Colin's tweets

follow me
Colin Smith
About ColinContact ColinHome Writing

Extracts of Carlos - Portrait of a terrorist

Waltzing Magdalena (From Chapter Fourteen.)

Magdalena Kopp, the quiet girl who used to share a bed with the Frankfurt lawyer Johannes Weinrich, became Carlos’ lover some time in 1981. She was the daughter of a post office worker and brought up in Neu Ulm in south-west Germany, just across the Danube from the old cathedral town of Ulm and about 60 miles from Munich.

Magdalena grew up a dreamy, not particularly academic child though she liked the arts. She became an attractive young woman but was impressionable, easily led. When she was not long out of her teens she became pregnant and had a daughter, Anna, who was brought up by her parents. In the early 1970’s she went to West Berlin to study photography.

There she got caught up in the Zeitgeist of student protest. For this bastion of the West was a magnet for those young Germans who thought that even the dreary surrounding police state was preferable to the competitive striving required by the economic miracle that had nurtured them. Adreaas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof were role models, an educated Bonnie and Clyde - then a cult movie. Unlike most of her contemporaries, time did not weary Magdalena’s youthful idealism. Along with several other young women including Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann and Brigitte Kuhlmann, who was shot dead trying to fight Israeli commandos at Entebbe, she graduated into the Rote Armee Fraktion as the Baader-Meinhof Group preferred to be known. Of course, living with Johannes Weinrich, the man who would become Carlos’ closest German friend, would have eased her initiation.

Perhaps Weinrich tired of her. Certainly, his friendship with Carlos appeared to be undiminished by Magdalena’s switch to his friend’s bed. And for Carlos there seems to have been no doubt that this is what the syrian poet el-Jundi had been asking him about. For the first time in his life he was deeply in love.

It came at the right moment. Carlos was now in his early thirties and, it would turn out, already past his peak. It was a time when a man, especially a man cut off from his family to whom he was close, might well need more genuine consolation than the whores the various Communist secret services made available. It was also the time when things were beginning to unravel in the Eastern European safe-havens which were definitely becoming less safe, less congenial.

On 21 February 1981 a bomb exploded at the Radio Free Europe studios and transmitter at Munich. Four people were hurt in the blast. The radio station, a venerable of the Cold War and at least partly financed by the CIA, provided a platform for Eastern European émigrés to speak directly to their compatriots. Most of the regimes who made up the Warsaw Pact had become inured to these sort of propaganda pinpricks. Rumania was an exception. Ceaucescu was a vain man and the political exiles on the Rumanian language programmes knew just where to put the knife.

There has been speculation, never proven, that Carlos organised the attack on Radio Free Europe to repay favours of transit and accommodation Ceaucescu had done him and his gang. At the time Carlos and his gang were certainly well placed to do it for they seemed to be spending more time in Budapest and East Berlin than they did in Damascus.

The PLO used to enjoy putting it about that Carlos was always swanning in and out of Rumania. But they had their own reasons for wishing to smear Ceaucescu - his relations with Israel. Of all the Eastern European leaders Ceaucescu was the darling of the West for an independent foreign policy that not only insisted on full diplomatic relations with Israel but condemned the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia and its invasion of Afghanistan. His domestic tyranny and spectacular nepotism were politely ignored. He certainly did not give carte blanche support to any passing terrorist - when Abu Nidal’s gang tried to transit Rumania they were arrested on sight.

Whether Carlos was involved in the attack or not people made out that Weinrich and other members of his gang were and the East Germans were furious. For if he was involved Carlos had broken one of their cardinal house rules for resting terrorists: no attacks on the Federal Republic without permission. Even if he was not involved, his general conduct was not at all that of the kind of discreet man of action they had thought they were sheltering. It certainly did not endear him to people like Markus Wolf, the head of the East German intelligence service. Then Wolf, after 1989 a Le Carré character come to light and enjoying it, never had too high an opinion of him in the first place.

