Member only
Episode
295

Eli Cohen | Mossad's Man In Damascus

Sep 6, 2022
-
26
minutes

He was the Israeli spy who infiltrated the top of Syrian military and political society. But his bravery and willingness to take risks would ultimately cost him his life.

In this episode, we tell the amazing story of Eli Cohen.

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login
Subtitles will start when you press 'play'
You need to subscribe for the full subtitles
Already a member? Login
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdf
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript only available after your trial

Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy who infiltrated the very highest levels of the Syrian military and government in what has been called the most daring and effective intelligence-gathering operation in history.

[00:00:39] It’s a tale of international espionage, of cunning, bravery, and of Middle Eastern rivalries.

[00:00:46] It’s important, but it’s also an amazing story, so I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:00:53] OK then, Eli Cohen.

[00:00:57] On the 18th May, 1965, a crowd gathered in Marjeh Square in Damascus, Syria.

[00:01:05] The outer edges were lined with trees and official looking buildings, and in the middle was a green space from which a long column shot up into the sky.

[00:01:17] It was like any other square you might find in the city, but on this day there were armed men patrolling, and military trucks coming and going.

[00:01:27] Whispers and hushed conversation echoed around, and pedestrians passing by stopped, looked, and came closer to see what all the fuss was about.

[00:01:40] They joined the crowd, jostling for position to get a good look at what’s going on.

[00:01:47] Peering over into the middle of the square, they saw a wooden construction, and a man… hanging there, dead.

[00:01:56] Over his body was a white sheet covered in Arabic script, and his head was slumped, the neck broken.

[00:02:05] The man was “Kamel Amin Thaabet”. He was a rich, well-known and politically connected Syrian socialite and businessman.

[00:02:16] Except his name wasn’t “Kamel Amin Thaabet”.

[00:02:21] His name was Eli Cohen.

[00:02:23] He was neither a socialite nor a businessman. He wasn’t even Syrian.

[00:02:29] He was a spy for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

[00:02:34] To find out how Cohen got to this point, we need to first go back in time to understand more about his life and what was going on in the Middle East at this point.

[00:02:46] Eli Cohen was born on in 1924, in Alexandria, in Egypt, to Syrian-Jewish parents from Aleppo who were committed Zionists.

[00:02:57] Cohen’s background–as an Egyptian born, son of Jews from Syria who would later go on to work for Mossad–captures perfectly the complicated and interconnected nature of Middle Eastern politics in the post-war years.

[00:03:13] As a very brief reminder of some of the main events here, at midnight on May the 14th, 1948, British control of the state of Palestine was due to expire.

[00:03:27] And it was unclear what would happen to the tiny territory that had been plagued by civil war between Jews and Arabs. 

[00:03:35] The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine had proposed two states - one Jewish, one Arab - and the state of Israel was created.

[00:03:46] Within hours of Israel’s creation, however, it was at war.

[00:03:50] On May 15th, just hours after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the armies of the surrounding countries of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan invaded the territories that had, until the day before, been British.

[00:04:06] The invasion began the Arab-Israeli War and set in motion decades of political and military instability in the region, but by late 1948 Israel controlled territory beyond the borders originally outlined in the U.N plan.

[00:04:23] Over half a million Palestinian refugees fled to neighbouring countries, and Jews, facing increasing pressure and intimidation in places like Egypt and Syria, were expelled or tried to escape to Israel. 

[00:04:39] By 1949 Israel found itself newly established, with expanded borders, but surrounded by hostile neighbours.

[00:04:48] That was the political storm Eli Cohen would put himself right in the middle of: Egypt, Israel, and Syria will be the three key countries in Cohen’s story. 

[00:04:59] Oh, and Argentina too, but more on that later.

[00:05:03] The year after the creation of the state of Israel, Cohen’s parents and three brothers moved from Egypt to Israel, but the young Eli Cohen stayed in Egypt to finish his engineering degree at Cairo Farouk University.

[00:05:20] While in Egypt he became involved in Jewish and Zionist activities, helping other Jewish families escape to Israel and he became well-known to the Egyptian intelligence services.

[00:05:33] He was implicated in several spy operations in Egypt, but while other members of the Jewish-Egyptian spy ring were executed by the Egyptian authorities, Cohen managed to get off the hook, the Egyptian authorities were never able to find definitive proof that Cohen was involved in anything more serious than pro-Zionist campaigning.

[00:05:57] Anyway, unafraid of what had happened to some of his fellow Zionists in Egypt, in the summer of 1955 the 30-year-old Cohen went to Israel for a specialist spy training course.

[00:06:11] He returned briefly to Alexandria but in 1956, when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula as tensions flared during the Suez Crisis, Cohen was again detained by the Egyptians and eventually expelled along with most of the Jewish community.

[00:06:30] He travelled to Israel via Naples, and upon his arrival assumed that his pro-Israeli activity in Egypt, combined with his spy course experience and fluency in Arabic, French and English, would make him a perfect candidate for a job with the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad.

[00:06:50] He would be wrong, at least this time.

[00:06:53] After offering his services to the Mossad twice, he was rejected and placed on a reserve list as a translator and logistics clerk in the Israeli Air Force - an office job, essentially, and not exactly what Eli Cohen had in mind.

[00:07:11] Some people have suggested that Cohen was initially rejected from the Mossad because of an old psychological evaluation they had done some years before.

[00:07:22] Cohen, the Mossad had said, had ‘a high IQ, great bravery, a phenomenal memory, and the ability to keep a secret’, but also that he ‘did not always evaluate danger correctly and was liable to assume risks beyond those which are necessary.’ 

[00:07:45] Remember this, as it will be important later on.

[00:07:49] Anyway, frustrated at his inability to join the Israeli intelligence, Cohen worked as an accountant in Tel Aviv for a couple of years.

[00:07:59] In 1959, he married an Iraqi-Jewish immigrant called Nadia, and the couple settled into the coastal city of Bat Yam.

[00:08:09] But Cohen was generally fed-up with civilian life, he was bored of his office job, and he yearned for action.

[00:08:18] His chance would come when tensions flared at the border with Syria, the homeland of Cohen’s parents. The Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, decided to take another look at him.

[00:08:32] The then Director-General of the Mossad, a man named Meir Amit, was looking for a special agent to infiltrate the Syrian government, and came across Cohen’s name while looking through a list of rejected candidates.

[00:08:48] Cohen’s language skills were appealing, and the fact he was born in an Arab country and said to have Arab features, to be able to pass as an Arab, also helped.

[00:09:01] After being followed for a couple of weeks, Cohen was judged to be a suitable candidate for training and he completed a proper six-month spy course at the Mossad training school. 

[00:09:13] He learned how to handle weapons and he developed all types of other important spy skills: map reading, morse code, high-speed driving, cryptography, and radio transmitting. All important skills, but the last one, radio transmitting, would be something that would later prove pivotal, very important, in his downfall.

[00:09:37] In order to make his cover even more convincing, Cohen was taught the principles of Islam, how to pray and, most importantly, trained to speak with a Syrian accent and not his native Egyptian tongue.

[00:09:53] And of course, he was given a false identity as a wealthy Syrian businessman.

