Israel's Egyptian spy: Double agent or nothing?

Solving the mystery of the Egyptian Ashraf Marwan, considered the most senior spy in Israel’s history, who warned before Yom Kippur 1973 that war was about to break out.

TANK reinforcements crossing to the bridgehead on the west bank of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War, 1973.  (photo credit: NATIONAL PHOTO COLLECTION)
TANK reinforcements crossing to the bridgehead on the west bank of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War, 1973.
Dr. Ashraf Marwan remains a riddle in his death, just as he was in his life.
The man who for a large part of the Israeli intelligence community is considered the most senior spy in the history of the state, the one who warned on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1973 that war was about to break out, was also, according to others, a double agent who was trying to get the Israelis to fall into his trap – with some success.
He was an Egyptian billionaire, and happened to be the son-in-law of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. He also served in the Presidential Office under Nasser and was a close aide to Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat.
On June 27, 2007, at the age of 63, he died mysteriously.
“I do not have to prove to anyone that our sources were first-class,” says Zvi Zamir, head of the Mossad in 1973, and the one who met with Marwan on October 5 in London and heard about the date of the war.
“In Military Intelligence, they treated him as a double agent without having any proof. We proved that he was not. I hope you will understand the importance of such intelligence at a time when war was expected. Ashraf Marwan was an unparalleled source in our history.”
Eli Zeira, who was the head of Military Intelligence during the Yom Kippur War, led the double-agent theory, but it turns out that in the intelligence division, Zeira wasn’t alone in his theory: Maj.-Gen. (res.) Shlomo Gazit believes that Marwan’s contribution was mostly harmful, since the warning he delivered came only hours before the outbreak of the war.
“Fifty-five percent [certain that] Marwan was a double agent,” Gazit volunteered. “I did not care about his death, but the phenomenon is important to me. I have a clear opinion – whether he was a real agent or a double agent – that the damage he caused was terrible. If we hadn’t used Marwan, the State of Israel, being led by the IDF, would have prepared for the war a week earlier when news began to arrive about what was happening in Egypt. But they said that if Marwan didn’t tell us about it, it wasn’t serious, it was just an exercise. That doesn’t mean he was a double agent. But the fact is that when you have a super-agent – a super-super-super agent – you are enslaved to him.”
In Lugano, Switzerland, I caught up with Dr. Ahron Bregman, who lives in London and teaches at King’s College in the Department of War Studies. Bregman was the man who revealed Marwan’s name in 2002, and he was the Israeli who was closest to the Egyptian spy in his last years, particularly in his last days.
Last year Bregman published a book called The Spy who Fell to Earth about his relationship with Marwan.
“Double agent? My opinion isn’t any better than yours or Joe Schmo’s,” Bregman says. “But I think the opposite of what Zamir thinks.
He has a clear interest in Marwan not being ruled to be a double agent, because what a failure it would be if he were a double agent. When people think about spies, they think it’s like it’s straight out of the Cold War.
“In my opinion, Marwan wasn’t like that. What was important to Ashraf was Ashraf. He had a lot of fun in terms of his status when Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin wanted to hear his opinion, or when Zamir met with him.
It inflated his ego, and that’s why he loved the game. In the moment of truth, moments before the war, I think he asked himself, ‘Am I an Israeli or an Egyptian?’ He came to the conclusion that he was Egyptian and he misled us. That’s the story of Ashraf Marwan.’”
Somebody will kill him
On June 26, 2007, the day before his death, Marwan left Bregman three messages on his answering machine, asking him to call him back. The relationship between the two came about in a strange way: Bregman, who had written several books, became obsessed with discovering the identity of the spy known as “Babylon” or “Angel.”
By putting together a puzzle of clues, he was able to arrive at Marwan, who had unbelievable connections. The man was Nasser’s son-in-law, and was very close with the Egyptian leadership.
“Eli Zeira did not want to cooperate with me, because after all he had written a book of his own,” says Bregman. “There was a need for verification, and Rami Tal, a very well-known journalist, edited Zeira’s book. Understand what kind of an obsession I had. I flew to Tel Aviv to meet him. I knew he wouldn’t say the name but they probably told him.
What was I doing? I was observing from his body language whether Ashraf was the spy. I rehearsed at home in front of the mirror. Nine minutes into the conversation and I decided that I would burst out, randomly: ‘Ashraf Marwan is the spy,’ and then I looked in the direction of his face and ears.
At Tel Aviv’s Beit Sokolow, nine minutes on the dot into a casual conversation, I said, ‘Ashraf Marwan is the spy.’ I got my proof.”
In the book he did not explicitly write the name but dropped clear and obvious hints. The Egyptian journalists put the pieces together and asked Marwan if he was the man.
