This post is in memory of Eli Cohen who was executed by Syrian authorities on 18th May 1965 in Damascus after being found guilty of spying for Israel. He was unlike any other spy in the annals of espionage – a spy without any parallel. This is his story.
Eliahu (Eli) ben Shaoul Cohen was born in Alexandria, Egypt in an orthodox Jewish family in 1924. His father had moved there from Aleppo in Syria in 1914. In January 1947, Cohen chose to enlist in the Egyptian army as an alternative to paying the proscribed sum all young Jews were supposed to pay, but was declared ineligible on grounds of questionable loyalty. Later that year, he left university and began studying at home after facing harassment by the Muslim Brotherhood. Though his parents and three brothers left for Israel in 1949, Cohen remained to finish a degree in electronics and to coordinate Jewish and Zionist activities. In 1951, in the aftermath of a military coup and anti-Zionist campaign, Cohen was arrested and interrogated over his Zionist activities. Cohen is alleged to have taken part in various Israeli covert operations in Egypt during the 1950s, though the Egyptian government could never verify and provide proof of his involvement in an Israeli operation to smuggle Egyptian Jews out of the country and resettle them in Israel.
Following the Suez Crisis, the Egyptian government stepped up persecution of Jews and expelled many of them. In December 1956, Cohen was forced to leave the country. With the assistance of the Jewish Agency, he migrated to Israel.
In 1957, Cohen was recruited by Israeli Military Intelligence. His work as a counterintelligence analyst bored him, and he attempted to join the Mossad. Cohen was offended when Mossad rejected him, and resigned from military counterintelligence. For the next two years, he worked as a filing clerk in a Tel Aviv insurance office. An introvert to the core, Cohen had very few friends. Most of his leisure time was spent mastering Arabic.
The Mossad recruited Cohen after Director-General Meir Amit, looking for a special agent to infiltrate the Syrian government, came across his name while looking through the agency's files of rejected candidates, after none of the current candidates seemed suitable for the job. For two weeks he was put under surveillance, and was judged suitable for recruitment and training. Cohen then underwent an intensive, six-month course at the Mossad training school, and his graduate report stated that he had all the qualities needed to become a katsa, or field agent.
Training and the making of a Spy
His training was rather unconventional. In 1960, armed with a false identity and a thick beard, Eli Cohen was introduced to one Sheikh Mohammed Salman as a student from the University of Jerusalem. Although Cohen knew quite a lot about the culture and the way of life of an Arab Moslem, Mossad wanted him to be trained to perfection so that he could act and react like a Moslem even under the greatest strain. He spent a few months with Sheikh Salman. Towards the end of 1960, Cohen began to learn a different trade.
On 1st March 1961, Eli Cohen boarded a Swiss Air flight from Zurich and flew to Buenos Aires. At the Argentinian capital, he passed off as a prosperous businessman who travelled first class. Cohen had become Kamel Amin Thaabet (commonly pronounced Saabet). His passport showed that he was a Syrian from Lebanon. Buenos Aires has a large Syrian population. Cohen portrayed himself to be serious, generous, considerate and above all a devout Muslim and highly nationalistic. Thaabet gradually became a well-known and respectable member of the Syrian community in Buenos Aires.
Mossad had traversed half way round the globe to prepare a perfect “legend” for Cohen. Mossad had correctly assessed that Syrian intelligence would certainly check on Thaabet and therefore his cover was prepared with great care. Cohen’s new assumed identity was based on a real Kamel Amin Thaabet born in Lebanon of Syrian parents. The real Kamel Amin Thaabet had died long ago, but if he were alive he would have been of Cohen’s age.
The resurrected Kamel Amin Thaabet became a regular visitor to the parties and receptions hosted in the Syrian embassy in Buenos Aires. The military attaché in the Syrian Embassy, Major Amin Al-Hafiz was very impressed by Thaabet. Thaabet’s nationalist fervor and pro-Baathist views were respected by Al-Hafiz. As a result, the officer began to confide a great deal in him and urged him to shift to Damascus to serve the Baathist cause.
