Did British intelligence also know about Mossad suspect Ben Zygier?

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Did Ben Zygier, the Australian-Israeli identified by Australian media last week as the mysterious “Prisoner X” who died in Israeli prison in 2010, also have British citizenship?

Australian reporter Jason Koutsoukis broke the story in February 27, 2010 that the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) had been investigating three Australian-Israelis suspected of links to Mossad. He confronted two of the (unnamed) men about the allegations, quoting one in his 2010 report:

“I have never been to any of those countries that you say I have been to,'' he said. ''I am not involved in any kind of spying. That is ridiculous.”

The same man is also believed to hold British citizenship, and is believed to have come to the attention of British intelligence after he had changed his name.

Now see what Koutsoukis told The Guardian last week, after the Australian Broadcasting Company aired an investigation suggesting that Prisoner X who had died in Israel's Ayalon prison in December 2010 was Ben Zygier :

At the time Zygier said: “I have never been to any of those countries that you say I have been to, I am not involved in any kind of spying. That is ridiculous.”

So we now know the man who told Koutsoukis in 2010 “I have never been to those countries” was Zygier. And that Koutsoukis indicated that he had been told at the time– presumably by Australian intelligence–that Zygier had also previously come on the radar of British intelligence for taking out a passport in a new name.

If Koutsoukis' original information was correct, that Zygier also had British citizenship and another British alias, it would be interesting to know what the British government and intelligence services might know about the case and how Israel came to suspect that Zygier was compromised.

Update: Why did Israel move to arrest Zygier in February 2010? One possible theory is also suggested by information in Koutsoukis's February 27, 2010 report.

In the piece, that came out days after Zygier was secretly detained, Koutsoukis writes:

In January the Herald visited the offices of the European company that connects the three men.

The company's office manager confirmed to the Herald that one of the men being monitored by ASIO – the same man believed to hold a British passport – was employed by the company but was “unavailable”.

The company's chief executive later emphatically denied that this man was ever employed by his company, and totally rejected that his company was being used to gather intelligence on behalf of Israel.

ASIO said it had no comment to make on the case.

So in January 2010, the head of an alleged Mossad front company allegedly involved in selling communications equipment to the Middle East discovers that a foreign reporter seems to know about it and the name of one of the men associated with it. We now know the name Koutsoukis gave the alleged front company was Zygier's. (Koutsoukis' home was broken into a day after he confronted Zygier in early 2010, he told Israel's Channel 10 last week.)

How did Koutsoukis get the name of the firm? Likely from his ASIO source, who originally called him in October 2009. How did ASIO get it? Hypothetically, it seems possible that Zygier might have given the name of the firm to ASIO under questioning about suspected passport fraud. (Zygier had reportedly been in Australia in the fall of 2009 attending an MBA program at Monash University.)

(It's not clear to this reporter if that is the kind of disclosure that Mossad would consider a serious breach, or not, given Australia and Israel are allies. Some Israeli sources have insisted that Zygier must have committed some more serious transgression, with intent, involving an entity hostile to Israel, to have been treated so severely. Other Israeli journalists and former officials, however, seem to believe Zygier was compromised by officials with the Australian security service. Australia's ASIO “burned” Zygier to Koutsoukis, YNet analyst Ron Ben-Yishai wrote Sunday, amid a series of actions by Mossad in Australia that deeply angered Canberra. Former Israeli intelligence official Michael Ross agrees.)

However Koutsoukis learned of it, Mossad would, after Koutsoukis' visit to the company in January 2010, soon have been aware that there had been a serious compromise of the firm and all associated with it.

Zygier was secretly arrested around February 23, 2010, and apparently commit suicide in his prison cell on December 15, 2010 amid negotiations over a plea bargain. Koutsoukis' first report on the ASIO investigation of Australian-Israelis acquiring several Australian passports appeared Feb. 27.

Notably, Koutsoukis has never published the name of the firm, which he has described in his reports and interviews as a European communications firm with a subsidiary in the Middle East. Subsequent reports have described a company based in Italy that allegedly sold electronic equipment to Arab countries and Iran.

Given the secrecy that has surrounded the case for three years until reports last week, Mossad presumably had enough time to try to do as much damage control as possible of whatever was compromised.

(For more on the Prisoner X case, see Ron Ben-Yishai, ABC (Part I) and (Part II), The Age, Daoud Kuttab, Yossi Melman, and the Guardian.)

(Photo credit The Australian.)

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