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Prisoner X: A false-flag agent?

An already reported, Iran-related  story  developed in parallel to that of Prisoner X, with numerous factors allowing for overlap. Could Zygier have compromised a false-flag operation to enlist an Iranian armed opposition group? 

Ben Zygier, alleged Mossad agent who was held without trial in Israeli prison and found dead in 2010 (photo from ABC Australia video)

It’s always difficult to try and discern the full picture when all you have is a few pieces of a puzzle, not necessarily even pieces belonging to the same box. But this is precisely the trouble with censorship and gag orders: it forces us to make do with what we have and to use only information already in the public domain. With this in mind, I’d like to draw attention to a story that developed in parallel to that of Prisoner X and had numerous factors that could (though not necessarily should) allow for some overlap.

In January 2012, a few days after another assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, Foreign Policy published an expose by Mark Perry, an expose that met with a fierce backlash and clampdown reminiscent of the one experience by Israeli media over the last few days. Drawing on testimonies and memos from senior intelligence officials in the Bush Jr.  and Obama administrations, Perry revealed that as recently as 2008, and perhaps even to this day, Israeli agents “touting American passports and flush American dollars” posed as American intelligence operatives in order to recruit members of Sunni terrorist organization Jundallah, infamous for attacks within Iran (targeting both officials and ordinary civilians). According to the report, the recruitment took place in Pakistan, but also in Morocco, London and elsewhere.

What do we know about Ben Zygier? Apart from biographical details preceding his involvement with the Mossad, we know that he changed his name several times: first to Ben Alon when immigrating to Israel, and then, in a new Australian passport, to the nearly-homonimic Ben Allen; later still, he also added Benjamin Burroughs to the list. We know that using at least one of the latter two identities, Zygier visited Syria, Lebanon and Iran; and that his name changes and his movements, along with those of several other dual Australian-Israeli nationals, were enough to arouse the suspicion of Australia’s own national security service, the ASIO. According to The Age, in early 2010 Zygier was even confronted by Fairfax Media correspondent  Jason Katsoukis, who discovered Zygier was one of three Australians who ran  a front company set up by Mossad in Europe (possibly in Italy), selling electronic equipment to Iran and elsewhere.  Katsoukis asked Zygier upfront if he was working for the Mossad, an allegation an “incredulous” Zygier heatedly – and, it now appears beyond reasonable doubt, falsely – denied.

Around the same time, in Februray 2010, Jundllah’s leader, Abdolmajid Rigi, found himself in the hands of the Iranian security services. At the time, Iran claimed he was taken off a plane traveling from Kyrgizstan to Dubai and forced to land in Iran. Pakistan’s ambassador to Tehran, however, took partial credit for the capture and Al Jazeera and later Perry reported he was taken in Pakistan and transferred to Iran with the silent agreement of the Americans (who, whatever Israel’s relationship with Giri’s men and unlike in the case of another anti-Iranian terrorist group, the MEK, were never particularly enamoured with Jundallah). In Iran, and, as Perry notes, probably under duress, Rigi gave an interview in which he voiced suspicions that Western agents he had met were not who they said they were. “When we thought about it we came to the conclusion that they are either Americans acting under NATO cover or Israelis,” he said at the time. Later, an Israeli source told Laura Rozen that whoever met Rigi in Morroco in 2007 posed as NATO agents.

Rigi was hanged in Tehran on June 10, 2010. On June 14, 2010, the first report about Prisoner X – Ben Zygier -Alon-Allen-Burroughs appeared in (and quickly disappeared from) Israeli media, although it’s likely he was arrested earlier on, between the Fairfax interview and Rigi’s death. In other words, during the same time, the leader of a group with reported ties to Israeli intelligence and an Israeli agent with a profile and behaviour patterns similar to those of agents allegedly initiating and maintaining such links both found themselves in prisons. If the Perry report is true –  and bar vitriolic and ad-hominem denials from state officials, I’ve seen nothing to conclusively prove that it is not – Rigi’s capture would have been a huge blow to Israel’s alleged investment in Jundallah, and the question of how the Pakistanis got to him would necessarily have arisen.

