Head of Egypt's Intelligence in 1973: Israel's Agent Was Answering to Sadat

Former head of Egyptian intelligence Fouad Nassar says Ashraf Marwan helped deceive Israel ahead of the Yom Kippur War.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Ibrahim Fouad Nassar, who was the head of Egyptian intelligence during the Yom Kippur War, is one of the few high-ranking officers in the Egyptian army during that war who is still alive (former President Hosni Mubarak is another).

After graduating from officers’ school, in 1944, Nassar taught at the military staff college. In the Six-Day War, he was deputy signals commander of the eastern Sinai command (the headquarters at the front). He was later promoted to signals commander. From 1970-72 Nassar established and headed the information security administration. From 1972-75 he was director of Military Intelligence.

Nassar went on to serve as governor of the Red Sea, South Sinai and Matrouh governorates, in turn. From 1981-83 he headed the General Intelligence Service, the Egyptian counterpart of Israel’s Mossad.

He fought against Israel in the 1948 War of Independence, the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In Egypt he is considered a hero of the latter, which Egyptians call the October War, serving alongside Defense Minister Ahmad Ismail Ali, Chief of Staff Saad el-Shazly and Commander in Chief Mohammed Abdel Ghani al-Gamasy.

In recent years Nassar has given a number of interviews to Egyptian media outlets, mainly focusing on his experiences in the Yom Kippur War. Following are excerpts from interviews about the Ashraf Marwan espionage affair and Egypt's strategic deception vis-à-vis that war. The parenthetical comments are mine.

Marwan was an Egyptian billionaire who had spied for Israel - or so it has been believed.

First interview

In July 2007, a month after Marwan's death, an interview Nassar gave to the Arabic daily Al-Masry Al-Youm was published as a four-part series.

When asked whether he had worked or became aware of him in the course of Nassar's career at MI and later at the GIS, Nassar said: "Marwan was directly subordinate to Sadat. During my time as head of MI all the agencies — general intelligence, army intelligence and even the president himself — were planning to take the enemy by surprise, which is considered the main reason for the victories in the October War.

"There are several types of surprise operations, such as strategic surprise or political one, but the most important one is the military surprise. My area of expertise [or: responsibility] was in the military sphere and in the sphere of military strategy. The international and political sphere was not my area of expertise, but rather that of President Sadat, who directly supervised all operation. Sadat was a true statesman. [President Gamal Abdel] Nasser was a leader, Sadat was a statesman."

Nassar, who began his intelligence work only in the Sadat era, said Nasser had used intelligence mostly for domestic affairs.

"Nasser, like all leaders, had benefits and mistakes. As a true statesman, Sadat participated in the strategic, diplomatic and international deception, and used Marwan for that purpose. This form of deception had no relation to military matters and therefore we were not part of it. All I know about Marwan is that he was part of the strategic scheme. I'm positive about that, although I cannot judge the details of his role."

Marwan served as liaison between Sadat and senior officials in Saudi Arabia (intelligence chief Kamal Adham) and Libya (Prime Minister Abdel Salam Jalloud), took part in meetings and political errands and was in charge of weapons manufacturing – until he fell out of favor and was ousted from his official posts, before being accused of corruption.

Nassar says in the interview that when he was intelligence chief, in the 1980s, Marwan's house was searched after pressure from the media. No intelligence-related documents were found. Ameen Heweedy, one of Nassar's predecessors as head of the GIS, told Nassar that his agency did not have documents relating to Marwan.

Since Marwan acted in a manner that might have aroused suspicion in Egyptian intelligence circles, ever since he placed repeated phone calls to the Israeli embassy in London offering his service in return for huge amounts of money, Sadat might have given a direct order to remove any documents related to him from intelligence archives.

Nassar says Marwan "had excellent contacts with many of the rulers. He was a diplomat and had personal relations with the leaders. He was a popular, amicable man who could carry out different missions, and filled his role in the strategic deception."

In an August 2010 interview to the Third Power website, Nassar responded to reports in Israel that Marwan had been a Mossad spy: "Is it conceivable that Ashraf Marwan, as Sadat's assistant, would make a phone call on October 4 [1973] at 10 P.M. and request a meeting with Mossad chief Zvi Zamir, without Sadat being aware of it? Obviously not. That's how the Egyptian strategic deception worked, while the Israeli enemy was fast asleep, from Tel Aviv to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, and was completely calm until the Egyptian cannons opened fire at 2 P.M. on October 6."

Nassar added that on October 4, the day after Egyptian and Syrian officers agreed on the date of the attack, Sadat instructed him, as head of MI, to brief the head of the KGB mission to Cairo that war would break out within two days. Following this report and parallel to the Syrians reporting to the Soviets in Damascus, Russian military advisors in Egypt and Syria were instructed to evacuate their families and to move out Russian ships anchored in Egyptian and Syrian ports.

Nassar says Jordan's King Hussein was briefed the next day, October 5. Bedouin in Sinai working for Egyptian intelligence reported regularly on the status of Israeli emergency units. The fact that these were only deployed on October 6 prompted Egyptian intelligence to conclude that Israel was late to react.

In an interview in November 2011 to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Wafd, Nassar said he persuaded Sadat that "if the Egyptian army would succeed in striking the Israel Defense Forces before reserve units were mobilized, we would win. The whole country participated in the strategic deception. The army studied the lessons of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, which began as a military drill, and we used the same ploy.

"We held a military maneuver every year, and then used it to launch an attack. Sadat utilized another intelligence means. Ashraf Marwan was used by Sadat directly for missions military intelligence could not carry out, such as raising funds from Arab countries. Sadat ordered Marwan to contact Israel so that Sadat would be familiar with Israel, and so that he could share the deception plan. Our mission in the military intelligence was to be aware of what he did, and we did know. We couldn't ask the president what he was doing. We followed the president's actions. This was our method not only vis-à-vis President Sadat, but in regard to any citizen of the country, so that we would know what was happening, collect information and prevent others from collecting information. Intelligence is the only factor constantly active, in times of peace and in times of war."

Ashraf Marwan, right, shaking hands with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser during Marwarn's wedding to Nasser's daughter, Mona, July 1966.Credit: AP

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