Friday, Dec 01, 2023

The Mystery Of ‘Spy Boat’ That Capsized In Lake Maggiore

The Mystery Of ‘Spy Boat’ That Capsized In Lake Maggiore

Intelligence expert Vappala Balachandran explores recent incidents involving Israeli intelligence in Europe and the Middle East regions.

Fire brigade and scuba divers perform recovery operations of the boat on May 29, 2023 in Sesto Calende, Italy. Four people died after a vessel capsized and sank in Lake Maggiore.
Fire brigade and scuba divers perform recovery operations of the boat on May 29, 2023 in Sesto Calende, Italy. Four people died after a vessel capsized and sank in Lake Maggiore. Getty Images

The capsizing of pleasure boat Gooduria in a sudden storm in Italy’s Lake Maggiore on May 28 which resulted in four deaths could have been like any other accident but for the identity of its occupants which was revealed later made it interesting. 

Initial media reports identified them as British nationals celebrating a birthday party at Lake Maggiore — a favourite destination for tourists.

However, the incident took a freakish turn on May 31 when CNN identified the 21 passengers as “current or former” Italian and Israeli intelligence officials. Also, global media’s attention was piqued as Maggiore’s Italian-Swiss shorelines are often the favourite transit routes of intelligence agencies. 

While the Italian media mentioned one person who drowned as Israel's Erez Shimoni, the British media identified two Italian victims as Claudio Alonzi and Tiziana Barnobi, former intelligence officials. On May 31, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office released a statement paying homage to the leader without identifying him: “The Mossad lost a dear friend, a devoted and professional worker who for decades dedicated his life to the security of the State of Israel, even after his retirement. The Mossad mourns the loss and shares in the family’s sorrow.” 

Obviously, Erez Shimoni was a ‘cover’ name.

Since then, the possibility of this incident having been a “joint operation” has gained currency in the background of a high-level visit on 10 March 2023 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Rome to “boost ties” with the far-right Giorgia Meloni government. Although Netanyahu did not mention Iran in his opening statement, European observers felt that Tehran’s nuclear program was a major subject of this meeting. Netanyahu’s entourage had also told The Times of Israel that Iran was discussed “at length” in the bilateral talks. 

Since then, many versions of this joint operation have surfaced. One was by Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera that said the Mossad group was tracking Russian oligarchs who were allegedly exporting Iranian drones to Russia through Italy. Another version suggested that the Israeli agents were monitoring contacts between Iranians and Italian companies based in Lombardy’s industrial zone.

Haaretz, the left wing-liberal Israeli newspaper, disclosed on June 2, quoting Israeli Channel 12, that Erez Shimoni along with two other Italian intelligence officers was in the region “as part of an operation targeting Iranian non-conventional weapons capabilities”. It said that the boat was full of Israeli and Italian intelligence agents who were attending a dinner celebrating the mission's success and that Erez Shimoni had died while trying to save other drowning passengers. 

Although the Israeli PM’s office acknowledged that the leader of the team was their intelligence officer, care was taken to avoid identification of those officials who attended the funeral, except for Mossad chief David Barnea. All those wore “medical masks and baseball caps, apparently to conceal their faces from the public. Israeli media blurred footage broadcast from the funeral”.

Barnea said, identifying the deceased by the Hebrew letter “Mem” and not using a name, that they had worked together in Mossad and that he was an avid sailor.

Barnea said, “The magic of the water attracted him. It is heart-breaking when you think that he actually met his death in stormy waters.” 

All these would indicate that Erez Shimoni must have held a very senior position in Mossad. 

However, I find certain incongruous facts emerging in this story, based on my deep studies of intelligence tradecraft of global agencies. To begin with, no agency, especially Mossad, would blindly accept the logistics of such secret meetings arranged by another organisation unless it is fully satisfied with its security aspects. This includes even joint operations arranged abroad by the host country. 

Secondly, a pleasure boat could hardly qualify as a venue for such meetings unless it is exclusively owned by one of the partners with their own prior vetted crew. In this case, the boat was registered in the Netherlands and had the capacity to carry only 15 passengers but it allowed 23 on board. Also, Anya Bozhkova, who perished, was originally from Russia and was crewing the boat along with her Italian husband, Claudio Carminati, the boat’s skipper. I wonder why Shimoni, a senior former Mossad operative, had agreed to meet Italian colleagues in a boat over which he had no security control. 

I also find certain very strange things happening even with countries with which Mossad is having liaison operations. On May 23, 2023, The Jerusalem Post, quoting Turkish Sabah newspaper, said that Turkiye’s NIO and Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor had detected an 11-person Mossad cell operating in Turkiye for collecting intelligence on Iran. The paper said that in the past, NIO and Mossad had worked together to prevent terrorist attacks on Turkiye’s soil

However, this was the third claim by Turkiye that it had busted Mossad operatives since their cooperation last September. The question is: Is Iran gaining control of this region? 

(The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, and author of Intelligence Over Centuries. Views expressed are personal.)