The Syrian intelligence in the Argentinian capital carried out a thorough check on Thaabet. One day when he came home late, he discovered that his papers and photo albums had been tampered with. Israeli intelligence had taken lot of pains to prepare ‘authentic’ papers and the old photographs of the Thaabet family were perfect. Cohen had successfully passed the final test as Thaabet. He was now a trusted Syrian national. Mossad instructed Cohen to move to Damascus. Major Al-Hafiz was posted in the Syrian capital at the time when Cohen was instructed to make the move to Syria. Thaabet, accordingly wrote to Al-Hafiz of his desire to serve the Baathist cause and his intention to shift to Damascus.
In December 1961, Cohen paid a quick visit to Munich and met his “control” from Tel Aviv. In a hotel room the katsa and his control discussed details of his mission in Damascus; they re-checked on the business procedures, the codes and the radio discipline. At the same time a technical team from Mossad prepared Cohen’s luggage. A powerful transmitter was hidden in the false bottom of an electric mixer. A Minox micro-film camera was given the shape of an electric shaver, its chord, when detached, would serve as a long range antenna. Chemicals for making explosives were stored in toothpaste tubes and cans of shaving cream.
Mission - Damascus
On 1st January 1962, Thaabet was on his way to Damascus. On arrival in Damascus he became a temporary guest of Major Al-Hafiz. Within a span of few days he settled himself on the fourth floor of a modern building in the prosperous Abu-Rummanah district across the Syrian Military High Command and close to the Indian Embassy.
Cohen alias Thaabet started an export business and was soon exporting Syrian antique furniture, backgammon tables, jewellery and objets d’art to European countries. He was often seen drinking Turkish coffee in the Hamidia market place discussing business and politics. At night, Thaabet was transformed into a deadly spy, passing information to Tel Aviv using the powerful transmitter set. The lengthy reports and microfilms were dispatched in the hollowed out antique furniture. With the help of highly placed contacts in government and friends, Thaabet visited military installations and was allowed to freely indulge in his hobby of photography even while visiting sensitive areas. His photographs of sensitive military installations proved extremely useful to Mossad and the Israeli Army during the 1967 Six-Day War. His most famous achievement was when he toured the Golan Heights, and collected intelligence on the Syrian fortifications there. Feigning sympathy for the soldiers being exposed to the sun, Cohen had trees planted at every position. The trees were used as targeting markers by the Israeli military during the 1967 War. Cohen made repeated visits to the southern frontier zone, providing photographs and sketches of Syrian positions. Cohen also learned of an important secret plan by Syria to create three successive lines of bunkers and mortars; the Israeli Army would otherwise have expected to encounter only a single line.
Capture and execution
How did Cohen get caught? There are conflicting versions as to what led to the unmasking of Thaabet. The Mossad blames the Indian Embassy in Damascus which they say, inadvertently led to Cohen getting caught. In early ’65, the Indian Mission is alleged to have complained to the Syrians that it was experiencing disturbances in its transmissions to New Delhi. The Syrians suspected, and rightly so, of an unauthorized radio transmission in the vicinity of the Indian Embassy. The Syrians pressed into a service a sophisticated mobile detection unit imported from the Soviet Union to track down the source of the illegal transmission. Thaabet was unaware of this development and he carried on his daily transmission to Tel Aviv. After a close surveillance for a few days, the Syrians caught Thaabet red handed in a pre-dawn raid on 24th January 1965. After a trial before a military tribunal, he was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death, without the possibility of an appeal. Israel staged an international campaign to for clemency, hoping to persuade the Syrians not to execute him. Hoping to put international pressure on Syria to spare Cohen's life, the Israelis approached many governments to press for clemency, and even appealed to the Soviets to intercede. The Syrians were determined not to spare a spy, especially if he happened to be an Israeli. On 18th May 1965, Eli Cohen was publicly hanged in El Marga Square in Damascus.
Requests by Cohen's family for his remains to be returned to Israel have been repeatedly denied by the Syrian government. In August 2008 Monthir Maosily, the former bureau chief of the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, said that Eli Cohen's burial site is unknown, claiming that the Syrians buried the executed Israeli spy three times, to stop the remains from being brought back to Israel via a special operation.
Mossad-Israel's Knuckle-Duster by H Jesse Kochar, Probe May 1981