[00:10:00] Cohen’s new name - his new identity - was Kamel Amin Thaabet, a rich Syrian expatriate

[00:10:08] An expatriate, or expat, as they’re often referred to, simply means someone who lives outside of their native country.

[00:10:16] To make his cover, his new identity, even more believable, in early 1961 the Mossad sent Cohen to establish himself as an expat Syrian businessman in Buenos Aires, in Argentina, where at the time there was a sizable and rich Syrian community.

[00:10:36] Under his new name, Cohen quickly indulged himself in Buenos Aires’ nightlife and made contacts in the Syrian community, including officials working at the Syrian Embassy. 

[00:10:48] This group of diplomatic staff allegedly included the Syrian military attaché at the time, Amin al-Hafez, who would later go on to be both Prime Minister and President of Syria, although al-Hafez denied that he ever met Cohen in Argentina.

[00:11:04] What Cohen went on to do would be hugely embarrassing for the entire Syrian political, military and intelligence establishments, not only for al-Hafez.

[00:11:16] Anyway, Cohen made it obvious that he - or rather, Kamel Amin Thaabet - was very wealthy, and he threw luxurious parties for the wealthy Syrian expat community in Buenos Aires.

[00:11:30] He also engaged in political discussion and gossip, and claimed publically to have sympathies towards the Syrian Ba'ath Party, and lots of money to donate towards it.

[00:11:42] The Ba'ath Party would go on to seize power in Syria in 1963, and the connections Cohen made with it during his time in Argentina would further cement his cover story when he arrived in Damascus.

[00:11:57] When he arrived - or as he said ‘returned’ - to Syria in 1962, he rented an apartment in the fashionable Damascus district of Abu Romana in a building opposite Syrian military headquarters.

[00:12:11] He settled into life in Syria, quickly restarting his social life and using the contacts he had made in Argentina to meet some of the most powerful and influential people in Syria’s political and military establishment.

[00:12:26] Many of his friends from Buenos Aires offered to help him set up businesses, or to introduce him to famous Syrians and important figures from the government.

[00:12:37] He continued his extravagant social life, and used his contacts to throw boozy parties for high-ranking Syrian politicians and military officials.

[00:12:47] He plied them with alcohol and carefully probed for information, even lending money and advice to some of them.

[00:12:56] His cover, and backstory in Argentina, had worked perfectly, and Cohen, or Kamel Amin Thaabet, as he was known to them, had firmly established himself as a member of the Syrian social elite.

[00:13:12] And he used it to great effect. 

[00:13:15] Believing that Cohen was a wealthy businessman with Ba’athist sympathies, Syrian officials talked openly with him about military plans and equipment, often with a drink in hand and women paid by Cohen stroking their hair.

[00:13:31] The information the Syrians revealed so casually, and quickly, to Cohen, was shocking not only to the spy but even to the Mossad.

[00:13:41] Soon after his arrival in Damascus, he had already sent information to the Mossad about bunkers where the Syrians stored Russian artillery, leaked a planned invasion of northern Israel, and informed the Mossad about two hundred tanks just hours after they landed in Syria.

[00:14:01] Cohen warned the Israelis that the Syrians were planning to reroute the Jordan River to starve Israel of water, and even gave them enough information to destroy the equipment the Syrians were going to use to do it. 

[00:14:15] And when he wasn't hosting parties for top military officials in his apartment, he was watching them from across the road.

[00:14:23] The strategic location of his apartment allowed Cohen to report on what was happening at the military headquarters at all hours of the day.

[00:14:32] He reported on how many people were there at night, what time the lights went out, who came and went, when motorcades came and left, and his vantage point, his position right in front of the headquarters, gave him a good idea of when something was about to happen.

[00:14:49] When nothing was happening, he simply invited them over for parties and measured the mood of Syria’s political and military elite from their party chatter, from the conversation at the party.

[00:14:59] Encouraging his guests to drink, Cohen remained sober, but pretended to be drunk, took note of what they said and sent the important information back to his Israeli handlers via radio transmitter, coded letter, occasionally in person, whenever he returned to Israel, and even via letters with invisible ink that went through Europe.

[00:15:26] When the Ba'ath Party seized power in 1963 - led by Cohen’s old friend from Argentina, Amin al-Hafez - Cohen’s old friends became Syria’s ruling class.

[00:15:39] He was by then so established and trusted in Syrian high society that al-Hafez is even rumoured to have considered appointing him Syrian Deputy Minister of Defence.

[00:15:51] Cohen was in.

[00:15:53] And the Syrians had no idea.

[00:15:56] He was even allowed to read classified defence documents, advise government ministers, and was taken on tours of Syrian military bases and fortifications, all while sending the information back to Israel.

[00:16:11] Cohen’s cover story had worked beyond even the wildest dreams of the Mossad.

[00:16:17] Perhaps his most incredible piece of intelligence work, however, was when he collected information on the Syrian military defences at Golan Heights - a strategically important area on the Syrian-Israeli border and valuable water resource that had long been a point of conflict between Israel and Syria.

[00:16:38] Since Israel’s creation, Syrian forces had used the high, elevated position of Golan Heights to launch attacks on Israel’s northern region of Galilee.

[00:16:50] Incredibly, it is alleged that when Cohen was taken on a tour of the Golan Heights by Syrian military officials, he said he was sorry, he expressed sympathy for the Syrian soldiers standing in the sun all day and suggested that trees be planted to create areas of shade.

[00:17:10] A kind and generous idea, perhaps, some shade for the soldiers standing in the hot sun.

[00:17:16] But Cohen’s primary concern wasn’t the soldiers. He thought these trees might serve as excellent markers for the Israeli army one day.

[00:17:26] And indeed, the Israel Defence Forces, or IDF, were then said to have used the trees as targets during the Six-Day War, in 1967, when Israel captured Golan Heights in two days, and long after Cohen was dead.

[00:17:43] But despite all of Cohen’s abilities as a spy, it would be precisely his confidence and recklessness that would prove his downfall.

[00:17:53] If you remember from earlier, his Mossad evaluation was that he was considered reckless and ‘liable to assume risks beyond those which are necessary’.

[00:18:04] Well, it turns out that this assessment was spot on, the Mossad was right.

[00:18:10] In the autumn of 1964, Cohen made a trip back to Israel.

[00:18:15] It was a long stay - one that would prove to be his last - and his wife Nadia later said that he was worried about returning to Damascus. 

[00:18:25] Feeling the pressure of his operation, Cohen feared the Syrians were actively searching for the ‘mole’ - a term for someone who passes on sensitive information.

[00:18:35] Yet, he still agreed to go back to Syria, and promised his wife that this would be his last trip.

[00:18:42] I should say that there’s some disagreement between the Mossad and the Cohen family about how exactly that happened, and whether or not Cohen actually wanted to go.

[00:18:53] Nadia, his wife, said that Cohen only returned to Syria after he was pressured by the Mossad; the Mossad said that they warned him to be especially careful and, specifically, not to send too many radio transmissions.

[00:19:09] And it’s related to the last point that things start to go wrong for Eli Cohen.

[00:19:15] Under pressure from the Mossad or not, Cohen went back to Syria and continued to send radio transmissions.

[00:19:22] And he was doing it a lot. Too much, in fact.

