Jackal: The Complete Story of the Legendary Terrorist, Carlos the Jackal

Jackal: The Complete Story of the Legendary Terrorist, Carlos the Jackal

by John Follain


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On an August night in 1994, French counterespionage officers seized the world’s most wanted terrorist from a villa in Sudan. After more than two decades on the run, Carlos “the Jackal” had finally been caged. For years he had murdered and bombed his way to notoriety. Jackal is the definitive biography of this self- proclaimed “professional revolutionary,” ladies’ man, and cold-blooded killer. Setting his story against the larger political picture of the time, it exposes how the Soviet bloc and some Arab regimes sponsored terrorist actions for their own ends during the cold war.

Jackal reveals the web of intrigue, blackmail, and fear that guaranteed Carlos’s survival, the helping hand of Colonel Qadhafi, and the true nature of the “Kremlin Connections.” John Follain shows how the CIA and French intelligence compromised their own statutes by giving agents progressively freer license with murder and collateral damage in order to capture him. A cautionary tale of governments that fostered the image of an invincible criminal mastermind—in reality a pawn in the chilling cold war chess game between East and West—Jackal also provides fascinating insight into the making and mind of the world’s most wanted terrorist.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611450262
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 07/01/2011
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 872,668
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

John Follain is an investigative journalist and author. He was a correspondent for Reuters in Paris from 1993 to 1997, where he researched and wrote the Carlos story. He is now bureau chief of the Associated Press in Rome.

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The Complete Story of the Legendary Terrorist, Carlos the Jackal

By John Follain

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2011 John Follain
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62872-487-5


Marx and the Holy Cross

* * *

I acknowledge that my name is Ilich Ramírez Sánchez alias Carlos, born in 1949 in Caracas in Venezuela. I am an international revolutionary.

— Carlos to French counterintelligence

There was no argument over the surname of the boy born at the Razetti clinic in Caracas at five o'clock in the morning of 12 October 1949. He was given the surnames of both his Marxist father and his Catholic mother, Ramírez and Sánchez, as is common in Spanish-speaking nations. The sticking point was the first name.

Elba Maria Sánchez pleaded to be allowed to give her first child a Christian name, but her husband was adamant. 'The biggest man in all humanity,' he would often insist, 'is Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, alias Lenin. Humanity before the bomb is divided into two periods. Before and after Lenin, not Christ who was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill man.'

So José Altagracia Ramírez Navas rode roughshod over his wife's objections and, ignoring the registrar's raised eyebrows, paid his personal tribute to the father of the Bolshevik Revolution with a few strokes of his pen. Years later, the nom de guerre under which his son became notorious infuriated him: 'Why do they call him the Jackal? His name is Ilich. It is a proud name, the name of a revolutionary.' Within hours of his birth, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez embodied — if only by his name – the revolutionary ideals of his father.

A land both Caribbean and South American, Venezuela had been dubbed 'the land of grace' by Columbus who had discovered it on his third voyage to the New World in 1498. But his legacy failed to live up to that name, as Spanish conquerors massacred native Americans or traded them as slaves. In the early nineteenth century at least 150,000 Venezuelans died in the country's independence wars, and home-bred revolutionaries strayed further afield to spearhead liberation across much of South America. Devastated by the fighting, its economy in ruins, the young nation staggered through a mess of coups and civil wars. After years of bloody stagnation, the discovery of oil in the early twentieth century would in time transform the prospects of the country.

Like the four dictators who ruled Venezuela in the first half of the century, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez was born in the western state of Tachira. Aggressive pigheadedness, mixed with a strong religious streak, is popularly held to be common among its people. It is as if the Andes, piercing through the small province, serves as a rigid backbone to the local character. Natives of Tachira and other Andean provinces are also known for an odd physical characteristic: the tops of their heads slope rather than curve downwards at the back, something Venezuelans joke is due to mothers slapping their children across the head. The Tachira state capital San Cristobal nestles on a damp plateau 900 metres above sea level, a few hundred kilometres short of where the Andes sink into the Caribbean. The architecture of the cathedral and palaces bears witness to the Spanish colonialists who founded the city.

