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.

Carlos does not say why it is good for mankind to destroy the United States. His method is religious and admits of neither doubts nor counterarguments. The West is evil, and the United States is the leader of the West. Thus the United States is evil. At one point he says the United States is an incarnation of Satan (Shaytan) and should, therefore, be hated without question, just as believers hate Satan without asking why.

Carlos urges Islamist groups to conclude alliances with all radical elements, including Maoists and nationalists, in a joint campaign against the United States. He wants all radicals to rush to Afghanistan and Iraq to kill Americans, while hordes of "volunteers for martyrdom" organize suicide attacks inside the United States.

And he makes a number of forecasts: The United States will reshape Iraq, Syria will disintegrate, and Lebanon will fall apart while Hezbollah is destroyed. Kosovo will become independent, and Sudan will be carved up. Libya will surrender to the United States. Even France will be divided into smaller countries, according to what Carlos claims is a secret American plan worked out by Henry Morgenthau in the 1940s. Carlos believes that, in the medium-term at least, only two states--North Korea and Iran--will be able to resist the United States, thus representing "the last hopes of mankind." The war against the United States, then, is going to be a long one, and the Americans will win the first rounds.

One question worth exploring in all this is whether Carlos is really a Muslim. Since Islam has neither baptism nor excommunication, we have no grounds for saying he's not. But neither is there reason to think he has any authority to speak on behalf of Islam. He is an individual with a peculiar view of the world that has nothing to do with what Islam has taught for 15 centuries. Moreover, his knowledge of Islamic doctrine, theology, history, and political philosophy is almost nonexistent. He thinks the first four caliphs were members of a dynasty known as the "Rashidis," and he confuses Hajjaj Ibn Yussef, the brutal governor of Kufa, with Mansur al Hallaj, the mystic who was crucified for blasphemy.

At one point Carlos presents himself as "the voice of Islam and history." At another point he poses as an authority on theology (fiqh) and offers a plan for "reforming the faith" under which "obligations" such as prayer, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca become secondary. Instead, the number one duty of Muslims becomes "fighting the United States by any means" available. He dwells on the necessity for all Muslim men to grow beards and all Muslim women to wear the "revolutionary" head-cover (the hijab) invented in Lebanon in the 1970s. He says that beards and the hijab can be used as tools of terror, to dishearten the Americans by reminding them that "their enemy Islam" is in their midst.

Carlos tells us little about the Islamic utopia that will cover the globe once Islam is established as "the sole religion of mankind." At one point he praises the Khomeinist system of rule by a mullah or group of mullahs. At another, he presents the "emirate" created by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1998 as the model. Carlos is not interested in Chechnya, Kashmir, the Philippines, or Myanmar, where Muslim minorities are in conflict with non-Muslim states. Nor does he care if Muslims live under corrupt or even genocidal rulers, as long as those rulers are unfriendly toward the United States.

Where Islamists are fighting regimes that Carlos favors, he brands them "bandits" and "murderers." In this way he condemns Islamists who are fighting the Libyan regime. He is especially harsh on Algerian Islamist terrorists, whom he labels "gangsters." The reason is that Carlos was for years protected by the Algerian secret service.

A name-dropper, Carlos makes his own terrorist career out to have been something of historic significance. He pretends that many Arab leaders, from Muammar Qaddafi to Hafez al-Assad to Yasser Arafat, were his friends. He also claims to have known former Pakistani premier Benazir Bhutto "very well," though he does not say in what circumstances.

Carlos mentions the names of the seven men he most admires. Oddly enough, five are Palestinian Christians: George Habash, Waddi Haddad, Nayef Hawatemah, Kamal Nasser, and Naji Allosuh. Two are Muslim Arabs: the Algerian president, Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika, whom he calls "my beloved brother," and fugitive terrorist Osama bin Laden, upon whom he bestows the title of "sheikh."

Carlos's admiration for Bouteflika is based on a misunderstanding. Carlos writes that Bouteflika agreed to become president of Algeria mainly to prevent his country from being absorbed into the NATO system, "a tool of the United States." Carlos seems unaware that Algeria had already established a relationship with NATO. Indeed, at next May's NATO summit, Algeria along with three other Arab states and Israel will join a "partnership for peace" with the alliance.

Carlos is wholly dedicated to inciting Muslims to hate the United States and not at all interested in inspiring them to change the regimes that oppress them. The reason may lie in his own long association with some of the most repressive Arab regimes--regimes that, frightened by the liberation of Iraq, fear they may be the next dominoes to fall as the democratic impulse reaches the Middle East.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian journalist based in Paris.