Cohen was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1924 to parents who were natives of Syria. Although his parents and brothers left for Israel in 1949, he remained in Egypt until 1956 and may have been involved with Israel’s unsuccessful Operation Susannah, in which small bombs were meant to produce an Egyptian government crackdown on dissidents and inspire enough unrest to justify continued British control of the Suez Canal. The political repercussions of the intelligence operation’s failure resulted in the Lavon Affair.
Because of his fluency with Arabic, familiarity with Egypt and connections to Syria, which together formed the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961, Cohen was recruited in 1960 to become a spy for Israel.
Under the name Kamel Amin Thaabet, he moved to Buenos Aires in 1961 as an expatriate Syrian businessman and insinuated himself into the Syrian community in Argentina to make the connections that paved his move to Damascus. In the Syrian capital, he befriended the social and political elite, including Amin al-Hafiz, who became president after a military coup in March 1963. Thaabet held elaborate, alcohol-fueled parties at which he gathered information from his drunken guests. Cohen supplied the information to Israel through radio transmissions, hidden letters and secret visits home, during which he saw his wife and three children.
He was able to tour Syrian fortifications in the Golan Heights and presented their locations to the Israeli military, crucial information during the Six-Day War. He also helped upset Syrian plans to cut off a source of the Jordan River.
Using Soviet-supplied radio-tracking equipment, Syrian forces found him while he was transmitting to Israel on Jan. 24, 1965, and he was arrested. Despite a public campaign by his wife to save Cohen’s life, as well as pleas from diplomats, foreign officials and even Pope Paul VI, Syria refused to reduce his sentence. Syria has never sent his remains back to Israel. A 2019 Netflix miniseries starring Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Spy,” tells Eli Cohen’s story.