Ramírez Navas had the inflexible convictions of the disillusioned drawn to a new faith. In his youth he had felt a religious vocation and enrolled at the St Thomas Aquinas seminary run by the French Eudist order. But he abruptly turned his back on the Church to proclaim himself an atheist while still a teenager. 'I studied to be a priest for three years and I swallowed 1800 hosts before realising when I was sixteen or seventeen years old that it was a lie,' recalled the adult Ramírez Navas, a slight, dapper figure with deep-set eyes and wiry hair. The seminary drop-out abandoned his theology textbooks, packed his bags and returned home to the small town of Michelena in Tachira in the early 1930s. Another clash with the powers that be awaited him, but this timewith the secular authorities. He was expelled from Tachira for sheltering an outlaw in his study. The authorities labelled him a Communist, although he protests: 'I didn't even know what the word meant.'

He found out soon enough. His spiritual vocation in shreds, the young Ramírez Navas crossed the nearby border into Colombia and started studying for a law degree at the Free University in Bogotá. His discovery of the works of Marx and Lenin, allied with his personal experience of the harshness of the regime governing Venezuela, fanned his spirit of rebellion. He drifted into the circles of two prominent left-wingers living in Bogotá, the Colombian Jorge Eliécer Gaitán who became his friend, and the exiled Gustavo Machado, a leading light of Venezuela's banned Communist Party. By the time he had completed his studies at the Central University in Caracas, and launched his career in Tachira where he had been allowed to return, the disoriented failed priest had become a diehard Marxist-Leninist.

The mid-1930s was a time of stimulating turmoil for the left in Venezuela. For the greater part of the previous three decades a suspicious cattle rancher who looked very much like Stalin, General Juan Vincente Gómez, had ruled like a tyrant. His dictatorship had nipped leftist and all other opposition in the bud with an efficient secret police and an ambitious programme to build new roads and improve communications. Both ensured that no rival, even those headstrong agitators from his native province of Tachira, could marshal a force large enough to challenge him without his finding out and quickly crushing any rebellion. A stereotypical Latin American despot with a splendid handlebar moustache, and the father of more than a hundred children (the general never married), Gómez trod so warily that he stopped the citizens of Caracas from creating a Rotary Club because he feared it might turn political. So efficient was his apparatus of repression that he lost power in 1935 only because he died a natural, peaceful death at the age of seventy-nine.

In the euphoria that followed the general's passing, Ramírez Navas was involved in the setting up of Democratic Action, a new party led by the outspoken idealist Romulo Betancourt. But the lawyer suffered yet further disillusionment: after the party wrested power in a broad-based revolution in 1945, he became convinced that as far as political honesty went there was little to choose between his friends now in power and their predecessors. He said so, and was detained for a brief period because of his out-spokenness. On his release, he swung towards the pro-Soviet Communist Party, which, dogged by persecution under successive regimes, had operated underground until the early 1940s. For all his ideological commitment, Ramírez Navas disapproved of the party's apparatchiks. In his own view they were too conservative and he never signed up as a member – yet another example of the strong streak of independence in his character.

His chosen dogma did not stop him upholding a legal system that gave pride of place to private property and capitalism. He was successful in his profession, and became well established in the provincial capital San Cristobal. Opposites attract, it is said, and the woman ten years his junior with whom Ramírez Navas fell in love, and whom he married in 1948, was as determinedly Catholic as he was atheist. Born in San Cristobal, the attractive, dark-haired and sociable Elba had been more lastingly marked by the local religious streak and never did reconcile herself to her husband's intolerance of her faith, nor to his infidelity. She too was strong-minded, but she lost the battle over the name of her first-born.

From Ramírez Navas's own account, his eldest son also paid quite a price for his father's revolutionary fervour and for the Leninist incarnation imposed on him at birth, a year after another coup d'état ushered in a new period of military rule. There was no question of Ilich reliving his father's wasted years sitting on hard church benches or dissecting the Holy Bible. The Marxist doctrine that Ramírez Navas had discovered as an undergraduate was drummed into Ilich long before he reached puberty. The demolition of Stalin's personality cult by Khrushchev in 1956, when Ilich was seven years old, did nothing to sway his father. By the age of ten, the father trumpeted, Ilich had read Trotsky's Life of Lenin not once, but twice. (There is no such work: perhaps Ramírez Navas was referring to Trotsky's Lenin: Notes for a Biographer, or to the same author's Stalin.)

