If you asked someone to name the world’s most famous terrorist, chances are they would say Osama Bin Laden, the radical Islamist and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. But 50 years ago, before anyone even associated fundamentalist Islam with terrorism, public enemy number one was a radical left-wing militant most famous for his involvement with Palestinian liberation movement: the mysterious Carlos the Jackal.
Born Ilyich Ramírez Sánchez in Venezuela in 1949, the Jackal was the eldest son of millionaire lawyer José Altagracia Ramírez-Navas. Despite having made most of his fortune from the oil boom, Ramírez-Navas was such a convinced Marxist he named his three kids Vladimir, Ilyich and Lenin after the Russian revolutionary leader’s first name, middle name and alias. Eventually, Sánchez took on the name Carlos as his nom de guerre.
Also despite his beliefs, Ramírez-Navas sent his son to a prep school in the capitalist world – London, to be exact. But after realising his kid had been enjoying life a little too much, Sánchez was shipped off to the Patrice Lumumba People’s Friendship University in Moscow, a hotbed of communist ideology. There, he met many Palestinian students and became involved with their struggle against the Israeli occupation forces. But his academic career wouldn’t last long – due to his disappointing academic performance and a conflict with the faculty's leadership, the Jackal got kicked out in 1970, not long after he’d begun school.
That’s when Sánchez moved to Beirut and became a full-time, self-described revolutionary. He joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist party partly based in Lebanon that still exists today and is the third-largest party in Palestine after Hamas and Fatah. Like other Palestinian parties, the PFLP has a paramilitary branch that has conducted terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens. The branch was particularly active in the 70s, partly thanks to attacks coordinated by Sánchez himself.
Early in his PFLP militancy, Sánchez was sent to one of the party’s camps in Jordan, where he learnt to handle weapons and hijack planes. In 1973, the organisation sent him back to London, where he began building a network of collaborators and scouting potential kidnapping and bombing targets.
Sánchez’s first mission was to assassinate businessman Joseph Edward Sieff, the chairman of retailer Marks & Spencer and president of the Zionist Association of Great Britain – an attempt that failed when his gun jammed. He was forced to flee the scene having only wounded his target, but the story made the front page of international newspapers.
Meanwhile, the PFLP was forging alliances with other left-wing radical groups across the world. One of them was the Japanese Red Army, a Marxist group aiming to dismantle the Japanese monarchy and further the cause of an international communist revolution.
On the 13th of September, 1974, the group besieged the French embassy in the Netherlands, taking several hostages and demanding that the French authorities release one of their collaborators in their custody. The attack is said to have been coordinated with Sánchez’s help, who also allegedly bombed a cafe in Paris on the 15th of September while negotiations for the embassy were ongoing. The blast killed two people and injured over 30, including two kids who were maimed.
A few months later, in January of 1975, Sánchez planned to use rockets to shoot down two planes owned by an Israeli airline during takeoff from Paris Orly Airport. Both attempts – a week apart from each other – failed. The second ended with a shootout between PFLP affiliates and the police, but the Jackal somehow managed to slip away.
In June, his close collaborator Michel Moukharbal was arrested by French police for his role in the Orly attack. Moukharbal began cooperating with the police, leading them to Sánchez’s apartment. He let the authorities and his friend in, offered them drinks and then killed everyone with a machine gun. Only one of the three detectives survived.
The incident landed him on the front pages of newspapers across the world. All of a sudden, capturing a man previously unknown to the authorities and to the public became priority number one for every police department in France. The manhunt lasted for a decade, contributing to the myth beginning to emerge in the press.
While one of Sánchez’s hideouts was searched, a journalist stumbled upon a copy of the book The Day of the Jackal by British author Frederick Forsyth, a thriller describing a fictional plot to assassinate former French President Charles de Gaulle. The press dubbed Sánchez “Carlos the Jackal” soon after, and the nickname stuck.
