The world’s most wanted man goes on trial next week after a career in terrorism lasting two decades. But, as Alex Duval Smith reports from Paris, what he might say in court has governments quaking
The shot which for more than 20 years established him as the world’s most wanted man was fired in a leafy north London suburb on December 30 1973. In the crisp winter stillness in St John’s Wood,London, the doorbell rang at the home of Joseph Edward Sieff, head of Marks and Spencer. It was around 7pm. His Portuguese employee opened the door to a young, dark-haired gunman who forced his way in and rushed upstairs.
The man found Sieff in the bathroom and shot him in the face at close range. Sieff, the 68-year-old deputy chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, a fundraising group for Israel, collapsed in a pool of blood, wounded from a bullet lodged in his jaw. Two years later, after a reader’s tip-off to the Guardian, Scotland Yard found the 9mm Browning used for the attempted murder in a Bayswater arms cache which they linked to Carlos the Jackal.
At the Paris Assizes Court next month, nearly 24 years after the Sieff shooting which marked the start of Carlos’s terrorist career, he will make his first appearance before a jury. Now aged 48, he will face charges that he shot dead two French secret service officers and injured another at a flat at 9 Rue Toullier in the Latin Quarter in Paris in June 1975. The case will be a rerun of a 1992 trial in which he was found guilty in absentia.
As the prisoner takes the stand, his status will shift from that of the world’s most wanted man to its least desired defendant. Ilich Ramrez S nchez – nom de guerre Carlos, dubbed the Jackal after a 1975 Guardian article – has been linked to more than 80 politically motivated deaths in half a dozen countries since 1973 and with groups ranging from the IRA to Baader Meinhof and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
His knowledge of terrorist networks and their backers during the cold war years is unmatched, and therein lies the danger. Since French secret agents scored an amazing publicity coup by abducting him from Sudan in August 1994 he has never ceased to remind his captors of how politically explosive his revelations in court could be.
Though Scotland Yard detectives have travelled to Paris to interview Carlos about the Sieff shooting, Britain has failed to request his extradition. The same applies to Austria, which sent investigators to question him about the December 1975 kidnapping of 12 oil ministers in Vienna.
Over several months the Mail &Guardian has explored the character of Carlos the Jackal, drawing on his correspondence, interviews with his lawyers who are the only people allowed to visit him in jail, testimony of his former friends and lovers, and the experience of one of Carlos’s rare court appearances last year.
The picture that emerges is of a man who seems as obsessive as he is shrewd, a voracious reader of more than 30 daily and weekly publications from around the world, which are delivered to his isolation cells at La Sant and Fresnes jails. He has a television set in his cell and reads fringe books. His unpredictability and veiled threats leave his lawyers as well as his captors unsure of whether they are being manipulated by a clever man or misled by a confused inmate trapped in a timewarp.
Journalists and authors who have written about Carlos have received letters from him, reeking with vanity, in which he denies things said about him such as that he has owned a Ferrari, that he used to be on the run, or has a “weak” personality. But he does not question assertions of guilt.
In a letter written in May and seen by the M&G, Carlos demands that Le Figaro should correct an assertion that his father was a champagne socialist. “My father is a doctor of criminal law and a revolutionary. It is not thanks to me that the Arab world should have become `synonymous with terrorism’, but due to Zionist propaganda.” The letter, written in near-fluent French, ends with the greeting: “revolutionary best wishes”.
Jean-Louis Bruguire, the investigating magistrate and specialist in terrorism who led the inquiry into the Rue Toullier shootings, also appears at times to have been led a merry dance, as his interrogations deteriorated into long discussions about French semantics. The interviews were held every month between August 1994 and May 1997. Each began with Carlos listing his occupation as “professional revolutionary”.
Some of the interviews at Bruguire’s tightly guarded office in the Palais de Justice in Paris would last several hours. Sometimes Carlos held the whip hand: “Your question touches on the virtue of a Venezuelan woman from a very good family. I cannot possibly answer,” he said in an interview in February this year.
Equally, he can be moody and rude. “The judges of the Federal Republic of Germany are true descendants of Nazi justice,” he told a Frankfurt state attorney on November 27 1996. A week earlier, two Scotland Yard detectives made a wasted journey to Fresnes where Carlos refused to see them because his guards would not let him wear a belt.
In a French secret service report, he is described as having “a personality characterised by a feeling of superiority and a high opinion of himself. He displays unpredictable reactions and behaviour in certain situations. Unable to accept being contradicted, he cannot control himself and reactions of pride and revenge should not be excluded. He speaks Spanish, English, Arabic, French and Russian.”
Yet despite Carlos’s erratic behaviour, his early years, particularly the political context in which he grew up, go a long way towards explaining how his mugshot ended up on the wall of virtually every customs post in the western world.
Ilich Ramrez S nchez (the name is not coincidental – his two younger brothers are called Vladimir and Lenin) was born in Caracas, Venezuela, on October 12 1949. The son of a left-wing lawyer, Ilich grew up to live and breathe Marxism at a time when his country was ruled by a rightwing dictatorship. “My father was a man of conviction, with a quasi-religious sense of commitment to the cause,” Carlos told Bruguire.
