So who told British intelligence about Bowyer Bell’s documentary film, ‘The Secret Army‘ and the incriminating scenes of a young Martin McGuinness helping to assemble a car bomb and handling a revolver and bullets?
Ever since the BBC Spotlight ‘Secret History‘ team reported that, according to Leo Gildin, the budget director for the film and executive producer, a section of British intelligence – whether MI5 or MI6 is not clear – had viewed the film, which then failed to make a single sale, guesswork has centred on Bowyer Bell, who is said to have had CIA associations.
Equally torrid has been the speculation that British intelligence then used the scenes to blackmail McGuinness into working for them, which if true would mean that the British had a spy at the very top of the IRA for much of the Troubles.
McGuinness was Chief of Staff between 1978 and 1982, and Northern Commander from the mid-1980’s to almost the end of the IRA’s campaign in the early 1990’s. If he was a spy, then he was in an ideal place to keep the British abreast of political and military developments inside the organisation.
But Bowyer Bell was not the only member of the production team who had links to the murky world of espionage and agent handling.
The film’s director and co-writer was an Israeli journalist who had been a member of an armed Jewish group in the years leading up to the establishment of the Israeli state which then formed the core of Mossad, Israel’s legendary spy agency.
Zwy Herbert Aldouby was also under FBI surveillance in the 1960’s when he was working in the United States, allegedly researching a documentary film on the so-called ‘St Louis’ incident in 1939, when 900 Jewish refugees were denied entry to the US. They were forced to return to Germany where most of them perished at the hands of the Nazis.
The FBI report, compiled in March 1961 and marked ‘Confidential’, was put together by agent Willard Wharton from the El Paso, Texas office who described the ‘character’ of the report as ‘Internal Security – Israel’.
The report, which was declassified in 2005 with the approval of the CIA, consists of an five-page long interview with an elderly Jewish lady who was herself interviewed by Aldouby about the ‘St Louis’ incident. Why the FBI would go to such trouble tracking an Israeli writer is not clear, unless they suspected this was a cover for more nefarious activity.
Aldouby also wrote or co-wrote two books dealing with Israeli intelligence operations. One told the story of Eli Cohen, the Syrian-born Mossad spy who infiltrated the higher echelons of the Syrian political establishment before a Soviet technical operation detected his radio signals. He was then publicly hanged in central Damascus by the Syrian regime and his body left on the scaffold in a public display for six hours.
Netflix recently screened a film drama of the Eli Cohen story called ‘The Spy‘, starring Sacha Baron Cohen as the doomed agent.
Aldouby’s other book, written along with two other authors, told the story of Mossad’s success in tracking down Adolf Eichmann to Argentina and bringing him back to Israel for trial and execution. Eichmann was the key architect of ‘The Final Solution‘ which saw six million Jews, gypsies and disabled people exterminated in death camps.
The book was first published by Viking Press in New York in 1960 and a press release issued by Viking had this to say about Aldouby and his co-author Ephraim Katz:
(They) are two Israeli journalists who have served as foreign correspondents throughout Europe. Aldouby speaks eight languages, Katz five. Both speak Arabic, which made their services invaluable during Israel’s struggle for independence, when they served in the underground, in the Palmach (commandos) and later in the Israel Defense Forces as officers.
The Palmach (which translates as ‘storm troops’) had a conflicting role in the birth of the Israeli state. In the early days of its existence it co-operated and fought alongside British forces in what was then Palestine against German attempts to destabilise the Middle East.
It was created by the Hagganah, the underground army of the Jewish community in Palestine but once the German threat receded and the Second World War ended, the Palmach soon joined other Jewish groups in militarily opposing the British Mandate in Palestine.
Military commanders of the Palmach during this time included future Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin and the legendary military leader, Moshe Dayan.
But the Palmach are better known for undertaking daring intelligence operations on behalf of the fledgling Israeli state. Known to have in its ranks Jews who had been born in Arab countries and who, like Zwy Aldouby, were fluent in Arabic, the Palmach sent a team to Beirut to spy for Israel not long after the creation of the Jewish state.
They were members of what was known as ‘the Arab Section’ which had been conceived and jointly created by British military intelligence and the Palmach in an effort to counter Nazi infiltration of Arab communities during the war. But once the war ended the ‘Arab Section’ became an arm of Palmach intelligence.
According to Matti Friedman in his recently published book ‘Spies of No Country – Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel‘:
…these men went undercover in Beirut, where they spent the next two years operating out of a newsstand, collecting intelligence and sending messages back to Israel via a radio whose antenna was disguised as a clothesline. Of the dozen spies in the Arab Section at the war’s outbreak, five were caught and executed. But in the end, the Arab Section would emerge as the nucleus of the Mossad, Israel’s vaunted intelligence agency.
So, Zwy Aldouby, short, swarthy and fluent in Arabic, was a member of a Jewish armed group which sent spies into Arab countries and which later formed the basis for the Mossad. We don’t know, however, whether he was in the Arab Section or if he worked secretly in Beirut. If he did, perhaps that is why FBI agent Willard Wharton was assigned to track his movements in the United States.
But what possible interest could Israeli intelligence have in the conflict in Northern Ireland?
The film, ‘A Secret Army’ was made in 1972 and that was the year, according to this unusually frank and detailed 2005 account published in the Sinn Fein paper, An Phoblacht-Republican News, when Joe Cahill and a senior IRA colleague first met Libyan leader, Col Muammar Gaddafi to negotiate the first of many arms shipments.
If Israeli intelligence had got wind of that meeting then the Mossad would certainly have been interested in helping the British undermine and recruit people like Martin McGuinness while frustrating Gaddafi’s ambitions in the region.
Whether Martin McGuinness was an agent is a different matter, however. He was Chief of Staff between February 1978 and July 1982, which were particularly violent years. And to keep him in place, their most prized agent in the IRA, British intelligence would have had to ignore warnings about certain operations for fear of blowing his cover.
There is no doubt that the British might well have allowed their own soldiers to be killed, even the eighteen paratroopers wiped out at Warrenpoint in August 1979, although that would be a terribly heavy blow to absorb. Imperial powers, though, have done worse to their own.
But what about the other deaths on that bloody day, off the Sligo coast when the Queen’s cousin, the heir to the throne’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten was, along with family members and friends, blown to eternity by an IRA then led by their secret agent? Would MI5 have allowed that to happen?
And if the British didn’t use the incriminating scenes to blackmail Martin McGuinness what on earth did they use the information for?