Spy in Cell 15: The Real Story Behind Israel's 'Prisoner X'
Mossad agent Ben Zygier was found hanged in his cell and his case made headlines around the world. New information shows that Zygier, once a passionate Zionist, had become a turncoat who delivered sensitive information to Hezbollah. By SPIEGEL Staff
The guards found the Mossad agent at 8:19 p.m., his lifeless body hanging from a moist sheet. The sheet was tied to the window above the toilet in his prison cell.
The Ayalon maximum-security prison, where Zygier was imprisoned, is in Ramla, a suburb in northeast Tel Aviv. There are 700 prisoners and 260 guards at the facility, one of the best guarded prisons in all of Israel. The prisoners in the maximum-security wing are not allowed to use the synagogue or the fitness room, with its punching bag and exercise mats.
Cell No. 15, in which Zygier died, is reserved for enemies of the State of Israel. Yigal Amir, the murderer of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was held there. Enemy of the state is also the designation with which Zygier could enter the annals of Israeli history.
It has been two years since the prisoner died, but only now are bits of information coming to light. The case has made headlines around the world, putting both the governments of Israel and Australia on the defensive. In Tel Aviv, the affair has been treated as a state secret with a gag order, which has only recently been loosened, imposed on the media. Conspiracy theories about his fate have been plentiful, including speculation that Zygier was murdered in prison.
Shadow Intelligence War
Now, for the first time, it has become possible to describe what really triggered the agent's imprisonment. For months, a SPIEGEL team from Germany, Israel and Australia looked into the case, conducting interviews with Zygier's former friends and business partners, employees of various intelligence services and governments. The research shows that Zygier -- likely unintentionally -- became one of the most controversial spies in Israeli history, responsible for the arrests of several Lebanese informants who delivered information to the Mossad. He did what no Mossad agent had ever done before in this shadow war of intelligence agencies in the Middle East: He betrayed his country to its mortal enemies.
His story is that of a young man who dreamed of becoming an Israeli hero, one who wanted to prove himself no matter how high the cost. One who failed and saw no other way out than to commit suicide.
There were no indications of this dramatic end when Benjamin Zygier was growing up in a neighborhood in southeast Melbourne. His father Geoffrey, known as a conservative Jew, ran a successful muesli business and was involved in the Jewish community. Ben Zygier attended the best Jewish schools in the city, and joined the leftist Zionist youth organization Hashom Hatzair.
After graduating from high school in 1993, he began studying law at Monash University and eventually announced his intention to move to Israel. "I wasn't very surprised that he had the guts to try something bigger in life than just working as an attorney in a Melbourne law firm," Carolyn Creswell, a friend of the family and Zygier's former English teacher, told Australian reporters.
In 1994, he made his dream reality and moved to the Gazit kibbutz in Israel to find out if the country could become his new homeland.
The kibbutz is in northern Israel, on a road lined with eucalyptus trees as it winds through the hills of Galilee. About 500 people live in Gazit, where low houses with tiled roofs stand in the shadow of Mt. Tabor. In the main office at the kibbutz creamery stands Daniel Leiton, 40, a man with strong hands and an Australian accent. "Ben was an incredible person," says Leiton -- happy, friendly and warm. Leiton says Zygier was one of his best friends.
Tense or Worried?
Zygier and Leiton met in Melbourne in the late 1980s. Though both were still teenagers, they were already Zionists at the time. It was clear to Ben at an early age that he would make Aliyah, says Leiton. Aliyah is the term used by Jews in the diaspora to describe moving to the Holy Land.
Leiton was there when Zygier married his Israeli girlfriend, and he knows the family well. The last time Leiton saw Zygier was in early 2010, in Melbourne, shortly before his arrest.
Was there anything odd about his behavior? Did he seem tense or worried? No, says Leiton. He was the same as always. The notion that his friend committed suicide is "unimaginable," Leiton says quietly, noting that Zygier was not suicidal at all. He can't imagine his friend being kept in isolation, in a maximum-security cell at Ayalon Prison.
What about as a Mossad agent? Leiton swallows and says nothing.
In the kibbutz, Zygier always raved about the Zionist dream, recalls Lior Brand, who lived with Leiton and Zygier in the kibbutz at the time. According to Brand, Zygier was clever, educated and worldly. He was also prepared to defend Israel at all costs. Indeed, he could have been the perfect man for the Mossad.
For decades, the legendary intelligence service has been waging a shadow war against enemies who threaten to obliterate Israel. Mossad agents killed Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah in Damascus in 2008 and Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010. They have liquidated Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotaged Hezbollah hideouts in Lebanon. The Mossad constantly needs new recruits for this war, which has no beginning and no end.
At the beginning of the new millennium, the agency for the first time ran public ads under its own name. "The Mossad is open. Not to everyone. Not to many. Maybe to you," read the slogan in the agency's campaign for "the job of your life."
The Search for Instability
Men like Zygier, who hold a passport from a country that is above suspicion and can travel without attracting attention, are worth their weight in gold for the intelligence service. Furthermore, under Australian law, citizens may change their names several times and apply for new passports. According to the Australian government, Zygier had three passports. He sometimes traveled as Ben Allen or Ben Alon.
The young Australian travelled back and forth between Israel and Australia. He graduated from law school in Melbourne and began working for a law firm there. He quit his job in 2003 and moved to Tel Aviv, where he began work as a trainee at Herzog, Fox & Ne'eman, one of the country's top law firms. In truth, however, he had applied in response to the Mossad advertisement and also, just to be sure, sent a fax to the Defense Ministry as well.
The Mossad's selection process includes both the background check, which delves deeply into a candidate's family history, and psychological interviews. "We try to ferret out mentally unstable individuals," says one of the doctors who conducts the tests for the Mossad. Motti Kfir, a former Mossad trainer, adds: "Our people should be self-starters but not aggressive, courageous but not without fear, open-minded but tight-lipped."
One of the exercises consists of touching the center of a circle with one's eyes closed. This is impossible, and anyone who does manage to do it must have blinked. It's a test to determine how honest the candidate is. A lie-detector test is also administered at the end of the selection process.
The Mossad sent him to Europe in early 2005, on his first mission. Zygier was to infiltrate companies that were doing business with Iran and Syria. His target was a company in southern Europe.
- Part 1: The Real Story Behind Israel's 'Prisoner X'
- Part 2: The Origins of Betrayal
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