“Carlos was a big mouth,” he told the Berlin newspaper Tageszeitung shortly after the terrorist’s capture. “He would spend his nights at the bar, drinking like a fish, surrounded by women, with his pistol tucked into his belt.”

Even so, at this point the GDR made no effort to kick him out. Nor did they try to expel Weinrich and the other seven surviving members of the Baader-Meinhof gang for whom the workers’ paradise was also home. On the contrary, all of them were under the personal protection of General Erich Mielke, the Minister of the Interior.

Mielke had put himself personally in charge of Stasi’s Department Twenty-Two which was nominally a counter terrorism unit but in fact exactly the opposite. It was only against other people’s terrorism. It was very much in favour of being able to dish it out. “In the case of war we could have used such people to build up a guerrilla force in the hinterland of the aggressor, a network of specialists that would blow up bridges and attack strategic installations.” explained Wolf.

Meanwhile, the views of the German Democratic Republic on terrorism and all persuasions of Trotskyist adventurism were well known. In Eastern Europe, Hungary was the first country to start to make life difficult for the terrorists. In the years since the Soviets brutal crushing of the 1956 uprising this had become the most liberal regime, both economically and politically, in the Eastern bloc. Yet, like East Germany’s Honecker, the Hungarian leader Janos Kadar gave Carlos sanctuary and the terrorist wrote him a letter thanking him for it. Kadar also allowed Abu Nidal to operate out of Hungary for a while. One wonders why they did it, these tough old communists. Were they tired of the philistine, coddled masses who had inherited their revolution? Did they need a distraction from the constant pressure they were under to lash their labour intensive economies into catching up with the material accomplishments of the West? Did they see in Carlos and his ilk some of the idealism and sacrifice of their own revolutionary youth, the imprisonment and torture and the firing squads they faced when they fought the Fascists? Didn’t they understand that these were mainly the spoilt children of the bourgeoisie taking up other people’s causes, bored and tearing the wings off butterflies? Or was it just an easy way of keeping in with the KGB who wanted to be close to such people but not too close?

In eight years time Kadar would be dead and Hungary one of the first to make a decent sized rent in the Iron Curtain by allowing East German “tourists” to cross into Austria. In the summer of 1981 their security service, which was mostly staffed by a generation younger than Kadar, was already getting fed up to the back teeth with the antics of Carlos and his gang. Andreas Petresevics, the head of their service, called Carlos in for a meeting which the Hungarians videoed with a hidden camera. Afterwards, part of the tape was destroyed but a couple of minutes survived to be discovered by the newly installed democrats after Budapest’s Communists had cleared their desks and departed with a minimum of disorder . For the first part of their conversation they spoke in Russian.

“We demand that you evacuate your bases from our territory,” Petresevics kicks off. “The western intelligence services know you are working out of Hungary.”

“You’re in league with the imperialists,” accused Carlos. “We’ve made these agreements and you don’t respect them.”

“We don’t have a written contract,” said Petresevics, apparently keeping his cool. “We propose an arrangement. You get your bases out of Hungary and we continue to grant you the privilege of transit.”

At this point Carlos loses his temper and speaks in Spanish. “Written contracts, me. I don’t know what these do. The only contract I own is this.” And with his left hand he drew his jacket back to reveal the holstered pistol tucked into his left armpit.

Sadly, the video ends here and we don’t get to learn the Hungarian secret policeman’s response to being threatened in his own headquarters by a South American bandit. What we do know is that it was the beginning of the end of the bolt hole in Budapest, so handy for Vienna and all stops west. The door would not be fully closed for several more years yet for, as Petresevics suggested, he was still allowed “the privilege of transit”. But privileges could be withdrawn at any time. And they had to be earned.

Carlos decided to give Eastern Europe a break for a while. He went back to Damascus where he and Magdalena set up house for the first time. By now an international colony of desperadoes had established their Middle East residences there in the city’s tree lined Mezzeh district. Strangers who visited the place came up against Mukhabarrat bodyguards in bomber jackets and jeans who lounged under the jasmine blossom, smoking Marlboro, combing their hair and watching for unfamiliar faces. It was inadvisable to display a camera.