But Sánchez’s biggest stunt of the year was yet to happen. On the 21st of December, he and five other members of the PFLP forced their way into a meeting in Vienna. The building they broke into was the headquarters of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), an intergovernmental organisation regulating oil prices for its members and, in practice, for the world.
The group killed two security guards and a Libyan economist and would go on to take 60 or so attendees hostage. They then obtained an aircraft, released some of their captives and flew the remaining 42 on multiple flights across thousands of kilometres, ending their journey in Algiers. Meanwhile, the group demanded that Austrian broadcasters read a statement denouncing the occupation of Palestine on radio and television every two hours. The broadcasters obliged to avoid the threatened execution of a hostage every 15 minutes.
Upon their arrival, former Algerian leader Houari Boumédiène coordinated the release of all the hostages and offered Sánchez asylum. Boumédiène had risen to power through a bloodless coup in 1965 in the aftermath of the Algerian war of independence. He quickly became known as one of the biggest left-wing revolutionary leaders of the world, offering refuge to other leaders of anti-colonialist liberation movements, including Nelson Mandela and members of the Black Panthers.
It later emerged that the OPEC ordeal had been funded by an unnamed Arab president, with some speculating that former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi was responsible. Sánchez was also said to have received tens of millions of euros in ransom, which he claimed to have lost. Dissatisfied with his answers, the PFLP kicked him out of the organisation in 1976.
In 1978, Sánchez founded his own organisation to advance the cause of Palestinian liberation, the Armed Arab Struggle. In the meantime, the Jackal had made friends with powerful actors in different countries. Communist Germany’s Ministry for State Security, also known as the Stasi, even offered him a headquarters in East Berlin and a support staff of 70 people.
For the next decade, Sánchez would roam Eastern Europe to do what he did best: execute terror attacks on behalf of Marxist political organisations. In 1981, for instance, he was hired by the Romanian secret police to bomb the Munich offices of Radio Free Europe, an anti-communist broadcaster critical of the Romanian regime. He spent most of his other years in Hungary, where he was kept under surveillance.
In fact, according to recently discovered archives, Sánchez was seen both as an asset and a threat by Eastern Bloc regimes, given his unpredictable, ruthless nature. With multiple fake passports issued by different governments, it was difficult for authorities to track him and bar him from entering their country. They were even reluctant to outright expel him out of fear of retaliation.
Eventually, even Eastern European countries abandoned him under pressure from the West. Sánchez was forced to flee to Damascus, Syria in 1986 where he was welcomed by Syrian leaders on condition that he agree to retire from terrorism, which he agreed to. Due to his voluntary abdication, international security forces basically let him hang out in Jordan and Syria for a few years, until they caught wind that Saddam Hussein had allegedly been trying to recruit him to stage attacks against his Western enemies.
The international manhunt picked up again and Sánchez was finally arrested in Sudan in 1994. That same year, he married his lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre. The French woman was his third spouse, after Magdalena Kopp, an east German woman he’d married and had a kid with in the 70s and who divorced him in 1994, and Lana Abdel Jarrar, the daughter of one of his Jordanian hosts, whom he’d converted to Islam for so as to be able to have multiple wives.
Sánchez’s arrest came as a surprise to many intelligence experts, given how many years he’d managed to live on the run. "He was an historical anachronism whose ideology does not fit into any present-day form of state-sponsored terrorism," former CIA counterterrorist expert Vincent Cannistraro told the New York Times at the time of his arrest. "He was of use to no one." Once in France, the Jackal was handed three life sentences in three trials held between 1997 and 2017.
In 2003, Sánchez published a book titled Revolutionary Islam with the help of French journalist Jean-Michel Vernochet, who compiled and edited letters and writings that inexplicably escaped the strictly controlled French prison system. In it, the Jackal praised Osama Bin Laden and his brand of Islam as a post-communist answer to American imperialism, metaphorically passing the baton to the new king of international terrorism.
Over the course of the past few years, Sánchez tried to appeal multiple times to be released, but to no avail. Extraordinarily charismatic as he might be, it seems that Carlos the Jackal will spend the rest of his days rotting in jail.