Spy in Cell 15: The Real Story Behind Israel's 'Prisoner X'
BY RONEN BERGMAN, JULIA AMALIA HEYER, JASON KOUTSOUKIS, ULRIKE PUTZ and HOLGER STARK
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Mossad agent Ben Zygier was found hanged in his cell and his case made headlines around the world. New information shows that Zygier, once a passionate Zionist, had become a turncoat who delivered sensitive information to Hezbollah.
The guards found the Mossad agent at 8:19 p.m., his lifeless body hanging from a moist sheet. The sheet was tied to the window above the toilet in his prison cell.
The cell in which Ben Zygier died was divided into two sections, one containing a bed, a seating area and a kitchenette, and a separate shower room with a toilet. There were three cameras monitoring the prisoner, but none of the security officers noticed that there had been no signs of life from Zygier in more than an hour. When the guards found him in the shower room, his body had already begun cooling. It was an undignified death for a Zionist who had set out to defend Israel's future. "Our job was to isolate him, not to keep him alive," one of the guards later said.
The Ayalon maximum-security prison, where Zygier was imprisoned, is in Ramla, a suburb in northeast Tel Aviv. There are 700 prisoners and 260 guards at the facility, one of the best guarded prisons in all of Israel. The prisoners in the maximum-security wing are not allowed to use the synagogue or the fitness room, with its punching bag and exercise mats.
Cell No. 15, in which Zygier died, is reserved for enemies of the State of Israel. Yigal Amir, the murderer of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was held there. Enemy of the state is also the designation with which Zygier could enter the annals of Israeli history.
It has been two years since the prisoner died, but only now are bits of information coming to light. The case has made headlines around the world, putting both the governments of Israel and Australia on the defensive. In Tel Aviv, the affair has been treated as a state secret with a gag order, which has only recently been loosened, imposed on the media. Conspiracy theories about his fate have been plentiful, including speculation that Zygier was murdered in prison.
Shadow Intelligence War
Now, for the first time, it has become possible to describe what really triggered the agent's imprisonment. For months, a SPIEGEL team from Germany, Israel and Australia looked into the case, conducting interviews with Zygier's former friends and business partners, employees of various intelligence services and governments. The research shows that Zygier -- likely unintentionally -- became one of the most controversial spies in Israeli history, responsible for the arrests of several Lebanese informants who delivered information to the Mossad. He did what no Mossad agent had ever done before in this shadow war of intelligence agencies in the Middle East: He betrayed his country to its mortal enemies.
His story is that of a young man who dreamed of becoming an Israeli hero, one who wanted to prove himself no matter how high the cost. One who failed and saw no other way out than to commit suicide.
There were no indications of this dramatic end when Benjamin Zygier was growing up in a neighborhood in southeast Melbourne. His father Geoffrey, known as a conservative Jew, ran a successful muesli business and was involved in the Jewish community. Ben Zygier attended the best Jewish schools in the city, and joined the leftist Zionist youth organization Hashom Hatzair.
After graduating from high school in 1993, he began studying law at Monash University and eventually announced his intention to move to Israel. "I wasn't very surprised that he had the guts to try something bigger in life than just working as an attorney in a Melbourne law firm," Carolyn Creswell, a friend of the family and Zygier's former English teacher, told Australian reporters.
In 1994, he made his dream reality and moved to the Gazit kibbutz in Israel to find out if the country could become his new homeland.
The kibbutz is in northern Israel, on a road lined with eucalyptus trees as it winds through the hills of Galilee. About 500 people live in Gazit, where low houses with tiled roofs stand in the shadow of Mt. Tabor. In the main office at the kibbutz creamery stands Daniel Leiton, 40, a man with strong hands and an Australian accent. "Ben was an incredible person," says Leiton -- happy, friendly and warm. Leiton says Zygier was one of his best friends.
Tense or Worried?
Zygier and Leiton met in Melbourne in the late 1980s. Though both were still teenagers, they were already Zionists at the time. It was clear to Ben at an early age that he would make Aliyah, says Leiton. Aliyah is the term used by Jews in the diaspora to describe moving to the Holy Land.