The boy met his parents' high expectations. 'Although the father was rigid, he was also loving and very worried about his family,' remembered Mireya Gonzalez de Ruiz, a childhood friend of Ilich and his two younger brothers, Lenin and Vladimir (they were born in Caracas in 1951 and 1958), who like several other children feared the strict disciplinarian. 'The one Ramírez Navas liked best was Ilich. Everything he did his father would praise. He was definitely the favourite.' Neither Lenin nor Vladimir lived up to their names, and their father's hopes of spawning 'valiant Communists' proved forlorn, although Ramírez Navas once confusedly described his second son Lenin as 'a MarxistLeninist but not interested in politics'.

Ramírez Navas made sure that his first-born's childhood, although inevitably bourgeois by virtue of his own legal profession, included the legends of South American revolution. Again and again Ilich heard from his father that God does not exist and that a man must fight to be strong. There was no lack of gun-wielding, revolution-preaching ancestors for the young Ilich to live up to in what was, after all, the homeland of the most revered of all South American independence heroes, the great Libertador Simón Bolívar whose statue graces virtually every Venezuelan city, town and village.

An uncle of Ilich had taken part in the coup which overthrew President Isaias Medina in 1945. But the family hero was Elba's grandfather, a doctor who transformed a sixty-strong band of followers into an army big enough to help overthrow the government in Caracas in 1899, only to lose power a few years later. Unbowed, the doctor repeatedly tried to assassinate the Tachira state governor, resisting the forces sent after him in a courageous last and lone stand to give his comrades time to flee into the Andes. Ilich delighted in the tales of how the doctor, after he was caught, refused to betray his companions under torture. 'Physically, he was slender, powerful. A handsome man who emerged from torture with a stoop,' Ilich recalled. 'He revealed no names. He remained in jail for seven years, in heavy iron chains which were never removed, even during torture. His wife loved him for his virility and his good looks. He was released, but his family had lost everything.'

The indoctrination of her eldest son rested to a significant extent on her own family tree, but Elba reacted to it with growing resentment. Physically, Ilich took after her rather than Ramírez Navas: the round face and full lips, the pale complexion that flushes easily and even the soft, high-pitched voice are all Elba's legacy. The aquiline nose, however, marked him out as his father's son. Frustrated that her resistance had proved so fruitless, she complained bitterly to her friends about the outlandish names given to her three children. Defying her dogmatic spouse and aided by a local priest, she managed, according to friends of the family, to have Ilich baptised in secret. When Ramírez Navas was busy receiving clients or away at the law courts, she would furtively shepherd the brothers to mass. This clandestine struggle waged by Elba did not, however, have a lasting result. Reminiscing about his childhood, Ilich dismisses the Roman Catholic faith much as his father had: 'Marxism was my religion for a long time, not Catholicism. For hereditary reasons really. It was in the atmosphere of my home, in my parents' blood.'

Ilich is unwilling to talk about Elba. 'I have very strong ties with my mother. She is a very courageous and honest woman,' is all he would say in his judicial testimony. He refuses to describe her or go into the disputes that rocked the household, but the courage he admires in his mother was as much a tribute to her refusal to be browbeaten by her domineering husband as to the way she came to terms with her eldest son's career. Ilich was more expansive with his friends, telling one that Elba was beautiful, gentle, sensitive and unpretentious, and that she loved nature and socialising. According to one friend, Elba was 'the only thing he really loved'. He would have done anything for his cultured mother and always spoke of her with great tenderness.

Ilich describes the father who spoon-fed him Communist ideology as 'a man of conviction, with an almost religious concept of his commitment'. Any suggestion that the lawyer was a millionaire angered Ilich: 'You know, there are a lot of fibs about that. There are people in our family who are much richer. My uncle, for example, who owns a coffee plantation. He lives in San Cristobal. As for my father, he's comfortably off. That's all.' In fact, his father owns several agricultural properties, and Ilich labelled the family's social origins as 'petit bourgeois'. However Ilich did not think much of the names that his father had dreamed up for his offspring: 'It was bloody stupid of my father to give his children such weird names. That kind of thing weighs on the children. In my case it was fortunate, but things were different for my brothers. They are not ashamed of their names, but it did cause them problems later in life.'

