Elections, spies and videotape

They met at the RAC Club in London. They plotted to kill Robert Mugabe. Or did they? Lindsey Hilsum

This is the story of a former spy, an alleged fraudster and a naive African politician. The former spy used to work for Mossad, and hovered on the fringes of arms dealing and espionage scandals involving characters such as Oliver North, Robert Maxwell and Mark Thatcher. The alleged fraudster is wanted in three American states for questioning on matters ranging from dodgy dealing in securities to tricking people out of their savings. The politician is the man who would oust Robert Mugabe as president of Zimbabwe, and who now may be arrested for plotting his assassination.

On 13 February, Australian television ran a sensational documentary, which included secretly filmed, grainy black-and-white video, purporting to show the Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai discussing the murder of President Mugabe with two men from a Canadian "political consultancy" called Dickens and Madson. The meeting took place at the RAC Club in London and followed similar meetings in Montreal, where Dickens and Madson is based. The company's directors, Ari Ben-Menashe and Alexandre Legault, say that Tsvangirai approached them through a former Rhodesian contact in South Africa and offered to pay them US$500,000 for a contract on Mugabe's life. They covertly recorded two of the meetings to use as evidence, which they then turned over to the Zimbabwean authorities. Now - poacher turned gamekeeper - they have been taken on by Mugabe as "political consultants".

At first glance, the video seems to bear out their story. The men are seated around a table; although the image and sound are indistinct, people who know him say they recognise the voice and mannerisms of Morgan Tsvangirai.

"OK, we have moved so far . . . we can say Mugabe's definitely going to be eliminated . . ." says Tsvangirai.

And, at supposedly another meeting: "If Mugabe is eliminated today would we get the army saying, 'Oh, there is chaos, the president has been eliminated, let's take over'?" It seems incriminating. Yet at no point does Tsvangirai talk directly of assassination. In the first instance, he might be talking of Mugabe being eliminated in an election. In the second, he is talking only of a hypothetical situation. The two directors throw out leading comments and questions. "Do coffins win elections?" asks one. It was a sting and Tsvangirai fell for it.

In a public statement, Tsvangirai claimed that the Dickens and Madson consultancy approached him, offering to improve his image in North America. The first three meetings went well, but at the fourth the men "raised the issue of elimination and kept on asking strange questions". At this point, says Tsvangirai, he became suspicious and walked out - too late, as he had already been entrapped. If Tsvangirai had made a couple of phone calls or checked the internet, he would have learnt that the man he was meeting was notorious for conning some of the most famous investigative journalists in the world.

Ari Ben-Menashe, an Iranian-born Jew who claims to have been a senior Mossad operative, came to prominence in Britain in 1991 when he was quoted in a book by Seymour Hersh, the American investigative journalist, alleging that Robert Maxwell and the then foreign editor of the Mirror, Nick Davies, were Mossad agents. Maxwell sued but died before the case could be heard. Davies - who had allowed Ben-Menashe to use his home address, and had been enticed by him into trying, for a story, to buy spare parts for Kalashnikovs - was forced to resign. But Ben-Menashe was well known in America before that.

He was the first source for the "October Surprise" story, which claimed that in 1980, as a presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan conspired with Iranian mullahs to keep the American hostages in Tehran until after the November elections. Reagan feared Jimmy Carter would win the election if he could get the hostages released before polling day. The hostages were released within minutes of Reagan stepping into the White House. Some of Ben-Menashe's leaks from Israeli intelligence turned out to be true, but his critical testimony that he had seen the vice-presidential candidate George Bush meeting an Iranian cleric in Paris on 19 October 1980 was not. A congressional investigation found that Bush had not been out of the US that day.

Craig Unger, a journalist who believed Ben-Menashe on the October Surprise story, wrote: "Ari has put five or six dozen journalists from all over the world through roughly the same paces. His seduction begins with a display of his mastery of the trade craft of the legendary Israeli intelligence services. A roll of quarters handy for furtive phone calls, he navigates the back channels that tie the spooks at Langley to their counterparts in Tel Aviv . . . but trust him at your own risk. Listen to him, print his story verbatim - then sit around and watch your career go up in flames."

Ben-Menashe is a man who moves on - America and Britain had been burned, so he went to Australia and then to Montreal, where he took up with an American called Alexandre Legault. They have turned their attention from the Middle East to Africa, from conning journalists to making money. Their company Carlington Sales was contracted to supply several million dollars' worth of maize to Zambia in the late 1990s. Some of the money was paid, but the maize never arrived. The scandal was part of the corruption allegations that brought down President Frederick Chiluba last year. Speaking on the phone from Montreal, Ben-Menashe told me: "President Chiluba asked me personally to divert the money for other purposes."

"What purposes?"

"Political purposes."

He would elaborate no further.

A documentary aired on Canadian television in December alleged that Legault and Ben-Menashe carried out a similar fraud on an Armenian company called Yerevani Alragats, which paid for a shipment of wheat that never arrived. Meanwhile, Jodie Breece, a prosecutor in Florida, is trying to get Legault extradited from Canada to answer charges of defrauding pensioners of US$13m in a commodity-trading scam.

Ben-Menashe is reluctant to talk about his past. "You're going back a long way," he snarled, when I queried his claims to have taken part in the Entebbe raid, when Israeli commandos freed hostages at the airport in Uganda. He said he had been a friend of President Mugabe for "a long time", and that Morgan Tsvangirai had simply "knocked at the wrong door".

Ben-Menashe's motives are unclear. Is he simply making money and mischief? In Zimbabwe, the consequences could be serious. A senior British diplomat said he feared the tape could be used to arrest Tsvangirai and prevent him from standing in the March election. The worry is not that Mugabe might be physically eliminated, but that he will use the former spy and the alleged fraudster to help eliminate his rival from the electoral race.

Lindsey Hilsum is diplomatic correspondent for Channel 4 News