Carlos the Jackal (Ilich Ramirez Sanchez)

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Carlos the Jackal (Ilich Ramirez Sanchez)

October 12, 1949

Caracas, Venezuela

"Terrorist for hire"

These ordinary people injured in a terrorist bombing have great power. Much influence. It manifests itself in what is called public opinion. They may not care about the Palestinians. They certainly don't care about some members of the Red Army [a Japanese terrorist group]. But throw a grenade among them and they care very much.

I n 1949 in Caracas, Venezuela, when it came time for José Altagracia Ramirez Navas to choose a name for his first son, he went through the usual Spanish names and decided against all of them. Navas was determined that his son should bear the name of one of his personal heroes, and so he called him Ilich, after the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (1870–1924), better known as Lenin. Perhaps baby Ilich's fate was sealed on the day of his naming, for he grew up to bedevil governments and play the part of terrorist for hire. Ironically, the terrorist organization that trained him in adulthood gave him a common Spanish name: Carlos.

Sanchez's father, a wealthy lawyer who nevertheless considered himself a committed communist, taught young Ilich about his left-wing beliefs and told stories of South American revolutionaries. (Communism is a political and economic system in which there is no form of private property; instead the people—represented by the government—owns all goods and all their means of production. In politics the left wing consists of people who push liberal or radical measures to solve social problems, usually in order to achieve equality and the well-being of the common people.) Sanchez attended the Fermin Toro School in Caracas, which had a reputation for left-wing teaching. While there he joined the Venezuelan Communist Youth organization and took part in violent antigovernment demonstrations.

At age seventeen Sanchez went to London, England, to continue his education. He gained a reputation as a lazy student and a "party boy." It would stay with him for the next thirty years.

Off to Moscow

Sanchez's father arranged for his son to attend Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, in the Soviet Union (presentday Russia and neighboring countries), named after a revolutionary leader in the Congo. It had a reputation as a training ground for communist leaders in underdeveloped countries. It was an open secret that the KGB, the Russian spy agency, closely watched foreign students, looking for potential spies or agents.

At Lumumba, Sanchez made friends with some Palestinian students and quickly began to sympathize with their cause. (Palestinian Arabs were involved in a struggle to take back their land from the state of Israel, which had been founded in 1948 on Palestinian land, driving many Palestinians from their homes.) From them he heard of the rebel Palestinian leader named Wadi Haddad, who headed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Its mission was to carry out acts of violence against the state of Israel, particularly hijacking airplanes. In Haddad's view, any person or property connected with Israel, whether in the Middle East or Europe, was a fair target.

In the summer of 1970 Sanchez made his way to Jordan, where he hoped to receive training in guerrilla warfare (learning tactics, such as using the element of surprise, to defeat a much larger force) at a camp run by the PFLP. It was the first step on a path that would make Sanchez a household name throughout Western Europe and the United States for more than a decade as one of the world's most wanted terrorists. But it was not under his given name that he became famous. When he arrived at the Palestinian guerrilla training camp, he was assigned the code name Carlos.

The Palestinian Cause

The nation of Israel was founded in 1948 in the area that had been the Jewish homeland in biblical times. In the early twentieth century, though, it was called the Palestine Mandate and was ruled by Britain, which had taken control of the area from Turkey after World War I (1914–18). Before World War I Palestine was part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.

After the Holocaust, during which more than six million Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany during World War II (1939–45), the United States and European governments agreed that the Jewish people needed a nation of their own. They decided the new Jewish homeland should be located in Palestine. However, the Palestinian Arabs living there claimed the territory for themselves.

On the day Israel was founded, armies from several neighboring Arab countries attacked, determined to stop Jews from taking control of the land. But neither that war, nor several others that followed, managed to defeat the Israelis.

Frustrated by their failures to defeat Israel, in the 1970s and 1980s many Palestinians turned to terrorist tactics. These included aircraft hijackings, bombings, and assassinations. Their targets were not only in Israel but also Israeli and Jewish interests in many European countries. Eventually, Carlos the Jackal extended the target list to nearly everyone, even if there were no obvious connection to Israel.