Again, this is pure speculation. Just because the Iran operation is the only one we know about, doesn’t mean it’s the one Zygier was involved in; a person can betray or compromise an organisation  without the result appearing in the media in the form of a botched operation. Still, being forced to work with what we already know and just for the sake of the argument, a hypothesis can conceivably be proposed that Zygier was suspected of somehow undermining the  Jundallah operation. Whether he did sodeliberately or not is impossible to establish or even hypothesise on without further information, although it would seem Zygier’s biography to this point (strongly Zionist family and education, ideological immigration to Israel, and so on) would preclude an outright defection to Tehran. The extraordinary  secrecy around his identity could simply be a precaution designed to prevent other assets he recruited from realising who he really was. Several Israeli outlets are currently emphasising another possibility – that Zygier’s activity and his arrest had something to do with the killing of Hamas’s Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai, the story of which exploded in the media also in early 2010, and which certainly involved several Australian passport-holders.

Unlike the possibility that Zygier was a false-flag Mossad operator deployed in the Iranian or the Gulf theatres, which can be plausibly sustained by the (knownat) overlaps listed above and the lack of information to contradict them, the exact nature of his offence – real, imagined or suspected – can only be guessed that: indeed, it may well be possible that the Mossad did not know either, and that at the time of his suicide, the state may well have still been trying to establish if the transgression he was suspected of was deliberate sabotage or an unfortunate mistake. Indeed, the same degree of caution should at this stage, apply to the nature of Zygier’s tragic death, precisely because it seems so “obvious” an alleged suicide in a “suicide-proof” cell “must have been” murder, and despite one of the key hints at Zygier’s fate was an op-ed by a senior intelligence analyst in Haaretz abstractly musing about prison murders disguised as suicides. The constantly monitored suicide-proof cell is a compelling idea; it was a single-inmate cell (so no bunk bed), and obviously without anything as appealing to a desperate man as a lamp-hook.

Nearly a year before Zygier’s death, however, disgraced TV star Dudu Topaz killed himself in another suicide-proof cell in the same city. Despite the presence of other prisoners and constant monitoring of the cell, Topaz used the very short cord of an electric kettle to create a pressure noose around a water tap less than a metrer above the floor, sit down on the shower floor, and break his own neck. His death was covered in graphic, grotesque detail by Israeli media for weeks, and it’s unlikely Zygier would not have heard of it. Although the death certificate specifically lists “asphyxiation,” the Topaz affair should illustrate that suicide is not impossible in almost any circumstance. Notably, both Topaz’s and Zygier’s cells enjoyed constant CCTV surveillance of their entire respective spaces – except the shower stalls.

Then again, the only official execution in Israeli history, outside Eichmann’s, was of an officer field-marshalled for treason (posthumously exonerated); and accidental death under torture should not be excluded.

Speculation is the key word to this entire report. Over the past two days several versions of what happened to Zygier have been hinted at on social networks – some even more galling than what we know, some considerably more mundane, and none, so far, from identifiably credibly sources (I  myself certainly haven’t heard anything new and convincing, directly or indirectly). However, gag orders on new information mean I cannot even report the hints of rumours floating about, or to use them to counterbalance or challenge the picture I presented above. Furthermore, the question of the degree of Zygier’s guilt, and of the degree of the state’s responsibility for his death should be treated with double caution: not only precisely because both are so appealing to the imagination, but also because of deference to his family.

