A Blind Eye — Fighting Terrorism in the 1980s
The U.S. focus on terrorism began to intensify in the late 1970s and 80s. However, it was often difficult to get actionable intelligence on many groups, given how hard it was to infiltrate them. And in those cases where the U.S. was able to track a major terrorist figure down, that person was often able to elude capture.
L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism (S/CT) in 1986, discusses the many difficulties the U.S. encountered in infiltrating groups, dealing with countries like Greece, which often turned a blind eye to terrorist groups, and his experience with Delta Force. He also describes how they were able to capture one terrorist by inviting him to a party on a yacht with women in bikinis. Needless to say, he was surprised to discover those women were FBI agents.
Bremer was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy, beginning in 2008.
The difficulties of infiltrating terrorist groups
BREMER: The biggest problem in counterterrorism then and today is getting good intelligence, and we didn’t have much of a human operation at that time [in the 1980s].
I remember we had an intelligence report of someone who had volunteered to join Sendero Luminoso [“Shining Path” in English], the Marxist terrorist group in Peru. He was a radical student; he wanted to join these people. So he went around and found some of these guys and said he would like to join and they said, “Well, we are always looking for volunteers. What you have to do is kill that policeman.”
And they gave the name of the policeman and where he was and told him that once he had killed the policeman he would have established his credibility. “Then come back and we’ll consider your joining our group.” Well, that’s a pretty high threshold and it showed the problem of trying to infiltrate these terrorist groups.
The terrorist groups in the Middle East had the classic cellular structure that Marxists groups had developed so well for their operations over the decades of the 20th century — very small cells where people knew each other only by first names, nobody knew who the boss was and the boss didn’t know who his bosses were. Even if you could somehow get an agent into one of these cells, which was not easy, the ability of that person to produce useful, actionable intelligence was pretty limited because of the cellular structure. So this is a very hard target.
Letting major terrorists slip through their fingers
I will give you an example of the kind of intelligence we were able to get and use, two examples, maybe three. We knew from our intelligence that one of the key leaders of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the man who had been personally responsible for killing Americans in hijackings there was a fellow named Imad Mughniyah. The FBI was able to get a grand jury to issue a sealed indictment for murder of an American. This was not made public. We looked for opportunities to somehow get him. There was a hijacking of I think, it was an Air France plane. It started somewhere in the Middle East.
We found out that Mughniyah was on this plane as one of the hijackers. The plane landed in Cyrus and we tried to get it stopped there but the Cypriots let it fly on. It then went landed in Algiers.
landed in Algiers we felt we had an opportunity to have Mughniyah detained by the Algerian police. Then one way or another we might then get him under American control and confront him with the justice he deserved. The Algerians parked the plane off in a very remote area of the airfield at night, as was the practice with a hijacked plane. We still did not reveal our objective, and pushed the Algerians hard not to let anybody off the plane because we wanted to interview a passenger.
Despite our urging, they just let everybody off and everyone disappeared into the fields including Mughniyah. So we didn’t get him.
My guess is that the Iranians, who had close relations with the Algerians then, also knew Mughniyah was on the plane and made, shall we say, a more persuasive case to the Algerians than we did. We lost a good opportunity. To spin the clock forward, he was assassinated just [in 2007. I suspect the Israelis got him. He was a very, very dangerous man; probably the world’s most dangerous terrorist until bin Laden appeared.
On another occasion we had intelligence that a Palestinian terrorist, whose name I can’t remember, was making regular use of Greece as a place to recuperate and plan new attacks in other countries. As we discussed before, some of the Europeans — the Italians and Greeks in particular — were letting Palestinian terrorists operate pretty much freely on their territory with the unspoken — or maybe spoken — agreement that the terrorists wouldn’t conduct attacks on their territory.
We had intelligence that this terrorist was traveling on a false Yugoslav passport and was going to transit through Athens the next day. Through our liaison between the Agency and Greek intelligence, we tipped the Greeks off but only in general terms: “There’s a guy coming through tomorrow and we understand he’s on a false passport. You ought to take a close look at him.”
The Greeks arrested him because he did have a false passport. Apparently at least the Greek security services didn’t know he was a Palestinian terrorist. So he was held in custody. There followed a very dramatic five-day Greek drama.
I happened to be on a trip in Europe. I got a message from my colleagues on the Counterterrorism Working Group asking me to fly to Athens immediately to see if we could get the Greeks to hand this terrorist over to us. That same night, Washington sent a team of federal marshals on a C-130, to the military base outside of Athens with the intention that we would persuade the Greeks to turn this guy over to us and we’d take him away.
We had an arrest warrant for him. I met with the Greek Minister of Interior the day I arrived in Athens and I made a big mistake: I asked for an embassy note taker to accompany me to the meeting. The note taker was not the problem. He was a good guy. The problem was when I asked for a note taker, the Minister of Interior decided he would have to have a note taker, too.
