Eli Cohen was a Jew of Syrian Aleppine origin. He was born in Alexandria where his ancestors had moved in 1924. In 1944, Cohen joined the Zionist youth organization in Alexandria, advocating Israel’s hostile policy against the Arab World. Before moving to Israel, Cohen worked in Egypt under the leadership of Avraham Dar, aka John Darling, one of the most skilled Mossad officers in the 1940s and 50s, and began spying for Israel and assisting the Jews in migration and recruitment of agents. Cohen established an Israeli intelligence network in Egypt, which carried out a series of bombings against a number of US facilities in Cairo and Alexandria with the aim of ruining the relationship between the US and Egypt. In 1954, members of the network were arrested on charges of involvement in the Lavon Affair but Cohen was able to get away after convincing investigators of his innocence. He left Egypt in 1955, heading for Israel where he joined Unit 131 of the Israeli Army Intelligence.
Israeli intelligence sensed great potential in Cohen as a spy. Initially, he was trained to operate in Egypt but the plan was soon changed and Cohen moved to Damascus where he began his espionage activity. Israeli intelligence created a new Muslim identity for Cohen who now bore a new name, Kamal Amin Thabet. According to his fictional biography, Thabet and his family had migrated to Alexandria before they decided to move to Argentina in 1947 where Thabet’s uncle had been living since 1946. His father died there from a heart attack in 1952 and his mother followed suit six months later. After the death of his parents, Thabet was left alone to handle the family’s textile business.
Cohen was trained on radio transmissions and cryptography. He followed Syria’s news closely and learned the names of its politicians, traders and economists. He mastered Quranic verses and the teachings of Islam. After extensive training, he headed for Buenos Aires where he, in cooperation with a number of agents, worked on establishing his cover as a Syrian émigré and gaining reputation as a successful Syrian businessman and a fervent nationalist. This popularity has made it easy for him to weave close ties with Syrian diplomats, particularly with the Syrian embassy’s military attaché, Colonel Amine Hafez.
“In the first few months, Cohen continued to network with high-ranking army officers and was accustomed to visiting them in their headquarters where they freely discussed their military tactics in his presence, which allowed him to have an overall picture of the capacities of the Syrian Army and the military assistance it was receiving from the Soviet Union“
Through lavish dinner parties and social occasions, Cohen or Kamal Amin Thabet, was able to penetrate the political and diplomatic Syrian strata and to express nostalgia for his homeland and his intent to return to Damascus. Having prepared the climate for his alleged return and after receiving the signal from Israel to start his mission, it was not surprising to see Cohen in 1962 in Syria posing as a businessman from Argentina who had returned to his native land.
In the first few months, Cohen continued to network with high-ranking army officers and was accustomed to visiting them in their headquarters where they freely discussed their military tactics in his presence, which allowed him to have an overall picture of the capacities of the Syrian Army and the military assistance it was receiving from the Soviet Union. Having been taken into the confidence of the highest echelons of power, Cohen was able to find out the details of the Syrian military operation planned with the knowledge of Soviet experts to invade northern Israel in case any war erupted. His connections permitted him to visit the Golan Heights defenses and pass information and photographs of Syrian positions and fortifications onto Israel using a device fixated in his hand watch. Cohen sent first hand intelligence to Israel together with the names and movements of Syrian officers across all units and posts.
Eli Cohen’s rise in popularity was further consolidated by the huge amounts of cash he lavished on the Baath Party. He escalated the echelons of power and bordered on being nominated as a Prime Minister and a Head of the Baath Party. Varied accounts were given concerning the fall of Eli Cohen. One of them reported that, in 1965, after four years of spying in Syria, Syrian authorities detected a Morse code message transmitted to Israel from the building where Cohen lived. Security forces besieged the building and questioned all residents without finding any suspect. Yet, after tracing the source of transmissions, they realized that Cohen was spying on them and arrested him. Another story recounts that the Indian Embassy, headquartered nearby Cohen’s residence, had hard time transmitting coded information back to India at certain hours of the day and asked Syrian authorities to look into the interference, which sparked a hunt for a pirate radio operator and allowed them to trace Cohen’s signal.