The recent demise of Hosni Mubarak will maybe usher a new era in relations between Egypt and Israel. Thirty-three years after the signing of the Camp David Accords, it can be useful to look back at an aspect of the Yom Kippur War that is often neglected: the Egyptian deception campaign that enabled the Israeli army and intelligence services to be taken by surprise.
Soon after the June 1967 crushing and humiliating defeat, Gamal Abdel Nasser realised that there was the need for a change in how Egypt confronted Israel. His ideas rested on the fact that his country needed to fight accordingly to what the political aims were, thus ensuring at least some sort of victory. With the sudden arrival of Anwar El Sadat as president in 1970, the new military doctrine started to emerge more clearly, with the Egyptians learning from their previous mistakes and rebuilding an improved and more efficient army. Knowing that Israel’s ability to ensure its own security was based on deterrence, early warning and air supremacy, the Egyptian commanders had to come up with an updated security doctrine that would allow them to confront their enemy with defined aims, but most importantly, with adequate means. This time a war had to produce at least an important shock that would alter the future political balance between the two countries. These goals had reached maturity by late 1972, along with the official decision to go to war that was made in November 1972, Egypt decided to resort to a deception campaign of important proportions that would have a dramatically soothing effect on Israel’s intelligence apparatus and therefore slowing its response to a surprise attack.
The magnitude of this deception campaign can be witnessed through three main components: economic, political and military.
Government reports which stated that the country was economically unstable and in no position to afford another war were made public and the political rhetoric at the time seemed to constantly acknowledge the status-quo through the slogan “No War, No Peace” which implied that Egypt was not gearing for another open conflict.
The military side of the deception was rather traditional but at the same time highly effective: the Egyptian army would for instance conduct numerous exercises in the desert which grew regularly in size only to then demobilize in order to reduce Israeli alertness. In fact the final and largest exercise called “Tahrir 41” was conducted only a few days before the war and acted as a rehearsal for the actual attack.
Other examples of the deception campaign included a public announcement by the War Ministry that applications made by soldiers for a small pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of Ramadan had been accepted, the use of undisciplined soldiers swimming and washing their clothes along the canal to give an impression of contempt to the Israelis on the other side of the Bar-Lev line, and the constant mobilisation and demobilisation of reserves to instate a climate of relative calmness. On the diplomatic side of the deception, Sadat made the message crystal clear that Egypt had no intention of going to war in the near future; he also knew that Israel believed Egypt would not go to war without the consent and the supply of weapons of the USSR, therefore he decided to expulse almost all the Soviet military advisors from his country and tried to establish various contacts with the United States who traditionally-and in a heightened Cold War context-had always supported Israel unilaterally; thus reinforcing Israel’s doubts as to whether another attack was imminent or even possible. Furthermore, the Egyptians managed to deceive the Israelis by using psychological subtleties. At that time AMAN (Israel’s military intelligence agency) was practising what is known as mirror-imaging, the belief that the enemy is going to act in what you consider to be the most plausible way, which is a cardinal intelligence sin to make. This use of one’s own preferences, culture and strategy to explain an opponent’s behaviour is found in instances where clear data is not available. Therefore the victim of the surprise attack is lacking the analytical context necessary to use the accurate data to generate a useful and timely warning and thus sticks to the status quo. Hence the Egyptians played into Israel’s game, letting them believe that on the surface the situation was not evolving, to then ultimately behave in the exact opposite way than what was expected of them in terms of military operations.
However we can add another component to the deception campaign, which is also the most controversial and the most interesting: the use of an alleged Egyptian double agent known only to a few both in Israel and in Egypt.
