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What’s up with the notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal?


Dear Straight Dope:

I have been trying to find information about the legendary terrorist Ilich (Carlos) Ramirez Sanchez and was wondering if you could help me — how is it he was really caught? The story about the Carlos lookalike in the movie The Assignment (an excellent movie by the way) is rather hard to believe. Was he caught? Is he alive? If so where? And what's going on in his case?


SDStaff bibliophage replies:

You don’t have to convince me that The Assignment is an excellent movie, kYLE. After all, it has everything Hollywood puts into only the finest of films: foul language, nudity, sex, adultery, shoot-outs, explosions, blood, gore, car chases, Donald Sutherland, and a plot so complicated you’ve got to watch it twice to figure it out. And best of all, it keeps to a minimum that pesky “historical accuracy” crap that always seems to get in the way of a good story. That’s not to say that the real story of the arrest of the terrorist isn’t interesting in its own right, but it probably wouldn’t make the sort of movie you’d like.

Part of the movie is based on reality, but the main plot is entirely fiction. There was no lookalike trained by the CIA and/or Mossad to trick the KGB into thinking Carlos was about to defect. The real Carlos was never a KGB agent anyway, despite persistent press accounts to the contrary. Although Carlos did live in eastern Europe for a time until the mid-1980s, the reasons he left are much more prosaic. But first things first.

In an early scene of the film, Carlos (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) throws a grenade into a crowded Paris café. This attack really happened, in September 1974, resulting in two deaths and dozens of injuries. The motive for this attack (left completely obscure in the movie), was to pressure the French government into negotiating with members of the Japanese Red Army, who were then holding several hostages in the French embassy in the Hague. At the time, the Japanese Red Army and Carlos were both working for Wadi Haddad’s faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Carlos had become involved with the PFLP when he took terrorist training from them, in hopes of using what he learned in a guerrilla war in his native Venezuela. But he later gave up the idea of going back home and became a member of the PFLP instead.

Contrary to the impression left by the movie, Ilich was not yet a famous terrorist at the time of the café attack. Much later he would be falsely linked to the the attack at the Munich Olympics in 1972 that killed eleven Israelis and one West German. I’m sure he shed no tears for the victims, but the attack was carried out by a different Palestinian terrorist group, Black September. The terrorist acts Carlos had actually committed were far less sensational. He had shot British businessman and Zionist Joseph Edward Sieff in the face, but the victim survived. He had thrown a bomb into an Israeli bank branch in London, but it only partly exploded and no one died. He and his associates had bombed three pro-Israel newspaper and magazine offices in Paris, but again no one died. His next two attempts after the café attack didn’t gain him personal fame either: a pair of failed rocket-propelled grenade attacks against El Al airliners at Orly airport. There were some injuries, but no deaths, and Carlos managed to get away both times. It wasn’t until the year after the café murders that Carlos would become personally famous, because the authorities didn’t have a name or face to go with any of the earlier attacks.

In June 1975, Carlos committed the crime that would result in true infamy, and later in a life sentence for murder. The PFLP’s number-one man in Paris was a Lebanese named Michel Moukharbal. Tipped off by Lebanese authorities that Moukharbal was worth watching, the DST (the French domestic counter-intelligence agency) began surveillance of him, but failed to figure out exactly who he was. During the surveillance, they photographed Ilich and Moukharbal together. Eventually they arrested Moukharbal, and he agreed to lead three DST agents to the other man in the photograph. Not expecting any trouble (because they didn’t know they were dealing with a pair of hardcore terrorists), the three DST agents went unarmed to the apartment where Carlos was staying. When Moukharbal fingered him, Ilich brought out his gun and shot all four of them. Moukharbal and two of the three agents died, and Carlos escaped.

A much corrupted version of these events made it into the movie. Watch the scene where a Japanese associate of Carlos (instead of Carlos himself) kills a female informant (instead of Moukharbal) and several DST agents in 1987 (instead of 1975). You’ll notice that one of the DST agents takes a swig of some refreshing beverage just before the attack. Most moviegoers must have missed it, but this seems to be the director’s subtle hint that one of the DST agents was legally drunk at the time Carlos shot him.

These murders catapulted Ilich to fame. After the murders, the authorities knew their suspect under an alias, Carlos Martínez Torres, which is why he came to be known to history as Carlos the terrorist, not Ilich the terrorist. “Carlos” was one of his favorite aliases, but there were others. It’s an accident of history that he didn’t become known to the public under one of his many other false identities, such as “Bernard Muller.” (Somehow “Bernie the Jackal” doesn’t sound quite as fearsome.)

There are a couple of different stories of why he favored “Carlos” as a nom de guerre. The first has it that he was given the name by his PFLP recruiter, who thought it appropriate for a Spanish speaker working with Arabs. The recruiter believed Carlos was a Spanish corruption of the Arabic name Khalil, but the name is actually of Germanic origin. The other version is that Ilich named himself after the Venezuelan president Carlos Andrés Péréz, an acquaintance of his father’s.

In London, where Carlos had lived for several years, the new boyfriend of one of his ex-girlfriends found some of his things that she had been storing for him, including weapons and false identification. After the boyfriend read about the murders in Paris, he reported the stash to the Guardian newspaper, which contacted police. One of the reporters who visited the apartment happened to see a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal there. The book belonged to the boyfriend and not Carlos, but that doesn’t seem to have mattered to the press. His real identity as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez was revealed within a week or two of the murders, but “Carlos the Jackal” had already stuck by then.

