“Now walk into that bank and find out the name of its manager. Better yet, bring us back his business card.”
“Your next mission is to go up to that passer-by and try to get him to tell you who he is, what he does for a living and so on.”
Said Sahnoune received such orders from a secret agent as they walked together on the streets of Tel Aviv in 1998. They were some of the street tests the Algerian journalist had to go through before he was hired by Israeli intelligence services.
But the most comprehensive testing was conducted inside his Tel Aviv hotel room. “They subjected me to long interrogations, with lie detectors included, regarding my own life and motivations,” he says. “There was one question that came up again and again: Were you sent here by a foreign service?”
Sahnoune passed all the tests and was finally recruited by an organization whose name his recruiters never uttered, but which can only be the Mossad, the only one with a strong international network. Later, he was also hired by Spanish security forces.
Fifteen years after those walks around Tel Aviv, the 50-year-old Sahnoune, who once stayed at luxury hotels, lives in a refugee shelter run by the Red Cross in Madrid. He arrived in the Spanish capital on November 22 with his 20-year-old son Kamel, and requested political asylum. His petition was turned down, but lawyers for the Spanish Committee for Refugee Aid managed to get him over the border 17 days later.
I said I hadn’t talked to other services, but the lie detector gave me away”
Sahnoune agreed to talk about his life, although “it is still early” to discuss certain episodes.
After a two-week trial in Tel Aviv, a Mossad chief who identified himself only as Sami took him out to dinner. “We are interested in your profile; how about you, are you interested too?”
The Algerian journalist had some conditions for his new employers: “I don’t want to work against my country, and I don’t want to kill anyone or bring any target of yours into range.” These terms were accepted, he says..
He had landed in Tel Aviv after first living in several countries in western Africa in the early 1990s. While in Benin he founded a daily called Le Matin. In the Ivory Coast he was a contributor to another newspaper, La Paix. The publication of a supplement on the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 triggered his first contact with the Israeli embassy in that country. The ambassador asked him to attend a seminar by the Arab section of Histadrut (the union organization in Israel) and he was later offered “a job as an investigative reporter.”
The job began with a trip to Bangkok, where officials at the Israeli embassy proposed that he fly to Tel Aviv to begin the recruiting and training process.
Using the cover of his job as a reporter, he spied for the Mossad in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. “They were keeping close tabs on the Shi’ite Lebanese colony in western Africa,” he notes. Sahnoune also spied in Tunisia, but above all in Lebanon after Israel’s withdrawal from the south of the country, which it occupied until 2000. “They were interested in a Lebanese man who worked for the Palestine Liberation Organization, as well as a former Lebanese ambassador, a military man and a couple of Shi’ites down south,” he recalls. “I had to get in touch with them, find out whether they were traveling to Europe, or drop the suggestion that they might be invited to some event in Europe.
“I think they [the Mossad] wanted to recruit them, but not in Lebanon,” he adds. “Sometimes, when I had obtained sufficient information about a target, I was told to forget about him, that another Israeli team would take over from me.”
Sahnoune was paid in cash in Cyprus, the location where he used to pass along the information he had obtained. The wages were modest — 1,500 dollars a month, he says — although his mission expenses were covered and he earned a bonus if he met some of his objectives. “Once they gave me up to 6,000 dollars all at the same time,” he says.
It was also in Cyprus that the Mossad decided to sever ties with Sahnoune after putting him through the umpteenth lie detector session. “I told them I hadn’t been in touch with any other foreign services and the damned machine gave me away. As a matter of fact I had informed the DRS [Algeria’s military secret services] about my work for the Israelis.”
In early 2002, Sahnoune returned to his home town of Cabilia and eked out a living doing odd jobs, until he was interviewed at the Spanish embassy. There was no need to pass a lie detector test in this case. “It was enough for me to tell them about my career to get hired.” It was 2004 and his monthly salary would be 900 euros plus expenses and bonuses. As before, Sahnoune did not quite know who he was working for. He remembers his contacts were Miguel, Lorenzo and, above all, Carlos, whom he saw one day “on TV, attending a ceremony and wearing a Civil Guard uniform.
“Spain’s secret services were asking for information about terrorism suspects from their Algerian counterparts, but they took a long time getting back to them,” he says. “So the Spaniards asked me to try to find out what they wanted to know. The DRS in Algeria knew about my work and did not object, as long as I did not spy.”
In the end it was not the DRS but its counterpart in Morocco that caught him in December 2005, when he was on the trail of the sub-Saharan immigrant route that crosses Algeria and Morocco and ends at the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. The fall of 2005 had been marked by massive runs on the fences surrounding both cities by migrants. Although the Moroccan-Algerian border has been closed since 1994, Sahnoune entered Morocco illegally on foot from Algeria.
But after the Moroccans handed him back to the Algerian authorities, he was not released. Instead, he was sent to Antar, the DRS prison in Algiers, which is full of Islamists.
That is when he asked to speak with the DRS colonel who had verbally authorized him to collaborate with the Spaniards, but was told that he would be sent to the military prison in Blida and court-martialed. But in April 2006 this court declined to take the case and had it transferred to a civil court in Tizi Ouzou (Cabilia), which took 15 months to try him in a closed-door procedure.
The attorney asked for a 20-year sentence against Sahnoune for divulging national defense secrets to two foreign powers, but the court settled for 10 years. “We have a re-education system in our prisons that allows convicts to reduce their sentences if they learn a trade and pass exams,” explains Sahnoune’s lawyer, Saada Messous, in a telephone conversation from Algiers. “My client made the most of it.”
He was released on July 5, 2012. “Then I spent six months thinking about what I should do next, until I decided to leave Algeria,” explains this former spy. “I couldn’t undertake anything in my country.”
So he came to Spain with his son. “It was time for him to do his military service, and because of his father’s past, he might have gotten a really hard time in the army,” he explains. “I was convinced that it would be easy to enter the country that I had worked and run some risks for. But it wasn’t that way!” He left his wife and his two daughters back home. “The eldest will be getting married soon, and I will be unable to attend the wedding,” he says.