Magazine article The Spectator

The Curious Case of the Spy Who Fell to His Death

Magazine article The Spectator

The Curious Case of the Spy Who Fell to His Death

Article excerpt

When a man falls to his death from a balcony, some cynics wonder: was he pushed?

When that man happens to be the most infamous spy in the history of the modern Middle East, it's the first question on everyone's lips.

On 27 June the body of Ashraf Marwan was found on the pavement below his flat in Carlton House Terrace, one of London's most expensive streets, which overlooks the Mall and St James's Park. Marwan was an astonishingly well-connected Egyptian, the son-in-law of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president and hero of pan-Arabism, and the consigliere of Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat.

After Sadat's assassination in 1981 he moved to London where he quickly established himself as a key player in the business world, in particular as an ally of Tiny Rowland in his bitter struggle with Mohamed Al Fayed over the ownership of Harrods. He was thought to have a personal fortune of £100 million.

But Marwan's business dealings are only a small part of his story. The real drama came in October 1973 when he warned Israel that Egypt and Syria might attack, just hours before the Yom Kippur war began. Marwan was a Mossad agent, but he may also have been an Egyptian double agent. And the great unsolved mystery of Marwan's life and, perhaps, the key to understanding his death is whether, when he warned Israel, he was acting as a Mossad agent or to preserve his credibility as a double agent, thinking that he was leaving Israel too little time to prepare for war.

Marwan had volunteered to work for Mossad in 1969 and the then president's sonin-law became one of the agency's most important spies. After Sadat succeeded Nasser Marwan became an even more pivotal figure in Egypt, but he continued to help Mossad. He apparently warned Israel that in May 1973 it would be attacked, a tip-off that prompted Israel to mobilise. But no attack came. Then, on 5 October 1973 in a meeting he had requested with the director of Mossad, Marwan disclosed that an attack would be launched on Israel the next evening. The assault began the next day at two in the afternoon.

The initial hours of the war are the nearest that Israel has ever come to being destroyed by Arab arms; and it rattled Israel's national confidence. Eli Zeira, then head of Israeli military intelligence, was blamed and consequently lost his job and left the army. Zeira did not take this well. He brooded over how and why the legendary Israeli security establishment could have failed, and he came to the conclusion that it had been duped. In Myth Versus Reality, a book first published in 1993, Zeira argued that a double agent had been responsible for Israel's failure to see the war coming.

It wasn't difficult to work out who Zeira thought this double agent might be. Ahron Bregman, an Israeli historian, deduced Marwan's identity after talking to Zeira's editor and began dropping hints in books and articles. In 2002 Marwan responded with an outright denial in an Egyptian newspaper.

Bregman then challenged Marwan to prove that he wasn't the agent in question. News of the spat was reported in the Israeli press and so for the first time Marwan was named as a spy in Israel.

Now comes the plot twist that even the most audacious writer of fiction might balk at:

Marwan made contact with Bregman and the two men met in person for the first time, on 23 October 2003 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Park Lane. Bregman recalls that Marwan asked him for his help in writing a book called October 1973 -- What Happened. …

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