Former prime minister Stephen Harper is working with former leaders of three major intelligence agencies — the Mossad, the CIA and MI5 — in a Canadian private investment company.
AWZ Ventures invests in Israeli cybersecurity, intelligence and physical security technologies.
Despite the many prominent individuals behind it, the company remains low-profile in Canada.
The head office of AWZ (pronounced Oz) Ventures is at 20 Eglinton Ave. West in Toronto, on the 10th floor of an office tower at the corner of Yonge Street.
Harper is one of AWZ’s partners and president of its advisory committee.
A glance at the company’s website shows that, along with the former prime minister, AWZ has assembled an impressive list of leaders from the counter-intelligence and business worlds.
According to his bio, the company’s founder and managing partner, Yaron Ashkenazi, served for a decade in the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) VIP Protection Division, leading teams that protected several Israeli prime ministers.
Edward Sonshine, founding partner of AWZ and chairman of the board, is the founder of RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns the building that houses AWZ Ventures.
Former Conservative public safety minister Stockwell Day is also involved with the company.
AWZ Ventures has recruited former executives of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. They include Haim Tomer — who spent more than 30 years with the agency, serving as head of Mossad’s intelligence, counter-terrorism and international divisions — and Gary Barnea, a former deputy director of Mossad’s special operations division.
Richard Fadden, former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and a former national security adviser to Harper, also works for the company.
Fadden sits on AWZ Ventures’ advisory committee. In an interview with Radio-Canada, he described the business philosophy of founder Ashkenazi, who he said reached out to him after attending a conference where Fadden was a speaker.
“Yaron has had a lot of contact with the Israeli security community. But more to the point, Israel is very successful in developing new technology, both for the private sector and for government,” said Fadden.
“He decided — you’ll have to ask him — but I think he decided it would be a good way to make some money while promoting some companies from his home country.”
Ashkenazi turned down Radio-Canada’s request for an interview, saying the company is “extremely occupied with a few major deals.”
“We are keeping a ‘below the radar’ position at this point,” he added.
Harper, who joined the company in 2019, did not reply to Radio-Canada’s interview request.
The company’s website says AWZ Ventures was launched in 2016. According to Ontario government records, it was incorporated in 2013.
Two major figures from U.S. and U.K. intelligence circles are also part of AWZ Ventures — former CIA director James Woolsey and former MI5 director general Stella Rimington.
“I think they are like many other investment, venture companies on the planet. They picked an area where they think they can make some bucks,” Fadden said of AWZ Ventures’ leadership.
The company manages $130 million and has invested in 17 companies, according to its website. All of those companies have been Israeli so far, said Fadden.
“A lot of this technology is useful in fighting terrorism and that was my main interest,” he said. “Some of the technology that has been developed helps develop a sense of what’s going on, on the one level on social media, so you can accumulate information. But mostly it’s defensive.”
As an example of AWZ’s targeted investments, Fadden cited an investment in what he calls “cybersafe control mechanisms for trains or planes. The idea is to simply develop technology that protects whomever from attacks, mostly cyberattacks these days.”
Israel is not a NATO member, nor is it part of the Five Eyes — the intelligence-sharing alliance that includes Canada, the United States, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. Fadden said he’s comfortable with helping to advance technological development in Israel, a friendly country.
“We have a very firm policy that there are a number of companies that we do not invest in, that we do not sell to in any shape, way or fashion,” he said. “For example, we don’t deal with China or Russia, just to pick two.”
The companies that have benefited from AWZ Ventures’ investments include NanoLock — which has developed a remote tool for protecting internet-connected devices from unauthorized access — and Assac, which has come up with an “anti-tapping, anti-hacking and threat management product available for the emerging corporate smartphone security and encryption market,” according to AWZ Ventures’ website.
The Israeli cyber-tech sector continues to grow at a record pace despite the pandemic, according to the Israel National Cyber Directorate (INCD). The Israeli government agency said the sector raised $2.9 billion in 2020 — an increase of more than 70 per cent over the same period in the previous year.
The sum of investments in such technology in Israel has reached 31 per cent of the value of such investments worldwide, according to INCD.