Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 July 2018

Israel's Prisoner X 'wanted to become Mossad hero' before rogue operation led to his downfall

Ben Zygier, the dual Australian-Israeli citizen and suspected Mossad agent known as Prisoner X, reportedly gave the names of two Lebanese-based Israeli informants to Hizbollah. Kathy Marks reports from Sydney

SYDNEY // Ben Zygier, the dual Australian-Israeli citizen and suspected Mossad agent known until recently only as Prisoner X, reportedly gave the names of two Lebanese-based Israeli informants to Hizbollah while trying to recruit a double agent.

Zygier, who hanged himself in an Israeli prison in 2010, told a Hizbollah operative based in the Balkans that Ziad Al Homsi and Mustafa Ali Awadeh, both Lebanese, were Israeli spies, according to an investigation by the German news magazine Der Spiegel and Australia's Fairfax Media that was published yesterday.

He did so not out of treachery, they reported, but in an attempt to persuade the agent to switch his allegiance to Israel - part of a "rogue" operation that was neither sanctioned nor known about by Mossad. By revealing their names, Zygier hoped to convince the man, a European, that he worked for the intelligence agency.

Al Homsi and Awadeh - two of Israel's most prized informants - were arrested by Lebanese police in May 2009, convicted of espionage and sentenced to 15 years in jail, with hard labour. Thus, the Melbourne-born Zygier, an ardent Zionist who emigrated to Israel in 2000, was responsible for "one of the most serious security breaches in Israeli history", according to Fairfax Media.

Arrested in January 2010 by Israeli authorities and detained in conditions of utmost secrecy, the 34-year-old was found dead in his isolation cell in Ayalon Prison in Ramla, south-east of Tel Aviv, in November. Little was known about the case, details of which were suppressed by an Israeli court order, until Zygier's identity was revealed in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary last month.

Until yesterday, though, what crime he was accused of, and why such secrecy surrounded the case, remained a mystery. Conspiracy theories abounded in both Israel and Australia. But the answer, according to Der Spiegel and Fairfax, lay in the seriousness of the security breach, which he reportedly committed in an effort to redeem himself with his Mossad superiors.

Zygier, said to have joined Mossad in 2003, was initially assigned to infiltrate European companies with business links to Israel's foes, including Iran and Syria. However, the agency was disappointed by his performance and in 2007 recalled him to a desk job in Tel Aviv. Keen to impress his bosses and return to the field, he embarked on his solo mission.

Ronen Bergman, intelligence correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, who also worked on the investigation, told ABC radio yesterday: "He tried to prove himself, to go for a rogue operation, unauthorised and without the knowledge of his superiors, trying to prove that he is a wonderful agent, that he is a Mossad heroic figure."

Far from succeeding in recruiting the Hizbollah agent, Zygier - naively, it seems - passed on information highly useful to the militant Lebanese group. Before he was arrested, Al Homsi had reportedly told his Israeli handlers that he could lead them to the Hizbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, who has lived for years in hiding.

According to the reports, Zygier flew to Europe to meet his Hizbollah contact, then communicated with him for several months afterwards. The latter demanded that he prove himself a Mossad agent by passing on real intelligence. Zygier complied, giving him the names of the two informants.

What is more, Fairfax reported, when Zygier was arrested he was carrying a CD containing intelligence files that Israeli authorities believe he may have been intending to hand over to the same man.

Zygier is said to have confessed soon after being arrested, and his lawyers tried to negotiate a plea bargain. Israel insisted that he serve at least 10 years, as an example to others. Apparently despairing at that prospect, and "unable to bear the shame of his downfall", according to Fairfax, he hanged himself with a bedsheet hours after telephoning his mother, Louise Zygier, in Melbourne.

An Israeli official connected to the case told Fairfax that Zygier - who had a wife and two children in Israel - "wanted to achieve something that he didn't end up getting". And in a reference to the Hizbollah agent, the official added: "He [Zygier] ended up on a precipitous path. He crossed paths with someone who was much more professional than he was."

The Australian government, which has asked Israel to explain how he managed to commit suicide while supposedly under 24-hour surveillance, declined to comment on the latest reports. Israeli officials also declined to comment.