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Mystery death of the 'perfect spy'.


IN JUNE, 2007, MULTIMILLIONAIRE EGYPTIAN BUSINESSMAN Ashraf Marwan fell to his death from his fifth-floor apartment in Carlton House Terrace, in a fashionable central London area. Detectives from the Metropolitan Police described the death as "unexplained" but not suspicious and closed their investigation several weeks later. The general consensus at that time was that Marwan, 63, had lost his balance, gone over the balcony railing and plunged to his death.

But Marwan was no ordinary businessman. The son-in-law of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt and champion of Arab nationalism, five years before he died Marwan had been publicly identified as a master spy for the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, the mysterious high-level agent in Cairo who warned the Israelis on the eve of the 1973 Middle East war that the Egyptians were preparing to mount a lightning attack by five army divisions across the Suez Canal.

General Eli Zeira, head of Israeli Military Intelligence in 1973, exposed Marwan as an Israeli spy in the heart of the Egyptian government in 2002. He later denounced the wealthy arms dealer as a double agent who fed the Mossad disinformation provided by Egyptian intelligence. Officials of the Egyptian government, which decorated Marwan for his role in the 1973 war and afforded him a high-profile funeral in Cairo in 2007, have intimated that same thing.

Marwan's widow, Mona, maintains that for months before his death he had feared for his life following his outing by Zeira. His family insists he was about to produce a book revealing the truth about the affair and was murdered by the Mossad to silence him.

But Egypt's intelligence service remains as much a suspect as the Mossad. Three volumes of Marwan's memoirs, totalling 600 pages, in which he had said he would reveal all, disappeared from his apartment overlooking St James's Park on the day he died, along with the audio tapes he had used for dictation.

In the initial police investigation, one witness described two unknown men "of Mediterranean appearance" standing on the balcony of Marwan's flat, calmly looking at his body in a private garden below, before disappearing into the 15-room apartment, never to be seen again.

London press reports claimed the shoes Marwan was wearing when he died vanished from the morgue where his body was held. His family insists these could have provided a valuable clue as to what had happened on the balcony the day he died, since if he had jumped, he would have had to clamber over pot plants and an air-conditioning unit to get over the balcony railing. His widow claims he suffered from neuropathy in his feet, which means he could not lift them higher than a few centimetres without help.

"If he was supposed to have climbed over a metre-high balcony rail, there would have been scuff marks [on the shoes]," she said before the inquest. "I believe the intruders took him to the bedroom, hit him and they threw him out of the window over the balcony. A neighbour who gave evidence to the police heard him scream before he fell. Do people committing suicide scream before they fall?"

The circumstances of Marwan's death were sufficiently disturbing for a London coroner to reopen the case earlier this year. But William Dolman, recorded an inconclusive "open verdict" on 14 July, saying there was no evidence to support foul play or suicide. "We simply don't know the facts, despite careful investigation," Dolman observed. "There are many unanswered questions. Did he jump or did he fall? Here the evidence does not provide a clear answer."

Dolman conceded Marwan's death may have involved "the murky and secretive world of espionage," but he concluded: "We must restrict ourselves to a fact-finding exercise and not indulge in the luxury of speculation."

Egyptian funeral

The verdict appears to have been the last word on what the British press once described as among the "most intriguing unsolved riddles of modern espionage".

So far as is known, Marwan severed his links with Israeli intelligence in the late 1970s before moving to London, where he reportedly made a fortune selling Egyptian arms. (He had headed Egypt's arms industry for a period under Anwar Sadat).

If he had betrayed his homeland, there did not appear to be any retaliation from Egypt's security services. Indeed, Sadat secretly awarded Marwan Egypt's highest medal for his part in the war. On 6 October 2004, two years after being named as a Mossad spy, Israeli intelligence officers observed Marwan being warmly greeted by President Hosni Mubarak.

That appeared to dispel any assertion he was considered a traitor by his countrymen. When Marwan was buried in Cairo on 1 July 2007, his high-profile funeral at a Cairo mosque was attended by the elite of Egyptian society and politics.

Hosni Mubarak was not there, but his son Gamal was, along with General Omar Suleiman, the wily chief of Egyptian intelligence, and the country's most senior religious leader, Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi, who said prayers over the coffin draped in the Egyptian flag. President Mubarak announced Marwan had "carried out patriotic acts which it is not yet time to reveal".

Mawan's career

According to Israeli accounts, Marwan's spying career began after he married Nasser's daughter in 1966. Marwan expected he would be given an important government position by his father-in-law. But Nasser did not take him seriously or promote him to high office and this greatly embittered Marwan.

In 1969, the tall, elegant 26-year-old Marwan made contact with the Israelis in London.

Initially they turned him down. But after further investigation they concluded he could be a valuable asset. And he was.

"It was for us something unbelievable," recalled Major General Aharon Farkash, who until recently was head of Israel's Military Intelligence, known by its Hebrew acronym Aman, and one of the few people who had access to Marwan's "product". "In our work, we're very, very suspicious about everything," he said. "But after years we understood that this was a piece of gold."


Asked in a recent interview why Marwan became an Israeli spy, another former senior Israeli intelligence officer, Aharon Levran said: "It was the money. It was adventure. He was a special character ... He was the best. He was the best."

