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The Story of Eli Cohen, the Israeli Superspy Who Almost Became Syria's President

Last Friday marked the 53rd anniversary of the execution of Eli Cohen, the Egyptian-born Israeli spy who burrowed his way so deep into the Syrian state apparatus he nearly came to head it. Speaking to Cohen's brother, and to Israeli and Syrian intelligence experts, Sputnik has pieced together a new look at the superspy's incredible life story.

Early Years

Eli Cohen was born into a family of eight in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt on December 6, 1924. Receiving his primary education at a local Jewish community school, Eli nevertheless considered himself a patriot of Egypt, the country in which he was born. 

After graduation, Cohen enrolled at the University of Alexandria, where he studied electrical engineering. During his time there, the young man organized student protests against Egypt's occupation by the British.

"He was loyal to his country, Egypt," his brother Albert Abraham Cohen recalled. "He was also loyal to the Hebrew people and the ideas of Zionism, which were aimed at creating a Jewish state in the land of Israel," known at the time as the British Mandate for Palestine.

Under the tutelage of Alexandria's chief rabbi, Cohen began to take part in the Zionist movement, and when Israel proclaimed independence in 1949, his family moved to the newly created country. 

CC BY-SA 3.0 / FORTEPAN / Inkey Tibor / Alexandria, Egypt, 1950s.
Alexandria, Egypt, 1950s. - Sputnik International
Alexandria, Egypt, 1950s.

Eli stayed behind in Egypt to complete his studies, and is thought to have been involved in the Lavon Affair, a 1954 conspiracy concocted by Israeli military intelligence aimed at staging false flag attacks on Egyptian, American and British civilian targets and blaming it on radicals to convince London to continue its occupation of the Suez Canal zone.

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As former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would later confirm, Cohen stayed in Egypt voluntarily as an underground activist involved in the repatriation of Jews to Israel.

In 1954, Cohen's family learned that he had been arrested by Egyptian authorities and charged with being involved in a terrorist cell. While other defendants in the case were imprisoned or executed, Eli managed to escape punishment, due to a lack of evidence. Soon after the October 1956 Suez Crisis, he was deported to Israel along with thousands of other Egyptian Jews.

Path to Becoming a Spy

Cohen arrived in Israel on February 8, 1957. Five days later, he was interviewed by the military, and asked to write his biography. Cohen described his life in Egypt on eight pages of text.

Among other things, Eli mentioned that he spoke Arabic, French, English, Italian and Hebrew. His Arabic included mastery of its Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese dialects. At the bottom of his biography, Cohen signaled a willingness to be sent to any Arab country for intelligence work.

"He was not looking for adventure," Albert stressed. "He was simply a patriot. He was perfectly aware of what awaited him, and volunteered to save his people from a second Holocaust. I don't think he was dreaming of living a spy's life. He was simply a patriot of Egypt and a Zionist; at that time these two concepts did not contradict one another."

Israel viewed the 1958 unification of Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic as a serious threat. The young nation's intelligence services urgently required a specialist who could spy on the enemy behind enemy lines and transmit information about a possible attack.

Argentinian Adventure

In early 1961, Eli was sent to Argentina, posing as a wealthy Syrian businessman. Eli spent eight months in the country, with his time there documented by Natalio Steiner, co-director of the Argentinian Jewish newspaper Comunidades in an article about Israeli intelligence. Steiner spoke to Sputnik about the spy's time in the Latin American country.

Receiving a new identity and the documents that went with it, Cohen became 'Kamel Amin Thaabet', and had a backstory suggesting that he was a Syrian who inherited his Jewish Argentinian relative's textile business after the latter passed away.

Leaving Israel in 1961, Cohen traveled to Zurich, from where he would then head to Chile and, ultimately, Argentina. A few days later he met with his contact in Buenos Aires, was given a false passport, and advised to learn Spanish as quickly as possible. Three months later, Cohen was speaking the language freely, and acquired a deep knowledge of the Argentinian capital, according to Steiner.

© Photo : Public DomainBuenos Aires, Argentina, file photo.
Buenos Aires, Argentina, file photo. - Sputnik International
Buenos Aires, Argentina, file photo.

Cohen's mission was to infiltrate the Arab diaspora in Buenos Aires. With this goal in mind, he became a regular guest at various functions hosted by the community. To draw attention to himself, Cohen made a reputation for himself as someone who wore expensive clothes and spent his cash lavishly. 

According to Steiner, Eli's efforts proved a resounding success, allowing him to get quite close to the Argentinian Syrian diaspora's elite, and through them, to important contacts in Syria.

"Introducing himself as a major merchant…he was able to meet people who in turn introduced him to important figures from political and military circles in Syria; as a result he was invited to attend various events with the involvement of prominent figures from the Arab community. This sort of infiltration was possible thanks to his safe cover story," the journalist noted.

