Who killed Ashraf Marwan?


The billionaire's body tumbled over the railing of his apartment's fourth-floor balcony and landed hard on the London sidewalk. And like so much in the complicated life of Ashraf Marwan - a 62-year-old Egyptian who had been the most effective spy in the history of the Middle East - the mysterious circumstances of his death two weeks ago provoked further speculation.

As Scotland Yard investigates the suspicious fall, and as newspapers and bloggers throughout the world wonder whether any of several intelligence services played a role in his death, a debate continues over whether Marwan was a well-connected and resourceful Israeli spy or a brilliantly manipulative Egyptian double agent.

Marwan's death has also brought a new and chilling significance to a long-running legal battle in Israel involving the unauthorized leaking of his name to journalists. And in the aftermath of the discovery of his broken body on a sidewalk in the St. James neighborhood on June 27, I cannot help but wonder if I had a small part in the events that led to Ashraf Marwan's death.

Marwan's story - a tale overflowing with the suspense and ruthless duplicity of a spy novel - began to take shape in the spring of 1969.

He had come to London, ostensibly to consult a Harley Street doctor about a stomach ailment. He chose to be examined by a doctor whose offices had been used previously for a covert meeting between King Hussein of Jordan and the general director of the Israeli prime minister's office.

Along with his X-rays, Marwan handed the doctor a file crammed with official Egyptian state documents. He wanted them delivered to the Israeli Embassy in London.

The Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, determined the documents to be genuine. Still, a rapidly formed working group of Mossad wise men debated the risk in dealing with a walk-in, a volunteer who shows up bearing gifts.

If he's not a double - an agent spreading disinformation - then he's uncontrollable. It was decided, however, that this walk-in's credentials were worth the gamble.

Marwan, the excited vetters discovered, was married to a daughter of Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. He was also Nasser's liaison to the intelligence services. Not even 30, he was an intimate of the leaders who determined Egypt's future.

Three days after meeting with the doctor, Marwan was contacted by the Mossad as he walked through Harrods, the London department store.

His operational life as a spy began.

From the start, Marwan delivered. He yielded so many top secret Egyptian documents it was as if, as one Mossad agent put it, "we had someone sleeping in Nasser's bed." Based on this trove of secrets, Israel developed what became an article of faith for the nation's political and military leaders: "the Concept." With biblical certainty, the Concept held that until 1) Egypt possessed missiles and long-range bombers and 2) the Arab states united in a genuine coalition, a new war with Israel would not take place.

Running the agent, who was given code names including "Angel," "Babylon" and most frequently "the In-Law," grew into a small industry. For face-to-face meetings with his handler and often the head of the Mossad, a safe house was purchased in London not far from the Dorchester Hotel. It was wired to record every conversation, every aside. A special team of clerks turned the tapes into transcripts for the prime minister, the army chief of staff and a handful of other top Israeli officials. Marwan received £50,000 at each meeting, but this was only a minor expense compared to the estimated $20 million spent over the first four years of Marwan's operational life.

Israel's leaders felt this was money well spent: They knew what their enemies were thinking.

Then in April 1973, the In-Law sent a flash message to his case agent using the word "radish." This was the code for an imminent war. Zvi Zamir, the head of the Mossad, rushed from Tel Aviv to the London safe house. The In-Law revealed that on May 15, Egypt and Syria would launch a surprise attack.

Israel called up tens of thousands of reservists and deployed additional brigades and support equipment in the Sinai and the north.

The alert dragged on for three months and cost $35 million.

But it was a false alarm. The In-Law had been wrong.

Six months later, on Oct. 5, 1973, the In-Law sent another flash message with the code word "radish." Zamir was awoken at 2:30 a.m. with the news. The next morning, he took the first El Al flight to London.

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