Monday, 11 October 2010


Undercover reporter Antonio Salas passed himself off as radical islamist Mohammed Abdullah

Carlos the Jackal was my friend

Spanish reporter Antonio Salas infiltrated an international terrorist group
and became a trusted confidant of one of the world's most infamous killers

10 Oct 2010

Few undercover reporters have been prepared to sacrifice as much as
the Spaniard who goes by the pseudonym of Antonio Salas. Circumcision
was just one hurdle in passing himself off as a radical Islamist and
infiltrating the shadowy, interconnected world of international
terrorism. "It was more painful than I expected. It is pretty
delicate for the first few days," Salas now admits, walking daintily
around a room at his Madrid publisher's offices. An invite to a
hammam bathhouse during his five years undercover had, he said,
persuaded him the operation was necessary.

Salas's identity undercover was Mohammed Abdullah, a Spanish-
Venezuelan with Palestinian grand-parents. He was convincing enough
to be invited on terrorist training courses and to become personal
webmaster to the most infamous of international terrorists, Carlos
the Jackal. That meant regular telephone conversations with a man
thought to be responsible for more than 80 deaths.

The Jackal would call from La Santé prison in Paris, where he is
still serving a life sentence for murder. "He was very worried about
my security," says Salas. "It is a strange sensation when a
self-confessed assassin like Carlos the Jackal does that, and offers
their friendship."

Salas decided to go undercover with his hidden cameras after the
bombings that killed 191 people on Madrid commuter trains on 11 March
2004. He had been as stunned as other Spaniards by the blasts,
despite the country's experience of Basque terrorist group Eta. "I
wanted to know what goes through the mind of a person who is capable
of killing for an ideology."

Salas's previous undercover investigations – as a skinhead supporter
of Real Madrid football club, and in the world of
prostitute-trafficking – had taken him to the heart of some of the
most violent groups in Spain. "My aim was to understand terrorism in
the same way that I came to understand skinheads or

He learned Arabic and invented an elaborate cover story involving a
dead wife: 25-year-old Dalal Mujahad from Jenin, tragically killed by
an Israeli bullet while pregnant with their child. The real Dalal,
whose name he found in a newspaper archive, had died in 2004, when a
bullet entered her house in a shoot-out. In case anyone decided to
investigate, he added a Romeo and Juliet touch: the marriage had been
kept secret because his (false) mother's family, from the nearby
village of Burkin, backed Al-Fatah, while Dalal's family were part of
Hamas. Her death, he would claim, had pushed him towards radical

"I took photos of myself in Burkin and in Jenin. Then I asked Fatima,
a girl I met when investigating prostitute-trafficking, to let me
take photos with her as if she was my wife. We mocked up an apartment
in Barcelona to look as though it was in Palestine and took photos."
Salas also wrote out the Qur'an by hand, and considers his conversion
to Islam to be genuine. He treasures the small booklet in which he
wrote Islam's most sacred text: "It helped convince people," he says.
"Not many people carry their own, hand-copied version."

The final part of his cover was to become a pro-jihad journalist,
contributing to radical publications. He travelled around the Arab
world, from Egypt to Jordan and the Lebanon, writing articles that
would help to seal his militant credentials. "I even wrote a couple
of books," he says. It did not take long to gain a reputation. "I
remember the first time I dropped off some newsletters at a mosque in
Tenerife, the police arrived with flashing lights and sirens and they
soon had me pinned against a wall."

Salas picked the Venezuela of President Hugo Chávez as his base. "I
had been told Venezuela was a mecca of international terrorism," he
says. "The Farc group from Colombia was there, as were people from
Eta." Numerous other small revolutionary groups had also set up under
Chávez's benevolent gaze. There, in what the New Yorker journalist
Jon Lee Anderson calls "the parallel reality that is the Bolivarian
Republic of Venezuela today", Salas established himself as yet
another niche radical – flying the flag for Palestine and running a
local branch of Hezbollah. More importantly, he got close to the
family of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez – Carlos the Jackal.

"I only really knew about Carlos because of the films about him,"
admits Salas, who is in his mid-30s and too young to recall the The
Jackal's bloody kidnaps and assassinations in the 70s and 80s. "But
here was an icon of international terrorism. He was Venezuelan, and a
convert to Islam who had fought for Palestine. It was perfect for my
profile." He sought out The Jackal's two younger brothers, Vladimir
and Lenin – names given to them by their Leninist lawyer father.
"Vladimir is the more active defender of his brother," he says.
"Lenin is a lot more discreet. Later I met his mother, his nephews
and got in with the family."