It became clear in the course of our conversation that the Minister of Interior would have been delighted to turn this terrorist over to us. We had a plane ready to go. In less than half an hour we’d get him out of the country and would deal with bringing him to justice in the U.S.
The minister clearly would have done that except that now, since he had his chief of staff there, he was politically a bit constrained in being able to say, “Go ahead and do it.” If I had met him one on one, we probably would have resolved the matter then and there. So then we had to consider filing a formal extradition request for the terrorist.
There was a 1933 extradition treaty between Greece and the United States which required that we provide evidence of the crime or at least our accusation of the crime to the Greek government within three days.
There followed a very desperate back and forth that entire night with the Department of Justice back here to get the relevant documents over, get them under a seal and all the stuff they had to do because of the fast approaching treaty deadline.
I met the next morning with the Minister of Justice, a man with a wonderful name, Agamemnon Koutsogiorgas. He did not speak English so the acting Foreign Minister was there as an interpreter. With me was our Ambassador, one of the FBI agents and an embassy political officer who spoke Greek. We had one of the most violent and entertaining meetings I ever had in the Foreign Service.
It quickly became clear that I was the only person in the room who had actually read the extradition treaty which I had done the night before and understood the terms of it. I could show that we were complying with the terms of the treaty. As I went through how our request met the terms, Koutsogiorgas got more and more and more excited. I said that I wanted him to understand, from the American government point of view, lack of cooperation on this would have an impact on our overall relations, which was with my guidance from Secretary [of State George] Shultz.
When I said that, two things happened. First, I thought our Ambassador was going to need some smelling salts because he was shocked. The acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, interpreting for the minister, instead of just interpreting what I said was saying, I learned from the note taker, was saying, “He’s provoking. He is trying to provoke you. It’s an outrage,” etc. Needless to say this simply made the minister increasingly emotional and excited. Red in the face, he stood up and started shouting and waving his arms, saying what we were asking was inconsistent with the Greek constitution.
Didn’t we realize that whatever may have been agreed to decades ago and what we were asking was inconsistent with that sacred document? Article 14, “which has the blood of the martyrs, thousands of Greek martyrs on it,” said that what we were asking was absolutely impossible. He dashed behind his desk, pulled open a drawer, snatched a copy of the constitution and waved it in the air repeating ever more loudly that the blood of the martyrs was on this constitution. It was impossible for him to give us three days to present the extradition request, absolutely out of the question. The blood of the martyrs was invoked again.
So the meeting broke up in considerable confusion and emotion, but as the others all filed out of the room, the Greek minister pulled me aside and whispered, “I’ll give you three days.” So much for the blood of the martyrs.
But then the situation got still more complicated. That was a Wednesday so we had until Friday to get our request before the minister. I learned that our ambassador had a previously scheduled meeting Thursday night with Andreas Papandreou, the Prime Minister, a man who was not very friendly to the United States, to put it mildly. His government had clearly been looking the other way toward terrorism, including their own Greek terrorists.
I suggested to our Ambassador that he take me along to the meeting with the Prime Minister. This is a serious matter; they had a terrorist who was wanted for crimes, the murder of an American and this was important. The Ambassador, still somewhat shaken by the meeting with the Justice Minister, resisted strongly the idea of bringing me along to his meeting. So I moved to Plan B.
The President [Ronald Reagan] that day was on his way to Europe for a summit meeting. So after the Ambassador turned me down, I got on the secure phone at the Embassy and tracked down Colin Powell, the National Security Adviser who was on Air Force One with the President flying to Europe.
I explained to Colin the problem we were having with the Greeks – and with the Embassy — and suggested it would be helpful to the President’s counterterrorism policy if the President could send a message to the Prime Minister about it, with instructions that the Ambassador was to deliver this message to the Prime Minister in his meeting that evening.
I dictated a two-paragraph message over the phone and a “flash” message arrived for the Ambassador two hours later with the message from the President to the Prime Minister instructing the Ambassador to deliver this message to the Prime Minister “tonight”.
It was, I admit, a rather rough approach. The message was delivered, and although the PM still refused to hand the guy over to us, the Greeks did not release the terrorist, as our intelligence suggested they were prepared to do. They eventually took him to court and locked him up for more than a decade.
The story didn’t have a totally happy ending because they didn’t keep the terrorist for his full sentence. I think he was sentenced to 20 or 25 years but after 10 or 12 years they let him out. He was by then no longer as effective as he used to be and at least it was better than having him slip in and out of Greece.
“This incident did not bring out the best of the State Department”
A colleague working at the embassy at that time later told me that during these fraught days — that Wednesday and Thursday — the European bureau at State was sending messages to the Ambassador telling him to ignore what I was trying to do. So there is an example about how the State Department’s reaction was often not in tune with the President’s.
At this time, Greece was the only European country that had had no success against its own home-grown terrorists — the November 17 group which had killed our [CIA] station chief in 1975 and then killed a number of Greeks and others. Through all these years, the Greek government had not made a single arrest.
