Rachid Thabti: Algeria’s dashing secret agent who nationalized the oil industry
Some call him the “James Bond” of Algeria. Known as the most dangerous secret agent of the Algerian intelligence service, the Military Security (SM – Sécurité Militaire), this enigmatic figure knew exactly how to put his charm, charisma and multiple talents into good use in order to serve his country. The role that Rachid Thabti played in his service of his country’s national interests helped Algeria gain complete economic independence from France, through its acquisition of the oil sector for the benefit of the young Algerian state, which was established after the victory of the revolution between 1954 and 1962, following the harsh and unfair conditions stipulated by the 1962 Évian Accords that kept the oil wealth resources in Algeria under French control.
In 1971, Algeria drew a special political line after the colonial era had ended through the process of nationalizing all its oil resources that were under the control of French companies. This policy was established following the end of the one-sided negotiations from the French side, which was shocked by their progress and the accurate information presented by the Algerian delegation, thanks to leaks and secret documents that had reached the Algerian intelligence service via Thabti, who was able to infiltrate the most secret French sovereign institutions, and secure sufficient information to manage the negotiations with the French in an astonishing way.
Called by some the “James Bond” of Algeria, Rachid Thabti, the most dangerous secret agent of the Algerian intelligence service, knew exactly how to put his charm, charisma and multiple talents into good use in order to serve his country’s national interests
Who is Rachid Thabti?
Rachid was born into a wealthy Muslim family in the eastern Algerian city of Constantine on May 17, 1930. He spent a large portion of his life there, before moving to France with his uncle Hussein Belaloufi to continue his studies. At the age of twenty, he obtained his baccalaureate degree, and went on to enroll in the Law faculty of the University of France.
As Noureddine Khalasi, Thabti’s uncle, mentions in an article published on January 15th, 2021 in the British newspaper The Independent, that, in addition to his studies, Rachid Tabti was quite passionate about boxing. He excelled in it and won the French Championship for university students in 1953 and the European Amateur Boxing Championships prize in 1954-1955. After that, he then decided to become a professional in this sport, but his allergic asthma made him quit practicing it and return to school and obtain a law degree, a diploma from the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, and then a diploma from the Institute of International Studies in Paris as well in the early 1960s.
To earn a living, he worked as a physical education teacher at Lycée Albert Camus, a high school in Courbevoie. He then turned to acting in several French and American films with small roles and as a stunt double. He appeared alongside actors such as Jean Marais in the film Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, and Martine Carol in the movie Nana. This allowed him to enter the largest and most luxurious Parisian salons, which in turn allowed him to get close to the most prominent political, artistic and social figures. In addition, he mastered five living languages: Arabic, French, English, German, and Spanish. Being this cultured along with all these physical abilities did not satiate the ambitions of this attractive, proud young man, who, to escape monotony, turned to another field; politics, joining the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then becoming a spy recruited for his country.
In 1971, Algeria drew a special political line by nationalizing its oil resources that had been controlled by French companies after the end of negotiations by the French side, which was shocked by the accurate intel and progress of the Algerian delegation
The Prince of Marmara
A report published by the California18 site on July 27, 2022, indicates that it was the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) that was the first to notice Thabti’s talents and capabilities, and thus recruited him to aid in the process of leaking documents related to the negotiations with the French after independence. According to the FLN Party, Thabti’s charisma and attractiveness allowed him able to play all the roles necessary for the success of his mission. The mediator of this contact was General Kasdi Merbah, who led the SM between 1962 and 1979.
Another account regarding the recruitment of Rashid – alternatively known as Richard or Tony, pseudonyms used by agent Thabti to carry out his missions – is attributed to Thabti’s own personal desire to be recruited. This version is mentioned in an article by Rachid Filali published in the Algerian newspaper Echorouk on May 12, 2006. He reportedly first joined the Algerian embassy in France in 1964. He worked there as a secretary under Boualem Moussaoui, the Algerian ambassador to Paris, before moving to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the capital Algiers, which he soon left because of his asthma due to its climate, and then returned to Paris.
Upon his return to Paris, he wrote to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, informing him that he was willing and able to provide highly confidential and compelling information regarding French-Algerian economic relations. His letter was accompanied by photos of diplomatic notes he had obtained, which encouraged the Algerian intelligence service to recruit him.
The Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) was the first to notice Thabti’s talents and capabilities, and thus recruited him to aid in the process of leaking documents related to the negotiations with the French after independence
To convince French circles, Thabti impersonated the prince of the Turkish island of Marmara, so that he would appear to be extremely wealthy and owned palaces and property in most parts of the world. He then invited his friends to one of them in Algeria itself, in his hometown Constantine, where his family home was located. Thanks to its magnificent architecture, it looked like a castle of the aristocracy. Here, he began the plan of seducing and gaining the affection of Beatrice Heligoa, the personal secretary of the head of the French economic negotiating delegation, Jean-Pierre Brunet, who was also the president of the company that acquired the Algerian oil fields.
Rachid Tabti worked to exploit this fabricated romantic relationship in the best way, as he continued to infiltrate the walls of Elysee Palace with her, taking all the hidden secrets he wanted from this tightly closed political space. He also continued to frequent, accompanied by Beatrice, the major Parisian salons he had once been in before, but this time as the Prince of Marmara.
The hidden architect of the country’s nationalization
In an archived report dating back to October 29, 1970, the French newspaper Le Monde mentions that “In the origin of the espionage case that Mr. Rachid Thabti is accused of, the small intelligence network that he was the main piece in, would never have seen the light of day without him, and without the efforts he made to provide his services to the authorities of his country.”
Rashid was able to obtain – through Beatrice, whom he had been able to seduce with rosy promises and love – a great deal of intel about her work and projects. Through her, he was able to leak more than 4,000 top secret and highly classified documents that reached the offices of Algerian officials. In particular, Rachid knew the code of the French Embassy in Algiers, which had known of the devaluation of the local currency by 12.50% long before the decree on nationalization was issued and, therefore, he enabled the transfer of all its reserves into French and other hard currencies.
In the aforementioned report by Noureddine Khalasi, he mentions what the famous Parisian lawyer Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour said, “We had a clear impression on the French side that the secret instructions from Paris had reached the Algerian partner even before we sat around the round table”. He adds, “The mystery was solved thanks to an anonymous piece of information sent to the DST (French intelligence service). As a matter of fact, according to the accusation, the perpetrator is a French woman, Beatrice Heligua, secretary for economic affairs.”
That was when the French side felt that something was taking place behind the scenes in its own turf. The French intelligence filled the office of the French director of negotiations with microphones, and thus fell Beatrice, the “victim of love and greed”, in the trap that they had set. The woman, who had been exchanging calls and correspondence with Rachid Thabti, was arrested with him in a neatly executed ambush. His arrest shocked the ministers, the wealthy, the stars and the scholars of France along with the Elysee Palace, which he used to enter and leave as if he owned it.
Rachid was imprisoned in a criminal prison in Paris, where he received a ten-year prison sentence on charges of economic espionage. He was only able to regain his freedom in 1973 in exchange for Dr. Damien, a French spy that Algeria had. In fact, Algeria exchanged 35 French prisoners that had been imprisoned in Algeria, 11 of whom incarcerated for the same acts. At the age of 43, Rachid Thabti, decided to retire from his political duties and return to practicing law in El Biar, Algiers.
Even though the role Rachid Thabti played in his service of the country helped it gain complete economic independence from France, Algerians would not have learned about the death of their handsome spy had it not been for a random call from a local newspaper
The end of the elegant agent
In his last days, Rachid suffered from Parkinson’s disease, living with his small family in the El Biar suburb of Algiers. A report by Echorouk El Yawmi in 2006 reveals that he was forgotten and died in July 2009, during the country’s commemoration of independence from France.
Curiously, had it not been for the May 12, 2011 report entitled “Algeria’s most famous spy Rachid Thabti died two years ago and no one commented“, no one would have known about his death. In its introduction, the report says: “A regular call made by Echorouk El Yawmi to the family of the Algerian patriot Rachid Thabti, to check up on the condition of the 79-year-old veteran, revealed the fact that those who had made an important part of our modern history have become forgotten, as we learned from his wife that he had died in July 2009, and that no one knew about his death.” The newspaper continues to describe this strange oversight: “We asked a group of senior officials about Rachid Thabti, and they confirmed that they didn’t know that he had passed away on his sickbed, with only his wife and son by his side, at his home in the El Biar neighborhood, at the age of seventy-nine.”