This is video of the ABC Australia news show, 7:30, which dealt with the Zygier case. I was interviewed for it and some portions of that interview are laced throughout the program.
The reporting of the past few days in Israel and Australia has caused me to rethink some aspects of the Ben Zygier case and develop a theory of what happened to this tragic individual.
The thoughts and theories below are based in part on Jason Koutsoukis’ 2010 report which first referred to Ben Zygier’s cover being blown by Australian intelligence. The Fairfax Media reporter has also expanded his coverage in the past few days with new information that fills out the picture. In Israel, reporters have interviewed Avigdor Feldman, who may’ve been the last civilian to see Ben alive. Feldman adds important elements to the story I’m going to tell. But what isn’t in these reports will be my informed speculation about what likely happened and how and why this tragedy unfolded.
Ben Zygier was a mid-level Mossad operative. Part of his work involved rather mundane intelligence activity recruiting Iranian and Saudi intelligence assets on the Monash University campus; and securing Australian passports for his travels to Iran and other countries hostile to Israel.
But another aspect of his work involved more complicated derring-do. Koustoukis revealed in 2010 that Zygier worked for a mysterious European company that sold computers and other technical equipment. He also reported that Zygier used his passports to travel repeatedly to Iran, presumably to sell such equipment.
Sheera Frenkel, writing in the Times of London, says it was a company based in Italy. Given Israel’s known activities infiltrating Iranian nuclear plants, this business would have exported to Iran equipment the Mossad hoped would end up in criticial infrastructure where they could be used to sabotage various military facilities. Alongside legitimate commercial shipments it could easily have shipped materials like bombs or related material necessary for sabotage operations. While there, Zygier could conceivably have even physically facilitated some of the assassinations or acts of sabotage that Israel has been responsible for.
The Australian reporter’s story two years ago compromised not just Zygier, who the Mossad would’ve have immediately recognized from reading the story, though his real name was not used; it would’ve potentially compromised the entire European export operation. This likely would’ve been a project months, if not years in the making. The equipment it sent to Iran was likely part of a much larger campaign aiming to sabotage critical Iranian industrial and military infrastructure.
Frenkel also raises another important fact: Israel informed Australian intelligence it had arrested Zygier eight days after the Dubai police informed the world it knew the twenty-seven Mossad agents who organized the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabouh. She believes the arrest was related to this disastrous outcome for the Mossad. Either Zygier had mistakenly compromised the identities of the agents through an inadvertent error. Or more darkly, perhaps Zygier was stricken with conscience over the fact that his acts of passport fraud (in obtaining Australian passports four different times under different assumed names) was exploited to murder another human being.
This development may or may not have been facilitated by those contacts Zygier had with Australian intelligence. Knowing Australian-issued passports had aided in the murder, the intelligence agency would’ve desperately wanted to know how that happened, who did it, and why. If they found out from Zygier, it’s entirely possible they shared this information with Dubai. Or perhaps the other way around, the Dubai police may’ve shared this information with Australian intelligence, which may’ve led them to Zygier.
Though we don’t know to what extent he actually did compromise the Dubai agents or the Iran commercial operation, the Mossad would’ve reacted with genuine, desperate alarm. That’s why it would’ve recalled Zygier, questioned him and, if it didn’t like the answers he offered, arrested and imprisoned him.
One important question is to what extent did he cooperate with Australian intelligence. Was he turned? Did he become a double agent? Or did he reveal information accidentally to them? Another possibility: did the Australians manage to convince him that his activities violated his moral conscience or endangered the world’s security in ways he hadn’t previously conceived?
As I said in an interview on Australian TV last night, I lean toward the latter theory (and I do this in part based on information given to me by a source who has several degrees of separation from the victim’s family). Ben was 34 years old, married only a few years before to an Israeli woman with whom he had two girls, one of whom was born only four days before he allegedly committed suicide. He was raised in suburban Melbourne as the son of a one of Australia’s most prominent Jewish families. He attended Jewish day schools and the Zionist youth group, HaShomer HaTzair. He attended college and studied law. He led a cultured, comfortable existence in Australia.
Then he made aliya. We have to assume he did this out of patriotic Zionist motives. Friends who knew him in the 1990s (before making aliya) said he seemed somewhat lost and unsure of what he wanted to do in life. His approach by the Mossad might’ve seemed like a boon to him–to have given his commitment to Israel a direction and purpose. What better way to devote oneself to one’s Zionist ideals than to serve Israel and protect it through service in the Mossad.
But after serving for some years and seeing what he was asked to do and having the Australians offer him a narrative that pointed out ways in which he was damaging world security, he may’ve developed a different perspective. One report I read today even claimed that Zygier was prepared to become a whistleblower or to cooperate formally with Australian intelligence when he was arrested. This prospect would’ve been a huge red flag for the Mossad.
Betrayal from within is the thing that spy agencies fear most. For Israel it would’ve been doubly damaging because it would show that spies who are dual-nationals are subject to being “turned” back by their native homeland’s intelligence. It would undermine Mossad’s major project of recruiting Jews in Anglo nations like the UK, U.S. and Australia. Recruits from these countries mingle freely in the world without drawing undue suspicion. They are valuable assets in foreign espionage operations, as Zygier was. For all these Mossad dual nationals to see one of their own either afflicted with a moral crisis or deliberately being turned by Australian intelligence could demoralize or compromise their own commitments to the Israeli spy agency.
Mossad and Shabak had to deal with Ben Zygier firmly and definitively. His interrogators would’ve sought to throw the fear of God into him–to intimidate him into both silence and accepting a prison sentence that would remove him from any situation in which he might further damage Israel’s interests. That would be why he was disappeared inside the Israeli prison system; why he was isolated; hermetically sealed off from outside human contact.