No other region in the world has experienced as many terrorist attacks.

Carlos: Secret agent

A month after his arrival, while "Carlos" was still in training, the PFLP hijacked four planes at once and then hijacked a fifth plane to gain the release of a PFLP hijacker who had been captured during the first hijackings. This disturbed Jordan's King Hussein (1935–1999), who was afraid Israel would target his country in revenge for the hijackings. Hussein ordered his army to drive the Palestinians out of his country, and in the bitter battle between the Palestinians and the Jordanians that was later called "Black September," Carlos got his first taste of war. The fighting ended with a bloody defeat for the Palestinians. Carlos also had gained a reputation as a fearless soldier and had come to the attention of the man he most wanted to impress: Wadi Haddad of the PFLP.

Carlos the Jackal: Timeline of Events

  • December 1973: Tries to murder British department store executive Joseph Sieff in London.
  • January 1974: Sets bombs at Israeli bank in London and at newspaper offices and a radio station in Paris, France.
  • December 1974–January 1975: Efforts to hijack or shoot down Israeli El Al planes in Paris stopped by police; Carlos escapes.
  • June 1975: Questioned by police; kills two policemen and escapes to Beirut, Lebanon. Becomes object of a massive police manhunt.
  • December 1975: Takes oil ministers hostage at Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna, Austria; flies to North Africa. Ministers are ransomed; Carlos escapes with the money.
  • February 1976: Thrown out of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); becomes a freelance terrorist.
  • December 1977: Meets Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq; begins building a terrorist gang.
  • January 1982: Fires rockets at a nuclear power plant in France, without effect.
  • February–April 1982: Wife arrested in France. Bombing campaign to achieve her release. French authorities refuse and sentence her to four years in prison. Carlos continues to attack French targets, without success.
  • August 25, 1983: After a year's truce arranged by Syria at the request of France, bombs French targets in West Berlin, West Germany.
  • December 31, 1983: Claims credit for bombing two trains in France in revenge for a French air strike against a terrorist training camp in Lebanon the previous month.
  • Early 1984: U.S. negotiations with Eastern European communist governments result in gradual closing of these countries to terrorists. Carlos is shunned by most Palestinian organizations.
  • May 1985: Wife released from prison in France for good behavior. Couple moves to Syria on promise of future employment as a terrorist.
  • August 1986–September 1991: Syria says his services are not needed after all but offers to protect him if he remains inactive. Syria throws him out after learning he has been working for Saddam Hussein. Carlos moves to Jordan.
  • Sometime in 1993: Granted asylum in Khartoum, Sudan.
  • August 1994: Captured in Khartoum by French agents, returned to France. Tried for murder of two policemen in 1975; sentenced to life in prison.

Carlos returned to London in early 1971. He once again took up the life of a wealthy playboy, attending cocktail parties and juggling several girlfriends. Behind this front, Carlos was working part time as an agent for the PFLP. He arranged "safe houses" where PFLP agents could hide in London and helped plan an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Jordan's ambassador to Britain in revenge for Black September.

In July 1973 Carlos flew to Beirut, Lebanon, and told Haddad he wanted to work full time as an undercover agent for the PFLP. Haddad agreed.

A full-time terrorist

To prove his loyalty and abilities Carlos was asked to murder a leading Jewish businessman in London: Joseph Sieff, head of the Marks and Spencer department store chain and a major contributor to Israeli causes. On December 30, 1973, Carlos broke into Sieff's London townhouse and shot him almost point-blank in the face. Sieff survived: the first bullet lodged in his jaw and Carlos's gun then jammed. A month later Carlos threw a bomb inside the Israeli Hapoalim Bank in London; the bomb did not work as well as it was supposed to and did only minor damage.

