Essay: The KGB and the PLO
Jan 11, 2017 | Ronen Bergman
The Palestinians who served the Soviet Union
The Soviet Navy’s reconnaissance ship Kursograf was speeding through the waves on a moonless night in March 1970, making its way to the rendezvous point. Two weeks earlier, Marshal Dmitry Ustinov, at the time a senior defence official and later the Minister of Defence of the USSR, ordered the ship to leave its patrol assignment in the Pacific Ocean and quickly make its way to the military port of Vladivostok to collect several crates of cargo and one passenger. Then, the ship was to sail to the Gulf of Aden in Yemen and await further instructions.
The covert operation was codenamed “Vostok” (east in Russian). The ship’s crew was ordered not to ask any questions, not to open the cargo crates, and most definitely not to try to talk to the mysterious man who came on board. His name was Sergey Grankin and he was a major in Department V, a top secret unit of the KGB which was responsible for contact with “liberation organisations” across the world.
As the ship was nearing Aden, the captain received the coordinates for the late-night rendezvous at the heart of the gulf. Around 9pm, the ship slowed down and its lights went out. All of a sudden, a far-away flashing light appeared which seemed to be coming nearer and nearer still. It was a rotating red signal lamp placed on the mast of a civilian cargo ship.
The two vessels exchanged a series of previously-agreed-upon signals, following which the ship unloaded the cargo crates onto rubber boats that made their way to the civilian ship.
Upon boarding the civilian cargo vessel, Grankin began opening several of the crates. Despite the complete darkness surrounding him, peeking from the crates he could see guns, machine guns, RPG launchers, grenades, sniper rifles and the crowning glory – landmines and roadside charges with remote detonators, the height of technology at the time.
Grankin turned to a Middle Eastern-looking man who was standing on the deck not far from him and appeared to be the boss on the ship, and warmly shook his hand. The man was known in the KGB as “Nationalist,” but his real name was Wadi Haddad, the head of operations at the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). At the time, he was one of the most infamous and dangerous terrorists in the world.
The massive arms shipment, which included sophisticated weapons the Russians hadn’t even provided the members of the Warsaw Pact, was to be used by Haddad for a series of terror attacks, assassinations and abductions all over the world.
Half a year after that late-night meeting at sea, on September 6, 1970, PFLP terrorists armed with the weapons from these crates hijacked four jet airliners bound for New York City and one bound for London. The hijacking of one of the planes, El Al flight 219 from Amsterdam, was foiled thanks to undercover Shin Bet “air marshals” who shot terrorist Patrick Argüello dead and managed to subdue and arrest his partner Leila Khaled. Two other hijackers were prevented from boarding that flight, and instead hijacked Pan Am Flight 93. The four planes were flown to Jordan, where they were forced to land at Dawson’s Field, a remote desert airstrip near Zarka.
This attack was one of the triggers of Jordan’s big confrontation against terror organisations – known as “Black September” – and changed the course of history in the Middle East.
Later, the Russian weapons were used to murder Americans in Lebanon and Israelis in Europe and to blow up oil reservoirs. They were also used in an attempt to sink an Israeli tanker in the Red Sea. Several of the guns from those crates were also used by the hijackers of an Air France plane to Entebbe in June 1976.
This shipment was yet another link in the long chain of deep cooperation between the Eastern Bloc’s intelligence services, led by the KGB, and Palestinian terror organisations.
Classified KGB documents reveal that the Soviet spy agency aided Haddad and his men by providing them with training, funding and arms, as well as help in the preparations for specific attacks. In other instances, the KGB itself initiated attacks that were carried out by Haddad and his men. And Haddad’s terror organisation was not the only one operated by Moscow.
The revelations of Vasili Mitrokhin
The above is based on information mined from some 6,000 KGB documents smuggled to the West in the early 1990s by Vasili Mitrokhin, who used his senior position at the spy agency’s archive to copy the top secret documents – with the Soviets being none the wiser.
These documents helped expose some 1,000 KGB agents across the world and uncover countless covert spy operations.
The Mitrokhin documents have recently been moved to Churchill College in Cambridge. Over the past six months, we’ve been working on sifting through them, translating them, and cross-referencing the material with other available information and sources.