Whatever he has done, Zygier was also a brother, a son, a husband and the father of two young children. We can only imagine that after such a devastating loss, the questions of his guilt or innocence, and the degree of ill will involved in his death while in the ostensibly safe and accountable hands of a state, become all the more paramount for the bereaved family, especially a family as patriotic as Zygier’s seems to have been. Assertions concerning either should not be thrown about idly. But what we do know about Zygier’s arrest and the incredible amount of silence surrounding his detention and his death make the entire affair of crucial public interest. If left unmolested and unmonitored, what happened to Zygier could, actually, happen to any of us or our loved ones – although the state now says Zygier had a team of three lawyers we do not know just how the state came round to clamp down on him as relentlessly and hermetically as it did, and whether its suspicions were convincing to the critical eye of any kind of an accountable monitor.

It is crucial, therefore, that facts are brought to light why Zygier met such a gruesome fate, and how. Whether they are brought to light by the state coming to its senses and accountability, or by journalistic work as dogged as the ABC’s, is up to us citizens – public servants, parliamentarians, and crucially, journalists, from Israel or from anywhere abroad.

‘Prisoner X’: Censorship and gag orders in the age of new media
Disappearing articles and the dead prisoner affair (‘Mr. X’): A timeline

For an alternate analysis of the Prisoner X story, read Michael Omer-Man’s account here


An earlier version of this post appeared in Hebrew on Tal Schneider’s blog “The Plog”. 

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    1. directrob

      “accidental death under torture”??

      There is no such thing (you are one of two google hits). Maybe you should write “died while being tortured”.

      Reply to Comment
      • Carl

        In fairness Rob, if you’re torturing someone to get information, killing them is unlikely to be the aim.

        Reply to Comment
        • directrob

          Carl, not the aim but also not an accident, more something like aggravated murder. Assuming there is no such thing as legal torture (see CAT) it could be unintentional but bever accidental.

          Reply to Comment
      • Carl

        I see your point: fair point too.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Jenny

      Israel (like other pretty much all other countries) runs these sorts of undercover ops, and so the risk of false flag stuff is real and must be more commun than just this one man. So why all the secrecy surrounding this one in particular? Just doesn’t make sense.
      His family have refused to talk to the media – and various lefty types on the various social media have urged people to leave them alone, citing information that they can’t reveal which says that there’s much more to the story than ‘just’ Zionist parents ashamed at their child’s conduct or preferencing loyalty to Israel above familial concerns.
      The whole thing just doesn’t make sense, if this isn’t a special case of some sort.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danaa

        Jenny, you say: “various lefty types on the various social media have urged people to leave them alone, citing information that they can’t reveal which says that there’s much more to the story than ‘just’ Zionist parents ashamed at their child’s conduct or preferencing loyalty to Israel above familial concerns.”.

        There are indications that things could be much much worse in Australia, as far as the cover-up of this case goes. And there was cover-up in Australia – information was squashed, and did not get passed on. ASIO may well have been told to “back off’ its investigation. This is very serious business making the charge of dual loyalty” hang like a sword over the entire Jewish community in Australia. there must have been very deep influence peddling, pressure on diplomatic and political channels and who knows what else to keep this case under wraps. just think – Ben Zeiger’s father was at the head of one of the key Jewish Lobby organizations in Australia. To find that their son died under the circumstances he did – killed or driven to death by the so-called “Jewish” state (really more of a mafiosi vision of it) must be devastating. No wonder they went into seclusion.

        There is probably worry – not without reason – that this could expose a web of influence peddling among Australia’s best connected and wealthiest jewish families that can only give a very bad name to the entire community – highly unfairly, since most Australian jewish people have no intention of becoming sayanim enablers.

        Reply to Comment
    3. “…ostensibly safe and accountable hands of a state…”…”state came round to clamp down on him as relentlessly and hermetically…” : As in stories of the Mafia, once entered, no autonomous exit. He must have tried to exit. If an operative failure, his failure must have been inferred to have erradicated loyality as important as that to God. If inferred a traitor–cells of a body are not very important, torture or suicide.

      “gag orders on new information mean I cannot even report the hints of rumours floating about, or to use them to counterbalance or challenge the picture I presented above” : Security has no trump. It makes the constitution. You are secure because you are told you are. Critical inquiry is an indulgence for children. The Iran threat has come home to roost.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Michal

      Lesson: don’t ever engage in espionage for any country. They’ll only turn against you when things get sour.