Despite these failures, the pace quickened. The PFLP moved Carlos to Paris, where he planted bombs outside newspaper offices and a radio station thought to be sympathetic to Israel. In September 1974 Japanese Red Army terrorists took the French ambassador to the Netherlands hostage, hoping to force France to release an imprisoned terrorist from a French jail. Carlos and the PFLP helped plan and execute the operation, but it was botched at the start: the Japanese terrorists got lost and their rented car broke down. The result was a standoff in Amsterdam. Carlos, already back in Paris, was determined to solve the situation. He threw a hand grenade into a crowded Parisian café, killing two people and injuring thirty-four. He told the media there would be more attacks unless the Amsterdam terrorists' demands were met. Two days later France freed the terrorist in exchange for the ambassador.

Firing rockets at the airport

Three months later, in December 1974, the PFLP ordered Carlos to hijack an El Al Israeli plane to prevent a possible peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel. It proved to be a frustrating assignment. At first Carlos's plan was ruined when El Al employees went on strike, keeping the planes on the ground. A month later Carlos led a team that tried to shoot down an El Al plane at Orly Field in Paris with a rocket launcher, but the rockets missed. Four days later Carlos and his colleagues tried a third time, but a security guard spotted them taking aim and opened fire with a submachine gun.

The terrorists fled through the passenger terminal, firing wildly. They took ten hostages and shut themselves inside a restroom. After hours of negotiations, the terrorists were given a plane to fly them to Baghdad, Iraq. But Carlos was not with them; he had escaped and flown to London.

Six months later, in June 1975, Michel Moukharbal, head of PFLP operations in Europe and Carlos's direct boss, was held and questioned by Lebanese police in Beirut. Documents linking him to terrorist activities were found in his briefcase. Moukharbal was eventually released and allowed to fly to Paris. There, followed by undercover police, he visited Carlos, and police photographed the two of them together.

Two French policemen killed

A short time later French police visited an apartment on Rue Toullier (Toullier Street) that belonged to one of Carlos's girlfriends and began questioning him. He managed to conceal a gun inside his pants, and when Moukharbal was brought in to identify him, Carlos pulled out the gun and started firing. Two policemen and Moukharbal were killed, and a third policeman was wounded. Carlos became the object of one of the biggest manhunts in French history, one that soon spread to London.

As the police investigation of the shoot-out on Rue Toullier proceeded, Carlos received a lot of coverage in the press: a mysterious Latin American working for the Palestinians, a series of girlfriends in London and Paris, apartments, safe houses, suitcases with false passports and weapons, shootouts with the police. It was the stuff of fiction, and he was given a new name from a novel about an assassin that was found in his London apartment: The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsythe. From then on, he was known in newspapers as Carlos the Jackal, the most famous terrorist in the world.

Carlos's most spectacular operation: Attack on OPEC

Carlos managed to escape Paris, traveling first to London and then to Beirut, where he was greeted as a hero by the PFLP. Haddad assigned him to a new operation: an attack on the Vienna, Austria, headquarters of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) during a conference in December 1975. The terrorists planned to hold the oil ministers who were attending the conference hostage, except for the oil ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran, who were sympathetic to western democracies, who were to be killed.

On Sunday, December 21, 1975, the terrorists walked calmly into OPEC headquarters and started shooting. Three people were killed in the attack. The terrorists invaded the OPEC conference room and took the oil ministers hostage while police surrounded the building. Carlos demanded that a message be read over radio and television expressing support for the Palestinian cause and that a bus be provided to take him and his men to the airport, where a plane was to be waiting to take the terrorists and their hostages to their destination.

Carlos and Communism

Was Carlos an agent for the Soviet Union (today, Russia and its neighboring countries)? His early years, including his attendance at Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, convinced many journalists that the hand of the KGB (the Soviet spy agency and secret police) was behind Carlos's hijackings and kidnappings.

The question of Soviet involvement in terrorism during the 1970s and 1980s was part of the Cold War, the long struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for worldwide influence that lasted from 1945 to 1990. Labeling a terrorist like Carlos as an agent of the Soviet Union fit neatly into the anti-Soviet propaganda that Western governments were spreading. Carlos denied he was working for the Soviets; anticommunists saw his denial as yet another lie by a communist agent.

