the spy who fell to earth
In 2007, Ashraf Marwan’s body was found in a rose garden in Mayfair, London. He had, it seemed, fallen from a fifth floor window of his home.
Marwan was Egyptian, born in Cairo in 1944. He moved to London in 1981 and had become a very rich businessman, whose name was once linked to several high profile corporate acquisitions.
In 2002 he was outed by an Israeli historian as having been a spy. Not just any spy, but the most important intelligence asset that Israel had ever recruited.
This historian, Ahron Bregman, maintained contact with Marwan in the subsequent years, and in 2007 was acting as a consultant on Marwan’s memoirs.
These memoirs would never see the light of day. For, on the night of Marwan’s death, the manuscript went missing.
Marwan was born into a middle class Egyptian family. He was smart, excelled at school, and went onto university. There he met Mona Nasser, the daughter of the president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Nasser was seen as one of the greatest figures of the Arab world and the post-colonial movement.
The president did not approve of Mona’s choice of partner, but Mona, his favorite child, persuade her father to give his blessing.
Mona and Ashraf married in 1966. The couple moved to London, where he enrolled at a university to gain a graduate degree in chemistry.
A scandal ensued, where Marwan was caught cheating on Mona with the wife of a Kuwaiti oil sheik. Summoned back to Cairo, Marwan faced the wrath of President Nasser. Despite her father’s demand that she divorce Marwan, Mona refused - she still loved him, despite his infidelity.
Though the couple did not like life back in Egypt, they had no choice but to obey Nasser. However, Marwan was permitted to return to London - under strict supervision - to complete his degree.
On one of these visits to the UK, Marwan made contact with the Israeli embassy. He offered his services as a spy. Nothing came of this until, in 1970, Nasser died of a heart attack.
Marwan prospered under the new regime of President Anwar Sadat. Now in a position of power and influence, Marwan began to provide large quantities of top secret information to Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.
This intelligence was of such value - coming from the very top of the Egyptian government - that Mossad codenamed Marwan “The Angel”. They considered him their most important foreign asset. As one top Mossad officer put it: “Material like this from a source like this is something that happens once in a thousand years.”
Marwan’s reports - including his assessments of Egyptian strategy, politics, and personalities - shaped Israeli policy towards Egypt, and its Arab neighbors in general.
Israel had soundly defeated Egypt and the combined forces of most of the Arab world in the 1967 Six-Day War. In that conflict, the Israeli armed forces captured the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.
The Israelis knew that it was only a matter of time before Egypt and Syria would attempt to liberate their territories. However, based in large part on the intelligence provided by Marwan, the government in Tel Aviv became certain that Egypt and Syria would not launch an attack unless they had sufficient military hardware - provided by the USSR - to strike at Israeli cities.
In April 1973, Marwan went to his Mossad case officer in London to say that President Sadat was planning to launch an attack on the Sinai Peninsula. This attack didn’t take place.
Egypt still didn’t have enough long-range Soviet weaponry to seriously threaten Israel, so the government of Prime Minister Golda Meir remained sure that Sadat wasn’t in a position to wage war.
Then, in October of that year, Marwan once again contacted Mossad to say that the Egyptians were ready to launch an attack within 24-hours - on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Despite their doubts, the government of Israel mobilized the armed forces. The response came just in time. The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal and dug in a few miles inside the Israeli-occupied Sinai, while Syrian tanks rolled into the Golan Heights.
On the back foot, the Israeli military was initially in trouble; however, with superior weaponry and the dedicated mobilization of the population, Israel was able to fight back, retaking the Golan Heights, retaining control of most of the Sinai Peninsula, and even making inroads further into Syrian and Egyptian territory.
However, whereas the Six-Day War of 1967 had been a stunning victory for Israel, the 1973 Yom Kippur War produced far more mixed result.
Ultimately, the Yom Kippur War led to Egypt regaining full control of the Suez Canal and, in 1979, the entire Sinai (though Israel retained control of the Gaza Strip, which had belonged to Egypt).
In the years that followed, Marwan continued to spy for Israel, before fleeing Egypt in 1981 upon the assassination of President Sadat.
He became a hugely successful businessman in London. Following the revelation that Marwan had been a spy, several people - especially in Israel - suggested that he’d really been an Egyptian double agent in the run-up to the Yom Kippur War.
They claimed that Marwan’s reports to Mossad, seeming to show that Egypt would never attack until it was in possession of Soviet MiG fighter jets and Scud missiles - which it still lacked in 1973 - lulled the Israelis into a false sense of security.
The intention of the Egyptians had only been to gain a foothold in the Sinai, which didn't require any long-range equipment.
Marwan’s last minute intelligence that the Egyptians would attack on Yom Kippur was, they said, merely an effort to maintain his cover in order to continue to operate as a double agent.
After Marwan was found dead in 2007, rumors quickly swirled that he’d been murdered. There were several highly suspect circumstances around his death, and naturally people speculated that he’d been killed because of his past espionage work.
The British found that there was nothing suspicious about Marwan’s death; but this did little to quiet those who believed he’d been assassinated.
Attribution for music used in this episode:
Assassinations Podcast Theme Music (Intro, Outro, and Transitions) written and performed by Graeme Ronald