[00:19:26] Cohen’s fears that the Syrians knew about the mole were right.

[00:19:32] Syria’s intelligence chief, Colonel Ahmad Suweidani, had made it his mission to find the mole and stop the leak of sensitive information that was damaging the Syrian war effort and embarrassing its military leaders.

[00:19:46] He got help from the Soviets, and on January 24, 1965, the Syrians organised a period of radio silence and used Soviet tracking equipment to detect radio transmissions.

[00:19:59] Essentially, they stopped all radio transmissions, thinking that if they could find someone who was sending a transmission, this would probably be the mole, the person who was sharing military secrets.

[00:20:13] They picked up a transmission, triangulated the transmitter, and Syria’s secret police got ready to burst into the apartment where it seemed like the transmission was coming from.

[00:20:25] The apartment, of course, belonged to Kamel Amin Thaabet, or Eli Cohen.

[00:20:31] Syrian security officers kicked down, and found Cohen in the middle of sending a transmission.

[00:20:38] He was, as we say in English, ‘caught red handed’, caught in the act.

[00:20:43] Cohen tried to deny that he was a spy, but it quickly became clear that nothing could save him.

[00:20:50] When he was captured, the Syrian intelligence service forced Cohen to send fake transmissions to the Mossad, hoping they could recover the situation and use Cohen as a tool against Israel.

[00:21:03] Cohen, however, was not the kind of person to turn on his country.

[00:21:08] The secret code he used in his communications with the Mossad told them that these were not normal transmissions and not to be trusted.

[00:21:18] The Mossad knew something was wrong, and tried to figure out ways to get Cohen out of Syria.

[00:21:25] Israel appealed to the Pope and the U.N.

[00:21:28] A plan was made to kidnap famous or important Syrians as bargaining chips for negotiation.

[00:21:36] Paying a ransom to the Syrians via the French was suggested, and also that special Israeli forces be sent in to free him. 

[00:21:46] Israel was even prepared to give the Syrians what intelligence they had on Syrian domestic politics, such as anti-Ba'athist plots to overthrow the government, in exchange for their top spy.

[00:21:59] But none of it mattered - the Syrians would not negotiate.

[00:22:04] After being tortured and interrogated over many weeks, Cohen was put on trial in February of 1965, found guilty of espionage, and sentenced to death.

[00:22:17] On the 15 of May, Cohen wrote his last letter to his wife.

[00:22:22] In it, he said, “I am begging you my dear Nadia not to spend your time in weeping about something already passed. Concentrate on yourself, looking forward for a better future!”

[00:22:36] Three days later, on Tuesday the 18th of May, 1965, Eli Cohen was hanged in Marjah Square.

[00:22:44] He had been permitted to see a Rabbi in his last moments, but in death no such honour was bestowed on him.

[00:22:52] His body was covered in a white sheet outlining his crimes, left hanging for hours as a spectacle for the crowd gathered in the square.

[00:23:02] After his execution, Syria refused to return Cohen’s body to Israel.

[00:23:07] They ignored requests from his wife and his family for the body, and the mystery about Cohen’s final resting place remains to this day.

[00:23:17] In 2008 the Syrian government said that Cohen had been buried three times so that nobody would ever find the body, and to prevent the remains from being returned to Israel by the Mossad.

[00:23:31] The only piece of Eli Cohen that remains is his watch, which was reported in 2018 to have been found and returned to Israel, where it was presented to his family in a ceremony by the director of the Mossad.

[00:23:46] In terms of his legacy, Eli Cohen is remembered as Israel’s most famous and successful spy.

[00:23:54] The information Cohen provided saved Israeli lives, weakened the Syrian war effort and allegedly even played a role in Israel’s victory in the Six Day War.

[00:24:05] Cohen’s was not only an extraordinary story, and piece of espionage, but an incredible character transformation: from an Egyptian born Jew of humble beginnings into a wealthy Arab businessman who wined and dined Syrian high-society, all while working against them.

[00:24:24] In terms of his legacy, he has been remembered in biographies, films, a recent Netflix series called “The Spy”, as well as countless documentaries.

[00:24:35] In Israel, streets and neighbourhoods are named after him, but perhaps the highest honour was reserved for a piece of land in the Golan Heights, the area Israel was able to capture in 1967 helped by Cohen’s information and his persuading the Syrian authorities to plant trees above the military bases to protect the soldiers from the hot sun.

[00:24:58] This piece of land used to be called “El Al”, but it ’s now called Eliad, after the most famous spy in Israel, Eli Cohen.

[00:25:09] OK then, that’s it for today’s episode on Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy who infiltrated the upper-echelons of Syria's military establishment and just perhaps altered the course of Middle Eastern history.

[00:25:24] I hope it was an interesting one, and whether you knew a lot about Cohen before, or this was the first time you’d heard of him, well, I hope you learned something new.

[00:25:33] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:25:37] Had you heard of Eli Cohen before?

[00:25:39] If you were alive, what do you remember of his capture and execution?

[00:25:44] Do you know of any other famous spies like Cohen?

[00:25:47] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:25:50] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:25:59] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:03] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy who infiltrated the very highest levels of the Syrian military and government in what has been called the most daring and effective intelligence-gathering operation in history.

[00:00:39] It’s a tale of international espionage, of cunning, bravery, and of Middle Eastern rivalries.

[00:00:46] It’s important, but it’s also an amazing story, so I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:00:53] OK then, Eli Cohen.

[00:00:57] On the 18th May, 1965, a crowd gathered in Marjeh Square in Damascus, Syria.

[00:01:05] The outer edges were lined with trees and official looking buildings, and in the middle was a green space from which a long column shot up into the sky.

[00:01:17] It was like any other square you might find in the city, but on this day there were armed men patrolling, and military trucks coming and going.

[00:01:27] Whispers and hushed conversation echoed around, and pedestrians passing by stopped, looked, and came closer to see what all the fuss was about.

[00:01:40] They joined the crowd, jostling for position to get a good look at what’s going on.

[00:01:47] Peering over into the middle of the square, they saw a wooden construction, and a man… hanging there, dead.

[00:01:56] Over his body was a white sheet covered in Arabic script, and his head was slumped, the neck broken.

[00:02:05] The man was “Kamel Amin Thaabet”. He was a rich, well-known and politically connected Syrian socialite and businessman.

[00:02:16] Except his name wasn’t “Kamel Amin Thaabet”.

[00:02:21] His name was Eli Cohen.

[00:02:23] He was neither a socialite nor a businessman. He wasn’t even Syrian.

[00:02:29] He was a spy for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

[00:02:34] To find out how Cohen got to this point, we need to first go back in time to understand more about his life and what was going on in the Middle East at this point.

[00:02:46] Eli Cohen was born on in 1924, in Alexandria, in Egypt, to Syrian-Jewish parents from Aleppo who were committed Zionists.

[00:02:57] Cohen’s background–as an Egyptian born, son of Jews from Syria who would later go on to work for Mossad–captures perfectly the complicated and interconnected nature of Middle Eastern politics in the post-war years.

[00:03:13] As a very brief reminder of some of the main events here, at midnight on May the 14th, 1948, British control of the state of Palestine was due to expire.

