Circling Back to "The Jackal"

On a shelf in my office at Stratfor is a book signed by Carlos. It's not just any book, but one I wrote: Chasing Shadows: A Special Agent’s Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice. Even I'm surprised at how the copy bearing his signature came into my possession.

As a young U.S. State Department special agent, before the age of computers, I was assigned to a three-man counterterrorism branch. Back then, The Jackal was the poster child of global terrorism. Elusive and protected by nation-state sponsors of terrorism like the Soviet Union and Libya, Carlos — who got his nickname from the assassin in the Frederick Forsyth thriller The Day of The Jackal — worked as a hit man for hire. Carlos became a killer I studied, but I never thought he would be taken alive.

In the 1980s, our intelligence databases were made up of 3-by-5 index cards, hard files, typed cables and newspapers. In our office, we had a dog-eared brown accordion legal folder labeled "Carlos" by an agent unknown. The folder was jam packed with a hodgepodge of newspaper clippings, Foreign Broadcast Information Service reports, vague intelligence alerts, magazine articles, Interpol notices and a grainy, haunting surveillance photograph of Carlos, clad in a black leather jacket, taken somewhere on a tarmac in the developing world. I put that picture on my desk, next to a photo of Ali Hassan Salameh, the operations chief of the Palestinian terrorist cell Black September.

As I conducted my investigation into the 1973 assassination of Israeli military attache Col. Joseph Alon in Maryland — my pursuit of his murderers is the subject of Chasing Shadows — I realized that Carlos might be a valuable source of information. After all, the assassin had worked with radical Palestinian groups in the same era as Alon's death.

I used a number of different cutouts to make contact with Carlos in his French prison cell, but I never got very far with him. I also corresponded with Magdalena Kopp, Carlos' wife and a former terrorist herself, in an effort to unearth new leads in the Alon case. (Kopp was one of the founding members of the leftist German Revolutionary Cells, closely aligned with the Popular Front for the Liberation Palestine.) To my surprise, she agreed to talk with me. 

I eventually tracked down the man who I contend pulled the trigger and ended Alon's life. The passage of time and the destruction of evidence meant there would be no trial, but there were still loose ends to wrap up. In 2014, the FBI in Paris reopened its investigation into Alon's death, and an agent got in touch with me to ask if I would send a few signed copies of Chasing Shadows to their office — including one meant for Carlos. The case had languished for years after my book was published, and I was happy that someone had taken an interest. I was willing to do whatever I could to help, so I sent the books overseas.

A few weeks later, rather unexpectedly, one of the copies of Chasing Shadows came back inscribed with the words "My best revolutionary regards, Carlos." But there had been no need for him to underline his name. I knew exactly who he was.

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