Ashraf Marwan was born in 1944 and studied chemistry as an undergraduate. After completing his military service, he married one of Nasser’s daughters called Mona and joined the Presidential Information Bureau in 1968. His time in London studying for a Masters degree became problematic when he apparently sought to live according to higher standards: this seemed to cause a few tensions with Nasser although the President appreciated some of the young man’s qualities as a mediator and a messenger. Asharf Marwan contacted the Israeli embassy in London for the first time in the spring of 1969 by telephone and after various attempts, managed to get in touch with a Mossad officer. At this point the concerned intelligence personnel in Israel knew they were facing a dilemma due to Marwan’s high profile in the Egyptian government contrasting with the fact that he was a “walk in” and therefore it could be a trap, but they decided to take the risk and pay him the 100,000 dollars per meeting he was asking for. From there onwards, the Egyptian brought in documents and transcripts of meetings between his government and the Soviets which were highly sensitive and therefore enabled the Israeli intelligence services to have a clearer insight on the enemy’s perspective. In 1970, the sudden death of Nasser enabled Marwan to rise through the ranks and become head of the Presidential Information Bureau in 1971, after his superior was found to conspire against Sadat. From this new position, he was able to gain the Mossad’s and AMAN’s trust but also that of major politicians at home such as Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan who at that time were respectively Prime Minister and Defence Minister, by providing them with a whole set of documents and transcripts such as war plans, economic and political summaries and especially protocols of the numerous talks with Soviet leaders where Sadat requested new weapons and defence systems for the eventuality of a war with Israel. The documents were seen amongst Israel’s top intelligence brass, it was “the dream of any intelligence service in the world” according to the former head of AMAN, Eli Zeira.
At this point in the narrative, two different opinions and explanations diverge drastically and oppose each other: on the one hand there are those in the academic world who believe that Ashraf Marwan, as a perfect spy, managed to help Israel minimize it’s unpreparedness for the war that erupted on the 6th of October and therefore enabled her to ultimately defeat the Egyptians and the Syrians. On the other hand however, there are some who firmly believe that Marwan was in fact a double agent working for Egypt all along and that he achieved his goal in lowering tremendously Israel’s preparation for war by feeding the intelligence services false or old information, thus allowing the Arab surprise attack to succeed.
The proponents of the double agent theory base their conclusions on several main points:
-Marwan told the Israelis that Egypt’s precondition to go to war was the acquiring of long-range bombers and Scud missiles but when Sadat changed his policy to focus on a limited war where these weapons were no longer an absolute necessity, he never informed Mossad of such a huge shift in policy.
-Marwan had often informed Israel that war was imminent causing her to mobilize and waste millions of dollars in order to increase the effect of the “cry-wolf syndrome” and ultimately make her reluctant to mobilize again in the future.
-Marwan finally warned the Mossad chief Zvi Zamir in London on the 5th of October that war was about to break out the day after, but the time-frame was too short and it was already to late for Israel to conduct a pre-emptive air strike or mobilize fully and respond to the attack in the Sinai desert and on the Golan heights.
Regardless of which side of the story we agree on, it is undeniable that the mindset of Israel’s intelligence chiefs enabled the Egyptian deception campaign-which included Ashraf Marwan or not-to succeed in attacking by surprise a nation celebrating a religious festivity.
There are however a few elements that make me believe that he was indeed a double-agent and accomplished his mission by tricking the Israeli intelligence services. Ashraf Marwan was found dead outside his London flat in 2007, seemingly after having fallen from his balcony. A witness saw two men looking over the balcony just after and the Metropolitan Police also believes that he was murdered. The book he was writing on his experiences has disappeared. His funeral was led by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque and attended by Gamal Mubarak and Omar Suleiman. Hosni Mubarak was quoted as saying “He carried out patriotic acts which it is not yet time to reveal”…
The following sources have been used to write this article:
-“The War of Atonement: The Inside Story of the Yom Kippur War” by Chaim Herzog
-“The Ramadan War” by Hassan El-Badri
-“Israel’s Wars, A History Since 1947” by Ahron Bregman
-“Memoirs of Al-Gamassy: The October War 1973” by Abd-al-Ghanny Al-Gamassy
After graduating from King’s College London in 2010 with a BA in War Studies, Naeem took a year off to work in India, Germany, South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Lebanon.
He is now an MSc student in International Public Policy at University College London. His interests are foreign affairs (the Middle East in particular), the European Union, Islamism and radicalisation.