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In his article on Cohen, Steiner noted that the success of his mission was based on his "charisma and generous wallet," as well as an extensive network of contacts, including the head of Mundo Arabe, a widely read and respected newspaper among Latin America's Arab community. 

The latter acquaintance gave Cohen access to receptions by the Syrian Embassy in Buenos Aires, and it was here that he would meet General Amin Hafiz, Syria's military attaché to Argentina and the future president of the Syrian Republic.

In one of his discussions with the director of Mundo Arabe, Cohen ”confessed” that he would like to return to Syria to support the development of his home country.

Road to Damascus

Preparing for his ”homecoming,” Cohen secretly went back to Israel via Zurich, meeting up with his family and studying up on Syria.

"He returned to Israel for three weeks because of our father's death," Albert said. "After a period of mourning, he left Israel and headed to Italy, where he traveled by boat to Alexandria. From there, he continued by ship to Beirut, Lebanon."

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According to Cohen's brother, Eli was accompanied to Syria by a local agent who, after Cohen's arrival in Lebanon, traveled with him to the Syrian border, where they bribed a border guard and entered the country.

"As it turned out, crossing the border did not prove very difficult, since it was not so heavily guarded," Albert noted, recalling his brother's story. "And so, after finding themselves on Syrian territory, they set off for Damascus." 

Eli settled in the Syrian capital in 1962, where the contacts gained in Argentina came to good use.

First and foremost, this involved communication with General Amin Hafiz, who rose to the presidency in a coup in 1963 and saw in Cohen, or 'Kamel Amin Thaabet' as he knew him, a well-educated person, a patriot, a good host, and a successful businessman willing to invest in Syria.

© Albert Abraham CohenEli Cohen with the entourage of Syrian President Amin Hafiz (1963-1966)
Eli Cohen with the entourage of Syrian President Amin Hafiz (1963-1966) - Sputnik International
Eli Cohen with the entourage of Syrian President Amin Hafiz (1963-1966)

"Anyone who wants to be a good liar must have an excellent memory," Albert said. "Eli had a phenomenal memory, and it was this that allowed him to deceive his enemies and carry out a charade which saw him fooling Syria's top leadership." 

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The spy's brother showed Sputnik the protocol of his brother's testimony in court following his capture, and said that it showed just how deeply the Israeli agent was able to infiltrate into the highest circles of Syrian politics.

"I managed to infiltrate several ministries and other government agencies. Among them were the ministry of defense, the economy ministry, the ministry of information, the ministry of municipal affairs, the central bank, and others," Eli's testimony to a Syrian tribunal read.

With the help of trusting sources freely willing to provide information to him, Cohen transmitted invaluable details about the political, economic and military situation in Syria in the early 1960s.

Particularly valuable was the information he obtained about Syria's military cooperation with Iraq, secret information about Soviet arms supplies to Damascus, as well as the dislocation of the Syrian Armed Forces, including its artillery and fortifications in the Golan Heights.

CC0 / / Eli Cohen at his residence in Damascus
Eli Cohen at his residence in Damascus - Sputnik International
Eli Cohen at his residence in Damascus

Cohen was also able to expose Syria's plans to divert the flow of the Jordan River to deprive Israel of one of its main sources of freshwater. 

In addition to this data, the spy regularly sent images, military maps and other documents of enormous strategic importance to Tel Aviv.

Levi Eshkol, who served as Israel's prime minister between 1963 to 1969, offered heavy praise for Cohen, saying that the spy's efforts "saved the lives of many Israel soldiers, while the information he provided proved priceless and helped the country win an overwhelming victory in the Six-Day War."

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© AP PhotoA platoon of Israeli armoured cars is seen moving through the southern Sinai, Egypt, during Israel's invasion of the Sinai in the six day war of Israel, June 7, 1967
A platoon of Israeli armoured cars is seen moving through the southern Sinai, Egypt, during Israel's invasion of the Sinai in the six day war of Israel, June 7, 1967 - Sputnik International
A platoon of Israeli armoured cars is seen moving through the southern Sinai, Egypt, during Israel's invasion of the Sinai in the six day war of Israel, June 7, 1967

In Israeli and Western historiography, it is often said that Cohen had a chance at becoming Syria's deputy defense minister, and that his name was even considered for the presidency. However, Syrian political expert and Israel watcher Tahsin Halabi denies that this was the case. Speaking to Sputnik, the observer said that the spy's successes have been overstated.

"The reports that Eli Cohen almost became the president or the defense minister is a repetition of a myth which Israeli intelligence has spread about itself, creating an image of an omnipotent structure able to control any political or military system on the planet," Halabi explained.

