“Retired officer from Israeli Mossad” seen in UAE-controlled Socotra turns out to be Belarusian tourist

How Belarusian tourist became “Mossad officer” in Yemen
5 min read
06 September, 2023

On the evening of 26 August 2023, Yemeni journalist Anes Mansoor posted on X - formerly Twitter -  pictures of "a retired Mossad officer" sightseeing on the UAE-controlled island of Socotra in Yemen.

Based on open-source verification, The New Arab (TNA) Investigative Unit can confirm that the allegations of an Israeli connection are unfounded and some of the photos were taken in Djibouti and Afghanistan.

The images show a white man, apparently in his 30s, wearing sunglasses, and striking different poses: once with an octopus, a second with an AK-47, and a third one in front of a vehicle carrying armed men. According to Mansoor’s post, the man was part of a group that was allowed onto the island using an Emirati visa, on an Emirati airline and with an Emirati tour company.

Tweet by Yemeni journalist Anes Mansoor (525.1k followers), reportedly unmasking a retired Mossad officer seen in Socotra, Yemen.

This news quickly spread online. Many MENA-focused outlets picked it up. 

The Yemen Press Agency (YPA) in Sanaa suggested that the timing of the visit of the would-be Israeli intelligence officer coincided with “secret meetings” held between Southern Transitional Council (STC) leaders and “Zionist diplomats and military personnel in the UAE”. 

London-based Pan Arab news website Arabi21 claimed that the photos of the alleged Israeli intelligence officer had caused “anger” in Yemen.

Tunis-based Meem Magazine emphasised the intense presence of security forces escorting the visitor, as he was shown posing in front of two armed men.

Tweet by Meem Magazine, explaining how an Israeli Mossad officer was reportedly sightseeing in Yemen’s Socotra.

“Mossad” agent in disguise?

The man shown in the circulated images is a Belarusian national who currently resides in Riga, Latvia (TNA is choosing not to reveal his name out of respect for his privacy). When asked about these allegations, he said: “This news is completely fake and false. My photos were stolen from Instagram.” He explained that only the picture with the octopus had been taken in Socotra.

TNA was able to independently verify this information, and no apparent connection with Israel was found. Based on posts on social media, the Socotra visitor seems to be a fan of travel, especially to 'less accessible' tourist destinations. In March 2022, he was seen posing with his tour group near the Jebeili soap factory in Aleppo, as part of a week-long tour of Syria.

Belarusian tourist poses in front of the Jebeili Soap Factory in Aleppo, Syria, in March 2022.
Belarusian tourist poses in front of the Jebeili Soap Factory in Aleppo, Syria, in March 2022. The same man was reportedly seen in Yemen’s Socotra island in 2023, and misleadingly identified as an Israeli Mossad retired officer. [Twitter/fair use]

In another trip in August 2022, this time in Afghanistan and organised by Mzungu Expeditions, the tourist was seen posing in front of a valley in the Wakhan National Park.

Belarusian tourist seen in the Wakhan National Park in Afghanistan, as part of a guided tour there in August 2022.
Belarusian tourist seen in the Wakhan National Park in Afghanistan, as part of a guided tour there in August 2022. Multiple outlets misleadingly identified him as a Mossad officer in 2023. [Mzungu Expeditions/fair use]

Wrong person, wrong place

The original X post that circulated online showed the tourist in three different images, allegedly while touring the island of Socotra. But among these three pictures, only one was taken in Socotra.

According to material shared by other visitors on the Mzungu Expeditions tours, the picture with the AK-47 was taken in Djibouti in January 2023. While the exact location could not be determined, the surroundings match with those from pictures taken with a local teenager, who was carrying the same weapon while herding camels. The additional material is tagged with the location “Djibouti”.

Mossad Djibouti no Socotra
Surroundings shown in the picture of the alleged Mossad officer match those of pictures taken in Djibouti rather than in Socotra. [Instagram/fair use]

As part of this same tour, visitors were also gifted with custom black T-shirts to commemorate the trip, which included neighbouring Somalia and Somaliland. This is the T-shirt that the Belarusian tourist was wearing while posing in front of the camels, and other members of the tour were seen wearing it as well.

Another one of the pictures, this time showing the alleged Mossad officer in front of a vehicle with two armed men onboard, was actually taken in Kabul, Afghanistan, next to the Haidari Brothers Exchange Market. Pictures from Google Maps show the exact same blue and red facade, overlooking a busy avenue. The usage of vehicle registration plates with both Western Arabic and Eastern Arabic numerals, as shown on a passing car, is common in the country.

A picture of the alleged Mossad officer was geolocated to an exchange market in Kabul, Afghanistan. Not in Socotra, Yemen.
A picture of the alleged Mossad officer was geolocated to an exchange market in Kabul, Afghanistan. Not in Socotra, Yemen. [Mohammad Hashimi/Google Maps/fair use]

Tourism in a war-torn country

While Yemen has been in the midst of a civil war since 2014, Socotra has been spared from the violence due to its geographical isolation. Yet, the island sits on a strategic location at the entrance to the Gulf of Aden, along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

In June 2020, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized government and military facilities on the island, after deposing the local governor. Emirati presence on the island has been on the rise since 2015.

The UAE has been accused of operating tours and direct flights from Abu Dhabi to Socotra, without the permission of Yemen’s Saudi-backed central authorities. Others claim that the Emirates are allowing Israeli intelligence agents onto the island. The UAE normalised ties with Israel in 2020 through the US-brokered Abraham Accords.

TNA contacted Yemeni journalist Anes Mansoor for comments. When asked about the source of the information he had shared, Mansoor stated that it had come from a chief of tribes (Sheikh al-Masha’ikh) in Socotra. When presented with the information TNA has gathered, he stated that “he doesn’t know” and that he would refer us to the chief. At the time of publication, TNA has not been able to establish contact with the chief.

TNA also contacted the STC spokesperson, as well as the press office of the Emirati Ministry of Foreign Affairs, seeking comment on the allegations that they were allowing Israeli agents to travel to Socotra. No response was received in time for publication.

Special thanks to Haroon Rahmani, who contributed to geolocating the picture taken in Kabul. 

For questions, comments and complaints, please email Andrea Glioti (head of TNA investigative unit) andrea.glioti@newarab.com or Anas Ambri (TNA investigative researcher) anas.ambri@newarab.com.

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