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?
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”.