[00:03:27] And it was unclear what would happen to the tiny territory that had been plagued by civil war between Jews and Arabs. 

[00:03:35] The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine had proposed two states - one Jewish, one Arab - and the state of Israel was created.

[00:03:46] Within hours of Israel’s creation, however, it was at war.

[00:03:50] On May 15th, just hours after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the armies of the surrounding countries of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan invaded the territories that had, until the day before, been British.

[00:04:06] The invasion began the Arab-Israeli War and set in motion decades of political and military instability in the region, but by late 1948 Israel controlled territory beyond the borders originally outlined in the U.N plan.

[00:04:23] Over half a million Palestinian refugees fled to neighbouring countries, and Jews, facing increasing pressure and intimidation in places like Egypt and Syria, were expelled or tried to escape to Israel. 

[00:04:39] By 1949 Israel found itself newly established, with expanded borders, but surrounded by hostile neighbours.

[00:04:48] That was the political storm Eli Cohen would put himself right in the middle of: Egypt, Israel, and Syria will be the three key countries in Cohen’s story. 

[00:04:59] Oh, and Argentina too, but more on that later.

[00:05:03] The year after the creation of the state of Israel, Cohen’s parents and three brothers moved from Egypt to Israel, but the young Eli Cohen stayed in Egypt to finish his engineering degree at Cairo Farouk University.

[00:05:20] While in Egypt he became involved in Jewish and Zionist activities, helping other Jewish families escape to Israel and he became well-known to the Egyptian intelligence services.

[00:05:33] He was implicated in several spy operations in Egypt, but while other members of the Jewish-Egyptian spy ring were executed by the Egyptian authorities, Cohen managed to get off the hook, the Egyptian authorities were never able to find definitive proof that Cohen was involved in anything more serious than pro-Zionist campaigning.

[00:05:57] Anyway, unafraid of what had happened to some of his fellow Zionists in Egypt, in the summer of 1955 the 30-year-old Cohen went to Israel for a specialist spy training course.

[00:06:11] He returned briefly to Alexandria but in 1956, when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula as tensions flared during the Suez Crisis, Cohen was again detained by the Egyptians and eventually expelled along with most of the Jewish community.

[00:06:30] He travelled to Israel via Naples, and upon his arrival assumed that his pro-Israeli activity in Egypt, combined with his spy course experience and fluency in Arabic, French and English, would make him a perfect candidate for a job with the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad.

[00:06:50] He would be wrong, at least this time.

[00:06:53] After offering his services to the Mossad twice, he was rejected and placed on a reserve list as a translator and logistics clerk in the Israeli Air Force - an office job, essentially, and not exactly what Eli Cohen had in mind.

[00:07:11] Some people have suggested that Cohen was initially rejected from the Mossad because of an old psychological evaluation they had done some years before.

[00:07:22] Cohen, the Mossad had said, had ‘a high IQ, great bravery, a phenomenal memory, and the ability to keep a secret’, but also that he ‘did not always evaluate danger correctly and was liable to assume risks beyond those which are necessary.’ 

[00:07:45] Remember this, as it will be important later on.

[00:07:49] Anyway, frustrated at his inability to join the Israeli intelligence, Cohen worked as an accountant in Tel Aviv for a couple of years.

[00:07:59] In 1959, he married an Iraqi-Jewish immigrant called Nadia, and the couple settled into the coastal city of Bat Yam.

[00:08:09] But Cohen was generally fed-up with civilian life, he was bored of his office job, and he yearned for action.

[00:08:18] His chance would come when tensions flared at the border with Syria, the homeland of Cohen’s parents. The Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, decided to take another look at him.

[00:08:32] The then Director-General of the Mossad, a man named Meir Amit, was looking for a special agent to infiltrate the Syrian government, and came across Cohen’s name while looking through a list of rejected candidates.

[00:08:48] Cohen’s language skills were appealing, and the fact he was born in an Arab country and said to have Arab features, to be able to pass as an Arab, also helped.

[00:09:01] After being followed for a couple of weeks, Cohen was judged to be a suitable candidate for training and he completed a proper six-month spy course at the Mossad training school. 

[00:09:13] He learned how to handle weapons and he developed all types of other important spy skills: map reading, morse code, high-speed driving, cryptography, and radio transmitting. All important skills, but the last one, radio transmitting, would be something that would later prove pivotal, very important, in his downfall.

[00:09:37] In order to make his cover even more convincing, Cohen was taught the principles of Islam, how to pray and, most importantly, trained to speak with a Syrian accent and not his native Egyptian tongue.

[00:09:53] And of course, he was given a false identity as a wealthy Syrian businessman.

[00:10:00] Cohen’s new name - his new identity - was Kamel Amin Thaabet, a rich Syrian expatriate

[00:10:08] An expatriate, or expat, as they’re often referred to, simply means someone who lives outside of their native country.

[00:10:16] To make his cover, his new identity, even more believable, in early 1961 the Mossad sent Cohen to establish himself as an expat Syrian businessman in Buenos Aires, in Argentina, where at the time there was a sizable and rich Syrian community.

[00:10:36] Under his new name, Cohen quickly indulged himself in Buenos Aires’ nightlife and made contacts in the Syrian community, including officials working at the Syrian Embassy. 

[00:10:48] This group of diplomatic staff allegedly included the Syrian military attaché at the time, Amin al-Hafez, who would later go on to be both Prime Minister and President of Syria, although al-Hafez denied that he ever met Cohen in Argentina.

[00:11:04] What Cohen went on to do would be hugely embarrassing for the entire Syrian political, military and intelligence establishments, not only for al-Hafez.

[00:11:16] Anyway, Cohen made it obvious that he - or rather, Kamel Amin Thaabet - was very wealthy, and he threw luxurious parties for the wealthy Syrian expat community in Buenos Aires.

[00:11:30] He also engaged in political discussion and gossip, and claimed publically to have sympathies towards the Syrian Ba'ath Party, and lots of money to donate towards it.

[00:11:42] The Ba'ath Party would go on to seize power in Syria in 1963, and the connections Cohen made with it during his time in Argentina would further cement his cover story when he arrived in Damascus.

[00:11:57] When he arrived - or as he said ‘returned’ - to Syria in 1962, he rented an apartment in the fashionable Damascus district of Abu Romana in a building opposite Syrian military headquarters.

[00:12:11] He settled into life in Syria, quickly restarting his social life and using the contacts he had made in Argentina to meet some of the most powerful and influential people in Syria’s political and military establishment.

[00:12:26] Many of his friends from Buenos Aires offered to help him set up businesses, or to introduce him to famous Syrians and important figures from the government.

[00:12:37] He continued his extravagant social life, and used his contacts to throw boozy parties for high-ranking Syrian politicians and military officials.

[00:12:47] He plied them with alcohol and carefully probed for information, even lending money and advice to some of them.

[00:12:56] His cover, and backstory in Argentina, had worked perfectly, and Cohen, or Kamel Amin Thaabet, as he was known to them, had firmly established himself as a member of the Syrian social elite.

[00:13:12] And he used it to great effect. 

