Sunday, November 15, 2009

In Search Of.....Carlos The Jackal

I loved the TV show In Search Of... as a kid in the 70s. As a result, I've enjoyed periodically re-watching some of the old episodes and lovingly critiquing, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, some of the assertions made and explanations proffered for the "phenomena" they examined. Today I re-watched an episode about Carlos The Jackal. Because he was a notorious international terrorist on the run when it first aired in September 1979, it is subtitled, "The World's Most Wanted Man." Other than a few sketchy details about his Venezuelan background and his own claims to have been involved in many of the most notorious terrorist incidents the 1970s, relatively little was known about him publicly at the time, giving him and his (alleged) exploits an even greater air of mystery.

But Carlos was handed over by Sudanese authorities in 1994 (as he was recuperating from minor surgery on a varicose vein on his scrotum, of all things). He has since languished in mostly solitary confinement in a French prison, where he remains to this day. As a result, much of his mystique has long since been stripped away. And much more is known about him (and what his did and didn't do) today.
Within the first 3 minutes of the start of this In Search Of.... episode, host Leonard Nimoy explains that, "Carlos was trained by Soviet KGB agents in Havana and Moscow." That, as it turned out, was a fiction. In reality he was largely self-trained and had been rejected by the KGB and many other organizations because he was deemed too erratic, unreliable, and vain. About half way through this episode Nimoy adds that, "International police sources, including Israeli intelligence, say that Carlos has not retired with his money. On the contrary, it is believed that he took an active role in planning the hijacking of the Air France airliner to Entebbe, Uganda." That was a critical part of his expanded legend, which also turned out to be entirely false.
The second half of this episode (embedded below) focusses largely on Carlos' real background. Even in 1979, Carlos was known to be the son of a wealthy Venezuelan businessman. His real name was Ilich Ramirez Sanchez. It details his early life as a jet-set international playboy in London, with a taste for women, a problem gambling, and a penchant for getting thrown out of universities, including Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow in 1970. Interestingly given this past, Carlos is reported to have now converted to Islam in prison. And from prison he published a book called Revolutionary Islam in 2003. ("No one ever seems to be Born Again on prom night," the comedian Dennis Miller once observed.)
Carlos the Jackal plays a major role in Robert Ludlum's 1980 novel The Bourne Identity. Indeed, in the novel Jason Bourne's mission was to smoke out Carlos from hiding by becoming the new "world's greatest assassin." It shows just how far the legend of Carlos The Jackal has been deflated in recent years that Carlos is never mentioned at all in any of the recent blockbuster movie adaptations starring Matt Damon.

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