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Interpol: Where Politics Takes a Back Seat to Fighting Crime

Fred Burton
Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
4 MINS READOct 21, 2017 | 13:57 GMT
(Stratfor)

Late last month, the world of police cooperation got just a little wider as the Palestinian Authority joined Interpol. To an old counterterrorism agent like me, the vote to allow the Palestinians into the organization, which helps connect police agencies worldwide, represents an important shift in the world of law enforcement.

Palestinian-directed terrorist attacks occurred all over the globe on my watch, especially in the 1980s. As a frequent target of those attacks, Israel tried to delay the Interpol vote, arguing that Palestine was not a state and therefore was ineligible for membership. The measure passed, however, with support from two-thirds of the organization's members. And despite the long history of Palestinian terrorism, allowing the Palestinian Authority into Interpol makes perfect sense from a global law enforcement perspective. Cops tend to help other cops, regardless of politics or foreign policy.

For U.S. federal law enforcement agents, a two- to three-year tour of duty with Interpol is considered a plum assignment that provides a tremendous opportunity to network with colleagues from all over the world. I turned to Interpol for help throughout my career when I couldn't get the information I needed for an investigation anywhere else. At a time of heightened tension between the United States and Iran, I ruffled a few feathers in the U.S. diplomatic corps by going through Interpol to reach out to our rival for assistance on a hijacking case in which U.S. citizens had been killed. Police in Tehran responded to my request a few weeks later with a detailed report of what happened, complete with autopsy results, a key to my investigation. Iran was considered a state sponsor of terrorism that had no diplomatic relations with the United States, but the cops in Tehran came through all the same. Their desire to help a fellow law enforcement officer transcended the political considerations of the day. Over the course of other investigations, I routinely pinged Interpol to see what they could dig up through their channels. Even Libya was a member of the organization at the height of Moammar Gadhafi's sponsorship of terrorism.

Interpol 101

Because the Palestinians were not members at the time, though, I couldn't tap Interpol's services for the very first investigations of my career. Those cases involved attacks by radical Palestinian groups like the Abu Nidal Organization and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But even their attacks paled in comparison with those of the Black September Organization, a key player in the radical Palestinian arena. Black September's modus operandi continues to resonate to this day, and any student of terrorism would be well-served to study its history. A small group of master terrorists — including Salah Khalaf, known as Abu Iyad, and Khalil al-Wazir, known as Abu Jihad — formed the organization in 1971. Their operational commander was a larger-than-life playboy, Ali Hassan Salameh, known variously as Abu Hassan or "The Red Prince." Eventually, Israel's Mossad eliminated him.

For many people, Black September is most prominently connected with the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich. But radical Palestinian groups also had plenty of American blood on their hands from attacks including the assassination of U.S. diplomats at the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1973 and the murders of two U.S. diplomats in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1976. As an agent, I worked on both of those cold cases. Another cold case I delved into was the murder in Bethesda, Maryland, of Israeli Col. Joe Alon — an operation directed by Black September. I chronicled my hunt for his killer in my book Chasing Shadows.

The Palestinian cold case files should be a trove of materials that will enable the police services of many countries to close out long-standing terrorism investigations and uncover new leads. If I were still a counterterrorism agent, I would be welcoming the Palestinians' addition to Interpol — as long as I could get access to their files. Knowing the Israelis, I have a feeling their national police are thinking along the same lines, regardless of the geopolitics. Spies may not trust each other, but cops do.

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