Exposure and Execution

Cohen was detained by Syrian intelligence in his apartment in January 1965. A month later the spy was tried and sentenced to death. He was hanged on May 18, 1965 in a square in Damascus, his body left to hang for six hours.

Yakov Kedmi, an Israeli political commentator and former head of the Nativ security service, spoke to Sputnik about the details of the spy's detention and execution. 

"The issue of his exposure and demise has been repeatedly and deeply analyzed by Mossad and the Israeli intelligence community as a whole. However, the Soviet role in this operation is quite interesting, and involves the delivery of special devices to intercept radio waves," Kedmi said.

© AFP 2021Picture dated 09 May 1965 shows Israeli spy Eli Cohen (L) and two other unidentified co-defendants, during their trial in Damascus, ten days before his executio
Picture dated 09 May 1965 shows Israeli spy Eli Cohen (L) and two other unidentified co-defendants, during their trial in Damascus, ten days before his executio - Sputnik International
Picture dated 09 May 1965 shows Israeli spy Eli Cohen (L) and two other unidentified co-defendants, during their trial in Damascus, ten days before his executio

According to Kedmi, Israeli investigations have also made clear that Cohen committed certain errors, and that these, along with Soviet equipment, culminated in his downfall.

With the official story shrouded in mystery, even after half a century, Albert Cohen told Sputnik that there were three possible reasons for his brother's unmasking.

According to the first, which was voiced by President Amin Hafiz after Cohen's capture, the Indian embassy in Damascus had complained of interference in radio communications with New Delhi. This led to an investigation, which culminated in the use of the advanced Soviet radio equipment to pinpoint the source, and allowed the Syrian security services to catch Eli Cohen red-handed while he was transmitting information by radio from his apartment.

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Egyptian intelligence, on the other hand, has claimed that Cohen was first noticed by its personnel in a photo of a meeting of the Syrian and Egyptian general staff in the Golan Heights, with the Egyptian side later identifying him as an Israeli spy.

The third, and most detailed version, has been presented by Ahmad Suwaidani, the former head of Syrian intelligence. According to the spymaster, in the early 1960s, Syrian counterintelligence became aware of two Syrians believed to be working for the CIA and secretly planning to smuggle missiles which Damascus had received from the USSR to Cyprus. After seven months of observation, the special services noted that both suspects had been frequent guests at Cohen's apartment.

These men were caught in late 1964, after which Cohen himself came under surveillance, and were tried for treason and executed in Damascus in February 1965.

According to Suwaidani's version of events, the security forces did indeed break into Cohen's apartment on January 18, 1965, but found him listening to the radio, not transferring information. During their search of the residence, investigators found a radio transmitter and other suspicious items.

Albert Cohen recalled that Syrian court records mentioned that Eli and a fellow conspirator had told a Syrian Navy officer that the Americans were willing to pay $50,000 for information about the Syrian Navy. This was used to accuse Eli of cooperating with US intelligence.

Cohen's brother also pointed out that Syria announced Eli's capture on January 22, 1965, just five days after his arrest. This, he said, leads him to conclude that the Syrians had suspected him for much longer.

Albert agrees with Suwaidani's assessment that it was the arrest of the two Arabs working for the CIA which proved the beginning of the end for his brother.

Over fifty years on, the Syrian side has refused to send Cohen's body home to his family in Israel. 

Yakov Kedmi believes the Syrian government's refusal is related to the fact that they don't actually know his whereabouts anymore. "Israel has repeatedly tried to establish the location of his grave and has conducted negotiations, but the truth is Damascus simply doesn't know where Eli Cohen's body is. In a situation of civil war, it has proven impossible to find his body. If Syria's refusal may have at first been political, today they are simply unable to find the grave," Kedmi said.

Immortal Hero to Some, Eternal Enemy to Others

In Israel, Eli Cohen is seen as an iconic figure, a national hero and the most successful spy in the country's history. Albert Cohen says his brother was fearless. "Eli Cohen was a brave fighter, an unknown soldier in the service of the Israeli state. He was a soldier without a uniform, and will forever remain a national hero in our collective memory."

© Albert Abraham CohenEli Cohen with his family
Eli Cohen with his family - Sputnik International
Eli Cohen with his family

Tahsin Halabi, in turn, believes Cohen's mission was to destroy Syria.

"Since 1949, the United States attempted several times to stage a coup in Syria, but all its attempts failed," the Syrian political observer said. "The Americans were not satisfied with the Syrian government, which had established good relations with the Soviet Union. Amid its failure, the CIA delegated the task of the destruction of the Syrian state. It was for this reason that Eli Cohen was sent to Syria."

Ex-Nativ chief Yakov Kedmi argues that ultimately, Cohen was successful. "Cohen is one of Israel's most successful spies, and he paid for it with his life," he said. "In any country, such a person would be considered a national hero, and the whole of Israel honors his memory."

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