Other Israeli officials believe Marwan was motivated in part by a deep distrust of the Soviet Union, Egypt's major ally until the early 1970s. After Nasser's death in September 1970, Marwan became part of the inner circle around Anwar Sadat, who planned the 1973 war to regain Arab land captured in 1967 and to restore Arab honour. According to Israeli accounts, Marwan, by then political and security adviser to Sadat, provided Mossad with military secrets and high-level intelligence from Cairo.

Then, on 5 October 1973, he delivered a warning directly to Zvi Zamir, the Mossad's director, that war was imminent. Zamir flew to London to meet him in secret. Marwan was thus placed at the centre of a controversy surrounding Israel's failure to anticipate the Egyptian-Syrian attack that resonates to this day.

General Zeira, then head of Israel's Military Intelligence, bore the brunt of the blame for the intelligence failure. After the war, he was dismissed as head of Aman. He later claimed that a Mossad agent inside the centre of power in Cairo--who he did not name--was in fact a double agent who had fed Israel false and misleading information.

Marwan's identity as the Mossad's highly placed agent inside the Egyptian government remained a secret, known only by a handful of Israel's intelligence chiefs, until September 2002, when Zeira revealed it to Israeli author Ahron Bregman. Bregman identified the mystery spy in his book, A History of Israel, as a relative of Nasser, referred to by his Mossad handlers as "the in-law".

Then in 2003, Zeira publicly named Marwan as the Cairo spy. An outraged Zvi Zamir took out a lawsuit against Zeira and in June 2007, an Israeli court ruled that Zeira had deliberately leaked Marwan's identity, ending a long and bitter legal dispute between the two former intelligence chiefs.

Zamir alleges Marwan's death in London was a direct consequence of being unmasked by Zeira and went on to declare revealing Marwan's identity would cause great damage to Israel's intelligence services. "There are serious concerns about our ability to recruit quality sources in the future," he said.

For the Israelis, Marwan is considered to have been the highest-ranking agent the Mossad has ever run. According to Yossi Melman, a prolific writer on Israeli intelligence affairs, "his work was highly compartmentalised. His information was considered particularly credible, even after it was cross-referenced with data from other sources. Among other things, he provided two warnings of Sadat's intent to go to war against Israel."

"The Concept"

Melman says in Marwan's briefing sessions with his handler, the Egyptian "passed secrets about a highly clandestine meeting between Sadat and the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev" some time before the 1973 war. "At the meeting, Sadat requested advanced fighter aircraft for the purpose of rectifying Egypt's aerial inferiority vis-a-vis Israel, as well as surface-to-surface missiles in order to threaten the Israeli home front."

This information gave rise to the notorious "kontzeptziya"--"The Concept"--the belief the Arabs were not ready for war, which led Zeira to conclude there was a "low probability" of conflict.


By late 1972, Sadat had abandoned his original war plan. Instead of waiting for the Soviets to provide long-range bombers and Scud missiles he decided to stage a limited attack into western Sinai to break the post1967 status quo. This, he hoped, would spur the international community into putting in motion a political process that would result in the restoration of captured Arab land.

In this light, Marwan's reports to the Mossad may well seem to have been ambiguous, and may appear to give substance to Zeira's double-agent theory. Nonetheless, his death has added to the intrigue that still surrounds the 1973 war--did he deceive Israel with a brilliant feat of espionage or was he the saviour of the Jewish state?

At the time, Marwan's warnings were generally disregarded by Israeli intelligence wedded to The Concept. In the end he was able to give them a few hours' warning, enough to get their mobilisation process moving but it was a close-run thing. The Israelis were generally taken by surprise on 6 October 1973 and came the closest to being overrun by their foes since the state was founded in 1948.

At the same time, Syrian forces attacked the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan Heights that dominate northeastern Israel. On both fronts, outnumbered Israeli forces were swiftly overrun by columns of heavy armour and missile fire.

The Arab success was the result of extraordinary Israeli complacency, a belief the Arabs bad not recovered from their overwhelming defeat in the Six-Day War of June 1967. This, along with the Arabs' masterful use of deception and disinformation, lulled the Israeli military and intelligence establishments into a deep sense of security.

Israel's vaunted Military Intelligence, still basking in its triumphs in the months leading to the 1967 war, was convinced the Arabs were years away from being capable of mounting a major offensive. It led the Jewish state to the brink of disaster.

Double bluff?

Zeira was The Concept's staunchest ally; his commitment to that mind-set was crucial in the Israeli military establishment's failure to divine Egyptian intentions despite a series of warning signals.

He had ultimate responsibility for assessing the capabilities and intentions of the Egyptians and Syrians, and the postwar commission of inquiry, headed by Supreme Court Justice Shimon Agranat found Zeira was primarily to blame for the spectacular failure of intelligence in 1973.

Yossi Melman wrote in the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz on 17 June 2007: "By disseminating the thesis that Marwan was a double agent who fooled his operators, Zeira sought to diminish his responsibility for the prewar intelligence failure and share it with the Mossad which operated Marwan. Most experts from Military Intelligence reject Zeira's thesis.

"Committees of inquiry established by the Mossad and Military Intelligence ... concluded clearly that Marwan, known within the upper echelons of Mossad and the entire Israeli intelligence establishment only as 'The Source', was not a double agent and had not been operated by Egyptian intelligence."
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Title Annotation:Current affairs: ESPIONAGE; Ashraf Marwan
Author:Blanche, Ed
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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