The Story of Israel's Other Secret Agent Cohen

A tribute to Eliyahu Cohen, a founder of intel Unit 8200 and Mossad spy who posed as an Iraqi officer

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Members of the Iraqi Zionist underground practice shooting.
Members of the Iraqi Zionist underground practice shooting. Credit: Iraqi Zionist underground organization
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In 1964, Eliyahu (using Eitan as his undercover name) Cohen left for Paris on behalf of the Mossad. The Iraqi-born agent, who died in July, wrote in his memoirs: “I took part in and commanded many operations. They were complex and dangerous, tense and interesting, giving me great job satisfaction.”

A few months after he arrived in the City of Lights, Mossad agent Eli Cohen was arrested in Syria. “My friends and family were astounded by the similarities in name and appearance between me and the detained agent,” wrote Cohen. When concerns grew, his father wrote the Israeli embassy in Paris, inquiring about Eliyahu Cohen’s situation. This prompted him to make contact and assure his family that he was well.

In later years he described some Mossad missions he took part in. Before the Six-Day War he entered an Arab country posing as an Iraqi officer, subsequently sending Israel information about the Egyptian army. Another time he befriended an Arab officer who was undergoing medical treatment in a European country. “I posed as a patient with the same disease he had and joined the course of treatment at the institution he was in,” he wrote. “That mission went well and achieved excellent results, but I almost paid for it with my health, surprisingly finding myself in the operating theater without any real need to be there.”

He was born in Baghdad between 1927 and 1929. He never knew the exact year, since “at different stages of my life my birth certificates were changed according to need,” he explained. Sometimes, years were added to his age so he could register for a school or university.

Eliyahu Cohen.Credit: Courtesy of family

His father Yitzhak was a senior engineer in the Iraqi railway system. His mother Khatoon (neé Nasi) was a housewife. He grew up outside the Jewish ghetto, in a neighborhood in which Jews and Arabs lived side by side. More brothers and sisters were born after him. One of them is Ran Cohen, the former Meretz Member of Knesset and government minister. At school, wrote Eliyahu, “we suffered because of the attitudes of other pupils and some of the teachers, and we had to keep our heads down.” The worst period was the pogrom perpetrated against Baghdad’s Jews in 1941 (the Farhud). “I was in Eliyahu’s arms, screaming and scared to death,” wrote Ran Cohen in his book “Said.”

After the pogrom, Eliyahu joined the underground Zionist HeHalutz movement, where he learned Hebrew and about Zionism. He then joined a self-defense organization called Hashura, where he learned how to use light weapons. “I saw Eliyahu in the role of the Jewish fighter protecting his brothers, whose lives were in danger,” wrote Ran Cohen about watching his brother patrolling the streets of Baghdad armed with a pistol in May 1948.

In 1949, after being persecuted by the authorities, Eliyahu Cohen crossed the border to Iran, taking a dangerous trek on foot. From there he took a plane to Israel. He joined Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, where he was met “with mixed feelings.” In his memoirs he wrote that “for kibbutz members this was their first experience in accepting people of Mizrahi origin, who did not understand the concept of collectivism.” He later integrated successfully and became active in the immigration and absorption of Iraqi Jews, including his brother Ran.

He did his military service in the 1950s, in “a very secret unit, which could not even be mentioned,” he said. It later became known as Unit 8200. Its role was to decipher the codes used by Arab armies and institutions. “We had no instruction or guidebooks on the topic. We used our brains in order to find solutions. We exploited their mistakes and weaknesses and broke the codes,” he related. This was aided by his command of Arabic and his familiarity with the way Arabs “think and express themselves.”

Eliyahu Cohen in the streets of Paris during his service in the Mossad.Credit: Courtesy of family

At the end of the ceremony in which he became an officer, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion came up to him and said: “Here is the Yemenite who will be a chief of staff one day.” When Cohen corrected him, the “Old Man” replied: “An Iraqi is also OK.” Among his memories from his subsequent service in the Mossad, Cohen remembered, along with the successful missions, the failure to sound the alarm before the Yom Kippur War. He said that the unit he was in charge of received hundreds of transmissions, “each one of which pointed to an imminent war, but there were people who did not believe it.”

Cohen, who held a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne, died in July, leaving behind his wife Doris, three sons (one of whom, Ilan, was the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office), and grandchildren.

Eliyahu Cohen at his school in Baghdad. Credit: Courtesy of family

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