How cold war spymasters found arrogance of Carlos the Jackal too hot to handle

Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known as Carlos the Jackal, right, sits next to his lawyer at his trial in Paris in 2000, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Photo: Reuters


Terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez was portrayed as ruthless, but research shows Iron Curtain regimes saw him as a liability.

By The GuardianJason Burke

Sep 06, 2020

Two men and a heavily pregnant woman stand in a hotel room in Prague. The men are arguing with two officers from the Czech state security agency, sent to convince them they should leave on the next available flight. A warning that assassins from the French secret services are on their way to kill the three ends the dispute. One stows a pistol in his jacket pocket, the second straps on another two, the woman fastens more weapons around her waist. By late afternoon, they had left on a flight to Moscow.

It was June 1986 and the last visit of Carlos the Jackal to Czechoslovakia. Neither the notorious terrorist, nor his sidekick, nor his wife would set foot in the Communist-ruled state again. For most of a decade, Carlos had been travelling and living in eastern Europe. Now he was no longer welcome.

The terrorist, whose real name was Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, had gained global notoriety with a series of attacks carried out on behalf of Palestinian extremists between 1973 and 1975. In the west, the polyglot Venezuelan radical was frequently portrayed as an agent of the KGB, trained and armed on behalf of Moscow’s security service by counterparts in the Soviet satellite states of central and eastern Europe.

Now, classified documents discovered in archives in eastern Europe reveal a different picture: not of a master terrorist working hand in glove with ruthlessly efficient regimes to launch attacks in the west, but of an arrogant, demanding, and unreliable terrorist entrepreneur who manipulated the anxieties of insecure decision-makers and the ignorance of security officials from the Baltic to the Black Sea until they finally ran out of patience.

“The archives show us that [these states] were on the defensive, often feared instability and worried that violence would spill over behind the Iron Curtain … There is no evidence for any plan for a destabilisation campaign targeting the west,” said Adrian Hänni, a Swiss historian who has edited of a new collection of essays on eastern European support for terrorism during the cold war.

Read More: The Guardian – How cold war spymasters found arrogance of Carlos the Jackal too hot to handle

La Patilla in English