[00:13:15] Believing that Cohen was a wealthy businessman with Ba’athist sympathies, Syrian officials talked openly with him about military plans and equipment, often with a drink in hand and women paid by Cohen stroking their hair.

[00:13:31] The information the Syrians revealed so casually, and quickly, to Cohen, was shocking not only to the spy but even to the Mossad.

[00:13:41] Soon after his arrival in Damascus, he had already sent information to the Mossad about bunkers where the Syrians stored Russian artillery, leaked a planned invasion of northern Israel, and informed the Mossad about two hundred tanks just hours after they landed in Syria.

[00:14:01] Cohen warned the Israelis that the Syrians were planning to reroute the Jordan River to starve Israel of water, and even gave them enough information to destroy the equipment the Syrians were going to use to do it. 

[00:14:15] And when he wasn't hosting parties for top military officials in his apartment, he was watching them from across the road.

[00:14:23] The strategic location of his apartment allowed Cohen to report on what was happening at the military headquarters at all hours of the day.

[00:14:32] He reported on how many people were there at night, what time the lights went out, who came and went, when motorcades came and left, and his vantage point, his position right in front of the headquarters, gave him a good idea of when something was about to happen.

[00:14:49] When nothing was happening, he simply invited them over for parties and measured the mood of Syria’s political and military elite from their party chatter, from the conversation at the party.

[00:14:59] Encouraging his guests to drink, Cohen remained sober, but pretended to be drunk, took note of what they said and sent the important information back to his Israeli handlers via radio transmitter, coded letter, occasionally in person, whenever he returned to Israel, and even via letters with invisible ink that went through Europe.

[00:15:26] When the Ba'ath Party seized power in 1963 - led by Cohen’s old friend from Argentina, Amin al-Hafez - Cohen’s old friends became Syria’s ruling class.

[00:15:39] He was by then so established and trusted in Syrian high society that al-Hafez is even rumoured to have considered appointing him Syrian Deputy Minister of Defence.

[00:15:51] Cohen was in.

[00:15:53] And the Syrians had no idea.

[00:15:56] He was even allowed to read classified defence documents, advise government ministers, and was taken on tours of Syrian military bases and fortifications, all while sending the information back to Israel.

[00:16:11] Cohen’s cover story had worked beyond even the wildest dreams of the Mossad.

[00:16:17] Perhaps his most incredible piece of intelligence work, however, was when he collected information on the Syrian military defences at Golan Heights - a strategically important area on the Syrian-Israeli border and valuable water resource that had long been a point of conflict between Israel and Syria.

[00:16:38] Since Israel’s creation, Syrian forces had used the high, elevated position of Golan Heights to launch attacks on Israel’s northern region of Galilee.

[00:16:50] Incredibly, it is alleged that when Cohen was taken on a tour of the Golan Heights by Syrian military officials, he said he was sorry, he expressed sympathy for the Syrian soldiers standing in the sun all day and suggested that trees be planted to create areas of shade.

[00:17:10] A kind and generous idea, perhaps, some shade for the soldiers standing in the hot sun.

[00:17:16] But Cohen’s primary concern wasn’t the soldiers. He thought these trees might serve as excellent markers for the Israeli army one day.

[00:17:26] And indeed, the Israel Defence Forces, or IDF, were then said to have used the trees as targets during the Six-Day War, in 1967, when Israel captured Golan Heights in two days, and long after Cohen was dead.

[00:17:43] But despite all of Cohen’s abilities as a spy, it would be precisely his confidence and recklessness that would prove his downfall.

[00:17:53] If you remember from earlier, his Mossad evaluation was that he was considered reckless and ‘liable to assume risks beyond those which are necessary’.

[00:18:04] Well, it turns out that this assessment was spot on, the Mossad was right.

[00:18:10] In the autumn of 1964, Cohen made a trip back to Israel.

[00:18:15] It was a long stay - one that would prove to be his last - and his wife Nadia later said that he was worried about returning to Damascus. 

[00:18:25] Feeling the pressure of his operation, Cohen feared the Syrians were actively searching for the ‘mole’ - a term for someone who passes on sensitive information.

[00:18:35] Yet, he still agreed to go back to Syria, and promised his wife that this would be his last trip.

[00:18:42] I should say that there’s some disagreement between the Mossad and the Cohen family about how exactly that happened, and whether or not Cohen actually wanted to go.

[00:18:53] Nadia, his wife, said that Cohen only returned to Syria after he was pressured by the Mossad; the Mossad said that they warned him to be especially careful and, specifically, not to send too many radio transmissions.

[00:19:09] And it’s related to the last point that things start to go wrong for Eli Cohen.

[00:19:15] Under pressure from the Mossad or not, Cohen went back to Syria and continued to send radio transmissions.

[00:19:22] And he was doing it a lot. Too much, in fact.

[00:19:26] Cohen’s fears that the Syrians knew about the mole were right.

[00:19:32] Syria’s intelligence chief, Colonel Ahmad Suweidani, had made it his mission to find the mole and stop the leak of sensitive information that was damaging the Syrian war effort and embarrassing its military leaders.

[00:19:46] He got help from the Soviets, and on January 24, 1965, the Syrians organised a period of radio silence and used Soviet tracking equipment to detect radio transmissions.

[00:19:59] Essentially, they stopped all radio transmissions, thinking that if they could find someone who was sending a transmission, this would probably be the mole, the person who was sharing military secrets.

[00:20:13] They picked up a transmission, triangulated the transmitter, and Syria’s secret police got ready to burst into the apartment where it seemed like the transmission was coming from.

[00:20:25] The apartment, of course, belonged to Kamel Amin Thaabet, or Eli Cohen.

[00:20:31] Syrian security officers kicked down, and found Cohen in the middle of sending a transmission.

[00:20:38] He was, as we say in English, ‘caught red handed’, caught in the act.

[00:20:43] Cohen tried to deny that he was a spy, but it quickly became clear that nothing could save him.

[00:20:50] When he was captured, the Syrian intelligence service forced Cohen to send fake transmissions to the Mossad, hoping they could recover the situation and use Cohen as a tool against Israel.

[00:21:03] Cohen, however, was not the kind of person to turn on his country.

[00:21:08] The secret code he used in his communications with the Mossad told them that these were not normal transmissions and not to be trusted.

[00:21:18] The Mossad knew something was wrong, and tried to figure out ways to get Cohen out of Syria.

[00:21:25] Israel appealed to the Pope and the U.N.

[00:21:28] A plan was made to kidnap famous or important Syrians as bargaining chips for negotiation.

[00:21:36] Paying a ransom to the Syrians via the French was suggested, and also that special Israeli forces be sent in to free him. 

[00:21:46] Israel was even prepared to give the Syrians what intelligence they had on Syrian domestic politics, such as anti-Ba'athist plots to overthrow the government, in exchange for their top spy.

[00:21:59] But none of it mattered - the Syrians would not negotiate.

[00:22:04] After being tortured and interrogated over many weeks, Cohen was put on trial in February of 1965, found guilty of espionage, and sentenced to death.

[00:22:17] On the 15 of May, Cohen wrote his last letter to his wife.

[00:22:22] In it, he said, “I am begging you my dear Nadia not to spend your time in weeping about something already passed. Concentrate on yourself, looking forward for a better future!”