Magdalena Kopp was in Paris on behalf of the Mukhabarrat. Her target were the offices in Rue Marbeuf just off the Avenue George V of the Arabic language magazine Al Watan Al Arabi in which the Syrian poet Assem el-Jundi had published his interview with Carlos over two years before. Since the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 the magazine, like most Arabic language publications, had been firmly on Iraq’s side.

Syria on the other hand, in one of those extraordinary realpolitik, self-centred moves that so characterised the regional politics, had decided to support Khomeini and the mad mullahs of Iran while continuing to bash its own fundamentalists. For Assad, this may have been made slightly more palatable because he is himself an Alawite muslim. The Alawites are very much a minority, a schism of the Shia, the dominant sect in Iran, whereas in Syria the Muslim Brotherhood is almost totally from the Sunni sect .

How much Magdalena Kopp understood or cared about the convoluted political knitting behind the attack on Al Watan Al Arabi is unclear. What really mattered to Carlos about the attack on Al Watan Al Arabi was that, when the Syrian Mukhabarrat had subcontracted it out to him, Magdalena had persuaded him to let her take part. Previously, in all the years of living dangerously with Weinrich, she had always been a camp follower. Before this time there was no evidence of her ever committing a crime more serious than travelling on false papers. Now she wanted to show that she had the kind of guts Brigitte Kuhlmann had displayed at Entebbe. It was probably something to do with being in love with Carlos.

It was not entirely Kopp’s fault that it all went so disastrously wrong. She was teamed up with Bruno Bréguet, a Swiss terrorist living in West Berlin who joined her in Paris. Brégeut was one of Haddad’s original foreign legion and a bit of a jonah. In the early seventies he had been among those French and Swiss recruits picked up within minutes of arriving at Israeli ports or at Lod airport because Mossad had planted an informer among them though they did their best to lay a smokescreen over this. In Bréguet’s case this was comparatively easy. They were able to put his swift arrest down to suspicions aroused when he disembarked from a Cypriot ferry at Haifa at the height of summer clad in a heavy overcoat. The coat pockets were full of explosives. Sentenced to 15 years the Israelis released him after seven speaking reasonable Hebrew and some Arabic.

Carlos probably felt that he was not taking much of a risk by indulging his lover. In the seventies and eighties terrorism was very easy to get away with in the capitals of Western Europe. A few obvious targets such as airports and prime ministers’ officers had become relatively well guarded but that was about all. When, just before Christmas 1985, some of Abu Nidal’s zombies started mowing down passengers at El Al ticket desks at Rome and Vienna airports four of them were killed - though not before they had murdered twelve people.

To catch terrorists before they started killing you either needed a lot of luck, good intelligence like the Israelis had with Brégeut, or a chess player’s anticipation and generous logistics to back it up. In 1975 Scotland Yard had this with four the IRA gunmen they cornered in London’s Balcombe Street siege. A young detective-sergeant noticed that there was a pattern to their targets. He then persuaded his superiors to adopt his enormously expensive plan whereby central London was swamped with police in civilian clothes though unarmed in case they mistook each other for terrorists. When the gunmen cheekily machine-gunned a Mayfair restaurant for the second time the pursuit to Balcombe Street was on.

The French police could hardly anticipate the moves of Kopp and Brégeut because they had not yet fired a shot or planted a bomb. But Brégeut seems to have had little natural ability for crime and they were able to capture them before any harm was done. First of all the car he get for the job was an old white Peugeot borrowed from a friend, a terrorist for the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica who wanted it back. The false number plates that came with it were far too recent for its year of manufacture which made it a curiosity to the sort of people whose day-to-day business is cars.