Although he sometimes hid in countries of Eastern Europe that were controlled by the Soviets, Carlos did not travel in the Soviet satellites after he became a terrorist. These countries were often sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, even without the Soviet government in Moscow directing them to be.

At 6:22 p.m., their first demand was met: Carlos's statement was broadcast on radio and TV. The Austrian cabinet met in an emergency session and agreed to meet the terrorists' other demands on the condition that OPEC employees—but not the oil ministers—be released. At 6:40 the following morning, the terrorists were taken to the airport by bus; Carlos was clearly visible in the front window, waving at the passersby. At the airport the Austrian interior minister shook hands with Carlos, a gesture that was widely criticized afterward. At 9 a.m., the plane took off for Algiers in Algeria, a country in North Africa.

The foreign minister of Algeria greeted Carlos warmly in Algiers, and Carlos agreed to release thirty of the hostages. The plane was refueled and left for Tripoli, Libya. There, Libyan authorities demanded that the Libyan hostages on the plane be released, and after a brief standoff Carlos gave in. The plane then returned to Algiers, where authorities negotiated a $50 million ransom payment for release of the OPEC ministers, and Carlos and his men were allowed to go free.

The drama had captured the world's attention, and it appeared to be a victory for Carlos and the PFLP. But to Haddad, the operation had not ended satisfactorily: he had specifically ordered that the oil ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran be executed, yet they were allowed to live.

Carlos flew to Aden, the capital of South Yemen, where Haddad had called a meeting to review the attack. At the end of the meeting, Haddad threw Carlos out of the PFLP, accusing him of acting like "a star."

After his biggest strike ever, Carlos was a terrorist without a cause. He was also the object of an enormous international manhunt, making it more difficult for him to travel.

Unemployed terrorist: Have bomb, will travel

Rejected by the PFLP, Carlos decided to go into business, hiring himself out as a terrorist to whoever was willing to pay him. For nearly two years Carlos went from one hideout to another, including Yugoslavia, where he was briefly arrested at the request of Germany. He then went to Syria, Iraq, and South Yemen. In December 1977 he met Saddam Hussein (1937–), the dictator of Iraq, who offered his support.

Three months later, in March 1978, Carlos's old boss Haddad died. Carlos thought this created an opening in the Middle East for a new terrorist organization. He recruited some PFLP terrorists as well as Europeans from Switzerland and West Germany. Among these was Magdalena Kopp, who married

Carlos in 1979. Carlos called his new group the Organization of Arab Armed Struggle.

Four years passed before the group staged its first action: a rocket attack in January 1982 at a nuclear power plant under construction in France. The rockets failed to break through the plant's dome. The next month Kopp was arrested in France while on a mission to bomb the offices of an Arabic magazine that had criticized the Syrian government.

When Carlos heard that his wife had been arrested, he launched a bombing campaign to free her. This time France refused to give in, and Carlos's wife was sentenced to four years in jail. The attacks had another effect, however: they angered French President François Mitterand (1916–1996), who formed a new counterterrorism unit to go after terrorists.

Unable to capture Carlos, France persuaded Syria to limit Carlos's activities, and a year passed without more attacks. The peace ended on August 25, 1983, when a large explosion went off at Maison de France in West Berlin, destroying a French consulate, culture center, offices, and a restaurant. One person was killed and twenty-two others were injured. Carlos wrote to the West German interior minister, claiming responsibility.

The welcome mat is pulled back

Early in 1984 there was a development that Carlos could not have foreseen or controlled: the United States launched successful diplomatic talks with countries of Eastern Europe that had protected Carlos and other Middle Eastern terrorists. The subject of terrorists came up during these talks, and gradually Eastern Europe began closing its doors to Carlos, starting with East Germany and followed by Romania and Czechoslovakia.

In response Carlos traveled to Aden to attend an emergency summit meeting with other Palestinians, but there he discovered he was no longer accepted as part of their movement. Carlos was on his own.