Such draconian treatment would’ve shocked Zygier, given that he’d have grown up in such comfortable circumstances. Shabak interrogations, even when they don’t involve the physical torture meted out to Palestinian security suspects, would be harrowing and degrading. They would cause him to question himself and his future. In fact, Avigdor Feldman specifically reveals that the inquisitors told the detainee that he would never see his family again, that they would turn on him as a traitor to his people, that he would become persona non grata among his fellow Australian Jews:
“His interrogators told him he could expect lengthy jail time and be ostracised from his family and the Jewish community. There was no heartstring they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end.”
Such a form of psychological excommunication would have to weigh heavily on such a person. But would that drive him to the extreme step of suicide? Uri Misgav, writing in Haaretz, expresses doubt that a man whose daughter had been born four days before would decide to take his own life. This presumes that Zygier would’ve known he had a new daughter. If I was the Shabak, this is news I would not want him to know unless I was using it as a form of blackmail or pressure. But if he did know, I would find it hard to believe he would kill himself. The guilt of abandoning such a vulnerable new being would make such an act taboo, I would think.
If he did not commit suicide, why would the Shabak have killed him? The day before he died, Zygier met with Feldman, who was consulting with the suspect about whether to accept a plea bargain offered by the State. Misgav says that Zygier, after discussing the pros and cons was inclined to go to trial and take his chances. The Shabak never wants security suspects to go to trial. In 99.9% of cases, the victim agrees to a plea bargain. They do so because they face a defined prison sentence whereas if they take their chances on a trial they may face life in prison. Such a form of Russian Routlette, saves the intelligence services the potential embarrassment of having to reveal operational weaknesses, errors and even negligence or worse. All these secrets are far better left in the dark than exposed before judges in a trial.
In this case in particular, the spy agency would’ve wanted to avoid such exposure even more. It had imprisoned an Australian citizen who may have become a double agent for that country. The victim had knowledge of extremely sensitive security operations involving Israel’s paramount enemy, Iran; and possibly one of its most disastrous intelligence failures, the Dubai hit. If it was convinced there was no chance of avoiding a trial, and it was convinced these operations would’ve been compromised in that event, it is conceivable the security apparatus might’ve determined it was better rid of Zygier.
To be clear, I’m not saying definitively that this is what happened. I’m only saying I can conceive of it happening just as I can conceive of his committing suicide. The forensic investigation by the Israeli coroner should’ve been able to determine what really happened. The formal determination was suicide. But it’s entirely possible this was a finding it was directed to make by the security services; or that the murder might’ve been concealed in precisely the way Israel hid its assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabouh. In that case, it used a rare drug that killed while mimicing a heart attack. Israel’s chemical-biological weapons program is expert at wielding such weapons to eliminate enemies. Such drugs in the past have also killed (in at least one instance inadvertently) Israeli citizens suspected of espionage.
In summary, I think Ben Zygier was a victim of circumstance. The wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t think he was a master spy. I don’t think he planned to sell Israel’s most sensitive secrets. I think he was a young man who became trapped by his own misjudgments, helped along by Israelis and Australians who sought to use him for their advantage or to cover their tracks once he was exposed.
I think he was a victim of a national security state used to sacrificing individuals, even its own citizens on the altar of the collective good. I think he died because his interrogators were prepared to do whatever it took to neutralize him as a threat. He died because, as Uri Misgav wrote, the three judges in his case sacrificed due process and the rule of law on behalf of the secret police. They prostituted the law they were sworn to uphold for a perverted notion of national loyalty.
Though Ben Zygier is but one man, what happened to him is much greater than any one person. His death throws the inadequacies of Israel’s political, judicial and security system into a harsh light. They reveal that Israel failed Ben Zygier. It failed in recruiting an idealistic, confused young man who should not have become a spy. It failed once he had become a vulnerability in throwing him to the wolves.
Till now I’ve spoken mostly about Israel. But Australia factors into this story as well. Given that the Australians pressured Ben to give them information and possibly recruit him as a double agent, why did they essentially abandon him to his fate once arrested. Foreign Minister Bob Carr, after misspeaking egregiously initially in claiming his ministry had no idea of Zygier’s arrest, later said his government had been informed. But apparently the embassy official who received this information didn’t pass it along to Canberra. This seems a patently false claim. No foreign service officer would receive such critical information and keep it to himself.
Carr is trying to cover asses. But it ain’t gonna work.
Further, he claims the family never asked for assistance from the government, therefore it couldn’t intervene. Again, nonsense. If you know a potential intelligence asset of your side who is also your own citizen is behind bars in a foreign country, you abandon him? You don’t fight for his life? What sort of country is this?
I could conceive of the possibility that Zygier ultimately rejected the entreaties of Australian intelligence. Therefore, once caught they might’ve deliberately cut him loose. It would be callous, but one could conceive of a country’s intelligence agency doing this. Of course, once such callousness was exposed there would be all hell to pay, as I hope there will be for everyone who facilitated this tragedy in any way.
A reader suggested I include links to all the posts I’ve written about Prisoner X and Zygier to enable reviewing my coverage of the case all the way back to 2010:
The Strange Case of Mr. X, the Prisoner With No Name
Israel’s Mysterious Mr. X, Prisoner With No Name is Alleged Terrorist
Israeli Human Rights NGO Demands Accounting of Mr. X
Daily Telegraph Breaks Case of Mr. X
Iranian General Murdered in Ayalon Prison?
Israel’s Prisoner, Mr. X, is Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Abducted by Mossad
Prisoner X Was Mossad Agent, Ben Zygier
The Lonesome Death of Mossad Agent, Ben Zygier
Zygier Visited Iran Undercover for Mossad, Recruited Saudi, Iranian Students at Australian University
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.