      Reply to Comment
      • Mitchell Cohen

        Aint’ that the truth!!!! I think anyone who agrees to be a spy for ANY country accepts the fact that they are virtually on a suicide mission. There is a very high chance that either the country they are spying against will be on to them and then can you say “Eli Cohen” or that things will turn sour and the country they were supposed to be spying for will turn against them and leave them for dead – can you say “Ben Zygier”….

        Reply to Comment
    5. aristeides

      What I’m seeing strongly suggests he was involved in the Dubai assassination and said something implicating the use of Australian passports in that op.

      So Israeli bloodthirstyness has led to the death of another Jew.

      Reply to Comment
      • Aristeides I don’t think there’s much mileage in guessing what Zygier was up to, as not only is it an – albeit cautious – guess, but there’s no way of checking the validity of that guess. One thing I think that’s important though is understanding what work ‘spies’ and their controlling agencies actually do.

        Any external security agency would avoid using it’s own native born nationals on physically risky operations as it’s just common sense: you don’t want to risk ‘your people’. They’ve years of expensive training and heads full of knowledge that you’d rather not be shared.

        Going to foreign countries to carry out operations where there’s a high chance of being caught would normally be delegated to sympathetic local groups – unless there’s no alternative. It’s a matter of human resources in the main.

        The assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists was most likely carried out by local people who may or may not have known who they’re working for. Conversely the Dubai murder must have been a matter of taking an opportunity as it arose, and in the process curtailing the careers of a dozen or so Israeli Mossad agents, courtesy of CCTV.

        Zygier’s tragic case is interesting in that he had dual nationality. Mossad would likely be making use of this and his ability to run a seemingly legitimate business. Whilst many foreign governments were non too pleased about the use of their passports in the Dubai case, this wouldn’t have been enough to keep an Israeli citizen incommunicado and without proper legal representation.

        The vast majority of ‘spy’ work for actual national security agency employees involves the mundane: sitting behind a computer or sitting behind a the desk of a private company. I’d think Zygier was more being paid by Mossad to do a task, rather than working as an agent in the way members of the Dubai team were.

        I’d say Zygier’s role would have been more akin to a paid police informant rather than an actual police officer. That would make him much more dispensable.

        Still, it says little about what job Mossad had tasked him to do, though it does give an idea of how he could be locked up so easily.

        Reply to Comment
        • aristeides

          Carl, you’re right, but the timing does suggest that line of speculation.

          Reply to Comment
    6. Danaa

      I do have more questions to do with the families – why all the tip-toeing around the families by left writers? why was Ben’s body shipped to Australia rather than buried in Israel? why the complete silence from his his israeli family? I’d assume they are upset, but for over 2 years to have kept this quiet! and not just them – what of all the friends the one called Benjy had? there must have been quite a few!

      So one mystery may have been sold – see headline in Haaretz: his family was promised millions of shekels in compensation and the agreement was “signed” 6 weeks ago? so their silence has been bought? that’s it? get paid and move on? does it look to anyone else like a bribe? am I supposed to be sympathetic?

      And what of the Australian family? how much are they going to get paid to make up for the “pain and suffering”? are they going to be paid? will the Jewish community in Australia, now totally under a cloud of “dual loyalty” be compensated? would a few millions be enough to “lift the cloud”?

      in case anyone doubts there’s a cloud – what would YOU think if you meet a young-ish Australian or new Zelander or English person who immigrated to israel? say someone who is not particularly orthodox? would you perhaps exercise just a bit of caution dealing with them?

      And how much is an Australian passport worth anyways? perhaps it might have lost some of its luster?

      Sorry, but it’s very very hard not to be a bit cynical about the entire affair, and its implications.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Curiouser

      Here’s the one question I haven’t seen anyone yet ask: How could he be buried in a Jewish cemetery if he committed suicide?!?

      Reply to Comment