Disappearing Act

For Elisha Cohen, his role in the attempted abduction of Nigerian transportation minister Dr. Umaru Dikko was the realization of his life's dream: To be an international conspirator involved in a secret international mission. A report on how the representative of a construction company made friends in high places - and why he was chosen for the mission.

When Elisha Cohen passed away in July, 2000, he took with him to his grave a huge secret that had agitated many in Israel and abroad. The secret related to an event that could well be the stuff of a great feature film, combining a military commando mission and a mafia-type operation.

The event in question was a failed attempt in July, 1984, to kidnap the former transportation minister of Nigeria, Dr. Umaru Dikko, in London, in broad daylight. Three Israelis and a Nigerian intelligence officer were arrested, tried and sentenced to long prison terms. Their stories were widely published in the world media. But the planner of the operation was never discovered and his motives never revealed.

A few days after the failed abduction attempt, the now-defunct daily newspaper Davar reported that behind it stood the government of Nigeria, which had enlisted the help of the American construction company called Johnson Drake and Piper. The company denied this. Based on a detailed investigation, it may be said now that indeed the company had no connection to the deed.

But Cohen, the president of the company and one of its owners, was "the brains" behind the attempted abduction and, in return, he received $3-$5 million from the Nigerian government. Some of the money went toward financing the trials of his operatives, including the three Israelis who were arrested in the case, to monthly support for their families and to the payment of hush money to others. But most of the money stayed in his pocket, though heirs, who are currently engaged in a legal battle over the probate of the estate, discovered later to their surprise that it had disappeared.

"Relative to my father's many business interests, expectations were great and there were those who expected that he would leave a lot of money in his estate. In this respect, there's a disappointment," says his son, Harel.

PR in Nigeria

Elisha Cohen was born in Tel Aviv in 1930. He enlisted in the Palmach and served in the Harel Brigade commanded by Yitzhak Rabin. He was lightly wounded in his eyes during the battles for the Jerusalem corridor, and hospitalized. There he met a nurse called Ziva, who took care of him. Some time later, the two were married and they had two sons, Harel and Lior. After the War of Independence, he worked for the Mekorot Water Company installing pumps and other equipment. At the beginning of the 1950s, he decided to study mechanical engineering in the United States and earned his living as a guard at the Israeli consulate in New York.

At some stage, Cohen's marriage got rocky, he divorced and married Susan, a young American woman. The couple had two children, Tamar and Michael. For a while, Cohen worked in America for a company that installed air conditioners, but he was not satisfied with his job. At the time, Susan was working as a secretary in the offices of Solcoor, which was owned by the Histadrut labor federation, in New York.

In 1963, Solel Boneh, also owned by the Histadrut, sent its representative, Mordechai Allison, who had completed a stint in Nigeria, to New York to open a branch there. In his search for a secretary, he heard about Susan Cohen and offered her the job.

The Solel Boneh offices also served the company's subsidiary, Reynolds, which it had purchased back in the 1950s for legal and business-related reasons. This enabled it to submit bids for U.S. government projects. Among other things, during that time, Solel Boneh won contracts to build military bases in the United States and Turkey. Reynolds and Solel Boneh were among the jewels in the crown of Hevrat Ha'Ovdim (the Workers' Company) - the body that united, coordinated and administered all the businesses, companies and industrial plants of the Histadrut's economic empire.

Through Susan, Allison met her husband, Elisha, and became friendly with him. Cohen asked to work at Reynolds but because of Histadrut regulations, which prohibited the employment of couples in the same office, this did not work out until after Susan resigned. Three years later, Allison returned to Israel and was appointed director of the external projects department of Solel Boneh. Cohen did not get along with Moshe Boaz, Allison's replacement, who wanted to fire him. With Allison's intervention, a compromise was achieved: Cohen was sent to Nigeria as the representative of Reynolds.

Reynolds submitted bids for Nigerian government contracts, with implementation of projects carried out by Solel Boneh, serving as the sub-contractor. During the 1960s, especially after Israel's victory in the Six-Day War, Israeli military and intelligence activity flourished in Africa. Nigeria, the wealthiest country on the continent, thanks to its oil and its large population, was considered a particularly desirable target for Israeli cooperation.

Cohen's main responsibility was in the area of public relations and international relations.

