It was 1976, just a year after the shadowy character known as “Carlos the Jackal” led an audacious siege of OPEC headquarters in Vienna. In Montreal, final preparations were underway for the first Olympics since the 1972 Munich Games—where Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes. Concerned that terrorists might strike again, the RCMP sent wanted posters to police forces across Canada bearing photographs of Carlos and a warning that the five-foot, nine-inch, Venezuelan-born killer was “extremely dangerous.” But Carlos’s notoriety was such that, in the weeks preceding the Olympics, there were almost daily reports of alleged sightings. All turned out to be false alarms. Mounties following up on one citizen’s report of a Carlos sighting near the Olympic Equestrian venue reportedly discovered the unfortunate person in question to be a Canadian Indian. “There are rumors of him being everywhere,” an official at the Venezuelan embassy in Ottawa said at the time. “Carlos is sort of a legend, sort of a ghost.”
The legend had lost much of its lustre by the time Sudanese police arrested a paunchy, 44year-old Ilich Ramírez Sánchez in Khartoum last week. Carlos, the best known of Ramirez’s numerous aliases, was hustled aboard a plane to Paris where he had already been convicted in absentia and given a life sentence for the 1975 murders of two counterintelligence agents. Under French law, he is entitled to demand a retrial, since he was not in court to present a defence. He is also now likely to face charges in connection with at least three bombing attacks in the early 1980s.
Announcing the arrest, French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua said that Carlos had killed 83 people in an international bombing and shooting spree that spanned the 1970s and early 1980s. But it is hard to separate fact from fiction. In the 1970s, when police or the media had no other leads, they credited Carlos with actions that he likely did not commit, including the Munich attack and the 1976 hi-
jacking of an Air France airliner to Entebbe, Uganda. Some newspaper reports last week even suggested that Carlos—who had ties to numerous terrorist groups but was most closely associated with Palestinian extremists—was behind last month’s bombing of a Jewish centre in Argentina that killed 96 people. But researchers who have studied Carlos say he has been in retirement for most of the
past decade—living in Damascus, the Syrian capital, with his German revolutionary wife, Magdalena Kopp, and their eight-year-old daughter, Rosa.
Sudanese authorities now say that Carlos entered the country on a fake passport early in 1994. It remains unclear why Carlos went to Sudan, although some believe he was expelled from Syria because of President Hafez Al-Assad’s desire to improve relations with the West. There were other reports that he recently separated from Kopp, and that she has been living in Venezuela with their daughter.
There is also mystery as to how and why Carlos was captured. The leftist French daily Libération alleged that Paris had provided Sudan’s repressive military junta with satellite photographs detailing the positions of rebel forces in south Sudan in return for Carlos’s arrest. And Carlos maintains that he was seized illegally. “This was not an extradition; this was not an expulsion,” declared his flamboyant defence lawyer, Jacques Vergés, who has defended such notorious criminals as Lyon’s Gestapo chief, Klaus Barbie. “This was a kidnapping.” At the very least, the Sudanese were hoping to win kudos in the West in exchange for their prize prisoner. Following Carlos’s capture, Sudanese Justice Minister Abdel-Azziz Shado called on the United States to strike Sudan off Washington’s blacklist of states sponsoring terrorism. (A State Department spokesman responded that Sudan’s action was appreciated but “not sufficient.”)
The man at the centre of those high-stakes machinations styles himself as a freedom fighter against imperialism and Zionism. Others have described him as everything from cold and calculating to egotistical and incompetent. Little is known for certain about the terrorist who was born in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, to a well-off Marxist lawyer and his wife, who named their three boys after the founder of the Russian revolution. (Ilich’s brothers are named Vladimir and Lenin). In a 1976 interview with London’s Observer newspaper, Carlos’s father, José AJtagracia Ramirez Navas, described himself as an extreme leftist. “So philosophically and politically I am in total agreement with my son Ilich,” he said.
The elder Ramirez was wealthy enough to allow his wife, Elba, and children to travel around Latin America and the Caribbean while the boys were young. In 1966, he sent his family to London. Two years later, he arranged for his two eldest sons to study at Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University. But Ilich was expelled during his second year, according to numerous sources, because the charming, well-off Latin American spent more time with his Russian girlfriends than with his books. But as with other shadowy characters, conspiracy theories abound: some researchers speculate that the expulsion was a ploy to cover up the fact that Ramirez had been recruited by the KGB. Later, in the mid-1970s, Carlos met in Paris with Cuban secret service agents—further fuelling speculation, still unsubstantiated, of a Communist connection.