In 1964, at the age of 15, he joined the banned Venezuelan Communist Youth League, in which he appears to have co-ordinated anti-government demonstrations. Perhaps out of concern for his safety, Ilich’s mother, Elba Maria S nchez, travelled to London with her three sons.
Vladimir, Ilich and Lenin rented a flat with their mother in west London and were sent to a public school in Kensington. In 1967, aged 17, Ilich passed A levels in physics, chemistry and maths.
Some of Carlos’s biographers claim that in 1965 or 1966 he spent his summer holidays at a paramilitary youth camp in Cuba. At an interrogation in October 1994, Bruguire asked him if this was true. The answer was typical of Carlos’s stubborn style: “You know there is discipline in organisations like the Venezuelan Communist Youth League. I do not have permission to speak in its name. You would have to ask the Venezuelan Communist Party, which still exists, whether I went to Cuba at that time, and also the Cuban authorities.”
Ilich left London in 1968 for Moscow, to study chemistry and physics at Patrice Lumumba People’s Friendship University. In June 1970, he was thrown out of the Soviet Union with other students who had taken part in a demonstration. It has been suggested that the expulsion was a cover for his recruitment as a KGB agent.
But last May, in one of Carlos’s customary “right to reply” letters to French newspapers, which remain unpublished but which has been seen by the M&G, he rebutted the KGB connection: “I was thrown out of Patrice Lumumba at the request of the Venezuelan Communist Party which had expelled me for Guevarism.” (In the mid- 1960s, the Venezuelan Communist Party split because the “Castro-Guevarists” refused to renounce the armed struggle.) Ilich went from Moscow to Jordan, probably at the invitation of a PFLP contact he had met in Moscow.
The PFLP, headed by George Habash and Wadi Haddad, was a Marxist-Leninist anti- American, anti-Zionist group which pioneered high-profile terror to draw attention to the plight of the occupied territories. In 1969, its members hijacked a TWA London-Tel Aviv flight and in 1970 they opened fire at Munich airport on a bus carrying passengers to an El Al plane.
It was in Jordan that Ilich was given his nom de guerre, Carlos – a corruption of Khalil (intimate and sincere friend) to suit his Latin American roots.
Carlos had barely begun his PFLP guerrilla training when King Hussein of Jordan ordered the bombing of Palestinian camps around the capital, Amman.
This “Black September” plunged Carlos into active service. “I was in a frontline position in the mountains. I fought until the winter of 1971,” he told Bruguire, adding that Habash then ordered him to set up a European base.
So it was back to London – studies with his brother Lenin at the London School of Economics and, to earn some money and a benign alibi, teaching Spanish at Langham Secretarial College. There, Carlos impressed the female students with his seductive charm.
He also swept a Colombian woman, Maria Nydia Romero de Tobon, off her feet when they met at a Christopher Columbus day party on October 12 1972, Carlos’s birthday. “I found myself opposite a man with a very different smile from those I had known before,” she has written. “He had a magnetism that was true charisma.”
Tobon, separated from her husband and living alone in London with one of her three children, was typical of the many women Carlos befriended and used in Europe: intelligent, leftwing, Spanish-speaking and a long way from home.
Tobon was from an eminent Colombian family; her grandfather was a founder of its powerful Liberal Party and her father was a successful businessman. She was a qualified lawyer and studied in London at the London School of economics.
In her memoirs she quotes Carlos as saying: “Nydia, I have formed a group and I need you. We are revolutionaries who identify with the people of the whole world, who fight injustice in Vietnam, Chile, Palestine, Cambodia. The battle will be long and bloody but I do not see any difference between the Palestinians and ourselves. We are all fighting [for] the same cause.”
Responsibility for the attack on Edward Sieff was claimed, from Beirut, by the PFLP. It would be followed, three weeks later, by the bombing of the Hapoalim Israeli bank in Cheapside, in which several people were injured, although no firm link between this attack and Carlos has ever been proved.
In late January 1974, Carlos is believed to have travelled to Paris for a meeting with Michel Moukharbel, the Lebanese joint chief of the PFLP in Europe.
It was the first of a series of increasingly regular trips to France during which Carlos established a network of safehouses in the flats of women who admired him.
Rue Toullier, a narrow street between the Sorbonne and the Luxembourg Gardens, is every foreign student’s dream location for a pad in Paris: the buildings aren’t quite straight, it has literary links, there is a caf on the corner and a bistro half-way down.
On June 27 1975, Carlos invited Moukharbel to a party at a studio flat at 9 Rue Toullier, rented by two Venezuelan women, Nancy S nchez Falcon and Maria-Theresa Lara Santa-Maria. The M&G is not aware of any evidence to suggest that either woman played a part in the killing to come.
Accounts of the evening, which left Moukharbel and two secret policemen dead, vary. We don’t know which version will be heard at next month’s court case. But the events shot Carlos to global fame.
