Jon Swain - writer and foreign correspondent

Fresh-faced, I fell into the honey trap laid by Israel’s Mata Hari

Jon Swain

The Sunday Times, 21 February 2010

AT the threshold of my career as a young journalist in Paris I was once the unwitting victim of a classic Mossad honey trap.
Little did I know that Patricia Roxborough, the girl who pursued me and made sure she was the object of my desire, was a trained assassin of the feared Israeli intelligence service. We met, by chance, through friends in 1969. I was an impressionable 21-year-old learning the ropes of being a foreign correspondent in the French capital. Roxborough said she was a Canadian freelance news photographer.
She was tall, beautiful and intelligent and her flashing eyes hinted at all sorts of enchantments. Soon I was spending happy times in her little flat on the right bank of the city. As our friendship blossomed she encouraged me to use her as my photographer.
She talked a lot about the Middle East without ever betraying her allegiances or politics. I remember that she had a particular fascination for Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, Libya’s revolutionary leader who had seized power that September in a bloodless coup. She wanted to go with me to Tripoli. I would interview the colonel; Roxborough would do the photographs.

I liked her rather a lot and thought we would make a good team and that it would be a great assignment. But I failed to get a visa and it never came off. Just as well, perhaps.
Roxborough had an ulterior motive in wanting to accompany me to Tripoli. Her intentions towards the Libyan leader were certainly unfriendly.
She was not a genuine photojournalist, as I discovered a few years later. In 1973, long after we had gone our separate ways, this beautiful spy hit the world’s headlines in a spectacular and tragic way.
In the aftermath of the Munich massacre, in which Black September terrorists killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, Mossad set out to hunt down the perpetrators.
As part of that hunt, a hit team killed Ahmed Bouchikhi in Lillehammer, Norway, mistaking the Moroccan waiter for Ali Hassan Salameh, the Black September operations chief. They gunned Bouchikhi down in the street in front of his pregnant wife.
One member of that hit team was Roxborough and, like members of the Dubai hit team now in the headlines, she operated with a fake identity.
Her Canadian passport — the same one she used when we were together in Paris — had been stolen from a secretary at a Canadian law firm in Montreal and copied by Mossad with her picture. It was an early example of Mossad’s technique of fitting out agents with the identities of real people who were unaware their names were being used, just as happened in Dubai.
It emerged that Roxborough’s real name was Sylvia Rafael and she was a South African with a Jewish father and a Christian mother. She had become a Mossad spy, although she was not technically Jewish.
After she read the book Exodus by Leon Uris, she had become fascinated by Israel and went there to teach English in the early 1960s. Spotted by Mossad, she was trained as a spy, fitted out with a Canadian identity and sent to operate undercover as a photojournalist in Paris where we met.
Norway convicted Roxborough and sentenced her to 5½ years in prison. She married Annaeus Schjodt, her defence lawyer, behind bars and was released after two years. Eventually she moved back to South Africa with her husband under her real name of Rafael.
In 2005 she died of cancer, aged 67. She was given a hero’s funeral in Israel by her intelligence colleagues; in accordance with her wishes her ashes were scattered on a kibbutz which had adopted her while she was imprisoned in Norway.
The Lillehammer fiasco was an aberration in an otherwise faultless career as a Mossad spy. It is now known that, posing as a photographer, Roxborough was one of the first Israeli agents to penetrate the bases of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Jordan and Lebanon when Yasser Arafat was just beginning his terrorist attacks.
Only Mossad knows what other deadly operations she carried out on the service’s behalf. Insiders say the service honours her as a legendary figure who undertook many dangerous missions. I wonder how many other journalists she charmed with her smile to give her cover for her spying.
Without ever acknowledging Mossad’s responsibility, Israel finally paid the family of Bouchikhi, the murdered Moroccan waiter, compensation. His family say they never got over his death.
Whatever other lethal acts Roxborough committed were a long time ago. I shall always look back with amazement at my brush with the world of international espionage and the fact that the lovely girl I had known was a spy who killed in cold blood.