Interview: Carlos the Jackal “It’s not a good idea to fuck with me”

30 mins read
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Carlos the Jackal is a near-mythical villain in the history books of the twentieth century. After all, this is a man who could boast of a direct line to Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Hugo Chavez.

Joining the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 1970, he carried out a series of assassination attempts and bombings in Europe, not to fortget the OPEC siege in 1975. The subject of Olivier Assayas’ miniseries-come -movie Carlos (2010), today the terrorist is serving out a life sentence in Poissy, a suburb on the outskirts of Paris. After reading an interview in our sister magazine, SOFILM France, Carlos wanted the chance to set the record straight, and he’s not the sort of man you want to say no to. 

By Thierry Lounas / Photos: DR

You figure prominently in Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Trilogy and more recently you were the subject of Olivier Assayas’ film Carlos. Your nickname ‘The Jackal’ even comes from a Frederick Forsyth novel. Where does reality end and fiction begin? When you’re a member of an international guerrilla organisation, when you’ve hijacked commercial aeroplanes and masterminded the OPEC siege, it’s only natural that you become a fictional character. But every film inspired by my history has only been a vehicle for making money. The first film they made about me, in late 1977 if I’m not mistaken [Carlos el terrorista, 1979] was a Mexican production. My mother travelled to Mexico especially to see it. It was a sort of sketchy ‘B’ movie where the Carlos character is killed off at the end. So it’s a little unsettling. But even more preposterous is the Assayas film, which has claims to biographical accuracy but which is in fact a dirty and deliberate fabrication of the facts. And that’s what’s unacceptable. It’s pure, unadulterated bad faith.

What are the biggest failings of Assayas’ film? I mean, it’s okay to have your own opinions, but [it’s a problem] when you gainsay actual historical facts. His film is one long caricature from beginning to end. We’re portrayed as alcohol drinking, cocaine addicts who like to spray rounds of ammunition in the air for fun. You see me having a line of coke in an aeroplane when I’ve never touched drugs in my life. You don’t seriously believe that highly trained professionals like us are anything like those mugs in Assayas’ film? Come on. Be serious. The film is about a bunch of maniacs. A maniac could never pull off the operations we did. We’re depicted as mercenaries, there for the money and nothing but. In actual fact we didn’t make a penny for something like the OPEC siege. Not a penny. And as for our treatment of women … I don’t profess to love women any more than any other man, but to treat them like dogs? That’s just not in my culture. I’m pro-feminism. And the women who worked with me, comrades, never suffered any abuse. Quite the opposite. In the film, Magdalena [Kopp, Carlos’ former wife] is a Stasi agent and a prostitute. Magdalena was never an agent for anyone, and I can vouch that she wasn’t a whore. She’s a woman with sound morals, but I suppose that’s not sensational enough for a film.

“Carlos is one long caricature from beginning to end. You don’t seriously believe that highly trained professionals like us are anything like those mugs in Assayas’ film?”

The film points to the hand of Saddam Hussein behind the OPEC hostage siege in Vienna in 1975, whereas you’ve always insisted it was Gaddafi. Saddam Hussein never recognised our organisation. “We know Carlos,” the Iraqis would say. “Carlos is a hero of the Palestinian cause, so it’s an honour and a duty to extend to him and his friends a warm welcome.” But it never went beyond those little games governments and secret services are always playing at, trying to recruit you, and then infiltrate you. That’s how things work. As for Gaddafi, I spelled out all the facts to him in a document I’d penned in French. The OPEC siege, that was all his idea. Gaddafi confided in a Syrian ally of his, “We absolutely have to do something about OPEC. The Saudis and all those bastards are conspiring to push up oil prices.” When his friend replied that there wasn’t enough time, Gaddafi suggested that I, with all my experience, might be able mount something. That’s the story in a nutshell.

