The dark labyrinth of straw companies in which Ben Zygier worked
If Ben Zygier-Alon was indeed identified as “one of three Australian-Israeli citizens working for the Mossad under the cover of a European front company that sold electronic equipment to Iran” – as claimed to the Guardian by the Australian journalist, Jason Koutsoukis – that would explain why he blew up when the journalist asked him in early 2010 if he was a Mossad spy.
It would mean that he was spotted as a member of the anonymous army of tens of thousands of Americans, Israelis, Brits, Dutch, Iranians – and the list goes on and on – employed in running straw companies operated by the world’s spy agencies.
In the world of commerce, the “straw company” exists to deceive business competitors, uncover their trade secrets and patents, or pretend to be working on one product while working surreptitiously on another. Some American firms run hundreds of straw companies quite openly; others register shelf companies ready for sale or resale for profit.
In connection to Ben Zygier, straw companies, like “the European front company,” where he was sighted, are an extremely important tool for spy agencies in the performance of three basic undercover functions:
1. To infiltrate scientific, technological, financial, medical, educational and commercial industries and dig out their secrets. Many big companies work hand in glove with some intelligence service.
These straw companies are a major source of information. Take, for example, the Washington Post disclosure of Thursday, February 14, that last year, Iran tried to purchase via Chinese companies 100,000 magnetic rings to be used in the production of 50,000 new, rapid centrifuges.
To dodge UN sanctions on this product, Iran probably struck a deal with the Chinese company to keep their order secret. But Tehran knew that no Chinese firm manufactures magnetic rings of the type they need on this scale and that the firm would have to cast its nets far and wide to find enough magnetic rings of the requisite quality – and at a low enough price to give them a fat profit on the deal.
In no time, the search was bound to reach the ears of Washington and Tel Aviv and tell them that Iran is about to substantially increase its stock of high-speed centrifuges for enriching uranium.
The Washington Post disclosure marked the end of the complicated Chinese-Iranian deal for the acquisition of magnetic rings and the game by which it filtered through straw companies.
When Tehran approached the Chinese firm a year ago, it touched off a clandestine race involving hundreds if not thousands of secret agents from dozens of countries. Some tried chasing up the magnetic rings to meet the Iranian order; others, to block the sale; and a third group tried palming off on the Chinese firm flawed products that would sabotage the Iranian centrifuges when used.
The third task would not have been a walkover. Neither the Chinese nor the Iranians are gullible customers. Both are savvy enough to demand samples for stringent testing – first in China, then in Iran.
Tehran was burnt once by the Stuxnet malworm invasion which messed up the computer systems running the centrifuges and does not mean to be burned again.
Anyway, the number of companies with the technology for manufacturing magnetic rings with undetectable flaws can be counted on less than five fingers.
If it can be achieved, the next stage in the game would be to obscure the source – presumably Israel or the US. For this cover-up, many more straw companies would have gone into action – some in corners far from the Middle East, which could be Iceland or Vietnam, or even Timbuktu – nothing is beyond the realm of imagination for the straw company industry that serves world intelligence services.
This industry has two additional functions:
1. Some are on the level and designed to generate real profits to bankroll some of the spy agencies’ clandestine operations.
2. The manpower they employ is a pool for recruiting agents for long, short-term or ad hoc missions.
Straw companies which fail to perform usually sink without a trace.
In the murky world of double agents, no one can be sure who is serving whom at any given time. So, too, some straw companies serve many spymasters – whether as their operating method or out of greed. Their real loyalties are carefully muddied over.
There is no credible information about Ben Zygier Alon’s undercover mission or how he came to land in the high-security Israeli prison cell in which he died two years ago.
But some of the details percolating through about his exploits as a spy suggest he may have found himself mixed up in this kind of vortex and, instead of jumping out, decided on his own bat to follow through all the way to a certain objective – and got caught. At that point, his fate as a secret agent would have been sealed and the secrets he carried for the government which employed him sacrificed.