The Vanishing of a Left-Wing Terrorist

bruno1The President of the United States gets a lot of unsolicited mail. Sack loads of begging letters, death threats, pleas for help, heartfelt congratulations, generalised hate mail, and closely worded arguments for the existence of alien life pour into the over-worked post room at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Most of it is from correspondents unaware they are less important to the President than he is to them.

The Jackal Writes

Presidential staff send the letters from lunatics and would-be assassins to the Secret Service and ignore pretty much everything else. Only a few letters are deemed worthy of reaching their intended recipient. The President, who is a busy man, will be presented with a daily folder of the ten most heart-warming or politically useful.

Determined correspondents can use the media to get around the lack of personal interest taken by the American leader in his postbag. In February 2009 a press release announced a correspondent in Paris had written to President Barack Obama. He wanted help in tracking down a missing person.

Ilich Ramirez Sanchez aka Carlos the Jackal was eleven years into a life sentence at Paris’ Clairvaux Prison. The lustre of the fifty-nine-year-old terrorist’s name had faded since his heyday in the 1970s when he took a roomful of OPEC ministers hostage and paraded them around the Middle East on a hijacked DC-9. But the announcement that he had written to President Obama was still headline news.

Right-wing bloggers were delighted to see that Carlos signed off with the Islamic salutation ‘Allahu Akbah’ prefaced with the words ‘as your grandfather would have said’. The bloggers had spent every second of Obama’s presidency reminding God-fearing Americans that their President came from a long line of Muslims. This was a great chance to do it again.

Journalists with long memories raised an eyebrow at the religious edge to the letter. During his long run of terror, from a clumsy first bombing in 1973 until his 1994 capture in Sudan, the Venezuelan-born Carlos had been an atheist Communist operating with the help of the East German and Hungarian security services.

He converted to Islam after the 11 September 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks on New York and called on all revolutionaries (‘even atheists’) to recognise the authority of Osama bin Laden. Sceptics doubted the conversion was anything more than a desire to keep his face in the papers but some observers saw a logical continuation from Carlos’ earliest days as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Overlooked in all the internet mud slinging was the point of Carlos’ letter. The imprisoned terrorist wanted President Obama to find out what had happened to Bruno Bréguet, a former comrade who had disappeared on a ferry journey from Italy to Greece in November 1995.

Doing Something Interesting

‘In an age when so many people are passionate about nothing,’ said François Genoud, a Swiss banker and life-long Nazi who played an important role in Bréguet’s life, ‘he had gone off to carry out, perhaps stupidly, something “interesting”.’

The interesting life had put Bréguet in jail twice.

bruno-breguetHe was born 29 May 1950 in Coffrane, Switzerland to prosperous middle class parents. Life was secure, clean, and ordered. Or at least until the late 1960s when Bréguet got caught up in the leftist radicalism that swept Europe and America as hippies put down flowers and picked up guns. Like many middle-class young men, Bréguet passionately opposed the war in Vietnam and the American government. He supported with equal passion the cause of oppressed Third World peoples, especially the Palestinians.

Most new radicals were content to demonstrate on their home streets and pass out mimeographed leaflets. Bréguet was one of the few prepared to go further. In 1970 at the age of nineteen, he dropped out of university and made his way to Lebanon.

The Palestinians had the sympathies of many around the world, from leftists like Bréguet who saw them as oppressed colonial people, to unrepentant Nazis like Genoud who supported their war against the Jewish state. Palestinian intellectuals privately accepted money from Genoud (‘Sheik François’) but publicly spouted leftist rhetoric that appealed to university campuses across Europe.

It was a crucial time in the Palestinian story. The 1948 creation of Israel had scattered them across the Middle East into refugee camps and temporary accommodation, supported by neighbouring Arab countries who shared their hatred of the Israelis but regarded their uninvited guests with suspicion.