Ties with the top

From his office in Lagos, the capital, Cohen had to nurture ties with the upper echelons of the Nigerian administration and, through these ties, get contracts. Cohen, say those who knew him at the time, excelled at his job: Reynolds and Solel Boneh won, among others, three contracts for paving major roads in the country that totaled about $100 million.

Cohen was especially successful in establishing relations with military officers of all ranks, both senior and junior. However - as one of his acquaintances has explained - his special talent was for establishing relations with middle-ranking officers, especially majors and colonels - who, a decade later, attained senior positions in the government.

"Cohen knew how to impress," says someone who knew him during that period in Nigeria. "He gave his listeners - Israelis and especially Nigerians - the feeling that he was a mystery man. He let it be understood that he was connected to the Mossad and the Shin Bet intelligence services or maybe even represented them in Nigeria. Among other things, he related that he worked on behalf of the Mossad in North Africa. Most of the Israelis were not very impressed by his hints and most of us understood that this was just fake showing off. But on the Nigerian army officers this made a great impression. They believed him."

One of those officers with whom Cohen became friendly was Olusegun Obasenjo who, since May, 1999, has been serving as the elected president of Nigeria. Cohen met General Obasenjo during the 1960s as a civil war was raging in Nigeria over the succession of the province of Biafra, inhabited mostly by members of the Ibo tribe. The commander of the Nigerian army, which occupied Biafra, was Obasenjo who, at the time, commanded the army's Second Division. Cohen and other Solel Boneh employees were arrested then by the army, and General Obasenjo interrogated Cohen personally. In the interrogation, the accusation was that Solel Boneh had built installations, paved roads and provided equipment to the rebels in Biafra. Cohen replied: "We can also build for you."

This was the beginning of a friendship that lasted for several years and that benefited both Cohen and the company. In 1976, with the death of the popular General Murtala Muhammad, the military junta that had taken over the government of Nigeria appointed General Obasanjo as ruler of the country. He did not want to govern and after three years, handed over the government to civilians and helped re-establish a democratic regime. At a certain stage, he cut off his ties with Cohen after he heard that his Israeli friend was boasting of his influence on him.

In 1974, Cohen left Nigeria and returned to the offices of Reynolds and Solel Boneh in New York. But not for long. In 1976, Allison initiated a move in which he and Cohen quit Reynolds and Solel Boneh. They joined up with the Ashtrom company, which had been established in 1958 (by five people who had resigned from Solel Boneh in the wake of the firing of the CEO Hillel Dan), and together they purchased a company, which turned out to be the overseas branch of the American company of Johnson Drake and Piper (JDP). JDP had a fine reputation during World War II and built many bases for the American and British armies in America and elsewhere. Among other things, it built Tel Litvinsky, on which the Tel Hashomer hospital complex later went up. For tax reasons, the company was registered in the state of Delaware and it had a modest office in New York, which served as the "post-office box" for its dealings. It also opened an office in London.

The new partners directed their business to construction projects in Nigeria, but they found themselves facing stubborn rivals in the companies from which they had resigned: Solel Boneh and Reynolds. The struggle for every contract and project often led to reciprocal recriminations and threats. Cohen's connections with military officers and Nigerian intelligence people aided in the development of JDP.

Campaign against corruption

In 1983, after a four-year absence, the generals again ousted the elected civilian government in Nigeria. Heading the country was General Muhammadu Buhari. A number of government ministers, including transportation minister Dr. Umaru Dikko, fled the country. The press in Nigeria, influenced by the junta, was full of reports of the corruption of the ministers who had fled to safe villas they had prepared in advance abroad, along with secret bank accounts.

In the campaign against corruption, Dikko was depicted as enemy No. 1 of the Nigerian people. As transportation minister, responsible as well for the ports and shipping, he controlled most of the country's imports. This status, said his enemies, gave him access to many foreign businessmen and companies.

One of them was the Swiss-Jewish tycoon Nissim Gaon. Gaon, through Noga Commodities, was considered one of the major importers of goods into Nigeria. In addition to about 10 percent of the rice imported to Nigeria, his interests also included shipping, cement and construction materials and other goods.

According to members of the junta, Dikko exploited his public position to accrue private capital through bribes he got from various businessmen around the world. The bribery attributed to him was estimated at tens of millions - and perhaps even billions - of dollars.