Leiton was there when Zygier married his Israeli girlfriend, and he knows the family well. The last time Leiton saw Zygier was in early 2010, in Melbourne, shortly before his arrest.
Was there anything odd about his behavior? Did he seem tense or worried? No, says Leiton. He was the same as always. The notion that his friend committed suicide is "unimaginable," Leiton says quietly, noting that Zygier was not suicidal at all. He can't imagine his friend being kept in isolation, in a maximum-security cell at Ayalon Prison.
What about as a Mossad agent? Leiton swallows and says nothing.
In the kibbutz, Zygier always raved about the Zionist dream, recalls Lior Brand, who lived with Leiton and Zygier in the kibbutz at the time. According to Brand, Zygier was clever, educated and worldly. He was also prepared to defend Israel at all costs. Indeed, he could have been the perfect man for the Mossad.
For decades, the legendary intelligence service has been waging a shadow war against enemies who threaten to obliterate Israel. Mossad agents killed Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah in Damascus in 2008 and Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010. They have liquidated Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotaged Hezbollah hideouts in Lebanon. The Mossad constantly needs new recruits for this war, which has no beginning and no end.
At the beginning of the new millennium, the agency for the first time ran public ads under its own name. "The Mossad is open. Not to everyone. Not to many. Maybe to you," read the slogan in the agency's campaign for "the job of your life."
The Search for Instability
Men like Zygier, who hold a passport from a country that is above suspicion and can travel without attracting attention, are worth their weight in gold for the intelligence service. Furthermore, under Australian law, citizens may change their names several times and apply for new passports. According to the Australian government, Zygier had three passports. He sometimes traveled as Ben Allen or Ben Alon.
The young Australian travelled back and forth between Israel and Australia. He graduated from law school in Melbourne and began working for a law firm there. He quit his job in 2003 and moved to Tel Aviv, where he began work as a trainee at Herzog, Fox & Ne'eman, one of the country's top law firms. In truth, however, he had applied in response to the Mossad advertisement and also, just to be sure, sent a fax to the Defense Ministry as well.
The Mossad's selection process includes both the background check, which delves deeply into a candidate's family history, and psychological interviews. "We try to ferret out mentally unstable individuals," says one of the doctors who conducts the tests for the Mossad. Motti Kfir, a former Mossad trainer, adds: "Our people should be self-starters but not aggressive, courageous but not without fear, open-minded but tight-lipped."
The next phase began in December 2003. Zygier had passed all tests, and the Mossad had accepted him and sent him to an intensive training program that lasts about a year. There, trainees learn various manipulation techniques and how to falsify documents, among other skills.
The Mossad sent him to Europe in early 2005, on his first mission. Zygier was to infiltrate companies that were doing business with Iran and Syria. His target was a company in southern Europe.
The firm did business with Iranian companies, and it provided the perfect cover to establish contact with Iran and recruit potential informants. The company was not initiated in the Mossad's plans; Zygier got a job in the bookkeeping department. "It was soon clear to us that he had no experience in this area," says the head of the company in a meeting at a London law firm in mid-March 2013. "But he was so talented that he had soon acquired the necessary skills."
Zygier quickly rose up through the ranks, and he was soon negotiating directly with customers. The head of the company remembers that the Australian was usually the fastest of the employees. "By 11 in the morning, he had finished tasks that would have taken others the entire day." But the head of the company also noticed something else: Zygier quickly lost interest with certain things, he seemed unmotivated and alienated business partners. Indeed, he almost lost one of the company's most important clients. "We had to let him go in late 2006," says the company head. Zygier apparently reacted calmly to the news.
He had similar experiences with other companies. From southern Europe, the Mossad sent him to Eastern Europe, but things never quite clicked. Zygier couldn't deliver, at least not enough. Officials at Mossad headquarters near Tel Aviv were disappointed and recalled him in the summer of 2007.
He was "neither especially good nor especially bad, just mediocre," says a security official familiar with the case. Zygier went from being a field agent to a desk jockey in Tel Aviv.
