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Crazy, wild, MUST READ story of Eli Cohen, the Mossad secret agent who inspired Netflix series 'The Spy'

Indiatvnews.com takes you through the fascinating life story of Eli Cohen, known the world over for his espionage work in Syria in the 1960’s.

India TV News Desk India TV News Desk
New Delhi Updated on: September 10, 2019 20:17 IST

Eliyahu Ben-Shaul Cohen, popularly remembered as Eli Cohen, was an Israeli agent who worked as a spy in Syria during 1961-1965. Cohen went on to form a close relationship with the Syrian authorities providing crucial and strategic information to Israel. This is the story of Eli Cohen.

Netflix's drama ‘The Spy’, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, is a spy thriller based on the real-life story of Eliyahu Ben-Shaul Cohen (Eli Cohen) who was once rejected by Mossad, but went on to become a valuable asset that Israel will always be proud of. 

Indiatvnews.com takes you through the fascinating life story of Eli Cohen, known the world over for his espionage work in Syria in the 1960’s. 

Who was Eli Cohen?

Eliyahu (Eli) Cohen was born in 1924 in Alexandria, Egypt in a Jewish family that traced its roots to Aleppo in Syria. Eli Cohen went on to enlist in the Egyptian Army but was denied entry on questionable loyalty arising out of his Israeli/Syrian roots. 

After the independence of Israel in 1948, Cohen helped many Jews to migrate to Israel. He got extensive support from Mossad as well. Cohen had to leave Egypt during the Second Arab-Israel war popularly known as the Suez Crisis. Cohen managed to reach Israel in a boat from Naples, Italy. Eli Cohen went on to join the Israeli military and was placed in its intelligence unit. Cohen wanted to join Mossad but was denied a job there. Dejected by the decision, Cohen quit the military and took the job of a filing clerk in Tel Aviv.

Making of The Spy

Mossad initially rejected his application but that’s where he also got the big opportunity. While scanning through the files of rejected cases, Mossad’s then Director General Meir Amit stumbled upon a file. He was looking for a secret agent who would become a deep asset for Israel in Syria – something which the Israeli authorities were longing for. He found his search in Eli Cohen. Cohen was tracked, his every movement watched until Mossad was sure that there were no loyalty issues. Finally, came the offer that Eli Cohen was waiting for. The Spy was shortlisted. Thus began the journey of The Spy, a Mossad secret agent. 

Return of a businessman to Damascus via Buenos Aires

Cohen moved to Buenos Aires, under the pseudo identity of ‘Kamel Amin Thaabet’. In Argentina, Kamel Amin was a businessman from Syria, who was set to return to his homeland after a setting up a successful business in Buenos Aires. Mossad had laid the ground for his Argentina stay. Cohen worked his way up with the Syrian expat community in Buenos Aires. He was soon the most discussed man in the community for throwing lavish parties. This new businessman had deep pockets. 

Cohen soon managed to crack a personal equation with Amin al-Hafiz, Syrian General-turned-politician and member of the Ba’ath Party. His communication skills impressed one and all and soon he became a chief advisor to the Syrian defence minister. Many believed, he had direct contacts with Syria’s top army generals as well. 

Cohen helps Israel reclaim Golan heights 

Cohen provided extensive intelligence data to the Israeli Army. He sent intelligence to Israel by radio, secret letters, and occasionally in person—he secretly travelled to Israel three times. 

Cohen made a trip to the Golan Heights in which he collected intelligence on the Syrian fortifications there. Cohen convinced Syrian generals to plant trees for the soldiers exposed to the sun. He got trees planted at the secret positions. The information was passed on to the Israel Defense Forces who targeted their opponents as trees planted by Cohen were used as markers. The Israeli military destroyed its target in the six-day war and captured the Golan Heights with relative ease. Cohen was a HERO. 

Cohen gets exposed 

Many say, Cohen, who travelled to Israel on the birth of his third baby, was all set to quit Mossad. He had planned a retirement.  Newly appointed Syrian Intelligence Colonel Ahmed Su'edani trusted no one and disliked Cohen. Because of this, during Cohen's last secret visit to Israel in November 1964, he expressed fear of the possibility of discovery and stated that he wished to terminate his assignment in Syria. Mossad had agreed to his plans but asked him to return to Syria one last time. His wife later revealed that Cohen assured her that it would be his last trip before he returned permanently.

Syria, meanwhile, was sensing a mole in their ranks. Their secret communication was compromised on many occasions. The new regime in Syrian Intelligence started tapping phones of many high profile peoples. The whole thing was carried out without the knowledge of politicians and hence Cohen got little idea. Even the Syrian Intelligence could not have dreamt that an Israeli secret agent was the chief advisor to their defence minister. But some communication intercept raised alarm and the trap was set. 

Syria roped in Soviet experts to tap radio communications. Radio silence was observed and Syrian agencies located some interference from an apartment. Finally, Israel’s secret agent Eli Cohen was exposed. The Syrian agencies barged into his apartment. Reports say that realising the trap, Cohen went ahead with passing all intelligence data to Israel without fearing his fate. 

Eli Cohen executed despite an all-out international effort from Israel

A trial was conducted after Eli Cohen’s arrest. Little did Syrian security agencies could extract from Cohen. 

Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir led a campaign urging the international community to force Damascus to consider the consequences of hanging Cohen. Diplomats, prime ministers, and Pope Paul VI tried to intervene but efforts failed. Despite several international efforts, the Syrian government executed Eli Cohen by publicly hanging him at the Marjeh Square, Damascus on 18 May 1965. His body was kept on display for several hours for the general public to see.

Eli Cohen’s last letter to his wife:

Beneath a secret agent was a husband that loved his wife. Cohen always kept his wife upbeat about his jobs. Often allayed fears with his brave face. 

In a letter written to his wife Nadia, a few days before his execution, Cohen wrote: "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!"

(Compiled by Himanshu Shekhar)

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