Nigeria is considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The blight affects everyone: officials, ministers and both senior and junior military officers. Dr. Dikko was no different from the members of the junta who accused him, but the officers who had taken over the government needed a scapegoat to divert criticism from themselves, especially at home. They made him into an enemy of the people.

Even today it is not clear who in the junta first had the idea of kidnapping Dr. Dikko to bring him to a kind of show-trial in Nigeria. But whoever it was who had the idea also knew to whom to turn. In the eyes of the Nigerian plotters, the man for the job was Cohen, who was not only a businessman but also - or maybe only - an agent of the Israeli intelligence services or at least connected to them.

At the beginning of 1984, on one of his many quick trips to Lagos, Cohen accepted the proposal he received from a friend, a retired senior army officer. The Nigerians transferred to him between $3-$5 million, and put the national intelligence service at his disposal.

From that moment, the mission became the focus of Cohen's life. "For him, this was the fulfillment of all he dreamed of being and wasn't: an international conspirator and secret hush-hush missions," related an acquaintance of his.

Cohen set about planning the operation like a veteran intelligence man. First of all, he looked for a "field man," who would be directly responsible for the operation. He hired Alex Barak of Netanya. It is not clear how Cohen came to know about him, but he promised Barak considerable sums of money, apparently hundreds of thousands of dollars, and full coverage of all his expenses. Barak himself, today the owner of a cafe in Tel Aviv, refuses to tell how he was enlisted for the mission and is not even prepared to admit that he knew Cohen.

Born in 1957, Barak comes from a family of diamond merchants. He studied at the military boarding school at the Herzliya Gymnasium in Tel Aviv and the Sharett High School in Netanya. He did his military service in the army newspaper Bemahaneh, and as a photographer for the intelligence corps. Afterward, he tried to do business in Israel and abroad, but with little success; he had a run-in with the law in Germany and returned to the diamond business.

Cohen took care to put up a smokescreen so that the operation could not be attributed to him.

The plot thickens

All the participants were given code names. In return for a substantial sum of money, Barak enlisted Felix Masoud Abutbul, 31 at the time, whom he knew from Netanya and who is now known as one of the "crime lords of Netanya."

Through a connection, Barak also enlisted Dr. Arieh Lev Shapira, an anesthesiologist, who worked at Hasharon Hospital in Petah Tikva. Shapira was told that it would be his job to anesthetize the victim and that the operation was for "the good of the country." To this day the doctor, who has since gone on to direct a unit at Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava, continues to believe that he had been enlisted for the operation by the Mossad for an official mission and not for a private criminal act. Abutbul also tended to believe, at least at first, that he was working in Israel's interests.

After enlisting the mission force, Cohen and Barak, who met at least once to coordinate the operation in New York, began the second phase of their preparations: locating Dr. Dikko. When Barak described the affair to the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in 1995, he confirmed that they had met in New York with a man called "Rafi," whom he defined as "close to the ruling circles in Nigeria."

Barak and Cohen also flew out to meetings in Nigeria with a retired senior military officer, their connection to the junta. There, Barak was given a Nigerian passport under the name "Kamal Shimon." To this end, he was helped by the Nigerian intelligence service, international business people, friends and private detectives.

The search for Dr. Dikko took several months. Initially, they thought he was hiding in Switzerland, but he was tracked down in the Bayswater section of London. From that moment on, Major Muhammad Yusufu, a Nigerian intelligence operative stationed at his country's embassy in London, became the liaison man between the junta and Barak. A New York detective agency hired detectives in London to gather operational intelligence, and they followed Dikko and studied his daily movements.

The plan developed by Barak and Cohen was to lure Dr. Dikko to a "television interview." To this end, an apartment was rented in London to serve as a "television studio." Barak set out on several missions in London and Paris, where he introduced himself as "Michel Peron," an American television producer. Abutbul and Dr. Shapira were also sent to London to become familiar with the territory.

Barak requested the aid of two "freelance journalists": a French Jew called Adrian Dramon and a Ghanaian called Camroun Daouda. He inveigled them into making contact with Dr. Dikko, to gain his confidence and convince him to come to the "studio," for an interview with "an American television network." In return, he promised them several thousand dollars, which according to Dramon were never handed over. At certain stage, Nissim Gaon, without knowing the real intention, was asked to help in luring Dikko. He was invited to be interviewed together with Dikko, but refused.

