Intrigue on Lake Maggiore: Speculation Runs Wild Over Deaths of Israeli, Italian Spies

Was it an accident? Sabotage? Were the spooks on board celebrating a birthday, as was first reported? Were they spying on someone?

Vigili Del Fuoco via AP
In an image released by Italian firefighters, a helicopter searches for missing passengers after a boat capsized in a storm on Italy's Lago Maggiore, May 28, 2023. Vigili Del Fuoco via AP

The late Mossad agent known as Erez Shimoni was quite the bookworm, according to mourners attending his hush-hush funeral Wednesday at Ashkelon, Israel. It could be seen as fitting, then, that the circumstances around his drowning death earlier this week are the stuff of spy novelists and readers’ dreams.

Italian and Israeli press outlets have been speculating — guessing, really — in trying to make sense of this week’s party boat disaster at Lake Maggiore, Italy. Was it an accident? Sabotage? Were the spooks on board celebrating a birthday, as was first reported? Were they spying on someone? Did the passengers, Italian and Israeli security types, get together for a joint operation? 

Twenty-three people were aboard a yacht designed to carry 15 passengers Sunday night. They were dressed casually — according to some speculation, that was in order to appear to be tourists out for a night on the lake. Officially, they were gathered to celebrate a birthday when a sudden squall arrived with winds so wild that the vessel capsized. Four passengers drowned. Others swam some 500 feet to shore. Rescuers saved the rest.

In addition to 50-year-old Shimoni, two members of Italy’s secret service, Claudio Alonzi, 62, and Tiziana Barnobi, 53, died in the accident, according to the Rome government. A 50-year-old Russian national, Anya Bozhkova, also died. She was described as the wife of the boat’s Italian captain, but according to some reports she worked for Italian intelligence as a Russian-language translator. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu identified Shimoni as a retired Mossad agent, and his office said that due to his former job it could not elaborate. Israeli censors at first blocked publication of his name. Also, whether Shimoni was his real name or an alias is a mystery.

Italian outlets reported that 12 Israelis who were aboard the capsized boat were hustled out of hospital and flown back home on a private jet. All the Israelis were reportedly connected to the country’s security services. Rome officials were just as stingy as their Israeli colleagues about identifying the Italian survivors of the boat drowning. 

Shimoni “was not there for a birthday party or vacation,” a former deputy Mossad director and current Knesset member, Ram Ben Barak, told Israel’s public broadcaster, Kann. “It wasn’t an operation, but it was connected to his work,” he added. Retired Mossad agents are often brought back to carry out specialized tasks for the organization, a veteran reporter covering Israeli intelligence, Yossi Melman, wrote in Haaretz. 

The Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera reported on Wednesday that the group was tracking a Russian oligarch, or a group of oligarchs, suspected of transferring funds to Iran. Other news outlets speculated that the oligarchs in question were exporting Iranian drones through Italy to Russia for use in Moscow’s war efforts in Ukraine. 

While such reports are plausible, they are yet to be substantiated. Several Russian oligarchs are said to have recently moved their residence from lucrative villas on Lake Como to the lesser known Lake Maggiore, where the accident happened. Yet, was it even an accident, or did the oligarchs — or the Iranians or some other ill-willed enemy — take advantage of bad weather to target a boatload of spies? 

Beside Shimoni’s immediate family members, only the cream of Israeli spookdom were permitted to attend the somber funeral Wednesday. “In the name of our entire department, I’m here to tell you how sorry we are that we never told you what a model of professionalism you were,” the unidentified director of the Mossad’s world operations unit, Tevel, said at the funeral, according to the Walla news website. 

Mossad’s chief, David Barnea, told the mourners that since Shimoni joined the organization he had impressed colleagues with “pioneering” operational ideas. “He was always calm and quiet,” Mr. Barnea said. “He used to say that everything has a simple solution, even when things were far from simple.” 

Shimoni was “a man of the world,” his brother said at the funeral. “He was an avid reader, a bookworm. He would sit in his room, reading, and all of a sudden I would hear him bursting in laughter. When I’d ask what’s so funny, he would say, ‘To understand that, you need to read the book.’” 

The book on the life of the man currently known to the world as Erez Shimoni is yet to be written. It will be a long time before we know more about him than tidbits and funeral accolades, if ever. Similarly, the true story behind the boat that capsized this week on Lake Maggiore may never be fully fleshed out. 

The New York Sun

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