Childhood friends of the family, who played with Ilich and his brothers in San Cristobal during the holidays, could not help noticing the uneasy nature of the parents' marriage, fuelled by the father's extra-marital affairs and the incompatible convictions of the two partners. Whenever the father was present the brothers would be stiff and cold as they did their best to live up to the instructions codified in a pamphlet on ethical behaviour which he wrote for them, Social, Moral and Civic Formation. 'I tell anybody the truth to his face,' was one of the father's mottoes. In Elba's company, the brothers softened and became more gentle.

Ilich was tall for his age, handsome but heavily built. The nickname 'El Gordo' (Fatso) would bring him near to tears and prompt him to shout back furiously and shrilly, his face flushed scarlet: 'The whole world will hear of me.' But for a time Ilich was sheltered from such taunts. His father's successful career meant that he could afford to hire Communist teachers to give Ilich lessons in the privacy and comfort of the family home. Not that the son had sought out such seclusion; indeed he came to resent it because he had less opportunity to play with other children: 'We studied at home, we had a private instructor. That's not normal.'

Ilich was a natural figure of authority for his playmates. 'When there was a game to be organised, Ilich was always the one who would do it. He was the leader. He would decide, but not in an authoritarian manner. He was the most organised, the one who took the initiative and made the rules,' according to Emir Ruiz, a boyhood friend. His favourite game was hide-and-seek, a pastime that loomed large later in life. 'Ilich liked to play at goodies and baddies with plastic weapons. In our group he was the strongest and the most aggressive.' It was from Ilich that his friends learned how to tip their arrows with metal to avoid making a mess of the small birds they hunted. Whenever a game ended, he and Lenin would rush to the bathroom to clean up, Ilich emerging with his generous head of hair neatly combed and his nails scrubbed. Organising afternoon snacks for the children was also his domain.

Partly because the marriage was under particular strain, Elba took the three sons on an extended tour from late 1958 which disrupted Ilich's education and affected his academic record. The first school he attended was a Protestant establishment in Kingston, Jamaica, before moving on shortly afterwards to Mexico, then back to Jamaica and later to Caracas. When Elba went to live in Bogotá for a period with the sickly baby Vladimir, Ilich stayed on in Caracas with his father and Lenin. Ilich learned the hard way how to adjust to constantly changing countries, schools and classmates, although this was cushioned by his aptitude for languages, a skill inherited from his father.

The years of travel ended in early 1961, giving husband and wife pause for thought. For years Elba, faithful to her Catholic beliefs, had resisted the idea of divorce advocated relentlessly by her husband. She had agreed to marry a failed seminarist and a Marxist, but she drew the line at divorcing him. Elba finally relented, however, and the marriage ended when Ilich was barely a teenager, although the couple, unusually, decided to continue living together in Caracas. Ramírez Navas bluntly explained: 'I got divorced because in my house I thought that I was the only one who did anything right.'

The divorce was a relief for Ilich. Years afterwards, he recalled: 'my father would bring his mistresses home. My mother suffered because of this. We lived together, but it was unbearable ... I was very pleased about the divorce. My brothers took it less well.' In his judicial deposition, his single and brief reference to the painful episode is in sharp contrast to the rest of his testimony: 'My parents divorced in 1962 or 1963 but they continued to cohabit until 1966.' He was always surprisingly precise about dates, but of his parents' separation he could not remember even the exact year. Rather than a failing of his prodigious memory, this was perhaps an unconscious attempt to avoid recalling a painful event.


Excerpted from Jackal by John Follain. Copyright © 2011 John Follain. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Principal Characters,
List of Illustrations,
1 Marx and the Holy Cross,
2 Training for Terror,
3 The Drugstore Saint-Germain,
4 Secrets and Lies,
5 An Awful Party,
6 The Renegade Revolutionary,
7 A Match Made in Hell,
8 A Dirty, Private War,
9 Licensed to Kill,
10 Forced Out of the Cold,
11 Exorcising the Ghost,
12 Betrayal and Revenge,
13 The Jackal Caged,
14 The Trial,
15 Epilogue,

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