[00:22:36] Three days later, on Tuesday the 18th of May, 1965, Eli Cohen was hanged in Marjah Square.

[00:22:44] He had been permitted to see a Rabbi in his last moments, but in death no such honour was bestowed on him.

[00:22:52] His body was covered in a white sheet outlining his crimes, left hanging for hours as a spectacle for the crowd gathered in the square.

[00:23:02] After his execution, Syria refused to return Cohen’s body to Israel.

[00:23:07] They ignored requests from his wife and his family for the body, and the mystery about Cohen’s final resting place remains to this day.

[00:23:17] In 2008 the Syrian government said that Cohen had been buried three times so that nobody would ever find the body, and to prevent the remains from being returned to Israel by the Mossad.

[00:23:31] The only piece of Eli Cohen that remains is his watch, which was reported in 2018 to have been found and returned to Israel, where it was presented to his family in a ceremony by the director of the Mossad.

[00:23:46] In terms of his legacy, Eli Cohen is remembered as Israel’s most famous and successful spy.

[00:23:54] The information Cohen provided saved Israeli lives, weakened the Syrian war effort and allegedly even played a role in Israel’s victory in the Six Day War.

[00:24:05] Cohen’s was not only an extraordinary story, and piece of espionage, but an incredible character transformation: from an Egyptian born Jew of humble beginnings into a wealthy Arab businessman who wined and dined Syrian high-society, all while working against them.

[00:24:24] In terms of his legacy, he has been remembered in biographies, films, a recent Netflix series called “The Spy”, as well as countless documentaries.

[00:24:35] In Israel, streets and neighbourhoods are named after him, but perhaps the highest honour was reserved for a piece of land in the Golan Heights, the area Israel was able to capture in 1967 helped by Cohen’s information and his persuading the Syrian authorities to plant trees above the military bases to protect the soldiers from the hot sun.

[00:24:58] This piece of land used to be called “El Al”, but it ’s now called Eliad, after the most famous spy in Israel, Eli Cohen.

[00:25:09] OK then, that’s it for today’s episode on Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy who infiltrated the upper-echelons of Syria's military establishment and just perhaps altered the course of Middle Eastern history.

[00:25:24] I hope it was an interesting one, and whether you knew a lot about Cohen before, or this was the first time you’d heard of him, well, I hope you learned something new.

[00:25:33] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:25:37] Had you heard of Eli Cohen before?

[00:25:39] If you were alive, what do you remember of his capture and execution?

[00:25:44] Do you know of any other famous spies like Cohen?

[00:25:47] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:25:50] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:25:59] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:03] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy who infiltrated the very highest levels of the Syrian military and government in what has been called the most daring and effective intelligence-gathering operation in history.

[00:00:39] It’s a tale of international espionage, of cunning, bravery, and of Middle Eastern rivalries.

[00:00:46] It’s important, but it’s also an amazing story, so I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:00:53] OK then, Eli Cohen.

[00:00:57] On the 18th May, 1965, a crowd gathered in Marjeh Square in Damascus, Syria.

[00:01:05] The outer edges were lined with trees and official looking buildings, and in the middle was a green space from which a long column shot up into the sky.

[00:01:17] It was like any other square you might find in the city, but on this day there were armed men patrolling, and military trucks coming and going.

[00:01:27] Whispers and hushed conversation echoed around, and pedestrians passing by stopped, looked, and came closer to see what all the fuss was about.

[00:01:40] They joined the crowd, jostling for position to get a good look at what’s going on.

[00:01:47] Peering over into the middle of the square, they saw a wooden construction, and a man… hanging there, dead.

[00:01:56] Over his body was a white sheet covered in Arabic script, and his head was slumped, the neck broken.

[00:02:05] The man was “Kamel Amin Thaabet”. He was a rich, well-known and politically connected Syrian socialite and businessman.

[00:02:16] Except his name wasn’t “Kamel Amin Thaabet”.

[00:02:21] His name was Eli Cohen.

[00:02:23] He was neither a socialite nor a businessman. He wasn’t even Syrian.

[00:02:29] He was a spy for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

[00:02:34] To find out how Cohen got to this point, we need to first go back in time to understand more about his life and what was going on in the Middle East at this point.

[00:02:46] Eli Cohen was born on in 1924, in Alexandria, in Egypt, to Syrian-Jewish parents from Aleppo who were committed Zionists.

[00:02:57] Cohen’s background–as an Egyptian born, son of Jews from Syria who would later go on to work for Mossad–captures perfectly the complicated and interconnected nature of Middle Eastern politics in the post-war years.

[00:03:13] As a very brief reminder of some of the main events here, at midnight on May the 14th, 1948, British control of the state of Palestine was due to expire.

[00:03:27] And it was unclear what would happen to the tiny territory that had been plagued by civil war between Jews and Arabs. 

[00:03:35] The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine had proposed two states - one Jewish, one Arab - and the state of Israel was created.

[00:03:46] Within hours of Israel’s creation, however, it was at war.

[00:03:50] On May 15th, just hours after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the armies of the surrounding countries of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan invaded the territories that had, until the day before, been British.

[00:04:06] The invasion began the Arab-Israeli War and set in motion decades of political and military instability in the region, but by late 1948 Israel controlled territory beyond the borders originally outlined in the U.N plan.

[00:04:23] Over half a million Palestinian refugees fled to neighbouring countries, and Jews, facing increasing pressure and intimidation in places like Egypt and Syria, were expelled or tried to escape to Israel. 

[00:04:39] By 1949 Israel found itself newly established, with expanded borders, but surrounded by hostile neighbours.

[00:04:48] That was the political storm Eli Cohen would put himself right in the middle of: Egypt, Israel, and Syria will be the three key countries in Cohen’s story. 

[00:04:59] Oh, and Argentina too, but more on that later.

[00:05:03] The year after the creation of the state of Israel, Cohen’s parents and three brothers moved from Egypt to Israel, but the young Eli Cohen stayed in Egypt to finish his engineering degree at Cairo Farouk University.

[00:05:20] While in Egypt he became involved in Jewish and Zionist activities, helping other Jewish families escape to Israel and he became well-known to the Egyptian intelligence services.

[00:05:33] He was implicated in several spy operations in Egypt, but while other members of the Jewish-Egyptian spy ring were executed by the Egyptian authorities, Cohen managed to get off the hook, the Egyptian authorities were never able to find definitive proof that Cohen was involved in anything more serious than pro-Zionist campaigning.

[00:05:57] Anyway, unafraid of what had happened to some of his fellow Zionists in Egypt, in the summer of 1955 the 30-year-old Cohen went to Israel for a specialist spy training course.

[00:06:11] He returned briefly to Alexandria but in 1956, when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula as tensions flared during the Suez Crisis, Cohen was again detained by the Egyptians and eventually expelled along with most of the Jewish community.

[00:06:30] He travelled to Israel via Naples, and upon his arrival assumed that his pro-Israeli activity in Egypt, combined with his spy course experience and fluency in Arabic, French and English, would make him a perfect candidate for a job with the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad.

[00:06:50] He would be wrong, at least this time.