The Mossad is divided into three large departments. The first one is called "Keshet" ("Rainbow") and is responsible for surveillance and observation operations. The "Caesarea" department, named after the ancient city, is the Mossad's strike force; it carries out attacks abroad. The largest department is called "Tsomet," a Hebrew works meaning "crossroads." It manages sources and analyses information. Zygier was sent back to Tsomet's desks at headquarters.
Vulnerable to Treason
Former Mossad employees describe the work in the Tsomet department as bureaucratic, with the routines like those seen in any government agency. In a change from earlier procedures, when Tsomet was divided into small units, Tsomet employees now have access to far more information. This makes it vulnerable to treason, as the Mossad would soon realize.
In the early morning hours of May 16, 2009, Lebanese special units stormed into the house of Ziad al-Homsi in the western Bekaa Valley and arrested pulled the 61-year-old out of his bed. The arrest warrant accused Homsi of being an Israeli agent. The arrest came as a shock to many Lebanese, not just because Homsi had been the mayor of his town for years. He was also treated as a war hero, because he had fought against Israel during the Lebanese civil war. His supporters could hardly believe what the weeks of subsequent interrogations brought to light: that Homsi had worked as a spy for archenemy Israel since 2006 and was paid about $100,000 (€78,000) for his services.
Homsi's Mossad code name was "Indian," and a detail from his interrogation shows how important he was: He was trying to provide the Israelis access to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who lives in hiding. He was likely paving the way for the next assassination.
The indictment against Homsi revealed the elaborate lengths to which the Mossad went to recruit foreign agents. A Chinese man named "David" had apparently introduced himself to Homsi as an employee with the city government in Beijing and as a representative of a Chinese company that wanted to establish business ties. At a meeting in Lebanon, "David" then invited Homsi to Beijing to attend a trade fair, telling him that the invitation had come directly from the Chinese government. Additional meetings in Bangkok followed, and the Chinese enticed the Lebanese with a monthly salary of $1,700. Then they began asking questions. For instance, they asked, what did Homsi know about three Israeli soldiers who had been missing since the 1982 war with Lebanon, in which Homsi had fought on the side of the Arabs?
"This is the moment at which the defendant becomes aware that he is dealing with Israelis, who work for the Mossad and have nothing to do with import-export companies or services that search for missing people," the indictment reads.
Cracking Israeli Spy Rings
The Mossad provided Homsi with a computer and a doctored USB flash drive, as well as a device that looked like a stereo system but was in fact a transmitter for sending messages. According to the indictment, the spy sent reports to Tel Aviv every five days. The technology was found during his arrest in May 2009. Homsi, says General Ashraf Rifi, the head of the Lebanon intelligence service, was one of the most important catches his agency had ever made. Homsi was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor, though was later amnestied.
During that spring of 2009, the Lebanese cracked several Israeli spy rings in Lebanon. Among those arrested was Mustafa Ali Awadeh, code name "Zuzi," another important mole within Hezbollah.
For the Israelis, it was the biggest intelligence setback in the region in decades. Officials at Mossad headquarters were baffled. How did the Lebanese manage to track down the Israeli sources?
Then a tip was received from Lebanon: There had been talk within Hezbollah of a Mossad agent who was in Australia at the time. It was soon clear that the agent had to be Ben Zygier.
Zygier, frustrated by his desk job, had requested leave so that he could go back to school to earn a master's degree in management. The Mossad even continued to pay the agent's salary. In October 2008, Zygier enrolled at Monash University in Melbourne again, this time under the name "Ben Allen." He explained that he had worked for a consulting firm in Geneva and that he occasionally had to return to Switzerland for the firm. It explained his many trips.
On a Sunday in October 2009, SPIEGEL employee Jason Koutsoukis, who was working as a Middle East correspondent for the Australian newspapers The Age and Sydney Morning Herald at the time, received an encrypted email apparently from an Australian government employee. "Intelligence investigations have uncovered one particular Israeli agent of Australian birth who is currently living back in Australia. There is even the suspicion that he is involved in an active Mossad operation in this country," the email read. Another email mentions the company where Zygier worked in 2005. The Australians had apparently been observing Zygier's activities for some time.