According to a 1979 interview in the then pro-Iraqi weekly, Al Watan al Arabi, which Carlos now claims never took place, Moukharbel had been arrested and beaten into agreeing to lead the policemen to Carlos. Three secret police officers, apparently unarmed, appeared with Moukharbel at the studio.
Two of them, Raymond Dous and Jean Donatini, were shot dead by Carlos with a 7.62 Tokarev, as was Moukharbel for being a traitor. The third policeman survived the attack, but has since died.
However, according to the former Mossad agent, Victor Ostrovsky, Moukharbel had begun working for the Israeli secret services. In return for safe passage out of the country, he had told French police that he would lead them to an arms dealer called Carlos.
Such a vague promise, at a time when Carlos was barely known in France, could possibly explain why the French police were unprepared for a shoot-out. According to Ostrovsky, Carlos killed Moukharbel and the two policemen with a .38 calibre submachine gun.
Carlos’s whereabouts after the shooting are little known. French police were left with no other leads than a series of names in Moukharbel’s address book, several of which ultimately led to arms caches in the homes of female students.
Police interviews from the time seen by the M&G portray the stocky, auburn-haired Carlos as seductive in these women’s eyes. He was soft-spoken, they said, charming and committed. Apparently, they would do almost anything for him.
Transcripts of a contemporary police interview with 24-year-old Silvia Asmela Amparo show that officers found a stash of M-26 hand-grenades, stolen by Baader Meinhof terrorists from a United States army base in Germany, and several false travel documents at her flat near the Invalides air terminal. “He told me that girls were always used to carry arms between countries. I always refused,” she told police after her arrest on July 4 1975.
Amparo, who was Colombian and a cashier at Lloyd’s Bank in Paris, admitted that Carlos had visited her flat after the Rue Toullier shooting, and made foreign telephone calls.
Angela Armstrong, a South African-born Briton, aged 29, admitted to French police that she met Carlos the day after the shooting at the Invalides air terminal. He asked her to write to Nancy S nchez Falcon, the tenant of the Rue Toullier studio, who was in Venezuela at the time of the shooting.
In an interview from 1975 which is expected to be read to the court next month, Armstrong tells French police: `”I used to go to Nancy’s for coffee at lunchtime. I realised over time that she was very much in love with Carlos, who she said was a European sales rep.” Asked why she thought Carlos had wanted to see her at the Invalides terminal the day after the shooting, she says: “He bumped into me by chance. He grabbed me by the shoulder and said, `I’m not used to killing men. A filthy Arab betrayed me. I kill people who betray me. Write to Nancy and tell her to stay in Venezuela. I am going to the Middle East.'”
In London, an engineer, Barry Woodhams, found fake travel documents, ammunition, plastic explosives, three hand grenades, the 9mm Browning from the Sieff attack, a 7,65 Mauser and a 7,65 Beretta at the flat he shared with his Basque girlfriend, Maria Angela Otoala Baranca, who was close to Carlos.
Perhaps because he thought it would protect his girlfriend, Woodhams contacted the Guardian rather than the police with news of his discovery. Two reporters, Anne McHardy and Peter Niesewand, went to Woodhams’s Bayswater home, saw the cache and also came across a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. The novel, in which a hitman is hired to assassinate General de Gaulle, seemed to the reporters to be a fitting handbook for the mysterious Carlos. From that day on, he became Carlos the Jackal.
Bruguire, the terrorism investigator, still has files open on several terrorist attacks with which Carlos has been linked.
His investigation into the Rue Toullier shootings formally ended in May but he is still gathering information on the 1974 bombing of a caf and shopping centre called the Drugstore Saint-Germain, in Paris, in which two people died.
He is also looking into a rocket attack on El Al at Orly airport in 1975 and the bombing, in April 1982, of the Paris offices of Al Watan al Arabi which left one man dead.
On top of all that, Carlos is a suspect in 15 further attacks on French targets between 1982 and 1984 which may have been a personal revenge for the arrest of his German wife, Magdalena Kopp, and co- conspirator, Bruno Brguet. Kopp has been pulled in already to give evidence.
Whatever happens with next month’s case and with the other attacks which Carlos has been linked to, it is almost certain that he will not be receiving prison visits from the women he hung around with in the 1970s.
Tobon and Maria Angela Otaola Baranca were both deported from Britain. Tobon was granted political refugee status in France, where she still lives. It is unclear what happened to Silva Asmela Amparo, the Lloyd’s bank employee whom Carlos visited after the Rue Toullier shootings.
In as much as it is possible to judge from his erratic instructions to his lawyers, Carlos is determined to keep the political stakes high and avoid being judged merely as a cold-blooded murderer facing life imprisonment.
Is the man who for decades ran rings round the police across continents finally to be pinned down as nothing more than a sordid criminal?
Or is he still playing a game whose purpose only he knows and which he will reveal when it suits him, to the maximum embarrassment of governments world-wide? At this point it seems a safe bet that he will live up to the badge of the world’s least-wanted defendant.
Additional research: Darius Bazargan