[00:06:53] After offering his services to the Mossad twice, he was rejected and placed on a reserve list as a translator and logistics clerk in the Israeli Air Force - an office job, essentially, and not exactly what Eli Cohen had in mind.

[00:07:11] Some people have suggested that Cohen was initially rejected from the Mossad because of an old psychological evaluation they had done some years before.

[00:07:22] Cohen, the Mossad had said, had ‘a high IQ, great bravery, a phenomenal memory, and the ability to keep a secret’, but also that he ‘did not always evaluate danger correctly and was liable to assume risks beyond those which are necessary.’ 

[00:07:45] Remember this, as it will be important later on.

[00:07:49] Anyway, frustrated at his inability to join the Israeli intelligence, Cohen worked as an accountant in Tel Aviv for a couple of years.

[00:07:59] In 1959, he married an Iraqi-Jewish immigrant called Nadia, and the couple settled into the coastal city of Bat Yam.

[00:08:09] But Cohen was generally fed-up with civilian life, he was bored of his office job, and he yearned for action.

[00:08:18] His chance would come when tensions flared at the border with Syria, the homeland of Cohen’s parents. The Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, decided to take another look at him.

[00:08:32] The then Director-General of the Mossad, a man named Meir Amit, was looking for a special agent to infiltrate the Syrian government, and came across Cohen’s name while looking through a list of rejected candidates.

[00:08:48] Cohen’s language skills were appealing, and the fact he was born in an Arab country and said to have Arab features, to be able to pass as an Arab, also helped.

[00:09:01] After being followed for a couple of weeks, Cohen was judged to be a suitable candidate for training and he completed a proper six-month spy course at the Mossad training school. 

[00:09:13] He learned how to handle weapons and he developed all types of other important spy skills: map reading, morse code, high-speed driving, cryptography, and radio transmitting. All important skills, but the last one, radio transmitting, would be something that would later prove pivotal, very important, in his downfall.

[00:09:37] In order to make his cover even more convincing, Cohen was taught the principles of Islam, how to pray and, most importantly, trained to speak with a Syrian accent and not his native Egyptian tongue.

[00:09:53] And of course, he was given a false identity as a wealthy Syrian businessman.

[00:10:00] Cohen’s new name - his new identity - was Kamel Amin Thaabet, a rich Syrian expatriate

[00:10:08] An expatriate, or expat, as they’re often referred to, simply means someone who lives outside of their native country.

[00:10:16] To make his cover, his new identity, even more believable, in early 1961 the Mossad sent Cohen to establish himself as an expat Syrian businessman in Buenos Aires, in Argentina, where at the time there was a sizable and rich Syrian community.

[00:10:36] Under his new name, Cohen quickly indulged himself in Buenos Aires’ nightlife and made contacts in the Syrian community, including officials working at the Syrian Embassy. 

[00:10:48] This group of diplomatic staff allegedly included the Syrian military attaché at the time, Amin al-Hafez, who would later go on to be both Prime Minister and President of Syria, although al-Hafez denied that he ever met Cohen in Argentina.

[00:11:04] What Cohen went on to do would be hugely embarrassing for the entire Syrian political, military and intelligence establishments, not only for al-Hafez.

[00:11:16] Anyway, Cohen made it obvious that he - or rather, Kamel Amin Thaabet - was very wealthy, and he threw luxurious parties for the wealthy Syrian expat community in Buenos Aires.

[00:11:30] He also engaged in political discussion and gossip, and claimed publically to have sympathies towards the Syrian Ba'ath Party, and lots of money to donate towards it.

[00:11:42] The Ba'ath Party would go on to seize power in Syria in 1963, and the connections Cohen made with it during his time in Argentina would further cement his cover story when he arrived in Damascus.

[00:11:57] When he arrived - or as he said ‘returned’ - to Syria in 1962, he rented an apartment in the fashionable Damascus district of Abu Romana in a building opposite Syrian military headquarters.

[00:12:11] He settled into life in Syria, quickly restarting his social life and using the contacts he had made in Argentina to meet some of the most powerful and influential people in Syria’s political and military establishment.

[00:12:26] Many of his friends from Buenos Aires offered to help him set up businesses, or to introduce him to famous Syrians and important figures from the government.

[00:12:37] He continued his extravagant social life, and used his contacts to throw boozy parties for high-ranking Syrian politicians and military officials.

[00:12:47] He plied them with alcohol and carefully probed for information, even lending money and advice to some of them.

[00:12:56] His cover, and backstory in Argentina, had worked perfectly, and Cohen, or Kamel Amin Thaabet, as he was known to them, had firmly established himself as a member of the Syrian social elite.

[00:13:12] And he used it to great effect. 

[00:13:15] Believing that Cohen was a wealthy businessman with Ba’athist sympathies, Syrian officials talked openly with him about military plans and equipment, often with a drink in hand and women paid by Cohen stroking their hair.

[00:13:31] The information the Syrians revealed so casually, and quickly, to Cohen, was shocking not only to the spy but even to the Mossad.

[00:13:41] Soon after his arrival in Damascus, he had already sent information to the Mossad about bunkers where the Syrians stored Russian artillery, leaked a planned invasion of northern Israel, and informed the Mossad about two hundred tanks just hours after they landed in Syria.

[00:14:01] Cohen warned the Israelis that the Syrians were planning to reroute the Jordan River to starve Israel of water, and even gave them enough information to destroy the equipment the Syrians were going to use to do it. 

[00:14:15] And when he wasn't hosting parties for top military officials in his apartment, he was watching them from across the road.

[00:14:23] The strategic location of his apartment allowed Cohen to report on what was happening at the military headquarters at all hours of the day.

[00:14:32] He reported on how many people were there at night, what time the lights went out, who came and went, when motorcades came and left, and his vantage point, his position right in front of the headquarters, gave him a good idea of when something was about to happen.

[00:14:49] When nothing was happening, he simply invited them over for parties and measured the mood of Syria’s political and military elite from their party chatter, from the conversation at the party.

[00:14:59] Encouraging his guests to drink, Cohen remained sober, but pretended to be drunk, took note of what they said and sent the important information back to his Israeli handlers via radio transmitter, coded letter, occasionally in person, whenever he returned to Israel, and even via letters with invisible ink that went through Europe.

[00:15:26] When the Ba'ath Party seized power in 1963 - led by Cohen’s old friend from Argentina, Amin al-Hafez - Cohen’s old friends became Syria’s ruling class.

[00:15:39] He was by then so established and trusted in Syrian high society that al-Hafez is even rumoured to have considered appointing him Syrian Deputy Minister of Defence.

[00:15:51] Cohen was in.

[00:15:53] And the Syrians had no idea.

[00:15:56] He was even allowed to read classified defence documents, advise government ministers, and was taken on tours of Syrian military bases and fortifications, all while sending the information back to Israel.

[00:16:11] Cohen’s cover story had worked beyond even the wildest dreams of the Mossad.

[00:16:17] Perhaps his most incredible piece of intelligence work, however, was when he collected information on the Syrian military defences at Golan Heights - a strategically important area on the Syrian-Israeli border and valuable water resource that had long been a point of conflict between Israel and Syria.

[00:16:38] Since Israel’s creation, Syrian forces had used the high, elevated position of Golan Heights to launch attacks on Israel’s northern region of Galilee.