Koutsoukis called Zygier in early December 2009 and confronted him with the accusations. "That's a total fantasy," Zygier replied before hanging up. There was a second conversation a few weeks later, in mid-January 2010.
A Shock to the Mossad
"I have information to the effect that you worked for a European company. Can you tell me what you did there?" Koutsoukis asked.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Zygier replied. "You must have me confused with someone else."
Ten days later, the Israeli domestic intelligence service arrested Zygier after the Mossad had asked him to return to headquarters to discuss the warning received from Beirut.
The story revealed by internal investigations came as a shock to the Mossad. Apparently Zygier, frustrated by the setbacks and what he felt was a demotion, tried to find new sources -- presumably in an effort to rehabilitate himself and prove how valuable he was. According to the investigation, Zygier admitted during several interrogations that, prior to his departure for Australia, he had without authorization met with a Hezbollah associate in Eastern Europe to recruit him as a source.
What Zygier didn't know: The Hezbollah associate reported the meeting to Beirut and began playing a double game. He persuaded Zygier that he was interested in working with him, but he coordinated every step he took with the Hezbollah intelligence service. Even Nasrallah himself was informed.
The contact between Zygier and Hezbollah went on for months, and at some point it was no longer clear who was managing whom as a source. The Lebanese official lured Zygier, and he asked for proof that the Australian was indeed working for the Mossad. The investigation report indicates that Zygier began supplying the Lebanese with intelligence information from Tel Aviv, including information relating to the spy ring of Ziad al-Homsi and Mustafa Ali Awadeh, the Mossad's two top informants in Lebanon, who were exposed as a result.
When he was arrested, the agents found a CD with additional classified information that was apparently from the Tsomet department, say Israeli officials with access to the investigation. Zygier never managed to deliver the CD.
The Dark Side
Tel Aviv, early March 2013. "Zygier wanted to achieve something that he didn't end up getting," says a senior government official who is familiar with the investigation. "And then he ended up on a precipitous path. He crossed paths with someone who was much more professional than he was." At some point, says the Israeli, Zygier crossed a red line and went to the dark side.
The Australian government also launched an investigation. If it was true that Zygier had used his passport "for the work of the Israeli intelligence service," it would raise "significant questions," a report by the Australian Foreign Ministry reads.
Israeli informants have certainly changed sides in the past. But a regular Mossad employee has never done what Zygier did. It is a bitter defeat for Israel, but for Hezbollah it is one of the rare instances in which an Arab intelligence service prevailed over its Jewish counterpart. Zygier's betrayal is also a heavy blow to the Mossad because it raises doubts as to the integrity of the agency's own people -- and the manner in which it recruits employees.
Lior Brand, one of Zygier's friends from the Gazit kibbutz, believes that Zygier simply wasn't up to the task. The lies, the silence and the loneliness were too much. The Mossad "made a big mistake" by recruiting him, says Brand, adding that he cannot forgive the agency.
Israeli intelligence agencies wanted to set an example and indicated to Zygier's attorney that they wanted him to spend at least 10 years in prison. While he was in custody, in the summer of 2010, Zygier's second daughter was born, and the family was permitted to visit him. Zygier was allowed to talk to his mother Louise on the phone on Dec. 15, 2010. He was dead a few hours later.
One can only speculate over the true reasons for Zygier's suicide.
what truly motivated Zygier. Wounded pride? Shame? Revenge? His parents could perhaps answer these questions, but they are saying nothing. Money, all involved seem to agree, did not play a role in the case.
After the Israeli security officials had released Zygier's body, the family invited his closest friends to the funeral, including Daniel Leiton from Gazit. Leiton went to the cemetery and asked why Zygier, just 34 years old, had to die, but he received no answer. He loved Israel, Leiton says, adding that something went terribly wrong.
The parents had an inscription engraved on the polished black tombstone: "May his soul be bound in the bundle of life." Zygier was buried in the Jewish cemetery of Springvale. In Australia, not in Israel.