By the mid-1960s there was a real hope that Nasser’s war machine in Egypt was strong enough to live out the much shouted propaganda slogan and push the Israelis into the sea. Palestinian fathers showed door keys to houses now in Israel and promised their children they would soon return home. In 1967 Israel launched a pre-emptive attack. The Six Day War left Egyptian bones bleaching in the sun beside the rusting hulks of their tanks. The Arab armies were destroyed and with them Palestinian hopes.

In the wake of the defeat Palestinian groups became more militant. A small group called the Arab National Movement, unusual for being vaguely rightist, dissolved itself. Its leader George Habash, a middle-class Eastern Orthodox doctor, morphed his followers into the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and shifted to the left. In 1969 it officially declared itself a Marxist-Leninist organisation. The PFLP attracted middle class Palestinians, secular types with more liberal views than the working class members of the rival Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

By the end of the decade the PFLP had a few thousand militants, financial backing in Syria, and a training camp in Jordan. A number of western leftists, most students, visited the camp to show solidarity and run around a dusty assault course. Dilettantes rather than urban guerrillas, they returned home to boast about their exploits in student bars.

Most had gone by the time Bréguet arrived in 1970. The few foreigners still around tended to be more serious about revolution. They trained with guns and grenades. The PFLP recognised their usefulness. The organisation was slowly moving from guerrilla tactics to terrorism. One of the foreigners was a young Venezuelan called Illich Ramirez. He had come to the Middle East after being expelled from Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University for breaking the rules on drinking and women one too many times.

History would know Ramirez as Carlos the Jackal but in 1970 he was just an overweight South American with an expensive wardrobe and an easy smile. Like Bréguet he had come to help the Palestinian cause. Neither man realised how quickly the sands would shift beneath their feet.

The Famous Carlos

Barack Obama’s correspondent was born in Caracas, Venezuela in October 1949. He inherited his leftist politics from his father, a rich lawyer, and a line in smooth charm from his mother. Ramirez’s pudgy features displayed the mix of native Indian and European common in his home country. His brothers nicknamed him ‘El Gordo’ (the fat one), in affection rather than malice.

Carlos 1974Ramirez’s parents lived apart after their three boys were born, Ramirez senior funding his wife’s expensive tastes and wanderlust. She took the boys around South America and the Caribbean before settling in Kensington, London in 1967. It was the height of the swinging sixties, at least for middle-class city dwellers. Ramirez plunged into a playboy lifestyle. He trod a more salubrious circuit than the hippies and counter-culturists, preferring to meet his girls at embassy receptions and posh restaurants. He did not let the fact he lived with his mother and two brothers in a two bedroom flat cramp his style.

Possibly the future Carlos enjoyed himself too much. His father arranged for him and his younger brother Lenin to attend university. In Moscow. The choice was inspired by Ramirez senior’s links to the Venezuelan Communist party but there is no evidence his leftward leaning son, once he had got over the shock of leaving London’s drinks party circuit, objected to the uprooting.

Ramiriez’s time in Moscow is shrouded in secrecy. Cold war warriors claim he was talent spotted by the KGB there and this explains his subsequent career. The Russians insist he just drank too much, questioned authority, and hung around trouble makers. In 1970 he was thrown out, although his brother was allowed to stay.

Ramirez senior does not seem to have been too upset by his son’s exit from Patrice Lumumba University. Venezuelans allow their eldest children a lot of leeway and the attachment of Carlos’ father to Communism was more romantic than militant. He funded his son when he announced he wanted to study in Lebanon. It was a decent enough college but Ramiriez chose it to be close to the Palestinian struggle, a cause that first caught his attention in Moscow.

Once installed in Beirut he joined the PFLP and trained in Jordan. He was just in time for Black September 1970 when Jordanian troops, sick of hosting ungrateful exiles, turned on the Palestinians. After weeks of hard fighting in which Ramirez, and possibly Bréguet, took part, the Palestinians were defeated. More refugee camps, more bitterness. The Palestinians seemed to be in danger of fading into history. The PFLP decided to make its mark.