Marwan denied it, but then a journalist from Al-Ahram met with Bregman in London, where the professor defended his reputation and named the spy.
A few days after Bregman’s comments were published in Egypt, it was Marwan on the phone, asking to meet with him.
“When I spoke, he immediately felt that I was sorry for what I had done,” Bregman says today. “Marwan was a sick person.
You could hear his heavy breathing, and suddenly you feel bad about what you’ve done. I went from being a journalist trying to uncover him, getting a massive scoop, to having to use all my energy to defend myself. We journalists sometimes run after the goal blindly, and as soon as we get it, we come to our senses... I understood that it was stupid. He wasn’t the ‘Angel,’ he was someone who had undergone three heart operations.
I said, ‘Whoa, someone’s going to kill him.’” The two agreed to meet at the Intercontinental Hotel, after Bregman rejected the offer of meeting at the Dorchester Hotel, because he remembered that they had tried to assassinate ambassador Shlomo Argov there in 1982, a shot that sparked the first Lebanon War.
Bregman took side streets to the hotel, checking constantly that no one was following him.
“He was very angry at the Mossad because at the last meeting with them, he discovered that they had recorded him, and as far as he was concerned, they had broken the rules,” he said.
“At the meeting we were both crazy. I thought he was going to kill me, and he thought I was recording him. It was a very anxious conversation. He was nervous and I was nervous, but after that, for years, we would talk on the phone just as you and I are talking now. Some of the conversations were informational, and some were for him to pour his heart out and complain, because who could he talk to? His wife didn’t know, he was protecting his children, and, so, there was only Ahron Bregman. He was very well-connected in his life, but as a spy, he was very lonely.”
Mubarak’s embarrassment
Bregman felt obliged to update Marwan on the dispute that developed during the Yom Kippur War between Zvi Zamir, head of the Mossad, and head of Military Intelligence Eli Zeira.
In 2004, Zamir accused Zeira of exposing the identity of Israel’s senior source in Egypt, thus damaging Israel’s ability to recruit agents. In April 2005 Zeira filed a libel suit against Zamir.
Retired Judge Theodore Orr was appointed arbitrator, and he decided to accept Zamir’s version. In his decision, the name “Ashraf Marwan” appeared more than once. It was no longer just an Israeli academic who was asserting that Marwan spied for Israel, but now it was the courts that had established the claim as truth. The decision was issued on June 14, 2007, two weeks less a day before Marwan’s death.
“The first time I told him that Zeira and Zamir were fighting, and that the case could go to court, he said, ‘It will never get to that point,’” Bregman recalls, “Ashraf didn’t really understand our system, and that’s why when his name was published it stunned him.”
Mona, his widow, said that in his final days Marwan had lost 10 kg. as a result of the tension, he would always check whether the door was closed, something he hadn’t done in their 38 years of marriage, and he often complained that he was afraid they were trying to kill him. In an autopsy, they found traces of anti-depressants.
On June 26, Marwan left three messages for Bregman on his answering machine. The next day, only a few hundred meters from Piccadilly Circus, at 1:30 p.m., he fell to his death in the rose garden under his fifth-floor apartment in Carlton House Terrace. Pushed or jumped, that’s the question.
PROF. URI Bar-Joseph of the School of Political Sciences at the University of Haifa has a theory about the events. In 2010, Bar-Joseph published his book The Angel, which became a film, slated for release next year.
“When [president Anwar] Sadat decided to choose [Hosni] Mubarak as his deputy, it really annoyed Marwan, who thought that Mubarak wasn’t very smart,” Bar-Joseph says.
“When Sadat was assassinated in 1981 and Mubarak took his place, it was clear to Marwan that he had nothing more to look for in Egypt, and this was despite his and Mubarak’s children being friends.”
Mubarak didn’t want to see Marwan near him, certainly not after it was published in Al-Ahram that Marwan was Agent Babylon, or the Angel, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the former editor in chief of Al-Ahram, wrote in his last book before he died. At one of the ceremonies marking the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, he wrote, Mubarak saw Marwan and gave an order to put him on a plane the next day. Mubarak understood that he was a source of embarrassment, especial- ly after the arbitration. This time the espionage was official, and the order to assassinate him was understood, Heikal said.
He wrote that he had asked Mubarak several times: “‘Maybe we should investigate whether he worked for the Israelis?’ Mubarak always replied: ‘Forget it.’ He did not want to get involved in the issue; he just wanted to get rid of it.”
Bar-Joseph notes that death from falling off a high balcony in London wasn’t a new idea for the Egyptians. Six years prior, on June 21, 2001, it was Egyptian film star Suad Hosny who fell from her balcony at her Stuart Tower residence, and it was also said about her that she was about to write a sensational memoir. In the same tower, in August 1973, Al-Liethy Nassaf, who founded and headed the Republican Guard in the days of Nasser, fell to his death.
