Thursday, December 15, 2005

The terrorist and the waiter

Ali Hassan Salameh was the sort of terrorist you don’t hear
too much about these days. As much a jet-setting playboy
as a bloodthirsty militant, he led the lush life in various swank
Mediterranean hotspots whenever he wasn’t working as the
operations head of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist
outfit closely linked with the PLO. In fact, it is thought that
Salameh–the son of a wealthy anti-Zionist–was being groom-
ed as Arafat’s successor: his charisma, his confidence, and
his apparent comfort with extreme violence made him a big
player the Palestinians' low-level war with Israel. Secular,
suave, and profligate, Salameh wasn’t one of the bearded,
Koran-quoting zealots we see standing in front of shoddy
backdrops on fuzzy videocassettes dropped into Al-Jazeera’s
mailbox. He was more Carlos the Jackal than Al Qaeda; he
was as comfortable on the beach at St. Tropez as he was
plotting hijackings, bombings, and massacres.

One such atrocity that he was intimately involved with
was the hostage-taking and subsequent murder of eleven
members of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich
games. Afterward, he authored and supplied the weaponry
for a scheme that, if it hadn’t been foiled at the last minute,
would have used surface-to-air missiles to shoot down Golda
Meir’s plane as she landed for a conference in Rome. Not
long after this, Salameh’s network of agents managed to
discover the identity of an Israeli spy named Baruch Cohen,
who was subsequently murdered in a cafe in Madrid.

The powers that be in Israel, who had begun to target
Palestinian militants for assassination following the Munich
massacre, wanted Salameh dead very badly. There were ob-
stacles to this, however. He was well-protected by his body-
guards and his ability to slip in and out of various Middle-
Eastern and European countries, true, but a bigger difficultly–
and an even bigger impetus to have him done away with--
came from his cozy relationship with the CIA. Middle-
East station chiefs bent over backwards to turn Salameh
into a CIA “asset”, even going so far as to offer him three
million dollars of American taxpayer money. This rankled
the terrorist’s sense of propriety, however, and he refused
to speak to them after they dared to make such a base
attempt to curry favor with him. The Middle-Eastern
station chiefs couldn’t even win their way into his favor by
offering him a “blank check”.

For many in Israel, killing Salameh was a top priority. He
was tracked through Paris, Geneva, Zurich and finally up
into Scandinavia, where Israeli intelligence received a
report that he had taken refuge in Lillehammer, Norway,
a bucolic and modestly-sized town north of Oslo. A team
of agents was quickly dispatched to scour the town for the
terrorist, who they believed was about to receive a package
from a courier named Kemal Benamane. They shadowed
this young man up from Oslo until he met up with another
Arab in a Lillehammer cafe. Although some members of
the assassination team were skeptical that the man
Benamane met was indeed Salameh, the Arab was placed
under tight surveillance and the plan went forward, even
as Israel was undergoing another crisis–a hijacked Jap-
anese aircraft that many thought was going to be crashed
into the city of Haifa. With communication links made
difficult due to this unfolding drama, the Israeli agents
did manage to get approval for their plan to kill Salameh
in Norway.

On the evening of July 21, 1973, the agents trailed the
man they thought was Salameh and his young, pregnant
companion to a local movie theater. Afterwards, the
couple caught a bus back to their neighborhood, where
two men leaped out of a white Mazda and began firing at
the man, who collapsed on the sidewalk as the car raced
off into the night, leaving the pregnant woman there
screaming over the dead body of her husband. Israel
would have had its long-due revenge, if only for the fact
that the pregnant woman’s husband wasn’t Ali Hassan
Salameh, but instead a well-liked Moroccan waiter named
Ahmed Bouchiki.

In the uproar that followed, Israel temporarily suspended
its program of foreign assassinations. Salameh, however,
went on much as he had before. He helped to mastermind
an attack in the Athens airport that involved terrorists
opening fire at passengers waiting to board a flight to Israel.
He also was involved in a failed plot to take hostages at the
Saudi Arabian embassy in Paris. Eventually, he even re-
kindled his relationship with our government, becoming
the official representative of Yassir Arafat in talks with
the then-director of the agency. Later, he would save
Henry Kissinger’s life by warning him of an assassination
plot. After marrying a former Miss Universe, the CIA
paid for his honeymoon in Hawaii and helped fulfill the
terrorist’s lifelong dream of visiting Disney World. These
were Salameh’s salad days, perhaps, but Israeli intelli-
gence hadn’t forgotten him, much less forgiven him. He
was killed by a car bomb in Beirut on January 22, 1979.


I find this story interesting for a number of reasons. For
one, it helps us to see that the disputes in the Middle East
are somewhere around a million times less simple than the
caricatures we see on FOX today. American officials were
happy to get in bed with a man who had facilitated the
murder of countless innocent Israelis. Israel, for its part,
had sent its agents roaming across Europe with orders to
kill various PLO heavy-hitters in an operation that seem-
ed more like something out of a mobster movie than the
actions of a modern, enlightened government. Of course,
the PLO needed to be dealt with harshly at this point in
its history, as factions affiliated with it were responsible
for inflicting incredible cruelty on ordinary Israelis. This
is a saga with few heroes and no easy answers, an ugly
part of history that doesn’t lend itself well to the old good
versus evil narrative.

