Why did Prague become a base for notorious terrorists such as Carlos the Jackal in the 1970s and ‘80s? And why did the local Communists want them out?
In the 1970s and 1980s notorious international terrorists such as Carlos the Jackal (born Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez) and Munich Olympic massacre mastermind Abu Daoud were frequent visitors to Prague. Indeed, the StB secret police reported that the two even met in the snack bar of the downtown Intercontinental Hotel, where they used to stay.
These fascinating facts have been uncovered in declassified communist-era surveillance reports in the Prague archives by Daniela Richterová, a Slovak researcher at Warwick University in the UK.
In her paper The anxious host: Czechoslovakia and Carlos the Jackal, Richterová quotes the Carlos Group as saying Prague was “just the right place” for conducting their business. On the line from the UK, she explained that there were a number of reasons for this.
“The first was that the geographical location was perfect, because most of their targets would have been in Western Europe, either in West Germany, France or Holland.
“So being in the heart of Europe, while being protected by the Iron Curtain, it would have been a great place for these group members to meet and hold meetings – amongst themselves or with other partners.
“The other thing that attracted them to Prague was that it was relatively open, when it came to foreigners, so it was ‘more cosmopolitan’ than a lot of other cities east of the Iron Curtain.
“There was quite a large Arab community living in Czechoslovakia.
“There were also a number of international organisations, such as the international journalists organisation. Also a communist magazine had its headquarters in Prague. And this attracted a lot of foreigners.
“So essentially it was easier for people like Carlos, who was from Venezuela, or for Abu Daoud, who was from the Occupied Territories, to blend in in Prague.”
Was providing sanctuary to these international terrorists in a sense expected of Czechoslovakia, and perhaps other Eastern Bloc states, by the Soviet Union?
“I think it was expected of Prague to establish relations with the PLO and its different factions.
“Being in the heart of Europe while being protected by the Iron Curtain, Prague would have been a great place for these groups to meet.”
“It would be expected of Prague to have relations with the PLO on the political level, cultural level, educational level and, of course, in the security domain.
“But when it came to hosting or creating a relationship with these more radical groups or individuals, such as Carlos or Abu Daoud, I haven’t found any orders saying, You must provide these guys with sanctuary or let them stay on your territory.
“We see that Czechoslovakia does let these guys stay on their territory and they were allowed to come multiple times.
“But they’re not very happy about having them on their territory and they actually referred to Carlos and Daoud as extremists and terrorists.”
Would the Western agencies have been aware that they were here?
“The problem here is that our access to Western intelligence documents from the 1970s and 1980s actually isn’t as good as our access in the East.
“Because those regimes are obviously still in power, unlike the communist ones, so this is difficult to answer.
“But I’ve discussed this with a number of people I’ve interviewed and a couple of people who actually helped hunt down and put Carlos in jail.
“They suggested that they knew these groups visited or stayed for shorter periods of time behind the Iron Curtain, but they also said that it wasn’t easy to operate in these quite closed socialist countries.
“So from what I’ve gathered from these interviews, I’m not aware that there would be any operations, or any intent, to either snatch Carlos or assassinate him behind the Iron Curtain, but there was a moderate degree of knowledge of these guys being and staying there.”
In your paper you write about the Carlos Group. How big was that group? And who did they associate with here in Prague?
“I found documents where the Czech State Security, the StB, is actually discussing with the East German Stasi the nature of the Carlos Group, and they were also talking about how many members the group had.
“Some of them were dating each other. Carlos’s girlfriend was a part of the group.
“They had associates, people who would help them when it came to particular operations.
“So when you add up all the associates, you could come to a higher, double-digit number, but overall the group was quite small.
“When it came at their associates from other groups, Prague was a good place for either these Middle Eastern groups or even some of their European partners to meet and discuss and maybe plan some joint operations.
“The StB believed that they would have met representatives of the German RAF, the Red Army Faction, or even representatives of Spain’s ETA or the IRA in Prague.
“We don’t have exact transcripts of these meetings, but we do have some fragments of these conversations which suggest that arms trades and deliveries of arms were discussed among representatives of these different groups.”
And Carlos the Jackal and Abu Daoud also met each other, evidently?
“Yes, we just found that out, actually, based on some of the recently declassified materials.
“We have detailed surveillance reports so we know that they met at least twice in the snack bar of the Intercontinental Hotel, which is just a stone’s throw from Prague’s Jewish Quarter, actually.
“They met there for coffee and had breakfast together. We’re not entirely sure what the content of their conversation was, because it was quite difficult for the StB to monitor exactly what people were saying in public places.
“But we know that money was exchanged and that contact details, probably of some associates, were exchanged.
“And we also think that Daoud might actually have been sent to Prague to, simply put, spy on these more radical groups, such as Carlos the Jackal’s.
“He also might have used the opportunity to do some private arms business with them, because he was quite a well-known figure in the arms trade.”
