticed a stranger outside his villa as he celebrated at an enormous birthday party he threw for his son. They reported the suspicious person to the local police, who had been tracking the same person for days (probably due to a Mossad tip off). Shortly afterward, Sagi’s guards were told about the plot and he exited Cyprus.
It’s worth mentioning that Israel itself has a major mob presence. The Russian underworld and billionaire oligarchs from the former Soviet Union also play a major part in the world of Israeli crime and legitimate business.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.