An ageing billionaire falls to his death in Mayfair. Vital evidence of his double life disappears. The latest Le Carré novel? No, a real life Middle Eastern spy thriller.
If John le Carré is looking for inspiration for a new novel in this post-cold war world about the hazards, moral ambiguity, intrigue and murkiness of the spy game, he should turn his attention away from Eastern Europe and towards the Middle East – and to Ashraf Marwan, the Egyptian master spy, in particular.
Like many good spy thrillers, the saga begins with a death. On 27 June, the 62-year-old Egyptian billionaire fell to his death from the balcony of his luxury fifth-floor apartment overlooking St James's park in London.
At first, the police were treating the fall as “unexplained” but not suspicious. But then the plot thickened, as it emerged that the dead man was no ordinary tycoon but a former spy. Then, vital evidence began to vanish.
In August, The Times learned that the only known copy of Marwan's draft memoirs, which promised to reveal the truth about his role as a spy, had disappeared from his apartment in St James's Park. Three volumes of the book, each about 200 pages, were taken as well as the tapes on to which they had been dictated. A source said that on the day he died, Marwan was due to fly to the United States to finalise the last chapter.
The newspaper also revealed that the shoes the dead Marwan was still wearing had wandered off from the mortuary. The footwear could have provided vital forensic clues as to the cause of his fall, his family believe.
Although the fact that he was a spook is pretty certain, the question of which side he was on remains shrouded in mystery. Was Marwan a profiteering spy for Israel who gave away vital information ahead of the 1973 war or a cunning double agent for Egypt who fed the Israelis with misleading disinformation?
Marwan's identity as a spy was revealed by Israeli historian Aharon Bergman – who was due to meet the late billionaire at around the time of his death – and the prominent American journalist and author Howard Blum in his 2003 book The Eve of Destruction: The Untold Story of the Yom Kippur War.
Both men had been tipped off by the disgruntled former head of Israeli military intelligence at the time of the 1973 war, General Eli Zeira, as part of his ongoing conflict with Zvi Zamir, the then head of Mossad, over apportioning blame for the Israeli intelligence failure in the runup to the joint Egyptian-Syrian attack which was accompanied by an Arab oil embargo.
Zeira maintains that Mossad was duped by Marwan's artful feeding of fact mixed with fiction to mislead Israel as to Egypt's intentions to wage war in 1973, while Zamir believes that Marwan was a genuine Mossad agent.
To get to the bottom of the story, we need to flash back to the late 1960s. Marwan was the model Egyptian insider of the clique-based order of the time. A chemist by training, he was the son of an officer in President Gamal Abdel Nasser's presidential guard and married the late president's daughter, Mona. While in the army, he became an adviser to his father-in-law and, after the president's death, advised his successor Anwar Sadat, rising to head Egypt's massive military-industrial complex.
In 1969, he came to London on the pretence of seeking medical care and, according to Blum, he visited a doctor known to be a covert Arab-Israeli go-between. Along with his X-rays, the Egyptian handed the doctor a file crammed with official Egyptian state documents that he wanted delivered to the Israeli embassy in London.
Although Mossad deemed the documents to be genuine, intelligence agencies are suspicious of so-called “walk-ins”. “It was decided, however, that this walk-in's credentials were worth the gamble,” Blum writes.
Operating under various code names, including “Angel”, “Babylon” and “the In-Law”, Marwan provided Mossad with so much information that the agency must have felt like it had died and gone to espionage heaven. One agent reportedly described the situation “as if we had someone sleeping in Nasser's bed”.
Armed with this information, Mossad developed what became known as “the concept” which assumed that Egypt would not wage war to reclaim the Sinai unless it possessed long-range bombers and was backed up by a genuine coalition of Arab countries.
In April 1973 (some five months before the actual attack), Marwan sent a secret message to his Israeli operatives warning of an imminent attack. Israel immediately called up tens of thousands of reservists and deployed several brigades in the Sinai. The state of alert lasted three months and cost around $35 million (around $130 million today).
Given that Israeli society and the economy grinds to a halt at times of major conflict, the second Marwan warning on the eve of the actual war was not heeded by the Israeli cabinet and Egypt managed to score spectacular early successes, turned around only with the aid of massive airlifts from America.
So, was Marwan a cunning double agent for Egypt or was his leaking of information perhaps found out and plans hastily changed in the spring of 1973? Although Zamir maintains that Marwan was working for the Israelis, Zeira, Bergman and Blum, among many others, are not convinced.
“On one occasion, when I asked [Marwan] what kind of book [his memoirs] would be, he said that everyone in Egypt, the whole system, worked to embarrass Israel. I concluded from this that he really was a double agent,” the Israeli historian told Haaretz.
The Egyptian establishment seems to concur. President Hosni Mubarak described the billionaire as a “patriotic man who served his country … although it is not yet the right time to reveal exactly how”. Egypt also lavished him with a major state funeral.
That leaves the unanswered question that, if Marwan was indeed murdered, who did it? Could it have been Israeli or Egyptian intelligence fearful of what he might reveal in his memoirs? Could it have been other intelligence organisations, since it is believed by some analysts that Marwan was also a vital link between Egypt and western agencies reassuring them that Egypt's war aims were limited to regaining its territory? Could it have been a business associate in the murky world of the arms trade through which Marwan is reputed to have amassed his enormous fortune?
On 7 July, Egypt's al-Masry al-Youm, citing anonymous sources, reported that four key witnesses were waiting to meet Marwan in an office building across the street from where he lived and allegedly witnessed his apparent suicide.
At the end of August, police said they were interviewing a new witness who claimed to have seen men wearing suits and of Mediterranean appearance peering over the balcony at Marwan's body before disappearing inside the flat, The Times reported. Last week, Scotland Yard summoned several Israeli citizens for questioning, Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly reported.
Police investigations are still ongoing and what they will reveal is anyone's guess. But death by balcony seems to be an increasingly common occurrence for Egyptians with suspected espionage pasts, such as Souad Hosni, the “Cinderella” of the “beautiful age” of Egypt's silver screen, who fell to her death from a London balcony in 2001 in an apparent suicide.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 19 September 2007.