updated 10/24/2008 7:32:39 PM ET 2008-10-24T23:32:39

A coroner's inquest due to start this fall is expected to shed light on the murky circumstances surrounding the death of Ashraf Marwan, a wealthy Egyptian suspected spy who fell to his death in London last year.

Scotland Yard's Special Crimes Directorate is still gathering evidence to determine whether his sudden death in June 2007 was suicide, accident or murder. He fell from the fourth floor balcony of his spacious apartment on one of London's most exclusive streets.

Given his role as a suspected undercover agent at the height of the conflict between Israel and Egypt, many intelligence experts believe the inquest may find Marwan was the victim of foul play.

"I have no doubt he was murdered," said Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist and historian who has written several books about intelligence matters. "It was a revenge operation. Marwan was very close to the top. He had only one mission — provide Israel advance warning if Egypt was going to start a war."

But no one has proved whether the suave 62-year-old spy was a turncoat who gave Israel crucial Egyptian military plans before the 1973 Yom Kippur war or a cunning double agent who provided Israeli leaders with tantalizing information that was often accurate but, at key times, not quite right.

Marwan was uniquely positioned to help the Israelis, or to dupe them. He was the son-in-law of powerful Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and a trusted aide to Nasser's successor, President Anwar Sadat, with close ties to the military and intelligence elite.

Those who believe Marwan was a double agent loyal to Egypt claim he provided wrong information about the exact hour of the actual 1973 attack. Israel was nearly defeated in the sudden two-front attack from Egypt and Syria, but ultimately prevailed.

Double agent?
A secret Israeli intelligence review after the war examined his role but determined he was not a double agent.

Marwan remained out of the public eye for several decades, moving to London after the 1981 assassination of Sadat and enjoying an affluent lifestyle funded by his many business interests.

But you don't walk away from Middle East espionage that easily.

His secret role came under renewed scrutiny in the 1990s, setting in motion a series of events that may have led to his death.

It started when Eli Zeira, the former head of Israeli military intelligence who had been forced out after the Yom Kippur war, published a book in 1993 asserting that Israel had been artfully misled by a highly placed double agent.

He did not identify Marwan by name, but he provided enough information about the agent to make it relatively easy for at least two journalists to identify him as the purported double agent.

Marwan was first named by Ahron Bregman, an Israeli-born historian living in London. He told an Egyptian newspaper in 2002 that Marwan was in fact the double agent he had earlier described, without naming him, in his own book published earlier that year about the history of Israel.

That explosive story was soon translated into Hebrew and printed in the Israeli press.

Then his name was published in the United States when author Howard Blum characterized Marwan as a double agent in his 2003 book about the conflict. That book was serialized in the Egyptian press, bringing Marwan more unwanted attention.

Remorse after death
Now that Marwan is dead, both men express some remorse at the decision to unmask the reputed spy.

"I think it was a terrible mistake," said Bregman, who developed a working relationship with Marwan after exposing him. "I don't know and we don't know whether the story of him being a double agent is linked to his death. It was a mistake to mention that someone who was still alive was a spy. You don't do that."

Bregman, who is convinced Marwan was murdered, thinks his killer may have been trying to prevent publication of Marwan's memoirs, which he had been writing at the time of his death. The manuscript of the memoirs is missing, Bregman said.

In a telephone interview, Blum said he did not use Marwan's name in his book until Bregman had revealed it.

"As a journalist I think I had a responsibility to use his name as it was already out there, but as a human, if I did anything to contribute to his death, I'm very sorry," said Blum.

He said his extensive research about the Yom Kippur war convinced him that Marwan was in fact a double agent who was part of a larger, coordinated Egyptian disinformation campaign.

As a result of Marwan's information, he said, Israeli tank commanders in the Sinai peninsula were out of position when the Egyptians attacked.

Police have revealed little about the investigation. A spokeswoman who said her name could not be published because of Scotland Yard policy said police have not been able to find the shoes he was wearing at the time.

That may be important because police wanted to examine the shoes to determine whether he stepped on a plant on his balcony in order to climb over the protective railing.

The spokeswoman also confirmed that police know the identity of two people who were reported by an eyewitness to have been on the balcony when Marwan toppled to his doom.

"We know who these individuals are," she said, refusing to state whether they are suspected of foul play.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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