The beeper goes off

When it turned out that Dikko was not eager to be interviewed, Barak and Cohen decided on a new plan. The idea was to kidnap him and take him to the apartment in London, where Dr. Shapira was to give him an injection that would dull his senses. Then, they planned to board him in a wheelchair on a regular commercial flight from London to Lagos. Barak was supposed to be accompanying the imaginary patient. But, at the last minute, it turned at that under British law, a sick person could not be boarded on a plane without an authorization from a doctor from the British airports authority.

Barak and Yusufu had to change the plans. It was decided to abduct Dr. Dikko near his home, put him in a car and from there to transfer him to another car where Dr. Shapira would give him an injection to put him to sleep. The Israeli doctor was supposed to get into a special crate with him, prepared in advance by Major Yusufu and his people, which would be taken to Stanstead Airport near the city of Luton, north of London. According to the plan, Barak was supposed to get into a second crate, and at the airport, a cargo plane from the Nigerian airline would await them.

Barak, who could have left Britain some other way, chose to go to Nigeria hiding in a crate and be greeted there as a national hero in the hope that he would be suitably rewarded. Yusufu and his people were supposed to stamp the crates as "Diplomatic Mail," and Yusufu himself was to join the flight as a member of the flight crew.

On Thursday, July 5, 1984, at 12 noon, Dr. Dikko left his residence on Portchester Terrace in Bayswater. There, six kidnappers were waiting for him in two cars: Barak and Abutbul and four others, some of them Israelis whom Barak had enlisted and whose identities have not been discovered to this day. Even then Barak realized that the operation had not been prepared properly but he decided to carry on with it: Yusufu's driver forgot to bring along the Nigerian airline uniform, and the white van with the crates did not arrive on time at the meeting point near the Regents Park Zoo.

Within a few seconds, Dikko was abducted and trundled into a yellow Bedford van with the British Telecom logo on it (that had been obtained with the help of Major Yusufu). Abutbul and Barak tied the Nigerian minister up, gagged him and drove through Paddington to the meeting point in Regents Park. Along the way, they heard the beeper on the kidnapped man's belt go off. Over the device came the message: "Don't worry, we've informed the police and called for help."

In retrospect, it turned out that Dikko's secretary, who had followed him out of the house in order to hand him something she had forgotten, had discovered that her boss had been kidnapped. She hurriedly called the police and sent him the reassuring message. Barak, keen on carrying out the mission, decided nevertheless to continue.

In the article in Yedioth Ahronoth, he explained it like this: "They told us it would take at least two hours from the time we `picked up' the man until the mechanism that closed down the exit ports in Britain would go into operation. The timetable, which had been precisely calculated over and over again, showed that even if they called for help, we would still have enough time to get away."

Negligent partners

Despite the delays and the hitches, everyone met at the parking lot by the Regents Park Zoo. Dr. Shapira injected Dikko with the anesthetic and got into the crate provided with emergency medical equipment. Abutbul, who should have left the scene under the original plan, went to the airport with Barak. There, as planned, Major Yusufu was waiting for them, disguised in an Air Nigeria uniform. Barak and Abutbul were supposed to nail the crate housing Dikko and Shapira shut, and then climb into the second crate. Yusufu and his aide from the embassy stamped the crates with a wax seal, as a sign they had been identified as diplomatic cargo that could not be opened.

After a three-hour delay, "We feel a crane lifting the crates," related Barak to Yedioth Ahronoth. "One after the other, they are taken out of the van and placed on the loading deck. I can feel the upward movement of the crate. They load us onto the plane. In the background there is the roar of the Boeing 707's jet engines. A smile crosses Abutbul's face and he makes a take-off gesture with his hand.

"At that moment, screams and cries are heard outside. I identify the raised voices of an argument between Yusufu and someone, apparently a customs official, who orders the stevedores to stop the loading and bring the crates back to the hangar immediately. Within the fraction of a second, I realize: We've had it ... I make the Israeli version what we call `giving a finger,' and this says it all."

The British customs authorities ignored the diplomatic immunity of the crates, opened them and found the four men inside them. Dr. Dikko was released and the three Israelis - Barak, Abutbul and Dr. Shapira - were arrested. Later Major Yusufu was also arrested.