We could not tell if the problem was incompetence or looking the other way. There were always rumors, and sometimes intelligence, that suggested there was some cooperation between the PASOK party and November 17. We just didn’t know. As for Palestinian terrorists, the Greeks were at a minimum looking the other way. This incident that I described also did not bring out the best of the State Department.
The affairs sent two messages: to the Greek government that we were watching what they were doing; and to the Palestinian terrorists groups, which were using Greece as a benign country for R&R [rest and recreation] and planning that we were watching them closely too and would act against them.
CT in Latin America: “If you were being interrogated, you better give a good answer or you might find yourself out of the helicopter without a parachute”
Q: Did you run across any other problems of trying what were we doing in Peru with Shining Path?
BREMER: The problem we had in Peru and Columbia was not the same as we had in either Europe or the Middle East. The governments of Peru and Columbia, which were the two main ones at that time, clearly understood they had a real problem. These terrorists were killing their citizens. The problem in those two countries was largely a problem of competence. They needed better intelligence; they needed training, both paramilitary and just plain old police and courtroom type training. It wasn’t that you had to persuade them that they had a problem; they understood they had a problem.
In Peru we had intelligence reports that suggested that they conducted their interrogations on captured terrorists in a helicopter, about 500 feet over the beaches west of Lima. If you were the guy being interrogated, you better give a pretty good answer or you might find yourself out of the helicopter without a parachute. One of the problems we had with those guys was trying to introduce the concept of the rule of law as well as being tough on terrorists.
Q: Did you get involved at all with the army, the Delta Force, or with the idea of having a well-trained small group to take down a bunch of hijackers?
BREMER: Yes. By then our Delta Force had been in existence for five or six years. It was then still a top secret operation whose existence was sometimes reported in the press but not commented on by the U.S. government. We did not discuss the Delta Force in public or with other countries, with the exception of the British. I visited Delta at Fort Bragg, saw their exercises and operations; a very impressive, brave and dedicated group of young men. We did deploy them a couple of times on operations while I was in S/CT.
The deployment concept was that a member of the S/CT staff would be in effect the political advisor, or POLAD, to the force. In practice, he was the leader of the team. He didn’t command the force, obviously, because he was a civilian. But the concept of operation which we exercised quite regularly was that somebody from our office would lead the team. Then, in coordination with the local American embassy, our person worked the coordination with the host country police, army, whatever it was.
During my time there, we never got them on the ground in time for an actual operation. We had them on the ground a couple of times but never got into operation. So at least in my time it was never proven whether this was the right concept.
A great party with girls and drugs and booze and a big yacht – all of whom were FBI agents
I should mention one other operation, one of the better ones we ran. The Agency had identified a Shia terrorist, Fawaz Younis, a member of Hezbollah who worked for Mughniyah. Younis was based in Lebanon. He had been involved in some of the hostage taking and attacks in which Americans were killed. We had an arrest warrant for him. Although he was down the ladder in the organization, the intelligence suggested he might be useful as a source of information. The intelligence also suggested he was interested in drinking and chasing women. We thought we had a chance to maybe nab him.
After a lot of planning in the Counterterrorism Working Group, the interagency coordinating group, we developed a complicated operation to lure him to Cyprus. In Cyprus he was introduced to a “high liver” who said he had a great party with girls and drugs and booze and a big yacht he had rented. Why didn’t Younis come out to the yacht where there would be lots of fun to be had?
We positioned this yacht just beyond the territorial waters of Cyprus, in international waters. Mr. Younis was taken out there by his cigar-smoking friend. As they approached the yacht, Younis could hear music and see girls in bikinis dancing on deck. He got on the boat, was immediately thrown to the ground, handcuffed and told he was under arrest.
The men and women on the
yacht were all FBI agents.
Then we had to get him back to the United States without landing on somebody else’s territory where a government might argue that he should stay in that territory. We needed a procedure to bring him back to the U.S. without risking putting the plane down in Spain or any other country.
So we positioned elements of the Sixth Fleet, including an aircraft carrier just over the horizon from the yacht. Younis was ferried on the yacht and put onboard the aircraft carrier. The terrorist was immediately transferred to a carrier-based plane which took off. It was refueled at least once over the Atlantic and flown nonstop to Dover Air Force Base. At that time this was the longest carrier-on-deck flight in American history. A great operation; he was arrested.
Younis provided some actionable intelligence and he went to jail. It was a classic operation, rather elaborate and obviously quite expensive. But the operation sent a message to the other terrorists: there was danger afoot and we had them penetrated.
Our objective with these terrorist groups was to try to create a climate of fear and mistrust among them. If they get to a point where they don’t trust each other, you have already accomplished something very useful. This is essentially what happened to Abu Nidal after he was expelled from Syria to Libya in 1986. He never recovered and could no longer run his organization.