A byzantine international spy scandal has been unravelling over the past two weeks with no end in sight. It involves double-agents, Mossad assassinations, nuclear sabotage, and the too-good-to-be-true code name "Prisoner X."
The story, or at least what we know of the story for sure, starts in December 2010, when 34-year-old Australian-Israeli Ben Zygier was found dead in the shower after allegedly hanging himself with a bedsheet in the most secure section of Israel's most secure prison. Zygier had disappeared the prior February and been imprisoned in Ayalon Prison's infamous Unit 15, a solitary confinement unit that was originally built to house Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin's assassin.
Zygier had been held under the utmost secrecy—even his jailers didn't didn't know his identity, referring to him only as "Prisoner X." The first hints of Zygier's case emerged in the summer of 2010, when Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot posted a tantalizing wisp of a story about Prisoner X.
"He is in absolute isolation from the external world," a prison source told the paper. "I'm not aware of any other prisoner held in such grave conditions of isolation." The post was quickly removed. According to the Israeli affairs blogger Richard Silverstein, the Israeli press had been put under a strict gag order regarding Prisoner X, forbidden even to report the existence of the blackout. The Israeli press is subject to official censorship, where any story on matters of national security must be approved by the military censor's office.
But a few foreign news outlets picked up the story. Silverstein, a harsh critic of Israeli censorship policies, persisted in hunting down the identity of Prisoner X, at one point mis-identifying him as an Iranian general. Then in December of 2010, shocking news emerged that Prisoner X had committed suicide, again published and removed by an israeli newspaper within minutes. Still, the identity of the man remained a mystery.
Finally, last week, the Australian Broadcasting Company named Prisoner X: He was Ben Zygier, a 34-year-old married father of two, and he was a Mossad agent suspected of unspecified serious crimes against Israel.
Yet even after the ABC broke the news, the Israeli government tried to maintain a strict blackout. Israeli news stories about the ABC report were pulled down as soon as they were posted. An emergency meeting of Israel's "editors committee"—an informal organization that works with the government to self-censor Israel's media—was called, and editors were reminded not to report on the story which could "severely embarrasses" the country.
Further reporting, mostly by Australian sources, has filled in some of the details of Zygier's life. The son of a prominent Jewish community leader in Melbourne, Zygier moved to Israel from Australia about 10 years ago. There he had been recruited by Mossad, which frequently seeks out Jews with foreign passports who can travel more freely. Zygier reportedly underwent multiple name changes to apply for new passports, under which he traveled repeatedly to Iran. He had possibly tried to recruit Middle Eastern students while studying at Australia's Monash University, and had already fallen under surveillance of the country's Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), which suspected he was an Israeli spy along with two other Australian Jews referred to as "Paul Y." and "David Z." by Der Spiegel.
So Zygier was a spy. But the mystery of what went wrong still remains. What sort of crime could he have been accused of to warrant such extreme secrecy and seclusion? Conspiracy theorists have had fertile soil to till, and the rumor mill has been fed by Israel's dogged attempts to suppress the story: Some speculate that Zygier had acted as a double agent for Australian intelligence services. He was reportedly linked to Mossad's dramatic 2010 Dubai assassination of a Hamas gun runner. In that case, four of the 29 suspected agents used fake Australian passports to travel to the site of the hit, much to the Australian government's chagrin. Perhaps Zygier was revealing to Australian authorities details about the operation even as he helped accomplish it.
Others speculate he may have been about to reveal that the government of Abu Dhabi was complicit in the assassination. Still others say it had to do with spilling secrets about Israel's sabotage of Iran's nuclear program. And of course there's the nagging question of whether Zygier really managed to kill himself in the most secure prison in Israel, or maybe had some help, indirectly or otherwise.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu has defended Israel's handling of the case and denied that Zygier may have been turned by the Australians. Curiously, Zygier's family isn't talking. When they were notified of Zygier's imprisonment by Israel in 2010 they did not request help from the Australian government. And when Zygier killed himself that December, they had his body flown back to Australia where they quietly buried it in a Jewish cemetery in the Melbourne suburbs. The real story behind Prisoner X may have been buried with him.
[Image by Jim Cooke]