Interview: Israel’s ‘Prisoner X’ linked to 2010 al-Mabhouh killing

Ben ZygierThis morning I spoke to SBS Radio Australia’s Greg Dyett about the mysterious case of Ben Zygier, an Australian-born naturalized citizen of Israel, who is said to have killed himself in 2010 while being held at a maximum-security prison near Tel Aviv. As intelNews reported on Wednesday, Zygier, who is believed to have been recruited by Israel’s covert-action agency Mossad, had been imprisoned incommunicado for several months and was known only as ‘Prisoner X’, even to his prison guards. Is there any connection between Zygier’s incarceration and the January 2010 assassination of Palestinian arms merchant Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in Dubai? And what could Zygier have done to prompt Israel to incarcerate him? You can listen to me discuss this mysterious case in an eight-minute interview here, or read the transcript, below.

Q: You say that, after conferring with your contacts in Israel, Europe and the United States, you believe that Ben Zygier had some sort of involvement in the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January 2010.

A: Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was a weapons procurer for the Palestinian militant group Hamas. At this point, there is little doubt that the Mossad was behind this operation. Several members of the team that killed al-Mabhouh were using third-country passports —Irish, British, Australian, and others— to travel to and from Dubai. In the aftermath of the assassination, there were questions about how the Mossad operatives managed to get those passports; and, if you’ll remember, that led to the expulsion of several Israeli diplomats from around the world, including Australia. At least four of those who conducted the assassination were using Australian passports. It appears that, although Zygier himself was not necessarily involved with the assassination on the operational level, he must have possessed significant knowledge about how these passports are actually obtained by the Mossad. And the general sense seems to be that his imprisonment in Israel is connected with his knowledge of how exactly this system works in Israel.

Q: What could he have done that would have prompted Israel to incarcerate him?

A: In order to answer that question one has to be aware of what is perhaps the main practical intelligence concern for Israel. The primary operational terrain for Israeli intelligence activities is of course the Middle East and North Africa. However, the problem Israeli intelligence agencies face —the Mossad in particular, which is Israel’s primary covert-action agency— is that Israeli officers cannot travel to most of the Arab world [or Iran], because Israeli passports are not accepted there. Because of this, Israeli intelligence agencies, including the Mossad, are constantly in a sort of desperate need for high-quality travel documents, which are considered indispensible in their work. Without them, they cannot fulfill their intelligence mission. So, procuring passports, especially from Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, is seen as highly important. Such passports are highly coveted because these countries are seen as politically neutral and their passports do not carry the baggage that you get when you carry, say, an American or an Israeli passport, especially around the Middle East. Therefore, a person like Zygier, if he had knowledge of how the system works and how exactly Israeli intelligence procures these passports, would have been absolutely critical for the operational cohesion of an agency like the Mossad.

Some people tend to think that, because Zygier was incarcerated in Ayalon, the same prison and the same cell that was built specifically for the person who killed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, his crime must have been comparable in magnitude to killing an Israeli political leader. Now, I personally don’t think so. I think what he must have done is somehow compromised himself by collaborating with a foreign intelligence agency in the weeks or months following the al-Mabhouh assassination. Now, was that agency the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation? Was it perhaps the authorities in Dubai, who were investigating the al-Mabhouh assassination? Did he perhaps decide for some personal ethical reason to turn into some sort of whistleblower, reminiscent of Mordechai Vanunu, who in 1986 spilled the beans about Israel’s nuclear weapons program? That is, of course, an unanswered question. But I think the answer has to do with one of those three possibilities.

Q: If we go back to December 2009, an Australian journalist had the first of several telephone calls with Zygier, in which he put to Zygier that he had information that he was one of three Israeli-Australians involved in the production of false identity documents, like passports. What seemed interesting to me was the fact that Zygier was prepared to engage with that journalist to the point of taking several telephone calls from him between December 2009 and January the next year, shortly before the [al-Mabhouh] assassination on January 19 and just a month before Zygier was jailed in February.

A: Yes, this is very interesting, indeed. I think that if Zygier —and it seems almost certain at this point— was recruited by Israeli intelligence, when he received that call his world must have collapsed, because for someone like him, operational discretion would have been of the utmost importance. However, he did engage with the journalist and did continue to be in communication with him. This might perhaps point to Zygier not being a full-time operations officer for the Mossad, but rather a recruit —an asset— somebody recruited for a particular operation with an expiration date, who then falls into a sleeper-agent-type mode until he is recalled. It could also point to the possibility that Zygier was involved with the Mossad but seemed to have some kind of ethical concerns about the use of Australian passports to conduct assassinations around the world.