Coincidence? Marwan’s widow claimed that he had been murdered, blaming the Mossad. Not only that, she also said that his memoir had disappeared from the apartment on the day of his death. But in an email sent by a British detective knowledgeable about the case to an American colleague, it was said that there was no evidence of the book.
Was there a memoir?
Bregman remembers how the British detective asked him about the memoir.
“I wanted to write a book myself, but Ashraf said, ‘I will write and you will advise.’ Why did he do that? Maybe he was trying to prevent me from writing my book,” Bregman estimates.
“We spoke a lot, and I feared that he was trying to trick me. I would surprise him politely, asking ‘What’s the name of the book?’, ‘In which language?’ He said in English, because Arabs don’t read books.”
So where’s the book? “The detective asked: ‘Do you have a copy?’ I said no. He asked if I had seen the book, and I replied that I had not. I was very embarrassed when I began to suspect that there was no book, because I told everyone that there was. I began to investigate.
I called every library you could think of to ask if Ashraf Marwan had visited, and finally a librarian called Mary, a deputy chief librarian in Washington at the National Archives, said Marwan had visited them twice, and she even gave me dates. She said he came with a cane, limped and said he was writing his memoirs. The second time he arrived, he brought her Godiva chocolate as a gift. I sent a letter to the English detective and said, ‘Here’s the proof.’ If there ever was a book? I hope so, otherwise Ashraf pulled the wool over my eyes.”
Bregman came to court at the family’s request. It was important for them to determine that death was murder, since suicide was considered an embarrassment in Islam, especially for such a distinguished family.
“I went to court and reinforced the murder theory,” Bregman relates, “I told him that he had reasons to stay alive. He planned to meet me. He had a book he wanted to publish, and there was apparently something in the book that caused him to be murdered. If you ask me what I think? Forty=-nine percent he was thrown, 51% he committed suicide. He didn’t want them to think he jumped, he wanted them to think he was murdered and that’s why he used me. He had planned the story after his death. He called me the day before to leave a testimony, recording himself on the answering machine.
He knew that I would save the messages. He knew me well.
Of course I saved them. He knew I would tell the world that we had talked, that I would tell them that there was a book.
Maybe it sounded a bit fanciful, but if you knew the man, you would understand that it makes perfect sense.”
No one knows exactly what happened in central London on June 27, 2007, but if there are those who can back up any theory, they are the eyewitnesses to Marwan’s death. There were four – by coincidence or not – who happened to be working in one of his companies. The four sat for a business meeting and waited for Marwan to join them. They even called and heard that he was running a bit late. Suddenly one of them saw him fall to his death.
Another coincidence?
So how did he die?
Ashraf Marwan was buried as a hero in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak said he was an Egyptian patriot, not even mentioning the suspicion that the man had betrayed his country.
“They gave him a hero’s funeral because they did not want to hurt the significance and importance of the Egyptian aristocracy,” Zamir says. “To say he was a spy would cast a heavy shadow on the group that is considered elite.
“We didn’t protect him. The proof is that the intelligence sources and the IDF, even with our pleas, let Eli Zeira and his companions express themselves rudely and make Marwan persona non grata. There, I said more than I’m willing to say.”
Gazit doesn’t give too much thought to Marwan’s death.
“I have no idea what happened. I was not aware, involved or connected. A client who led an adventurous lifestyle like he did shouldn’t be surprised if someone wants to kill him.”
It seems that the mystery of Ashraf Marwan’s life will remain unsolved, even after the 20th anniversary of his death, but that does not mean that his exciting story won’t be in the news anymore.
“I do not know a case in history, at least in the 20th century, of a spy who gave such critical information in such a critical period that had a significant impact on the way things turned out,” Bar-Joseph is convinced.
“The only one in the same league is Richard Sorge, not because he gave incredible information that the Germans were going to attack the Soviet Union in June 1941, but because he gave information about the Japanese not going to attack the Soviet Union at the end of the year, enabling Stalin to take his forces from the Siberian front and bring them to defend Moscow.
If Marwan hadn’t given the warning of the war, I think that the Golan Heights would have fallen to the Syrians on the second day of fighting, because there was no one there to defend them.”
So Bregman remains with questions.
“No one has said, ‘Okay, he was a double agent,’ and no one said: ‘They threw him from the window and he didn’t commit suicide.’ It would have been the crowning moment of my career had it not been for the tragedy. You don’t want on your conscience the thought that you made someone jump, or that you got him killed. You just say,’ It’s not good what happened.’”
Translated by Benjamin Glatt. Originally published in Ma’ariv.