[00:16:50] Incredibly, it is alleged that when Cohen was taken on a tour of the Golan Heights by Syrian military officials, he said he was sorry, he expressed sympathy for the Syrian soldiers standing in the sun all day and suggested that trees be planted to create areas of shade.

[00:17:10] A kind and generous idea, perhaps, some shade for the soldiers standing in the hot sun.

[00:17:16] But Cohen’s primary concern wasn’t the soldiers. He thought these trees might serve as excellent markers for the Israeli army one day.

[00:17:26] And indeed, the Israel Defence Forces, or IDF, were then said to have used the trees as targets during the Six-Day War, in 1967, when Israel captured Golan Heights in two days, and long after Cohen was dead.

[00:17:43] But despite all of Cohen’s abilities as a spy, it would be precisely his confidence and recklessness that would prove his downfall.

[00:17:53] If you remember from earlier, his Mossad evaluation was that he was considered reckless and ‘liable to assume risks beyond those which are necessary’.

[00:18:04] Well, it turns out that this assessment was spot on, the Mossad was right.

[00:18:10] In the autumn of 1964, Cohen made a trip back to Israel.

[00:18:15] It was a long stay - one that would prove to be his last - and his wife Nadia later said that he was worried about returning to Damascus. 

[00:18:25] Feeling the pressure of his operation, Cohen feared the Syrians were actively searching for the ‘mole’ - a term for someone who passes on sensitive information.

[00:18:35] Yet, he still agreed to go back to Syria, and promised his wife that this would be his last trip.

[00:18:42] I should say that there’s some disagreement between the Mossad and the Cohen family about how exactly that happened, and whether or not Cohen actually wanted to go.

[00:18:53] Nadia, his wife, said that Cohen only returned to Syria after he was pressured by the Mossad; the Mossad said that they warned him to be especially careful and, specifically, not to send too many radio transmissions.

[00:19:09] And it’s related to the last point that things start to go wrong for Eli Cohen.

[00:19:15] Under pressure from the Mossad or not, Cohen went back to Syria and continued to send radio transmissions.

[00:19:22] And he was doing it a lot. Too much, in fact.

[00:19:26] Cohen’s fears that the Syrians knew about the mole were right.

[00:19:32] Syria’s intelligence chief, Colonel Ahmad Suweidani, had made it his mission to find the mole and stop the leak of sensitive information that was damaging the Syrian war effort and embarrassing its military leaders.

[00:19:46] He got help from the Soviets, and on January 24, 1965, the Syrians organised a period of radio silence and used Soviet tracking equipment to detect radio transmissions.

[00:19:59] Essentially, they stopped all radio transmissions, thinking that if they could find someone who was sending a transmission, this would probably be the mole, the person who was sharing military secrets.

[00:20:13] They picked up a transmission, triangulated the transmitter, and Syria’s secret police got ready to burst into the apartment where it seemed like the transmission was coming from.

[00:20:25] The apartment, of course, belonged to Kamel Amin Thaabet, or Eli Cohen.

[00:20:31] Syrian security officers kicked down, and found Cohen in the middle of sending a transmission.

[00:20:38] He was, as we say in English, ‘caught red handed’, caught in the act.

[00:20:43] Cohen tried to deny that he was a spy, but it quickly became clear that nothing could save him.

[00:20:50] When he was captured, the Syrian intelligence service forced Cohen to send fake transmissions to the Mossad, hoping they could recover the situation and use Cohen as a tool against Israel.

[00:21:03] Cohen, however, was not the kind of person to turn on his country.

[00:21:08] The secret code he used in his communications with the Mossad told them that these were not normal transmissions and not to be trusted.

[00:21:18] The Mossad knew something was wrong, and tried to figure out ways to get Cohen out of Syria.

[00:21:25] Israel appealed to the Pope and the U.N.

[00:21:28] A plan was made to kidnap famous or important Syrians as bargaining chips for negotiation.

[00:21:36] Paying a ransom to the Syrians via the French was suggested, and also that special Israeli forces be sent in to free him. 

[00:21:46] Israel was even prepared to give the Syrians what intelligence they had on Syrian domestic politics, such as anti-Ba'athist plots to overthrow the government, in exchange for their top spy.

[00:21:59] But none of it mattered - the Syrians would not negotiate.

[00:22:04] After being tortured and interrogated over many weeks, Cohen was put on trial in February of 1965, found guilty of espionage, and sentenced to death.

[00:22:17] On the 15 of May, Cohen wrote his last letter to his wife.

[00:22:22] In it, he said, “I am begging you my dear Nadia not to spend your time in weeping about something already passed. Concentrate on yourself, looking forward for a better future!”

[00:22:36] Three days later, on Tuesday the 18th of May, 1965, Eli Cohen was hanged in Marjah Square.

[00:22:44] He had been permitted to see a Rabbi in his last moments, but in death no such honour was bestowed on him.

[00:22:52] His body was covered in a white sheet outlining his crimes, left hanging for hours as a spectacle for the crowd gathered in the square.

[00:23:02] After his execution, Syria refused to return Cohen’s body to Israel.

[00:23:07] They ignored requests from his wife and his family for the body, and the mystery about Cohen’s final resting place remains to this day.

[00:23:17] In 2008 the Syrian government said that Cohen had been buried three times so that nobody would ever find the body, and to prevent the remains from being returned to Israel by the Mossad.

[00:23:31] The only piece of Eli Cohen that remains is his watch, which was reported in 2018 to have been found and returned to Israel, where it was presented to his family in a ceremony by the director of the Mossad.

[00:23:46] In terms of his legacy, Eli Cohen is remembered as Israel’s most famous and successful spy.

[00:23:54] The information Cohen provided saved Israeli lives, weakened the Syrian war effort and allegedly even played a role in Israel’s victory in the Six Day War.

[00:24:05] Cohen’s was not only an extraordinary story, and piece of espionage, but an incredible character transformation: from an Egyptian born Jew of humble beginnings into a wealthy Arab businessman who wined and dined Syrian high-society, all while working against them.

[00:24:24] In terms of his legacy, he has been remembered in biographies, films, a recent Netflix series called “The Spy”, as well as countless documentaries.

[00:24:35] In Israel, streets and neighbourhoods are named after him, but perhaps the highest honour was reserved for a piece of land in the Golan Heights, the area Israel was able to capture in 1967 helped by Cohen’s information and his persuading the Syrian authorities to plant trees above the military bases to protect the soldiers from the hot sun.

[00:24:58] This piece of land used to be called “El Al”, but it ’s now called Eliad, after the most famous spy in Israel, Eli Cohen.

[00:25:09] OK then, that’s it for today’s episode on Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy who infiltrated the upper-echelons of Syria's military establishment and just perhaps altered the course of Middle Eastern history.

[00:25:24] I hope it was an interesting one, and whether you knew a lot about Cohen before, or this was the first time you’d heard of him, well, I hope you learned something new.

[00:25:33] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:25:37] Had you heard of Eli Cohen before?

[00:25:39] If you were alive, what do you remember of his capture and execution?

[00:25:44] Do you know of any other famous spies like Cohen?

[00:25:47] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:25:50] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:25:59] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:03] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]