The Magazine

The Axis of Terror

Carlos the Jackal pledges alliance to Osama bin Laden.

Nov 24, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 11 • By AMIR TAHERI
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FEW CONVICTED MURDERERS and hijackers accept the label "terrorist." One who does--indeed, who embraces terrorism as among man's "noblest pursuits"--is a Venezuelan now serving a life sentence for murder in France. He is Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as "Carlos the Jackal."

He has just published a book in French to announce his conversion to Islam and present his strategy for "the destruction of the United States through an orchestrated and persistent campaign of terror." Entitled "Revolutionary Islam" (Editions du Rocher, 2003) and published under the name Ilich Ramírez Sánchez-CARLOS, the book urges "all revolutionaries, including those of the left, even atheists," to accept the leadership of Islamists such as Osama bin Laden and so help turn Afghanistan and Iraq into the "graveyards of American imperialism."

Son of a militant Communist, Ilich was sent to Moscow to study at Patrice Lumumba University, an institution set up by the KGB to train terrorists from the Third World. That was in the 1970s, when the most fashionable cause was opposition to the U.S. intervention in Indochina.

Ilich opted for the less fashionable cause of Palestine, and soon moved to Lebanon, where he trained for operations organized by George Habash's People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Western intelligence services first noticed Ilich when he murdered two French policemen and a Lebanese informant in Paris in 1975. But the peak of his career came in 1975, when he led the team that took 11 OPEC oil ministers hostage in Vienna, then flew them to Algiers. He spent most of the next 20 years on the run, living under assumed identities, constantly changing protectors, until his Sudanese friends finally betrayed him six years ago, when they allowed French authorities to abduct him from his home in Khartoum and fly him to Paris for trial.

In his book, Carlos recounts that he was born into a "fairly prosperous" bourgeois family. His father had attended a French school run by Catholic priests but soon rejected their beliefs. "Having lost faith in God," Carlos says, his father "looked to Marx and Lenin to fill at least part of the gap." Sánchez père was so passionate about his new creed that he named all three of his sons after the founder of Bolshevism: Vladimir, Ilich, and Lenin.

The chief interest of Carlos's book, however, lies not in the reminiscences of a bit player from the 1970s, but in the light it sheds in two areas. First, it recounts how Arab states like Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq routinely used terrorism as an instrument of state policy, often with support from the Soviet Union and its allies. And second, it illuminates the connection between radical atheism and radical religion, showing how one ideology can serve as the antechamber to another seemingly its opposite. Just as Carlos's father made Marxist-Leninist ideology his religion, so Carlos has turned his new religion into the ideology of "revolutionary Islam."

By the mid-1980s Carlos had decided that Marxism-Leninism was a dying creed. Yet its goal, the destruction of imperialism personified by the United States, remained in his view "the highest goal of humanity." Carlos had also concluded that the United States could not be destroyed by any military rival. What was needed was a campaign of terror that would separate the United States from its allies and then destroy its self-confidence. This campaign would require a large number of volunteers ready both to kill and to die for the cause. Carlos saw that only revolutionary Islam could recruit the large numbers of killers and martyrs necessary to destroy the United States.

Carlos claims that terrorism is "the cleanest and most efficient form of warfare." By killing civilians, he argues, the terrorist saps the morale of the enemy and forces its leadership to submit to the demands of the revolution or surrender. By killing a few, the terrorist saves the lives of the many. He cites several examples.

In November 1979, Iranian "students" raided the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took diplomats hostage. The Carter administration, fearful that the Americans would be executed, abandoned its "plots" against the Khomeinist revolution, and thus forestalled events that could have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

Similarly, when Hezbollah suicide bombers attacked American targets in Beirut in 1983, a total of 300 Americans, including 241 Marines, were killed, forcing Washington to abandon its ambition of reshaping Lebanon. And in 1993 the murder of 18 U.S. Army Rangers in Mogadishu forced President Clinton to withdraw American peacekeepers from Somalia and abandon plans for the Horn of Africa, avoiding bigger conflicts that could have cost many more lives.