Ghosts Of History

The Israeli police picked up Bréguet in Haifa on 23 June 1970 wearing an overcoat full of explosives. He claimed to be on a mission on behalf of the Italian Proletarian Action Group and the PFLP to blow up Shalom Tower in Tel Aviv.

Carlos is Technicolor, a larger than life character. Even before his arrest, books rolled off the press analysing his actions and beliefs and history. With the fall of the Iron Curtain the Communist spooks spilled their secrets. If you want to know where Carlos was on any given day there is a good chance you can find out.

Not Bruno Bréguet. He flits semi-materialised through the pages of history. A black and white photograph of a dark and serious man with cropped hair; a reference in a book (usually about Carlos); a short news piece. He probably got more attention from the general public through Carlos’ letter to President Obama than at any other point in his life.

Bréguet was nineteen when he appeared in Lebanon to train with the PFLP. He had been involved in leftist politics back in Switzerland. Despite the French name he may have roots in the Italian speakers of Switzerland, as he had leftist contacts in Italy. What mattered to the PFLP was that he was European. Less trouble at passport control.

Haifa was Bréguet’s first mission on behalf of the PFLP, and his last. In the aftermath of Black September, Habash had decided to recoup some lost Palestinian pride with a direct attack on Israel. A number of foreigners training with the group were recruited to carry explosives into Israel and attack targets. Mossad had an informer in the group from the start and all were picked up at airports and ferry terminals.

Mossad kept their informer secret and claimed they only spotted the would-terrorists because they were dressed in heavy overcoats (concealing bombs) at the height of the Israeli summer. Bréguet claimed his action was a political blow on behalf of the Palestinians.

Those arrested got fifteen years. Yet Bregeut was pardoned and freed in 1977. The architect of his early release was François Genoud, the Swiss Nazi banker.

Genoud’s interest in the Middle East dates from the 1930s when, as a young spy working for both the Swiss and the Nazis, he made contacts in Palestine and Lebanon, notably with Haj Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jersualem. Genoud played a role in Nazi plans to stir up the Arab world. Despite a lot of money and propaganda the promised uprisings never quite materialised.

Luca

After the war Genoud’s Arab contacts intensified, especially in the 1950s when a number of Nazi veterans, some wanted for war crimes, some not, made their way into lucrative advisor posts in Egypt and Syria. Their numbers were always small although that did not stop the world press sensationalising the issue. Oskar Dirlewanger, the leader of an infamous Waffen-SS penal unit who got kicked to death by Polish soldiers in 1945, was resurrected by the press to star in stories he was helping the Arabs in their fight against Israel.

The Nazis were attracted by a combination of safe havens, good salaries, and an Arab National Socialism that seemed to reflect, however distantly, their European original. Like them, Genoud saw his anti-Semitism reborn in Arab anti-Zionism and set up funds for movements like Habash’s Arab Nationalist Movement.

Genoud organised Bréguet’s defence through his lawyer son Maurice. He apparently knew Bréguet from Switzerland which raises all kinds of questions about the circles both men moved in. When the defence failed Genoud threw himself into achieving a pardon, enlisting pro-Palestinian figures like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Noam Chomsky (all presumably unaware of Genoud’s past or prepared to ignore it) into a campaign to twist the arm of Tel Aviv.

In 1977 the campaign bore fruit. After seven years in prison Bréguet was pardoned and expelled from Israel. He wrote a book about his prison time. It was called ‘The School of Hate’.

Recidivism

The Swiss left-winger could not stay out of politics for long. He settled in Italy and joined the newly formed Prima Linea, a leftist terror group born from the ashes of the less violent Lotta Continua. Prima Linea tends to be sidelined by the activities of the Brigates Rosse (Red Brigades) but it did its fair share of killing in the late 1970s, specialising in the assassination of political enemies. Lawyer Enrico Pedenovi, judge Emilio Alessandrini, and policeman Giuseppe Lorusso were among those who fell to its guns.