What’s so remarkable about the OPEC hostage siege was that your commando unit was just six people. Yeah, we were a small unit, but exceptionally well trained. We could take on 60 people. And let’s not forget that downstairs there were all these Iranian bodyguards by the limousines and inside there were the Iraqis, and then we were attacked by Austrian commandos, who had former Wehrmacht officers among their ranks. It wasn’t easy. We had one injury, from a ricochet. He became a drug addict. What was his name again? Klein. [Hans-Joachim Klein renounced terrorism in 1977 in a letter published in Der Spiegel. He was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2001 for his role in the OPEC siege, and was released in 2009]. He was injured. But I didn’t want to bring him along on the operation. I kept on saying, “He’s not up to it.” He could shoot okay, he was an elite marksman, but he didn’t have the psychological make-up necessary for this line of work. And he was the one who took a bullet!

One thing that Carlos insists on, and it’s been said by many others, is that you’re a mercenary. If money was my primary objective then why did I pass up the opportunity to work for the CIA? They offered to get me out of [prison] 18 years ago, and I declined. The Americans sent Algeria’s Chief of Foreign Intelligence to see me at La Santé. I refused to see him in secret. I told Vergès, “Why in secret? Either he visits me officially, accompanied by the Algerian ambassador, or not at all.” But no, that’s how he wanted to play it. He was an agent of the Americans.

Would a different kind of film have made for more interesting viewing? Yes, probably. The film could have dwelled on our politics, discussed the cause, the people who lived for it and died for it. The deaths we were responsible for, they pale in comparison with the atrocities committed by the Americans in a single day in Afghanistan. What counts is setting an example, and that’s what we did. Our organisation was one with true heroes among its ranks, an organisation where no one was ever arrested. I wasn’t arrested, I was sold by the Sudanese government. It’s the KGB that stabbed me in the back.

You still must be a little flattered that there are so many films about you? Aged 14, in Caracas, I was already a leader in the Venezuelan Communist Youth. I was a commander from a very young age, so flattery is not something I’m in need of. Me and my comrades were highly regimented and courageous, there’s no disputing that. We were taking on some of the most formidable secret services in history. In every country we visited we were shown the utmost respect.

“Trotsky was an orthodox Marxist whereas Stalin was a dissident.
I think Stalin had a better understanding of things.
He built a State from the ground up, let’s not forget.”

Are you scared of death? It’s not really in my nature. I’m not a particularly fearful person, even if fear follows us wherever we go. But you have to control your fear, dominate it, something that not a lot of people are able to do. There is another category of people who are never scared: the mentally ill. As for myself, I was always prepared to sacrifice everything for the Revolution, even my family. That was always clear. In 1992, when I was in Jordan with Magdalena, under the protection of King Hussein, a distinguished man, a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, I received a letter from my father. He wrote, “My son, I’ve been kidnapped by the enemy services. Please never turn yourself in.” It was written in my father’s own handwriting, and he was someone who only ever wrote letters on a typewriter. It was a defining moment for me, even if I’d already made that decision long ago: a revolutionary should never turn himself in.

Nowadays in cinema, especially American cinema, the terrorist is the archetype of evil. First it was the Communists, then it was the domestic terrorist, then the Islamic terrorist, and now the enemy within. Listen here. Terrorism is always state terrorism. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Nationalists or revolutionaries who resort to terrorism never do it for personal gain. That’s only in the movies. The fanatics, those mentally disturbed characters who dress up like fools and go blow themselves up, and get labelled as jihadists, that’s something that only happens in the movies. That’s one of the lessons to take from 9/11. Those guys weren’t fools, they wore normal clothes, they were good Muslims who prayed regularly, and were assimilated into American society.

How would you describe yourself? A Communist? A Muslim? A Communist! I’ve never betrayed the cause. I suppose I lean towards the Stalinist school of Communism! (laughs) Trotsky was an orthodox Marxist whereas Stalin was a dissident. I think Stalin had a better understanding of things. He built a State from the ground up, let’s not forget.

“I was brought up an atheist. But over the years, I’ve walked away from so many shootouts unscathed, that I began to think, ‘Why am I still here?’
And that’s when I started to doubt my own atheism.”