Later in 1975 Carlos staged his most famous attack, the kidnapping of the oil ministers at OPEC headquarters in Vienna, as depicted in the movie. The PFLP may have had inside help in planning the operation, probably from Libya or Iraq, which were the most vocal supporters of higher oil prices. The plan was to ransom most of the ministers for the cash the PFLP desperately needed, but to murder the ministers representing Saudi Arabia and Iran, because those two countries were insufficiently dedicated to the Palestinian cause and to the cause of higher oil prices. Three people were murdered by Carlos and his group in the initial raid: an Austrian police officer and two low-ranking members of the delegations. Eventually the terrorists flew to Algeria with their hostages, all of whom were released after a ransom was paid, estimated at between $20 and $50 million.

Carlos was forced out of the PFLP by Wadi Haddad shortly after the OPEC kidnapping because he ransomed the Saudi and Iranian ministers instead of killing them, and because he was suspected of keeping part of the ransom for himself. Thus, despite reports to the contrary, he was already out of the organization when it orchestrated the famous hijacking of an Air France jet to Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976. But that portion of the ransom he turned over to Haddad, at least $10 million, was used to finance this and many other terrorist attacks against Israeli and European targets.

After leaving the PFLP, Carlos started up a sort of terrorist-for-hire business that he succinctly called “Organization of the Armed Arab Struggle — Arm of the Arab Revolution.” In fact, it had nothing to do with the Arab struggle and everything to do with lining his own pockets. During this time he operated mostly out of eastern Europe, but traveled on diplomatic passports helpfully provided by various Arab nations, such as Syria and South Yemen. The Soviet satellites mostly tolerated his presence (perhaps fearing repercussions if they turned him away), but they did little to actively help him. An exception was Romania, whose secret police (the Securitate) hired him to kill Romanian dissidents in France and to blow up the Radio Free Europe offices in Munich.

In 1982, his wife Magdalena Kopp was arrested in Paris for possession of explosives and was sentenced to four years in prison. Carlos began a terror campaign to pressure France into freeing her, and over the next several years he bombed civilian targets inside France and French diplomatic targets overseas. More than twenty people were killed, but it did not suffice to free his wife. She was released a few months early in 1985, but that was because of good behavior on her part, not her husband’s terror bombings. Her release seems to have marked the end of his direct involvement in terrorism.

At about the same time his wife was being freed, the communist countries were inviting him to leave. They were hoping for better trade relations with the U.S., but one of the State Department’s conditions was to throw Carlos and his group out. He and his wife moved to Damascus, but Syria forced him to give up terrorism after the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103. A few reports had hinted at his participation in that attack, but they turned out to be false. Nevertheless, Syria wanted him to keep a low profile as long as he stayed there. During and after the Gulf War, in which Syria fought on our side, life became even more uncomfortable for Carlos. In 1992 he moved to Jordan, where he married his second wife Lena (without bothering to divorce Magdalena, from whom he was estranged). In 1993 he moved on to Sudan, which has an Islamist government and close ties to Iran.

Hoping for better relations with the West, Syria passed on his new location to the U.S. The CIA sent agents to Khartoum to verify his presence there, and then alerted the French. In return for Iran’s influence in getting Carlos from Sudan, France — in violation of treaty terms — released two Iranian terrorists instead of extraditing them to Switzerland where they were wanted for murder. Under pressure from Iran, Sudan agreed to help. It didn’t hurt that France sold Sudan military communications equipment it needed for its civil war when other Western countries wouldn’t.

While Carlos was still groggy from surgery for a painful varicocele, the Sudanese government told him of a murder plot against him and whisked away to a country house outside Khartoum. Later, away from witnesses, he was drugged, handcuffed, put into a sack, and taken to the airport where the French DST picked him up and flew him to France. This French operation was strictly illegal, since there was no extradition agreement, and the arrest warrant was invalid outside France. This little technicality was swept under the rug easily enough. The authorities maintained the fiction that Carlos had drugged and handcuffed himself, tied himself in the sack, and boarded the plane of his own free will. One court did find in 1996 that his capture was extralegal, but luckily this decision was overturned on appeal.

Ever since his capture, he has been held in isolation from other prisoners at the infamous La Santé prison in Paris. He was tried and convicted in 1997 for the murders of the two DST agents and Michel Moukharbal in 1975. If he had been caught sooner, he might have faced the guillotine, but France abolished the death penalty in 1981. He instead received the maximum sentence of life in prison.

What has Carlos been up to lately? He went on a hunger strike in 1998 to protest prison conditions, but gave it up after twenty days. Last year it was announced he would marry one of his lawyers, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre. Before meeting Carlos, the blushing bride helped defend the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. I’d say she has a lot to blush about. Both Carlos and Isabelle will need to divorce their current spouses before the nuptials can proceed.

Will he ever get out of prison? At the time of the murders, French law did not allow for a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, so he might still get out some day. If the release of the Iranian terrorists is any guide, I suspect it will depend on who wants him out and what they’re willing to give up. (Oh dear, is my cynicism showing again?) So far, his only supporter with any real power seems to be Venezuela’s current president, Hugo Chávez, but it’s not clear how serious he is about it. Carlos is no good to the French as a future bargaining chip if he isn’t in their custody. That may be the real reason France has refused Austria’s request to extradite him for the murders at OPEC headquarters in 1975. The reason they cited is that the Austrians failed to renew their arrest warrant within ten years, which is not required under Austrian law. The French seem to have become sticklers for legal technicalities in the few years since Carlos tied himself up in a sack in Khartoum.

Further reading:

Jackal: The Complete Story of the Legendary Terrorist Carlos the Jackal by John Follain

SDStaff bibliophage, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

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