“Give me missiles”
The genesis of the KGB’s developing ties with Palestinian terror organisations can be traced back to the end of the 1960s. The Soviet spy agency had code names for the different factions making up the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO): Fatah, the main movement led by Yasser Arafat, was dubbed “Kabinet” (cabinet); the PFLP received the name “Khutor” (which means a small village or a farm in Russian); the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) was named “Shkola” (a school in Russian).
Arafat himself received the codename “Aref,” but the Russians weren’t particularly impressed with him at first. The Mitrokhin archive includes a memo that notes: “Aref only keeps promises that benefit him. The information he provides is very laconic and only serves to promote his own interests.” Despite this, the KGB appointed a senior liaison officer named Vasili Samoylenko to “cultivate” the Fatah leader.
But the interest in Fatah and Arafat was limited at that point. The Russians were a lot more interested in the PLO’s other factions, particularly George Habash’s PFLP.
“One of the reasons for that is the Marxist-Leninist ideology of Habash’s men,” explains Prof. Christopher Andrew, one of the world’s foremost historians researching intelligence services.
Habash may have been the head of the PFLP, but it was his deputy, Dr. Wadi Haddad – a Christian Arab from Safed and a paediatrician like his boss – who had the brilliant operational mind. Haddad greatly improved upon a form of terrorism that was still in its infancy at the time – hijacking planes – and understood the power of international media coverage that such an attack garners.
He was the mastermind behind the hijacking of an El Al plane to Algeria in July 1968, which ended with the release of the passengers in return for 16 Palestinian prisoners and was considered by the Palestinians as a great success.
He was also behind the hijacking of the Tel Aviv-bound TWA Flight 840 to Damascus in August 1969, which received unprecedented media coverage.
So impressed were the Russians with Haddad’s operational abilities, that shortly after the hijackings of those planes the KGB once again sought to make use of his talents.
In late 1969, KGB chief Yuri Andropov wrote a top secret report to then-Soviet Union leader Leonid Brezhnev, telling him about Haddad’s recruitment under the codename “Nationalist.”
Andropov detailed to his boss the advantages of the new intelligence asset: “The nature of our relations with W. Haddad allows us a degree of control over the activities of the PFLP’s external operations section, to exercise an influence favourable to the USSR, and also to reach some of our own aims, through the activities of the PFLP while observing the necessary secrecy.”
In other words, Andropov was telling his leader that by making effective use of the agent “Nationalist,” the KGB would be able to execute its own operations, carried out by Haddad and his men, without leaving behind any fingerprints linking Soviet intelligence.
In early July 1970, Brezhnev gave the KGB the green light to provide Haddad with money and RPG-7 launchers and missiles. But Haddad had much higher expectations. He told his KGB contacts that he expected “anti-aircraft surface-to-air missiles, landmines/roadside charges with remote detonation, naval mines, silencers, landmines/roadside charges with delayed fuses, and military training.”
The KGB noted that “Everything in Haddad’s list is available in Department V’s arms depots, except for the surface-to-air missiles,” but also that most of these weapons “were never provided to elements outside the borders of the Soviet Union.”
Despite this, Moscow decided to grant most of Haddad’s wishes – except for his request for anti-aircraft missiles – marking the beginning of “Operation Vostok”.
At the time, Haddad was living in Beirut and contact with him was done through the KGB station at the Lebanese capital, usually in surreptitious meetings in one of his hiding places.
Israeli intelligence located one of Haddad’s hiding places, an apartment on 8 Muhi A-Din al-Hayat Street in Beirut. On the night of July 10, 1970, Israeli naval commandos landed on the beach in Beirut in rubber boats to deliver two RPG launchers to the operatives of the Mossad’s elite assassination unit Caesarea. The Mossad operatives rented an apartment with a view of Haddad’s window, from where they fired two RPG missiles into the living room at 2pm the next day.
“There were two rooms in the apartment,” Mike Harari, the commander of the Caesarea Division, told me in his last interview before passing away.
“One was used as a living room, and the other was where the wife and daughter were,” Harari recounted. “Golda (Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time) ordered us to ensure that not a hair on the head of any innocent person be harmed.
“The (Mossad) operative saw him (Haddad) in the living room and aimed the missile in that direction, set the timer, and left. A moment before (the missile was fired), the terrorist moved to the other room – and survived.”
