The 1970s was what some have inappropriately termed a “golden age” of terrorism. Many young, radically minded, middle-class youth who yearned to overthrow “the system” rejected traditional Marxism and the “proletariat” for political change via the medium of the gun. After the defeat of the 1968 revolutionary wave in Europe, they came to believe that the agents for change were to be found in the so-called Third World and that funding for their activities would come from the Soviet Union; its client states in eastern Europe; and Arab and “non-aligned” states. So, let’s get inside the strange mind of a 1970s terrorist.
Bruno Breguet – a typical 1970s terrorist
It’s recently been revealed that a former Swiss left-wing revolutionary and Che Guevara influenced terrorist fighter ended up as a CIA agent before his mysterious disappearance in 1995. This has shocked many but it’s still a common feature among terrorists today – an ability to change sides as circumstances dictate. This 1970s terrorist, Bruno Breguet, had an unbelievable ideological journey working his way from the violent liberation ideology of the 1960s to becoming a tool for Uncle Sam.
Early on he was a hero to some on the Left. When Breguet was imprisoned in 1977 over a planned bombing in Tel Aviv, leading socialist intellectuals campaigned for his release. They were successful. He left prison early. And in no time launched a series of deadly attacks for the cause. But then this quintessential 1970s terrorist did something unexpected – he swapped sides.
Breguet was born in 1950 in Switzerland. Like many young radicals in the 1960s, he junked the orthodox, trade-union based proletarian Marxism of the traditional Left in Europe in favour of the peasant-based ideology of Chairman Mao and the ‘liberation’ ideology of Che Guevara. Borrowing from the anarchism of the early 20th century, he and other 1970s terrorists glorified explosive deeds including hijackings, bombings, hostage taking, robbery, and murder.
In 1970, Breguet was in Lebanon, aged 20, training in a military camp run by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – officially Marxist and secular as most “liberation” movements were at the time. Breguet volunteered for a bomb attack on the Shalom Tower in Tel Aviv but this plot was foiled. He was arrested in the Israeli city of Haifa in possession of two kilos of explosives. A military court sent him down for 15 years. At which point, the French and German intelligentsia swung into action.
Breguet found himself being championed by a roll-call of the continent’s top philosophers and authors including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Günther Grass. Together with lobbying from the Swiss government and his family, he left jail early. By the early 1980s, he had hooked up with Carlos the Jackal (real name Ilich Ramírez Sánchez), already one of the world’s most wanted terrorists.
Carlos the Jackal – the leading 1970s terrorist
Carlos (born 1949), like Breguet, also began his terrorist career with the Palestinian PFLP in 1970. He was involved in the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics; the 1974 takeover of the French embassy at The Hague; and the 1976 hijacking of an Air France jet bound for Entebbe in Uganda.
He was the son of a wealthy Venezuelan lawyer with communist leanings. By the age of 15 he was involved in Venezuela’s communist student movement; then sent for guerrilla training in Cuba; and from there selected by the KGB, the Soviet secret service, to complete his education in Moscow.
From there it was off to fight with the Palestinians against both Jordan and Israel. And in 1975, he masterminded an attack on the OPEC (oil producers) HQ in Vienna where three were killed and eleven oil ministers taken hostage. This included the Saudi minister, Sheikh Yamani who became a sworn enemy of the Jackal.
DISCOVER: Was Jesus Christ a terrorist?
The 1970s terrorist becomes a gun for hire
The Carlos the Jackal justification for acts of violence was that it was all in the name of toppling imperialism. But as one journalist described Carlos – he was an organised criminal with a revolutionary veneer. Racketeering, gun running, and other illegal activities were funded by Stalinist dictatorships behind the Iron Curtain and Arab dictators like Syria’s President Assad in the Middle East.
By 1981, Carlos was being paid by the Syrians to launch attacks on Iraq. Meanwhile the Libyans engaged him to assassinate US President Ronald Reagan. But the main focus for Carlos was France, which had arrested and imprisoned Breguet who now found himself behind bars once more. The French had also imprisoned Magdalena Kopp, a member of the Frankfurt Revolutionary Cells and lover of Carlos the Jackal.