At some point Bréguet came back into contact with Carlos. The Venezuelan terrorist, now infamous across the world for his assault on the 1975 OPEC conference in Vienna, had temporarily cut his ties with Arab groups. He was settled behind the iron curtain in Hungary, where he carried out attacks in Western Europe for his hosts and any other Communist states who showed an interest.

Bréguet left the orbit of Prima Lenea and Italian leftism and headed to Eastern Europe. Carlos’ group was being courted by the Romanians. Dictator Nicholas Ceausescu was infuriated by the pro-democracy messages broadcast by the Voice of America radio station in West Germany and demanded its Romanian language section be stopped. The Romanian secret service passed the job onto Carlos.

On 21 February 1981 Bréguet (aka Luka) and Johannes Weinrich (aka Steve), a German associate of Carlos with glasses and a bad haircut, crossed into West Germany with two members of the Basque terror group ETA. They evaded the guards at the Voice of America building in Munich and planted 15 kilograms of Nitropenta, a Romanian plastic explosive supplied by the ETA boys, at the outer wall. At 21:50 it detonated, caving in the wall and injuring four employees and two locals. The explosion was so powerful it registered on a seismograph. To the dismay of Ceausescu, Bréguet and Weinrich had targeted the wrong part of the building. They blew up the Czechoslovakian section.

Carlos claimed the attack as a victory and celebrated with champagne, convinced Bréguet had proved himself a reliable sidekick. In February 1982 he sent Bréguet and Magdalena Kopp, Carlos’ German girlfriend, to Paris as part of a planned new wave of bombings.

Problems In Paris

Bréguet’s talent for failure peaked in the French capital. Kopp’s handbag, containing $50,000 and her fake Austrian passport, was stolen. The pair was stopped by police for acting suspiciously in an underground car park off the Avenue George V. They made a run for it, Bréguet pulling a gun on the pursuing cops. Both terrorists were tackled to the ground, although not before the Swiss squeezed the trigger. The gun jammed.

‘I am a soldier,’ he told policemen as they handcuffed him.

Carlos’ girlfriend and Swiss sidekick were now in French hands. In the boot of the car, which belonged to an unemployed Communist accountant living in a squat (he claimed he leant it to friends for a few days) was a cache of explosives. After the arrests, Carlos launched a new series of bomb attacks in France with the intention of freeing the pair. But the French were not, at this point in their history at least, prepared to deal with terrorists and matters were complicated by Carlos’ refusal to admit Magdalena Kopp was his girlfriend.

Bréguet and Kopp went through a brief trial, were found guilty and received four and five years respectively in prison. François Genoud again paid for Bréguet’s defence.

Kopp’s lovelorn boyfriend continued to plant bombs and sent threatening messages to the French establishment but the cell doors remained shut. The would-be Paris bombers settled down to do their time. Carlos’s bombings petered out as did his usefulness to the Eastern Bloc. In 1985 the Hungarians expelled him and he moved his team to Syria, where they still appreciated the work he had done for the Arab cause.

Bréguet and Kopp emerged into the bright Paris daylight the same year. Both claimed they had given up extremism. The Swiss had taken several exams to become a draughtsman. He had spent ten of the last fifteen years behind bars. Kopp went to live with her mother in Germany and Bréguet went to his girlfriend Carol’s home in Lugano. Little is known about his partner other than that she was German and they had lived together before his arrest.

Kopp soon recanted and ran off to Carlos in Syria. Bréguet also rejoined Carlos in Damscus, no later than 1986, being escorted straight through the airport by security forces without going through the usual controls. There was not much action in Syria. The authorities prevented Carlos from carrying out any operations and the famous terrorist was slowly collapsing into an overweight drunk mess. In 1991 the Syrians expelled him and Carlos ended up in Sudan.

