Circling Back to 'The Jackal'

Fred Burton
Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
4 MINS READMar 18, 2017 | 13:21 GMT

The old saying "politics makes strange bedfellows" certainly applies to my former line of work as well. In the counterterrorism business, you sometimes have to deal with unsavory characters to make progress in an investigation. Recent headlines reminded me of one of the strangest connections I have ever made with one of the underworld's most notorious figures.

Ilich Ramirez Sanchez — better known by his nickname, "Carlos the Jackal" — went on trial March 13 to face accusations that he had conducted a decades-old assault on a Paris shopping mall. The Venezuelan-born Carlos, one of the most wanted criminals of the 1970s and '80s for a string of spectacular terrorist attacks, is already serving two life sentences in France for a series of murders and assaults he perpetrated or plotted in the country on behalf of the Palestinian cause or communist revolution. This time, Carlos appeared in the Paris courtroom to answer charges that he threw a hand grenade from a mezzanine restaurant into a shopping arcade in the French capital's Latin Quarter in September 1974. Two people were killed and dozens more were injured in the attack. Carlos, who described himself to the judges presiding over his trial as a "professional revolutionary," has denied any involvement in the incident.

On a shelf in my office at Stratfor is a book signed by Carlos. It's not just any book, but one I wrote: Chasing Shadows: A Special Agent’s Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice. Even I'm surprised at how the copy bearing his signature came into my possession.

As a young U.S. State Department special agent, before the age of computers, I was assigned to a three-man counterterrorism branch. Back then, The Jackal was the poster child of global terrorism. Elusive and protected by nation-state sponsors of terrorism like the Soviet Union and Libya, Carlos — who got his nickname from the assassin in the Frederick Forsyth thriller The Day of The Jackal — worked as a hit man for hire. Carlos became a killer I studied, but I never thought he would be taken alive.

In the 1980s, our intelligence databases were made up of 3-by-5 index cards, hard files, typed cables and newspapers. In our office, we had a dog-eared brown accordion legal folder labeled "Carlos" by an agent unknown. The folder was jampacked with a hodgepodge of newspaper clippings, Foreign Broadcast Information Service reports, vague intelligence alerts, magazine articles, Interpol notices and a grainy, haunting surveillance photograph of Carlos, clad in a black leather jacket, taken somewhere on a tarmac in the developing world. I put that picture on my desk, next to a photo of Ali Hassan Salameh, the operations chief of the Palestinian terrorist cell Black September.

Salameh ended up dead in Beirut, the victim of a Mossad bomb in 1979. Carlos was captured alive 15 years later. He was nabbed in Sudan in 1994, 20 years after his first attack in France, and handed over to French agents. They spirited him away to stand trial, and he has remained in French custody ever since.

As I conducted my investigation into the 1973 assassination of Israeli military attache Col. Joseph Alon in Maryland — my pursuit of his murderers is the subject of Chasing Shadows — I realized that Carlos might be a valuable source of information. After all, the assassin had worked with radical Palestinian groups in the same era as Alon's death.

I used a number of different cutouts to make contact with Carlos in his French prison cell, but I never got very far with him. I also corresponded with Magdalena Kopp, Carlos' wife and a former terrorist herself, in an effort to unearth new leads in the Alon case. (Kopp was one of the founding members of the leftist German Revolutionary Cells, closely aligned with the Popular Front for the Liberation Palestine.) To my surprise, she agreed to talk with me. 

I eventually tracked down the man who I contend pulled the trigger and ended Alon's life. The passage of time and the destruction of evidence meant there would be no trial, but there were still loose ends to wrap up. In 2014, the FBI in Paris reopened its investigation into Alon's death, and an agent got in touch with me to ask if I would send a few signed copies of Chasing Shadows to their office — including one meant for Carlos. The case had languished for years after my book was published, and I was happy that someone had taken an interest. I was willing to do whatever I could to help, so I sent the books overseas.

A few weeks later, rather unexpectedly, one of the copies of Chasing Shadows came back inscribed with the words "My best revolutionary regards, Carlos." But there had been no need for him to underline his name. I knew exactly who he was.

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