“Espionage,” the British spy-turned-novelist John le Carré observed, “is the secret theater of our society.” Netflix’s new series “The Spy,” starring Sacha Baron Cohen as the real-life Israeli intelligence operative Eli Cohen, is good theater. But the real story is even more incredible.
Eli Cohen is Israel’s most famous spy—and with good reason. The Egyptian-born Jew, using the alias Kamel Amin Thaabet, rose to the upper echelons of Syrian society in the 1960s. As the film depicts, Syria’s then-president, Amin al-Hafiz, reportedly offered Cohen the position of deputy defense minister.
It was an astonishing act for someone who, a few years before, had been twice rejected by Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, and was working a desk job in the coastal town of Bat Yam. But Cohen had practice in the art of deception long before the Mossad recruited him in 1960.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Cohen worked for the Jewish state long before emigrating there. As the writers Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman noted in their 2014 book Spies Against Armageddon, Cohen “clandestinely helped other Egyptian Jews move to Israel and then took part in the ill-fated Israeli espionage network that was smashed by the Egyptian authorities in 1954.” At the time, Arab nations, including Egypt and Syria, were ramping up repression against their native Jewish populations after failing to destroy Israel in its 1948 War of Independence.
An estimated 850,000 Jews fled or were expelled from Arab countries in the years that followed that war. Cohen, who was released by Egyptian authorities for lack of evidence, didn’t come to Israel until 1956. He worked as translator for Israeli military intelligence and settled down with his wife, Nadia Majald, an Iraqi-born Jew.
Despite their failure to destroy Israel in the 1948 War, Arab nations persisted in efforts to target and harass the Jewish state. Indeed, the youthful and charismatic Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, spent much of the 1950s sponsoring fedayeen terrorist groups who were attacking civilians in Israel’s south.
Israel responded, in part, with a targeted assassination campaign aimed at the Egyptian military officers who were overseeing the fedayeen. As Ronen Bergman details in his book on Israeli intelligence, Rise and Kill First, Mossad operatives successfully targeted an Egyptian military intelligence captain, Mustafa Hafez, and an Egyptian military attaché, Salah Mustafa, who were overseeing the terrorist campaign.
But as the sixties rolled around, the situation was once more perilous. Nasser had regrouped and was actively recruiting Nazi scientists to build long-distance missiles to attack the Jewish state. North of Israel, Syria, although burdened by repeated coups, was sharpening its sword.
Flush with Soviet funds, Syria was arming and preparing for war. Concerned, Jerusalem “urgently required a spy in Damascus and had an ambitious plan for preparing and planting an undercover Israeli there,” Melman and Raviv note. And “Cohen was the man for the job.”
Cohen spent more than six months training before he was sent to Argentina in February 1961 to build a cover story. Posing as Kamel Amin Thaabet, a Syrian businessman born in Lebanon, Cohen cast himself as a wealthy patriot looking to do good deeds for his “homeland.” He quickly ingratiated himself with Arab entrepreneurs and was “dazzlingly successful at meeting rich and influential members of the Syrian community abroad.”
Soon some of these connections would prove fateful for both Cohen and Israel. But in the meantime, when Cohen moved to Syria in 1962, they helped facilitate his introduction to high society in the Arab nation’s capital.
Cohen cultivated Syria’s elite by throwing lavish parties, replete with alcohol and prostitutes, at his well furnished home. The trust that he earned paid dividends.
Although the Netflix film doesn’t show it, Cohen helped identify Nazi war criminals that were given refuge in Syria and other Arab countries. One of them, Alois Brunner, had overseen the murder of at least 130,000 Jews while heading a concentration camp in France. In exchange for his freedom, Brunner was training Syrian mukhabarat (intelligence) in interrogation and torture.
On Sept. 13, 1962 Brunner opened a letter bomb that seriously injured him, costing the Nazi his left eye.
Although he was originally sent to Syria to be a “sleeper agent” who would only become active in the event of an imminent attack on Israel, Cohen was soon under pressure to take his clandestine operations to the next level. He toured defense and military facilities, becoming privy to top secrets.
Cohen broadcast messages to his handlers on a daily basis, informing them about secret military installations, Syrian-Soviet relations, and Syria’s plot to take control of the region’s water sources.
But, as Ronen Bergman detailed in Rise and Kill First: “Cohen’s transmission of information of this nature and at this frequency was a serious and unprofessional error” by the spy and his handlers. Syrian officials later stated that they became aware that a spy was in their midst because Israel would carry out strikes on targets shortly after their movements were announced.
“The lively interest that Cohen showed in other Nazis in talks with top Syrians” and his position as a recent—and very wealthy—immigrant attracted the attention of Syrian intelligence services. His repeat transmissions—some of which caused interferences with broadcasts from the Syrian General Staff Headquarters just across the street—led to his undoing.
Aided by Soviet military intelligence, which supplied special prowl cars to track transmission signals, Cohen was arrested in January 1965. Men likely trained by Brunner himself spent months brutally torturing the Israeli. Under heavy duress—Cohen’s fingernails were removed and his genitals were electrocuted—the spy “revealed the secret communication codes and deciphered two hundred messages that he’d sent.” Cohen also revealed Israeli intelligence recruitment, training and cover-building methods, Bergman notes.
On May 18, 1965, Cohen was publicly hanged in the central square of Damascus.
Cohen’s death occurred a mere three months after Wolfgang Lotz, a Mossad spy working in Cairo to identify Nazi scientists, was also caught. Lotz was spared the gallows thanks to assistance from Germany, and was released along with his wife in a prisoner exchange after the 1967 Six-Day War.
Intelligence gathered by Cohen helped Israel secure a victory against Syria in that conflict. But Syria’s enmity remains. More than half a century after his death, Damascus has refused to return Eli Cohen’s body for burial in the land that he only briefly inhabited but risked everything to defend.
(A slightly different version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed in The Washington Examiner on Sept. 11, 2019).