He first spoke with The Jackal by chance, when Carlos rang from
prison while Salas was with the family. "We started out talking in
Arabic and then in Spanish. I called him Ilich or 'Comandante Salim',
which is his Arabic name. He speaks six or seven languages and is
very intelligent. We would talk for up to an hour. He would not let
me ask questions – they made him angry. So I just let him talk. He
even confessed some of his killings, and I have that taped."

Salas began to work on a website that, among other things, campaigned
to have The Jackal repatriated to Venezuela. "To prove the website
was close to Ilich, I was given access to a trunk that had been
closed for 30 or 40 years – with his school reports and family
photos. I spent a lot of time in Vladimir's house, classifying the
material." Salas would post texts to La Santé; The Jackal sent them
back with neat, handwritten corrections. He also sent prison
photographs to put on the site.

By tracking the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera, Venezuelan TV and the
internet for mentions of The Jackal, Salas discovered that Chávez
himself was one of his biggest fans. "For him, Carlos is not a
terrorist but a revolutionary – a model internationalist, like Che
Guevara. Just as Che went to fight for other peoples, so Ilich went
to fight for the Palestinians. Whenever Chávez mentioned The Jackal,
I would record it and send it to him, which he loved."

Not that Salas agrees with Chávez's view of The Jackal. "He is
considered responsible for 82 killings; I don't call that being a
revolutionary. I call him a terrorist." – though he would probably
not, he admits, use the term to his face. "It helps that he is in

Salas updated The Jackal's website from cybercafes, using a different
one every time. "I imagine Mossad, the CIA and MI6 being driven mad
by the fact that The Jackal's page was updated from Portugal one day,
Syria another, and from other countries."

Salas was even invited to visit La Santé, but he passed up the offer.
As an independent journalist who pays his own way and has no back-up,
he must use his real identity when going through frontiers or
security controls. "I have never worked for any intelligence service,
political party, or even for any one media outlet," says Salas, who
produces his own undercover films and publishes books on his
investigations. "I only work for my readers. They are the ones who
end up paying for my investigations. I work alone, using my own money
and passport. Journalistically, it would have been great to meet
Ilich, but I couldn't do it."

In Venezuela's fringe community of political extremists, he bumped
into people from Eta, the Túpac Amaru (a group of armed Venezuelan
radicals who support Chávez), and other groups. Repeated requests for
hands-on training eventually saw him invited to a camp in Venezuela,
where he learned to handle pistols, rifles and machine guns,
including a Kalashnikov AK-103, an Uzi sub-machine gun, the American
M4 carbine and a Belgian-designed FN FAL. He also practised with a
sniper's telescopic sight and received explosives training. "I
learned all that a jihadist might need to take his message of terror
to a city in Europe or the United States," Salas says. "There was
nothing glamorous about it. It was just a question of learning to
kill better."

His instructors included a Venezuelan army colonel, though Salas
insists the camp was not run by the Chávez regime. "It just so
happened that my instructors, as well as being supporters of
revolutionary causes, were Venezuelan army officers."

His strangest discovery was the willingness of different extremist
groups to blindly embrace the varied causes of others, even when they
had nothing to do with one another. So it was that, as a supposed
Palestinian Islamist, he found himself appearing in a video for the
Túpac Amaru. Salas stood manfully beside leader Alberto Carías
clutching a Heckler & Koch MP5-A3 sub-machine gun, as the latter
urged armed revolutionary groups across South America to join forces.

Salas came close to blowing his cover only once, when he met US
journalist Jon Lee Anderson, who was in Venezuela promoting his Che
Guevara biography. It was a nerve-racking encounter. "When he said he
had been to Burkin and started naming people there, I feared my cover
was gone."

Anderson remembers the meeting: "Burkin is an amazing place in the
hills above Jenin. It is said to have the finest olive oil in the
world. I remember thinking there was something odd [about Abdullah];
he was cautious around me and flustered, but Caracas is full of
wackos. It didn't occur to me to think he was a plant."

Far from being made world-weary or cynical by his exposure to such
violent worlds, Salas remains almost naively optimistic about the
results of his investigations – which have spawned Spanish
best-sellers, popular documentaries, even a feature film. After his
previous two books, he says, he received letters from people who had
given up being skinheads or frequenting prostitutes. "I hope for the
same thing with this," he says. "In Spain and Latin America there are
a lot of adolescents – many of whom I saw arrive at the mosque for
the first time as children – who will feel the draw of violence in a
few years' time."

So what conclusions does Salas draw from rubbing shoulders with
international terror? His answer is coloured by the fact that half a
dozen people he met during his investigation have since died – often
violently. "I don't justify violence, but I can understand it. I
never found any glamour or sophistication in that world, nor anyone
especially intelligent – except for The Jackal. Terrorists really
have only two ends – they either die or go to jail. You have to be a
bit stupid to do that."

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