When Ashraf Marwan’s body was found under the balcony of his apartment in the Mayfair neighborhood of London, so many possible explanations were given. The first is that the Egyptian businessman and a Mossad agent, who warned Israel about Egyptian plans to attack in the years prior to the Yom Kippur War, might have stumbled on the balcony of his flat and fallen to his death.
Others believe to date that the man described as the 20th century’s greatest spy or to some a double agent, took his own life because he had been exposed in Israel while authorities in Egypt were also aware of his supposed betrayal of his country.
Some think he was pushed, but an investigation by the London police did not mention any evidence of a crime in Marwan’s death. Reports however indicated that the only known copy of his memoirs, which he had almost finished working on, disappeared from his bookshelves the day he died. They have never been found to date.
Having worked for years for Egyptian, Israeli, American, Italian and British intelligence, Egyptian billionaire Marwan did fear for his life though, and once told his wife that he “might be killed” as he has “a lot of different enemies.”
For almost three decades, Marwan, using the code-name “the Angel,” served as a spy for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. But some accounts argue the spy was a double agent who was in search of more money and power.
So who really was Marwan?
Born in Egypt in 1944, Marwan’s father worked as an officer in the Presidential Guard of then Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Marwan studied chemistry at university and later married Nasser’s daughter Mona. He had hopes of becoming one of Nasser’s confidantes, but the latter never took him seriously. Thus, while pursuing a career in business, he decided to volunteer his services to the Mossad.
In 1969, he entered the Israeli Embassy in London for the first time, saying he wanted to speak to a member of the security team. Reports said officials turned him away on many occasions before they finally agreed to work with him after he had left what the embassy believed was “more impressive information.”
After doing their background checks on him, Israeli authorities assigned “D.,” an experienced Mossad case officer, to work with him. The two met once every two or three months in London or in other cities in Europe. Israeli security officials were impressed with Marwan’s work to the extent that they promoted him to a “warning” agent, and his new role was to warn Israel of any plans by Egypt to attack.
As months passed, Marwan even had the chance to meet personally with then Mossad head Zvi Zamir. When Egyptian leader Nasser died in 1970, Anwar Sadat replaced him and gradually, Marwan won his heart, becoming his adviser and going with him on trips within the Arab world. With this new position, Marwan “obtained a great deal of access to diplomatic and military materials of a strategic nature,” according to a report by Haaretz.
He would in 1973 make Israeli officials aware that Sadat was planning to go to war with Israel in order to get back the Sinai peninsula. Mossad did not believe him at first, as his first two tips about Egypt planning to wage war against Israel did not pan out. At the end of the day, Israel did not prepare as it might have during Egypt’s attack on Yom Kippur on October 6, 1973, though Marwan’s last-minute warning allowed them to mobilize troops just six hours before the attack.
Note also that Marwan warned that the Egyptians would strike at sunset but the attack began four hours earlier, at 2 pm, according to a report by The Guardian.
This is largely why some, to date, have accused Marwan of being a double agent, arguing he gave out misinformation about the surprise attack, and therefore aided Egypt. Uri Bar-Joseph, in his book The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel, debunks this argument, but Ahron Bregman, a political scientist based in the U.K. who disclosed Marwan’s history as a spy for Mossad in 2002, said the spy misled Israel intentionally.
“Ashraf Marwan, whom I knew well, was an Egyptian hero and an Egyptian spy who misled the Mossad by feeding them, for years, with wrong information,” Bregman told TIME in 2018. “He was the jewel in the crown of the Egyptian deception plan in 1973, which led to Israel being caught up unprepared to the Egyptian invasion in Yom Kippur 1973. Marwan ridiculed the Mossad for years.”
In the film “The Angel,” which recounts Marwan’s story, the spy is seen as one who would do anything to ensure peace for both sides in the conflict to the extent that he helped ensure the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.
In recent times, Israel has described Marwan as one of “the best” spies they had while Egypt has also called him a “true patriot of his country”, giving him a hero’s funeral after his death despite his work being made public at the time.
So did Marwan work for Egypt or Israel? The truth remains hidden.