What seems clear is that Carlos befriended young Palestinian radicals at Patrice Lumumba and that, when he left university in 1970, he spent two years travelling in the Middle East. In 1971, he attended a training camp in either Jordan or Lebanon run by the Popular Front for the liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a radical, Libyan-sponsored terrorist group that advocated the destruction of Israel. Carlos has said in interviews that the PFLP assigned him to its “foreign operations” branch. He returned to England, enrolled in the London School of Economics, joined his mother on the diplomatic cocktail circuit and acquired a reputation as an idle playboy. On the side, he established a network of PFLP safehouses—often at the apartments of his numerous girlfriends—where he started stashing smuggled weapons.
His terrorist career began one evening in December, 1973, when he rang the front doorbell of Edward Sieff, a prominent Jewish businessman, and shot him in the face. Miraculously, the man’s teeth slowed the bullet enough to prevent fatal injury. A few weeks later, a man matching the description of the Sieff attacker lobbed a bomb into London’s Israeli Bank of Hapoalim, injuring one woman.
Shortly after, Carlos moved to Paris to take over the Commando Boudia, a cell of
the PFLP. The group was subsequently implicated in car-bomb attacks on two Parisian right-wing newspapers and a Jewish magazine, and in two failed attempts to blow up Israeli airplanes at Orly airport using rocket launchers. Carlos is also thought to have
planned a grenade attack on a popular Left Bank café that killed two people and injured 34, part of a successful campaign to force the French government to free a Japanese Red Army terrorist.
Then, on June 27,1975, three agents of the
French counterintelligence service showed up at the apartment of Nancy Sánchez, one of Carlos’s girlfriends. They were led there by a Lebanese member of Commando Boudia who had broken under interrogation. One of the agents later explained that they thought they had come to arrest a midlevel operator. Carlos, pretending to be drunk, asked to use the bathroom. He came out with a gun, shooting dead the Lebanese and two of the agents and injuring the third.
By that time, British tabloid writers had dubbed Carlos “the Jackal” after the assassin in Frederik Forsyth’s 1971 novel, The Day of the Jackal. But his most audacious act was yet to come. On a Sunday morning in December, 1975, Carlos and five accomplices—then calling themselves the Arm of the Arab Revolution— stormed into the Vienna headquarters of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. One of the terrorists shot and killed an Austrian policeman and an Iraqi bodyguard. Carlos killed a Libyan civil servant Then the group rounded up the 11 OPEC oil ministers and issued their demands: a bus, an airplane, radio broadcasts of their political manifesto calling for the nationalization of Third World oil production and no contacts between Arab states and Israel. When the Iraqi diplomat who acted as the go-between for Austrian negotiators first entered the OPEC building, the terrorist leader said: ‘Tell them I’m the famous Carlos. They know me.”
In the end, Carlos got what he wanted—a flight to Algeria and Libya, then back to Algeria. He also reportedly received money in exchange for freeing his captives. During the hostage-taking, he signed autographs for the oil ministers and bragged about his exploits. But his high profile made it impossible to continue as an undercover operative. In the late 1970s, he spent months at a time drinking and womanizing in Budapest, according to documents released by Hungary’s post-Communist government. He was also spotted briefly in Yugoslavia in 1976. There were unconfirmed reports at the time that Carlos was organizing covert operations for the Syrians; others said he was leading a Libyan hit squad to kill President Ronald Reagan.
He re-emerged in March, 1982, after Kopp was arrested in Paris with a carload of weapons. Carlos wrote a letter threatening to hit French targets unless Kopp and a fellow terrorist were freed—authenticating his threat with a thumbprint. When, a month later, a bomb exploded aboard a ParisToulouse train, killing six people, the French blamed Carlos. The day Kopp was sentenced on weapons charges, a car bomb exploded in Paris killing one person and wounding more than 60. Kopp served three years, then travelled to Damascus to marry Carlos.
It was on an international arrest warrant for the 12-year-old Paris bombing that Carlos was brought to France last week. He is also under investigation for the Paris-Toulouse train bombing and for 1983 bombings at the Marseilles train station that killed five people. But when he went before investigating Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, a smiling, joking Carlos appeared to be enjoying his re turn to the limelight. “Ah, here’s the judge. How’s it going?” he called out to Bruguière. “And you?” asked the judge. “Still alive, for a long time to come,” answered Carlos. According to Vergés, the defendant will continue to speak out during his trials. “He will justify his politics in general, his ideological struggle,” added Vergés. “There is no question of disavowing the actions he is reproached with.”
But Carlos’s so-called ideological struggle—his blend of Marxism, Palestinian radicalism and mercenary violence—seems now as anachronistic as the man himself. The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the willingness of many Arab governments to mend relations with the West has robbed Carlos of many of his former sponsors and sanctuaries. And the terrorists of the 1990s are more likely to be Islamic militants, not Marxist playboys. Unless Carlos’s defence team can successfully challenge the legality of his arrest, the once-feared terrorist seems destined to languish in a French prison for the rest of his life, there to reflect on his glory days of international notoriety.
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