At some point Bréguet returned to his girlfriend. She was well-off, owning property across Europe, and the Swiss does not seem to have done much in the way of work. They had a daughter called Shona in 1993.

Vanishing Act

In August 1994 Carlos was arrested by the French. The Sudanese had been responsible, it was rumoured, for tipping off the Americans but others claimed the Syrians themselves had organised his kidnapping, partly to save him from assassination. Other Arab groups and even governments, like Saudi Arabia which still blamed him for the OPEC affair, intended to kill him; the Syrians felt enough loyalty to keep him alive, if imprisoned. It might have been true.

PhotoPasseportOn 12 November 1995 Bréguet, accompanied by Carol and Shona, took the ferry from Igoumenitsa, Greece (where they owned property) to Ancona, Italy. They had made the journey several times before. This time the Italian police refused to let him off the ferry for reasons that have never been made clear. Possibly because of rumours Bréguet had contacts with the far-left Greek 17 November movement.

Bréguet called his brother to explain the situation but did not seem especially irritated. It was not the first time he had problems at the border. He returned to the ferry, leaving the car with Carol. The crew took his travel documents. When the ferry, able to carry 1,500 passengers and 800 cars, docked back in Igoumenitsa, Bréguet did not respond to a tannoy announcement asking him to come to the bridge to collect his documents. There was no trace of him in his cabin. The captain remembered seeing him twenty minutes before docking. He has never been seen since.

Rumours swirled. Here are some of the most popular explanations for his disappearance:

  • Bréguet staged his own disappearance because recently released Stasi files implicated him in more crimes and prosecutors could have come looking for him.
  • The French kidnapped him to provide evidence against officials in Nice who had been selling arms to the Algerians.
  • He was abducted by the Hungarian secret services and taken to Budapest where some have claimed Bréguet was killed in interrogation. Considering this was 1995, it was either Communist veterans covering their tracks or post-Communist agents making amends.
  • An Israeli naval commando picked him up and gave him to CIA men waiting in two white vans for interrogation; Bréguet either died during the questioning or was given a secret identity and headed for South America.
  • He was murdered by Arab groups or possibly the Greek 17 November movement; in the wake of Carlos’ arrest they were worried Bréguet could spill information about them if he also got picked up.
  • The Greek secret services kidnapped Bréguet; the Swiss government seemed to believed this enough to lodge a law suit against the Greece but it quickly fell apart in the face of denials from Athens and lack of evidence.
  • The Syrian or Iraqi intelligence services got rid of him, worried he might talk about Carlos’ connections to them.

But really no-one seems to know what happened to Bréguet. American documents spilled to Wikileaks reveal that CIA contacts were just as a confused as everyone else. Perhaps someone feared that Bréguet would take revenge for Carlos’ arrest. Perhaps someone wanted their own leftist terrorist to interrogate. Perhaps the arrest of Carlos was a signal that his Muslim protectors no longer cared what happened to their one-time collaborators and someone took advantage. Perhaps Bruno tried to get off the ferry to avoid Greek customs for some reason and drowned.

Bréguet was a minor figure in the terrorist left who had spent large chunks of his life in jail. In 1995 he was living a comfortable middle-class life and seemed to have little involvement in politics. It is possible he was more active than he claimed and had plans to avenge Carlos’ arrest or head up his own new terrorist group. Possible but unlikely. The fall of Communism knocked the fight out of most on the far-left. What was there left to fight for? Why bother?

Bréguet’s disappearance remains a mystery.

Nazi banker François Genoud committed suicide in 1996 with help from Exit, the euthanasia group. He was eighty years old. Before his death he spent some time searching for Bréguet. He found nothing.

For more warlike weirdness, you can buy my  books in paperback or ebook:

Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World  [or amazon.com]

and

Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or amazon.com]

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