So why did you convert to Islam? I was always sort of allergic to religion because where I come from, Venezuela, our religion is the Catholic church which has always been in the service of the rich and powerful. The church was always on the wrong side, although there were a few priests, admirable men who offered us assistance in secret. Some people are brought up Catholic. I was brought up an atheist. But over the years, I’ve walked away from so many shootouts unscathed, when everyone around me was dropping like flies, that I began to think, ‘Why am I still here?’ And that’s when I started to doubt my own atheism. If there was really nothing on the other side, I would have been dead long ago. My conversion to Islam, properly speaking, dates to the time of a perilous mission. I was in Yemen in 1975 and we were on our way to Somalia. The success of our mission was really far from guaranteed, so we all went out together and drank whisky. The hour was approaching when we’d have to go. One comrade, a Lebanese Sunni – in fact all the commandos were Muslim that day, and were all Sunni except a Communist Shiite from Iraq – said, “We have nothing to fear, we’ll all go to Paradise.” They kept pestering me to convert to Islam, and it was something I ended up doing for the good of the group. I’m convinced that God is looking over us, protecting us, and punishing us. In my eyes, God is something spiritual. I still believe in freedom of thought and faith.

Which political cause would you defend today? I haven’t changed. I still believe in a socialist state.

Is that still attainable? There’s socialism in China, Vietnam, Cuba. You have to adapt to today’s circumstances. What is Communism? Communism is an earthly paradise, a utopia with seven billion saints. That’s not clearly achievable, so you adapt.

Which figures from history really stand out for you? Listen, I’m not a fan of the man, but for his achievements, Alexander the Great.

Why? Here was a man who founded some 70 towns in his name across half of Asia, Europe and North Africa. It was extraordinary how a man of his age, a homosexual, conquered half the world and brought the most feared armies to their knees. As a person, I’m not really an admirer, but he was a builder of empires. His story is incredible.

Oliver Stone made a film about him. Oliver Stone is a very open-minded filmmaker. Unfortunately I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting him, but I’m a firm admirer of his.

He was a friend of the late Hugo Chávez. In the history of Venezuela, you have Simón Bolívar, and the heir to Simón Bolívar was Hugo Chávez. He was mixed-race and born into a poor family, a true man of the people – very honest and devout. Did you know he founded the Venezuelan army’s parachute division? Throughout his career, he showed great loyalty to his countrymen and he was a staunch believer in the Revolution and in socialism. If only Chávez could have exerted more authority, Venezuela would be in a better state that it is right now. You can’t have a revolution without repression. Some degree of repression is vital.

So you think Chávez wasn’t authoritarian enough? Chávez didn’t manage to bring order. I told him as much on numerous occasions. I offered to take care of national security for him. When you have a revolution, the number one priority is the security of the people. When I was young, one of my father’s cousins was president at the time. I remember how you could walk in the streets at 3am and nobody would trouble you. You could leave milk and bread on doorsteps and no one would steal it. In the old colonial mansions, which made up half of Caracas at that time – we’re talking the beginning of the ‘50s here – they’d open the doors at 5am for the elderly to go to church, and the doors would remain open until 10pm! Nowadays, even a second-floor apartment has bars over the windows! It’s unbelievable. If Chávez didn’t have 80% of the electorate on his side, it was down to insecurity. If someone was raped or beaten up in the street, he’d take it personally, understandably so.

If a filmmaker, let’s say Oliver Stone, turned around to you and said, “I’m going to film one scene from your life”, which would it be? Ah, that’s a tough question. I imagine it would have to be my capture in Khartoum, probably one of the most moving experiences in my life. The Sudanese Secret Service high command who arrested me, kept saying in Arabic and English, “Asef/We’re sorry.” It was emotionally charged. Half of the unit driving me to the airport were in tears. They were crying like babies. I was deeply touched. But what could they do? I’d been betrayed. When I stepped onto the aeroplane, a French aircraft, the officers from the French Special Forces were also very decent to me. They showed me a lot of respect. Former combatants are upstanding people. Officers who beat on prisoners, they’re dirt. But real combatants, that’s a different breed. They’ll kill if they’re called on, but you can’t say they’re dirt.