Two days before the kidnapping, Cohen had flown from New York to Lagos to see at close range the happy ending of what was supposed to have been the mission of his life. A short time after the BBC broadcasted the news of the failed attempt to abduct the former Nigerian minister, some of his friends knew that Cohen had been responsible for it. One of them phoned him at the office in Lagos. Cohen poured his wrath on his partners from the Nigerian security services who had been negligent.

In the story in Yedioth, Barak had similar things to say: "In retrospect, I found out that the main culprit had been Group Captain Banfa, formerly head of the Nigerian Air Force and now CEO of Air Nigeria. This guy was supposed, according to the plan, to meet at 9:00 A.M. with Yusufu and Dr. Shapira at the apartment in London and give them the right documents and join us, to supervise the loading of the diplomatic crates at Stanstead Airport. But at the last minute Banfa got cold feet."

A Pandora's box

Months later, Cohen began to suspect that the reason for the failure had not been negligence. One of the possibilities that arose was that someone in the embassy in London, perhaps someone who had been close to Dr. Dikko or belonged to his tribe, had intentionally caused the delays in order to thwart the operation.

According to another version, the same elements in the ruling junta who had initiated the approach to Cohen were the same as those who scotched it by leaking information about the abduction to the British authorities, and everything that happened at Stanstead Airport had been a "staged show." That is, the people of the junta in fact did not want Dr. Dikko to be brought to their country to stand trial. They were afraid that such a trial might be a Pandora's box that would expose their own corruption.

The British government could have got their hands on the initiators of the operation: the military junta and Elisha Cohen. Investigators of the Anti-terrorist Squad of the London Metropolitan Police headed by Commander Hacklesby quickly discovered - from information that emerged from their interrogation of the British detectives that had been hired to follow Dr. Dikko - that Cohen was involved in the affair and that he had been sent by the junta. But the British Ministry of Defense ordered a stop to the investigation; Margaret Thatcher's government feared that problems with Britain's relations with Nigeria would disrupt commerce between the two countries. Thus Cohen was saved from British prison, although until his dying day, he stayed away from Britain for fear that he might be arrested.

Immediately after the failure of the operation, Cohen retained the services of Israeli lawyer Uri Slonim, who until then had handled some of his private business. Slonim flew to London and organized the legal defense of the three Israelis. He hired the best British lawyers for them, but to no avail.

Alex Barak, who had taken all the blame upon himself, was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment. Eight-and-a half years later he was released. Felix Abutbul and Dr. Shapira were sentenced to 10 years, and served six. Major Yusufu was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Dr. Dikko studied law in England and returned a few years later to Nigeria, where he again acquired a respectable standing, this time in the legal system.

Slonim continued to take care of the three Israelis while they were in prison. He organized visits by their families several times a year, and saw to it that money was transferred to them. Dr Rivka Shapria, the anesthesiologist's wife, received over a period of a number of years a monthly stipend of $1,000. It is not known what sums of money were received by the families of Felix Abutbul and Alex Barak.

Cohen spoke little about the operation, but his pride could not withstand the temptation. From time to time, he dropped hints and let a handful of friends in on some details of the secret. During the last seven years of his life, he was gravely ill and divided his time between his home in a small New Jersey suburb, his apartment in Ramat Aviv Gimmel and his house in Caesaria. He also tried to create among his friends the impression that this had been an "official" operation and not a private adventure. When they disagreed with him, he would shrug his shoulders and say, "What do you know?"

Susan continued to believe even after his death, that her husband had been a special Israeli operative. "Is it true that he worked for the Mossad?" she asked his friends.

Elisha's widow, who now lives in the United States, refused to be interviewed for this article. This was also the case with their daughter, Tamar Lamdan, who lives in Tel Aviv.

According to Cohen's son, Harel: "I never spoke to my father about the subject because there were subjects we never discussed, even though I had heard talk that my father had been involved in the matter. I know that he denied this when he was asked."

Lawyer Slonim said: "My involvement in the affair of Dr. Dikko is a matter that concerns a client of mine and I do not discuss such things."

Dr. Shapira did not agree to comment on the affair and said that perhaps some day, he will tell what he knows about it, but this is not yet the appropriate time.

Alex Barak: "All those involved in this old story have embarked on new lives or have returned to their Maker, and I do not see any point in recycling the affair after it has been ground find in all the media."

It was not possible to get a response from Felix Abutbul.

Some of Cohen's acquaintances, among them Pinchas Ashuach, Nati Harel and Mordechai Allison, refused to comment on the affair.