His first taste of battle occurred during “Black September” in 1970, when King Hussein of Jordan, initially sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, became increasingly politically isolated following numerous airline hijackings by the PFLP, and drove the Palestinians out of Jordan. By all accounts Carlos acquitted himself well, earning a reputation for courage under fire during the long battle, and he was rewarded by his appointment as the PFLP’s representative, which saw his return to London after the conflict, in February 1971. His covert mission was to draw up a list of high profile kidnap targets with pro-Israel sympathies; overtly, he enrolled at the University of London and happily resumed his playboy lifestyle.
During his time in London he set up a network of safe houses, and came under police suspicion briefly as a result, but no charges were filed against him. He also claimed to have been involved in a number of daring raids, including the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet in February 1972, and the attack on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by the militant group “Black September”, in September 1972, but there was no proof of his participation in these acts of terrorism.
His first solo mission occurred on 30th December 1973, and involved an attack on Josef Sieff, vice-president of the British Zionist Federation, which raised money for Israeli charities. Having gained access to his London home, Carlos shot Sieff, but failed to kill him, as his gun jammed after the first shot. Carlos managed to escape unharmed.
This was followed a month later with an abortive bomb attack on a London-based Israeli bank, then three car-bomb attacks on pro-Israeli French newspapers, which caused massive damage, but no human casualties. He was directly involved in an attack on the French Embassy in Holland by the Japanese Red Army, placing pressure on the French government to accede to the terrorists’ demands by bombing a shopping centre in France that killed two people, and injured thirty four more.
This bombing saw his promotion to the big leagues, but his next high-profile missions failed: two bazooka attacks carried out on El Al aircraft at Orly Airport in Paris, on two separate days in January 1975, neither of which caused any casualties.
An arrest of a close terrorist colleague, Michel Moukharbal, almost led to Carlos’s own capture in Paris, but he managed to escape a trap set for him, by killing Moukharbal and the police officers with him, initiating a huge countrywide man-hunt in France that forced him to flee to Beirut, where the PFLP welcomed him as a conquering hero.
From Beirut he masterminded the attack that would bring him to the attention of the world media: the assault on the Viennese headquarters of OPEC, the Middle Eastern oil cartel.
On Sunday, 21st December 1975, Carlos and five other gunmen entered the OPEC headquarters, taking forty two hostages, including many senior OPEC representatives, amidst gunfire that claimed multiple victims, including both civilians and police personnel.
Carlos then dictated a letter of demands via a secretary, to the Austrian government, which included a bus to take all the hostages to the nearest airport, where an aircraft would be on standby to fly the group wherever they demanded. Authorities were also instructed to publicly broadcast a pro-Palestine communiqué, again dictated by Carlos, every two hours.
With so many hostages’ lives at stake, the Austrian authorities had no choice but to negotiate: the propaganda was broadcast, and a plane was provided the next day, which flew to Algiers, where Carlos agreed to free thirty non-Arab hostages, in exchange for a refuelling of the jet, which then flew on to Tripoli.
The reception in Tripoli was hostile, and the Libyans refused to provide Carlos with a larger plane with a greater range capacity. Eventually, in exchange for the release of the Libyan hostages, and five other delegates, the plane was again refuelled and returned to Algiers, where Carlos agreed to release the rest of the hostages in exchange for political asylum, and a large undisclosed sum of money, which was provided either by the Saudis or the Iranians.
The leader of the PFLP regarded the OPEC operation as a failure, as Carlos had released, rather than killed, the Saudi oil ministers, the primary targets in the raid. When it was discovered that Carlos had also appropriated some of the ransom funds for his own use, he was expelled from the party, although this was not publicised by the PFLP at the time.
Unaware of this, media speculation claimed that Carlos was the mastermind behind the June 1976 hijacking of an Air France jet in Entebbe, Uganda, which made world headlines, but this assumption proved to be false. Carlos settled in Aden, South Yemen, courtesy of Libya’s Colonel Qadaffi, who was rumoured to have funded the OPEC attack, where he trained terrorists in guerrilla warfare techniques for a number of years.
When the leader of the PFLP died suddenly in March 1978, Carlos recruited the best agents from within the leaderless group, as well as other nationals, to form his own group of terrorist mercenaries, named the Organisation of Arab Armed Struggle. The group established relations with East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, as well as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. The agents included German divorcee Magdalena Kopp, who went on to become Carlos’ wife in January 1979.
In January 1982, a failed attack by Carlos’ new group, on a French nuclear reactor, led to his wife’s arrest in Paris in February. Carlos demanded her release and, when the French failed to comply, he bombed the French Cultural Centre in Beirut on 15th March, then a French train, on 29th March 1982, which was supposed to have been carrying former French President Jacques Chirac. The premier had not been on board but five passengers were killed, and thirty more injured.
Numerous other attacks against French targets continued over the next year, but the French refused to release Kopp, who was given a four-year sentence for her part in the failed reactor attack. These attacks succeeded in placing extreme political pressure on those governments previously sympathetic to Carlos, as the body count mounted, and the French increased the resources available to capture Carlos.
Two more French trains were bombed on 31st December 1983, killing four passengers, and injuring dozens more, which Carlos claimed responsibility for, claiming that they were retaliation for French air strikes on Lebanese terrorist training camps. In France, and throughout Europe, Carlos was Public Enemy No. 1.