Incidentally, you might argue that his discovery by the press was not necessarily his own fault, but rather the fault of his Israeli handlers. His name was leaked to the press in Australia, probably by Australian intelligence, which was alerted by the fact that Zygier traveled back to Australia at least four times to legally change his name and to request new Australian passports, which he then must have used to travel around the world. That raised flags for Australian counterintelligence, which must have realized at some point that the Mossad had asked Zygier to anglicize his name so that he could travel to the Middle East without appearing to be in any way connected to Israel [or Judaism]. That is sloppy intelligence work, any way you look at it.

Q: Now, attention has been pointed to the fact that Zygier was being held in a supposedly suicide-proof prison cell. Would Israel have any motivation in wanting to kill this gentleman?

A: I really don’t think so. Let us take the gravest possibility, namely that Zygier had actually compromised himself —had collaborated with an intelligence agency of a country considered by Israel to be an adversary. In that possibility, the Mossad would have nothing to gain from his death. In a case like that, once the compromised officer or agent is incarcerated, he is seen as a card, which you can use to exchange with your agents or officers who might have been captured abroad. So he would be very useful in that respect. In addition, once he was considered essentially a defector-in-place —someone who collaborated consciously with a foreign intelligence agency— the Mossad would have had a lot more to gain by interrogating him for many, many years. Through this process, it could gain valuable information about the mode of operation of that adversary intelligence agency, which would be far more productive than actually killing him. So there is nothing to be gained by simply killing a compromised officer of the kind of Zygier.

[The last question, below, and the corresponding answer, were not aired as part of the SBS segment]

Q: Do you think we will ever find out the truth behind this story?

A: Yes. I am very optimistic that we will eventually find out a lot more information than we currently have available about this case. It is interesting how, in the hours after the initial revelation of Zygier’s identity by ABC Australia, a lot of Israeli news media received telephone calls by the office of the Israeli Prime Minister, requesting emergency meetings to discuss the case. In those meetings, the media were urged to exercise restraint and were warned of “very dramatic repercussions” to Israel’s security if more about this case was released. There was also a gag order issued on the Zygier case. But at this point, it appears that a lot of Israeli media, notably Ha’aretz, one of the most highly respected Israeli newspapers, are outright ignoring this gag order. There is a lot of information being published in the Australian media, British media, American media. So it seems to me that, in this day and age, a case of the magnitude of Ben Zygier cannot remain obscure for much longer. I think we will find out eventually what lies at the bottom of this.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

5 Responses to Interview: Israel’s ‘Prisoner X’ linked to 2010 al-Mabhouh killing

  1. Peter Wallerberger says:

    One can’t help but wonder if Mr Zygier was ‘detained’ not only in order to safeguard the information he posessed but also to (a) protect him from an external threat that even the
    average safehouse couldn’t gaurantee & (b) in doing so also protect him from himself. He
    quite obviously had knowledge that certainly would seriously compromise at least two
    countries / Governments / Intelligence organisations – We are talking about huge stakes –
    Global ramifications here. ??

  2. mopsie says:

    was australia putting any pressure on israel for his release or for info on why he was detained?

  3. intelNews says:

    @mopsie: I believe that the answer to your question is almost certainly yes. @Peter Wallerberger: My personal view is that Israeli intelligence services have attained a degree of security that does not require them having to incarcerate defectors in maximum security prisons in order to guarantee their safety. However, this could be an exception. [JF]

  4. MountainGoat says:

    Don’t forget the Soviets would keep some of their most treasured technical intelligence assets under arrest. For instance, Mr. Theramin (inventor of the musical device with his name, and inventor of “the thing” eavsdropping device) even won one of the top Soviet awards and a very large monetary award, but wasn’t released from his prison! I hope the award bought a lot of cigarettes!)
    Perhaps the Israelis are regressing to old Soviet methods? I hope not.

  5. AlbertE. says:

    Again, Ostrovsky in his book talks about the threat of being incarcerated and held forever more or less incommuncao. This was a threat. A Code White was the term used for a Mossad case officer that had gone over the line and to the other side.

    The Soviet GULAG and the sharashka for the talented prisoners was quite different. Persons talented but sentenced to political crimes were housed n a prison where they would do work for the good of the state, whatever the type of work.

    It sounds as if Ben commited a very serious offense for which he was being PUNISHED.

    Ben may have had Australian nationality but was first and foremost an Israeli citizen apparantly, had done his military service and involved in Mossad operations way beyond providing passports.

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