In 1985 Kopp was released from prison, and the couple began looking for a nation that would take them in. They went from country to country: Lebanon, Hungary, Libya, Cuba. Everywhere, the welcome mat had been taken in. Finally, Syria offered to protect Carlos in exchange for his services, but after a year the country ordered Carlos to stop his activities. At age thirty-nine, Carlos was in early retirement.

In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, which sparked the Persian Gulf War (1990–91). Western intelligence agencies learned that Saddam Hussein had hired Carlos to lead a terrorist campaign against the United States. This news upset Syria, which opposed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Syria drove Carlos out of the country in 1991, and he went to Jordan.

By this point, not only his career as a terrorist but also his family was collapsing. Carlos separated from his wife and married another woman. For two years Carlos searched for a country that would admit him permanently. Finally he and his new wife were allowed to move to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan in eastern Africa. There he took up his old life of socializing and partying at nightclubs.

The kidnapper is kidnapped

But Carlos was still being tracked by French intelligence agents. French authorities in Paris began negotiating with the government of Sudan to expel Carlos. France offered to sponsor economic development loans to Sudan, to help pay Sudan's foreign debts, in exchange for Carlos. Sudan's leader, Sheik Hassan al-Turabi, was shown a videotape of Carlos at a party; the terrorist's behavior and use of alcohol offended the Muslim al-Turabi, who agreed not to interfere in Carlos's capture.

In August 1994 Sudanese police lured Carlos out of a hospital, where he was recovering from minor surgery, and into an apartment near al-Turabi's home. At 3 a.m. the next morning, Carlos was awakened by a group of men pinning him to his bed. He was handcuffed and bundled into a car for the trip to the airport, where an executive jet was waiting to fly him to France.

In France Carlos was charged with the murder of two police agents in 1979. In December 1997, after a long and dramatic trial, the international terrorist was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Carlos disappeared from public view once he was in prison, but after hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and damaged the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, Carlos told a French newspaper that he was "relieved" by the attacks. He said he wished good luck to Osama bin Laden (c. 1957–; see entry), who was accused of planning the attacks.

Also in 2001, Carlos's lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, announced that she planned to marry her client, despite very slim chances that they could ever live together since Carlos was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Carlos the Jackal: A classic terrorist

The life of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez in some ways is straight out of a spy novel: a mysterious, cold-blooded killer who liked to show off for TV cameras, feared and hated by authorities throughout Europe and North America, seemingly undefeatable. He was on the front pages of newspapers for a decade, almost making him a celebrity.

But Carlos was blamed for eighty violent deaths. He did not hesitate to attack civilians. His commitment to the Palestinian cause seemed to melt away when he was offered a ransom for the oil ministers he had taken hostage. Rather than trying to avoid notice, he seemed to enjoy the headlines linking him with murder and destruction.

In the end Carlos was sent to prison. His organization, the PFLP, faded from the scene without achieving its political goals. All that was left was a nickname drawn from a novel: the Jackal.

For More Information


Dobson, Christopher, and Ronald Payne. The Carlos Complex: A Study in Terror. New York: Putnam, 1977.

Follain, John. Jackal: The Complete Story of the Legendary Terrorist, Carlos the Jackal. New York: Arcade Publishers, 1998.

Smith, Colin. Carlos: Portrait of a Terrorist. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977.

Yallop, David A. Tracking the Jackal: The Search for Carlos, the World's Most Wanted Man. New York: Random House, 1993.


Holland, Max, and Kai Bird. "Columbia: The Carlos Connection." Nation, June 22, 1985, p. 759.

Markovits, Andrei S. "The Minister and the Terrorist." Foreign Affairs, November/December, 2001, p. 132.

Smolowe, Jill. "Carlos Caged: The Capture of the Infamous Jackal Exposes a Past of Clumsy Terrorist Acts, High Living and Tall Tales." Time, August 29, 1994, p. 53.

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Carlos the Jackal (Ilich Ramirez Sanchez)

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