And what if you had to choose an action scene? Wow, I’ve been in so many operations. I’d probably say the shootout in Caracas in 1960. I was 15 then, I was with my brother Lenin and we took a Catalan priest hostage. That was a smart move which saved us our lives. We were being fired on by the secret police. The priest was much larger than us and we took cover behind him. There was no way the police would shoot a man in a cassock. (laughs) We were in front of my father’s law firm. Can you imagine? He wasn’t there, but his colleagues were watching from the balcony, yelling at the officers.

Whose side do you take in Syria? Assad or the rebellion? Did you support Gaddafi or the rebels? What about Mubarak or the revolution? You’ve omitted Tunisia. Tunisia and Egypt were essentially coup d’états carried out with the consent of the United States. Okay, they began as protests, but the protesters are not the ones that ended up in power. The Muslim Brotherhood are for the interests of the souks, the bazaars. These people don’t care about equality. For them, you have the poor on one side and the rich on the other, and the Muslim Brotherhood are on the side of the rich. I’m not talking about the militants here, those courageous men who are out in the street, getting massacred. I’m talking about the chiefs, who act in the interests of the souk.

A recurring theme in American films and TV series’ of late is up to what point can you breach the law in the fight against terrorism. Do you believe so-called democratic countries can contravene international law in their counter-terrorist efforts? Who exactly are the terrorists? It depends on your perspective. In Northern Ireland, the English army were considered terrorists. In Algeria, it was the French.

What do you think is the CIA’s jurisdiction? The CIA is a criminal organisation.

More criminal than your organisation? We’re not a criminal organisation. We’re law-abiding people. We believe in justice and we uphold it. The CIA can’t even abide by its own country’s constitution.

Aren’t they justified? They’re doing their job.

In your line of work, you’ve worked with a lot of secret services. That’s not true, I’ve never worked with any secret services. Having said that, I have professional contacts in many of them, including NATO’s. It goes with the territory.

« If the British had the same resources at their disposal as the CIA,
they would still be ruling the world today »

In your opinion, which is the most formidable? Formidable? I wouldn’t frame it that way, but I have a lot of respect for the British. They’re the best in the world, after the KGB that is. Look at the map of the world. Because of their former colonies, they had their tentacles everywhere. They kicked up shit wherever they went, but intelligently, they learned the language, etc. I can say, with my hand on my heart, that the British are much more appreciated in their ex-colonies than the French in theirs. If the British had the same resources at their disposal as the CIA, they would still be ruling the world today.

I get the feeling that heroism is something you put on a pedestal. I respect people who are prepared to die for their beliefs, even if they’re not beliefs that I personally share. Look at that general who was in a coma, the greatest hero the Israeli army has ever known, Ariel Sharon. He committed fewer crimes than most of them. He has no Israeli blood on his hands. He only ever killed his enemy. Arabs, in other words.

What about the Sabra and Shatila massacres [in 1982 Lebanese Forces slaughtered Palestinian civilians in a refugee camp in Beirut, while Israeli troops looked on]? He wasn’t actively responsible. He simply allowed it to happen. You can’t be outraged when a Zionist allows Arab groups, his sworn enemies, to kill each other.

Do you believe that in a situation like this, civilians are no different to soldiers? No, that’s not the issue. I always attempt to understand my enemy’s position. With Sabra and Shatila, Sharon allowed it to happen, but the crime was one perpetrated by the Lebanese against the Palestinians.

You class yourself as a a political prisoner. Is there ever any friction with the other inmates? I’m not the only political prisoner in here. You have others who have been through the same ordeals as me. But we still manage to laugh. There’s an African boxing champion in here. He’s almost two metres tall. Whenever we see each other, he throws jabs at me, and we joke. When they say, “There’s nothing funny about being inside” I say that you have to laugh. Laughter is the best medicine. It calms your nerves and helps you to deal with your situation.

You’re not maltreated? No. I admit, it can be tough in here, but the guards are fair. Sometimes an inmate will really get my goat. But he soon learns that it’s not a good idea to get on the wrong side of me. I’m not young anymore but I haven’t forgotten any killing technique. I can liquidate someone like that. You get that down properly. It’s not a good idea to fuck with me.

Interview featured in So Film #02. Subscribe to the digital/tablet edition of Sofilm to read it. All back issues available!

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