The number plate was the second thing a car parking attendant working in an underground car park near the magazine’s offices in Rue Marbeuf noticed when he approached the Peugeot. The first thing was that the car should not have been there in the first place because this was a private car park and it was not the kind of place where people left clapped out Peugeots. He was asking Brégeut what they were doing and who they were when he found himself looking down the barrel of an automatic pistol. The couple then sped off and the attendant rushed to a telephone. Later it was alleged that Brégeut had tried to shoot him but the gun misfired. Not long afterwards a police patrol car, which thanks to the attendant had the Peugeot’s number, picked them up and forced them off the road. Again Brégeut produced his pistol and again it did not fire. For some reason the gendarmes, not always noted for their restraint, resisted the temptation to shoot him to pieces and put them both in handcuffs. Inside the car the police a brief case containing two kilos of Penthrite plastic explosive and two full gas bottles. Together the two make a formidable bomb. When the West Berlin police went through the papers in Bregeut’s Berlin flat they discovered the Carlos connection for the ever obliging Brégeut kept an intermittent and only lightly coded diary.

Not that Carlos intended to leave the matter in any doubt. His anguish must have been considerable. Here was the woman he loved, the only woman he had ever truly loved, a very amateur terrorist indeed who had persuaded him, perhaps against his better judgement when he came to consider it, to let her go on this mission. Now, thanks to the idiot Bregeut, they faced years of separation. It was intolerable. The French had to be persuaded to let them go. Surely not an impossible task. After all, they had let Abu Daoud go and the Germans had wanted him on twelve charges of murder! But where to begin? Kopp was arrested on 16 February. It took him nine days to decided on a plan of action. Rather uncharacteristically for Carlos, in these matters at least, he began by putting pen to paper.

25 February 1982

to Gaston Defferre, Minister of State, Minister for the Interior

M. Le Ministre

I am writing to inform you

First: that two soldiers from our organisation, Magdalena Cecilia Kopp and Bruno Bregeut, have been arrested in Paris by the French Security forces.

Second: that our soldiers have been arrested while carrying out the orders of those who are accountable for them for a mission which was not directed against France.

Third: that our soldiers do not deserve prison as retribution for their dedication to the Revolutionary Cause.

Fourth: that our organisation will never abandon its soldiers.

Following the decision of our Central direction I give you the following warning. We will not accept our comrades being in prison. We will not tolerate our comrades being extradited to any country, no matter which.

We demand:

  1. an immediate halt to all interrogation of our soldiers.
  2. the release of our soldiers within 30 days of the date of this letter.
  3. that our soldiers should be released with all the correct documents,
  4. that our soldiers should be allowed to travel together by a regular airline to a country and by the route of their choice. They should have a French permit to leave.

We are not at war with Socialist France and I beg of you not to force us to be so.

I assure you that the contents of this letter are considered to be a secret of the Organisation. However, we have no objection to it being made public.

We hope that this business can be brought to an early and satisfactory ending.

By the Organisation of the Armed Arab Struggle - arm of the Arab Revolution.

Carlos

PS: I place below my thumb prints in order to identify this letter.

Copies were also made in French and Spanish and duly thumb-printed. The Spanish copy was mailed to the Interior Ministry from Vienna and was the last to arrive. The French copy went to the French embassy in The Hague. The choice of this embassy was surely part of the message. This was the embassy the Sony generation Samurais stormed in September 1974 and where the initial French refusal to surrender their Japanese Red Army prisoner led to the grenade attack on Le Drugstore in S. Germain de Pret - Carlos’ first terrorist act.

It was an incredible document. A lovelorn terrorist was declaring war on one of the most powerful states in Europe unless he got his girlfriend back. Perhaps if he had been aware of the passions behind the threat Defferre would have acted differently. As it was, he didn’t have much choice. Someone leaked Carlos’ letter to Agence France Presse, the French news agency. After that there was no way he could enter into any sort of secret deal even if he wanted to.

 

Back to top
Buy this book from Amazon.co.uk
  Carlos - Portrait of a Terrorist
Mandarin Paperback,
London, 1995

ISBN 0 7493 2008 7
(A revision of the edition first published in London in 1976 by André Deutsch.)
site by pedalo limited