But I think there are lessons for us here, as Americans in
2005, living in the midst of our own ugly part of history.
Like the United States in September 2001, Israel in 1972
was deeply wounded by a band of fanatics. In both cases,
the response to that wound became a problem in itself.
Israel’s approach–targeting terrorists for assassination–
was perhaps more elegant in execution and honest in its
aims than this country’s actions 30 years later, but it still
proved to be a flawed strategy. The murder of Ahmed
Bouchiki was a grave error and a great human tragedy,
of course, but it also was a major setback for Israel. By
trying to avenge itself with such a heavy hand and by
failing so grotesquely, the Israeli defense forces allowed
themselves to be painted by people far and wide (many
of whom had no sympathy whatsoever for Palestinian
militants) as a sinister force, as just another assortment
of bad actors in a region teeming with them. Moral stand-
ing counts for a lot in conflicts of this sort.

However, Israel was in a hard spot. A harder spot, in fact,
than most anyone in this country can imagine. Wedged
between larger nations all-too-willing to go to war with
them and besieged by guerrillas and terrorists, Israel was
perhaps not in the position to have a leisurely and dispassion-
ate discussion of these matters. Certainly, the Israeli
government had the obligation to pursue Salameh and those
like him. They had proven themselves to be a menace to
Israelis and Jews everywhere and needed to be dealt with
aggressively and, perhaps, violently. Yet I remain uncom-
fortable with the path the Israeli officials chose. Part of
this comes from how the “Wrath of God”operation, as
they named it, seemed to conflate vengeance with Israeli’s
security. They wanted to strike back at those who struck
at them, of course, and this seems reasonable up to a point,
but a question nonetheless arises: when does the cycle stop?
Palestinians kill Israelis then Israelis kill Palestinians and
then they start all over again. Everyone loses in this pro-
cess, of course, and perhaps the government of Israel only
exacerbated these troubles with its actions in the early

America in this century is a much rougher beast. Our
leadership is far more incompetent and dimly ideological,
our citizenry is less engaged, our war machine much more
vast and promiscuous. Few nations are in the position to
make greater mistakes. Few mistakes could be greater
than our current debacle. Oh, I know that to say that in
some quarters is to invite derision and Mau-Mauing from
the president’s huge and spirited cheerleading squad, who
like to jump on any criticism of our Middle East policy as a
personal affront to the brave and newly-liberated Iraqi
people. While their sensitivity would be touching if it was
even remotely sincere, I’d prefer to disregard them and
keep the discussion limited to those viewpoints with at
least a patina of intellectual honesty.

Actually, however, I’m not sure whether I disagree with
the Bush Administration’s response to the September 11th
attacks or its distressing tendency to use the destruction
of the World Trade Towers as a justification for its own
pre-existing agendas. If security has been tightened and
intelligence has been improved since that catastrophe,
that’s surely a good thing, although it wouldn’t surprise
me if our quasi-elected leaders were more of a hindrance
than a catalyst to that process. Regardless, it is possibly
quite naive to consider the war in Iraq a “response to 9/11".
It may be more accurate to say that this war is a geo-political
move that most likely would never have happened without
the Al-Qaeda attacks. Because, even all these years on, the
reasons for our panicked and self-defeating rush to topple
Saddam Hussein remain unconvincing and cloudy.

It seems to me that our administration’s moves in the Middle-
East combine all the worst aspects of Israel’s “Wrath of God”
operation–its secrecy, its intelligence failures, and its delib-
erate confusion of revenge with security–with other, even
more damaging flaws. We have approached this problem
with a recklessness that is breathtaking. We have acted
with passion where we should have acted with cold blood,
we have whipped ourselves into a frenzy of nationalistic
exceptionalism when we ought to have cooperated, and
we have lied to ourselves and the world at moments when
the truth was crucial. And now, with our reputation likely
to be tarnished for generations and much of our fearsome
power trickling away into the desert, we pat ourselves on
the back for being brave, for being right, for being Ameri-
cans. But what have we done? Have we made ourselves
safer or just given ourselves a more lasting and politically-
convenient spate of nightmares? Have we promoted
democracy or are we just trying to rehabilitate the concept
of empire? Have we avenged the dead or exploited their
memories? Is this the way we defeat terrorism or will we
remember all this as the way we defeated ourselves?

And now, with our elected officials as eager as ever to cloak
themselves in the bravery of those killing and dying for their
bold schemes, it seems obscene that none of them have the
courage to answer those questions, much less learn from
the history the claim to be the proud defenders of.


For the facts in this post, I relied mainly on Simon Reeve’s
book One Day In September. I also used the Wikipedia
entries on Salameh and the "Lillehammer Affair" , which
pointed me to this thesis written for the Marine Corps
Command and Staff College, a paper that, although also
a secondary source, corroborated Reeve’s version of this
episode from a much different perspective. If anyone is
aware of any factual errors in this post, or has a differing
interpretation of these events, kindly let me know. God
knows I’m no expert on Middle-Eastern affairs.

(P.S.: Apparently, Steven Spielberg is making a movie
about the Munich incident and its aftermath. I hope that
it does the people who died that day justice and I hope it
spurs a renewed, more rigorous interest in these matters.)