You said that the Czechoslovak authorities weren’t happy with the presence of these two major international terrorists. What specifically made Czechoslovakia, as you put it, an anxious host?
“The StB believed they would have met representatives of the Red Army Faction, ETA or the IRA in Prague.”
“I called Czechoslovakia an anxious host for a number of reasons, when it comes to Daoud and Carlos.
“First of all, from what I’ve seen, they were never invited to Czechoslovakia. They emerged at some point and arrived there, always under a fake identity.
“They would always come under a fake name and usually on a diplomatic passport.
“So they slipped through Czechoslovakia’s defences. They checked into a fancy hotel and were meeting all sorts of people that the Czechoslovaks were concerned about.
“They were meeting Middle Eastern arms dealers, representatives of Middle Eastern intelligence services in Prague, who were under diplomatic cover.
“So Czechoslovakia didn’t really know what these guys were up to.
“And they also knew they were quite ill-tempered. We have reports where we read about Carlos running around the Intercontinental Hotel with a revolver in his hands.
“We know of Abu Daoud engaging in all sorts of parties with questionable individuals. So these were really sort of uncertain entities for Czechoslovakia.
“The Eastern Bloc and Czechoslovakia as well were quite orderly states. They liked to know who they were dealing with and these actors such as Carlos and Daoud made it quite difficult for the Czech services to understand what their next step was going to be.”
I guess also that if Carlos the Jackal was, as I was reading, a committed Marxist-Leninist, he may have been more radical politically than the Czechoslovak regime?
“That could be one way of interpreting it. But also I found some reports where it seems that the Czechoslovaks didn’t really believe in his Marxism and Leninism.
“They said, He proclaims that he believes in the principles of Marxism and Leninism, but he also associates himself with radical regimes such as that of Saddam Hussein.
“So he was just untrustworthy through and through for the Czechoslovaks.
“And when you talk to some of the East Germany scholars, the East Germans – maybe a bit later, in the early 1980s – also grew quite wary of Carlos and didn’t want him on their territory, because he was just a problematic customer.”
“The StB tried to persuade Carlos that French commandoes – who were known for killing their opponents abroad – were in Prague and ready to attack.”
In the end, how did the authorities here get rid of Carlos the Jackal?
“There was quite a long debate about how to do this and Czechoslovakia considered a number of ways of getting Carlos out.
“The key principle was that they didn’t want to sit him down and tell him, You are not welcome in the Eastern Bloc.
“They feared retribution because Carlos and his group were unpredictable and known to be very violent.
“So they were looking for ways to somehow trick him into leaving.
“The first time they tried this was actually in the early 1980s, when Carlos applied for a visa to Czechoslovakia during a stay in Sofia, Bulgaria.
“He wasn’t given this visa. He was told there were some administrative problems.
“But the last time he actually came to Czechoslovakia in June 1986, the Czechoslovaks realised that they didn’t want him to stay at all.
“So the trick was they sent one of their StB men to Carlos’s Intercontinental Hotel room and Carlos was told that he needed to leave because it was dangerous for him to stay on Czechoslovak territory as the French had found out where he was.
“The StB men tried to persuade Carlos that this was indeed dangerous, that the French commandoes – who were well known actually for killing their opponents abroad – were in Prague and ready to attack.
“In a couple of hours he packed his personal stuff and his weapons that he always carried with him, went to Prague Airport and flew off.”
In all of your research into this hugely interesting area was there anything in particular that really surprised you?
“One is just the sheer number of Middle Eastern but also European ‘revolutionaries’ and terrorists visiting Czechoslovakia.
“We didn’t know that these people used to come here on a regular basis.
“We didn’t know that well-known figures of that world would come to Czechoslovakia for medical treatment.
“Then what was also surprising was Czechoslovakia’s response, the StB’s response to these more radical groups.
“Because what we thought before was that the Eastern Bloc and Czechoslovakia essentially had a unified approach and they supported all of these groups because they claimed to be Marxist.
“What we actually find thanks to these archives is that there were quite mixed strategies, ranging from support of the official PLO to a more conservative or even a negative stance towards these radical elements.
“That also corrects our understanding of how the Eastern Bloc worked.
“Up until now scholars thought that the Eastern Bloc did whatever Moscow told them. But we see that in certain times and in certain cases, these strategies are uncoordinated and actually they clash.”
Among the photos that have appeared in connection with this research is one that shows Carlos in Prague and in the background there’s a poster for the film Podraz, or The Sting. Was that accidental, do you know? Or was there an StB photographer out there with a sense of humour?
“Well, I would certainly hope that there was a bit of humour in this work that actually was quite dull – waiting for hours in front of the Intercontinental Hotel and then following these guys around Prague.
“I hope there was a bit of humour within these surveillance units.
“But it definitely does seem quite ironic when you think of how Carlos was ousted or tricked into leaving Czechoslovakia.
“I think the word podraz actually sums up this whole episode quite well.”