In 1985, after some murderous attacks on French soil by Carlos – including a bomb let off near the Eiffel Tower that killed a pregnant woman – Kopp and Breguet were released.
Things unravel for the 1970s terrorist
In the 1970s, there were two sources of protection for the 1970s terrorist: the USSR and its client states, and certain Arab states like Syria and Libya. There were also “non-aligned” states to which a terrorist like Carlos or Breguet could take cover. But the end of the Cold War strengthened America’s hand. It was becoming harder, if not impossible, for terrorists to simply flit behind the Iron Curtain to avoid the long reach of Uncle Sam.
In 1994, Carlos was arrested in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. He was carrying a clutch of Arab passports. Sudan was desperate to come off the American list of nations deemed to have supported terrorism. However, despite turning in Carlos the Jackal, Washington kept the screws firmly tightened on Sudan and refused to remove it from the list.
With the Cold War over and Middle East relations showing signs of improvement, the CIA’s head of counter-terrorism, Vincent Cannistraro, optimistically described the Jackal as an anachronism. “He’s an historical curiosity” and “he’s someone from a bygone era”. The 1970s terrorist was a dying breed. What the CIA may not have fully appreciated were the new kinds of terrorism – jihadi and extreme Right – that would prove arguably far more deadly in the years ahead.
One 1970s terrorist takes an unexpected turn
With Carlos in a French jail – what was Breguet to do? He had risen to be the de facto deputy to Carlos in his terrorist operation. But conditions were getting harder for this generation of terrorists to operate. Communism was collapsing and eastern Europe was no longer a haven. One terrorist paymaster, the Romanian President Nicolae Ceaușescu, was executed in a revolution that overthrew his regime at the end of 1989. The Syrian capital Damascus was proving to be one of the few reliable boltholes.
As early as 1991, three years before the French captured Carlos, Breguet crossed the threshold of an American embassy and agreed to become a CIA-paid informer earning three thousand dollars a month with the code name: agent FDBONUS/1. There is little doubt that Breguet played a role in the eventual arrest of Carlos in Sudan in 1994.
And then in 1995, Breguet disappeared. He vanished from a ferry in the Mediterranean. Suicide was considered but more likely, Carlos ordered a hit from his cell in France. There were plenty of contract killers who would oblige. In 2001, body parts washed up on a beach in Greece suspected to be the remains of Breguet.
Was the 1970s terrorist more hype than reality?
It’s often mistakenly believed that the 1971 spy thriller Day of the Jackal by the novelist Frederick Forsyth, made into a movie, was based on Carlos the Jackal. In fact, Carlos was dubbed the Jackal much later when a copy of the book was spotted by a journalist near his belongings after he had fled the authorities.
In 1994 the author David Yallop wrote a contrarian book, Tracking the Jackal, arguing that the whole Carlos the Jackal thing was a massive case of hype. This came out just before the ageing terrorist’s arrest. Carlos was described by Yallop as an overweight businessman living in Damascus with his wife and kids. A picture of bourgeois domesticity.
His PR, as the most dangerous man on the planet, was largely a fiction created by the CIA as a bogeyman to discredit communist Eastern bloc countries and Arab dictators. As a terrorist, he bungled his attacks even allowing a bomb to slip out of his hands on one occasion when a revolving door hit his arm. Carlos was, in short, a Cold War creation who by the 1990s was no longer needed by anybody.
This kind of analysis must be taken with a big pinch of salt. Yallop’s main claim to fame was his book on the short reign of Pope John Paul I, claiming he was murdered. And the idea of terrorist threats being manufactured by the intelligence services has a long and continuing pedigree. For example, the theory that Al Qaeda doesn’t really exist circulated widely after the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. There are not many takers for that theory today.
Sadly, terrorists are very real and while their paths do cross with the intelligence agencies, as Breguet evidences, they have their own dynamic and ideology. The 1970s terrorist was not a figment of anybody’s imagination.