Soon afterwards, the KGB decided to use Haddad for a highly sensitive operation of its own: abducting the head of the CIA station in Beirut and taking him to Moscow for interrogation. “This will allow for obtaining credible information on American intelligence’s plans and operations in the Middle East,” Andropov wrote to Brezhnev.
Andropov promised Brezhnev that no one would suspect the KGB of being behind this abduction because “recently, Palestinian organisations have increased their guerrilla warfare against American targets, fighters and agents.”
On May 5, 1970, Brezhnev gave the green light and “Operation Vint” (screw) was underway.
The Mitrokhin documents include surveillance reports on the CIA chief: “He lives on the fourth floor of 168-174 Ramlet El Baida Boulevard. He owns a Mercury Comet, diplomatic license plate 104/115, light blue.” The reports also mention that he has a “dog, a black poodle, he walks it alone.”
The Operation Order details the abduction plan: “A rag will be pressed to his nose and mouth soaked with a chemical that will cause him to lose consciousness for three to five minutes. During that time, he will be injected with a sedative.”
The abduction operation never got off the ground. The CIA station chief likely suspected he was being followed and therefore increased his security.
Other Americans were not as lucky: In August 1970, in a joint operation, Haddad and the KGB managed to abduct Prof. Hani Korda, an American academic who was suspected by the KGB (quite possibly wrongly) of having ties to the CIA. Prof. Korda was smuggled from Lebanon to a PFLP base in Jordan, where he was tortured but refused to admit to cooperating with American intelligence and was eventually released.
Two months later, Haddad’s men abducted Aredis Derounian, an Armenian-born American journalist. He too was suspected of cooperating with the CIA. Derounian was incarcerated in a Tripoli refugee camp. There he was interrogated, but eventually managed to escape his captors and found shelter at the US Embassy in Beirut.
It was not just Haddad with whom the Americans had to contend. The KGB also recruited his fellow PFLP terrorist Abu Ahmed Yunis as a paid agent, giving him the codename “Tarshikh.”
In 1976, Yunis commanded an operation to assassinate the US ambassador to Beirut, Francis E. Meloy, Jr. The operation itself is not mentioned in the Mitrokhin documents, but it’s difficult to imagine it was carried out without the knowledge of the KGB.
Haddad and Yunis, in cooperation with the KGB, mounted an attack on the El Al offices at the Athens Airport on July 19, 1973. They also continued their multi-pronged assault on a number of separate occasions which included the bombing of Israeli institutions, the blowing up of an American oil pipeline and the hijacking of an American jet airliner.
Through the KGB, Haddad also established close ties with the Stasi, East Germany’s intelligence service. Outwardly, the Germans were very polite in their treatment of Haddad and his cohorts; but internal Stasi correspondences illustrate the true racist sentiments which prevailed among the ranks about the Palestinians, who were dubbed “camel f***ers” by the Germans.
Even so, the Stasi provided training and weapons to the PFLP and, among other things, helped them prepare for “Operation Nasos” (pump), which was carefully planned by Haddad and the KGB over the course of several months.
This was the PFLP’s first naval operation – a daring plan that entailed shooting RPGs at an Israeli tanker that was secretly transporting oil from Iran to Israel through the Red Sea.
For the KGB, there was great value in such an operation: Hitting a significant Israeli target while at the same time exposing the secret oil ties between Israel and Iran, whose ruler, the Shah, was adopting a pro-Western approach at the time.
The selected target was the Coral Sea oil tanker, which was sailing under a Liberia flag en route from Iran to Eilat. On June 11, 1971, two of Haddad’s top men sailed from the coast of southern Yemen towards the tanker in a speedboat.
In an early morning hour, the terrorists approached the tanker and fired several missiles at it, with five hitting the tanker. When they saw the flames rising on deck, they concluded that their mission had been accomplished and quickly left the scene, heading back to Yemen where Haddad was awaiting their arrival.
A statement released by the PFLP immediately after the attack read: “The missiles hit the tanker in two places … the oil caught fire and the tanker immediately came to a halt, following which it started to sink.”
But Haddad’s celebrations were premature and short-lived. The tanker may have ignited, but thanks to swift and daring action by its captain, Marcus Mouskus, the sailors managed to extinguish the fire, save the tanker – and likely save their own lives as well.
The action earned Mouskus the Medal of Distinguished Service from the Israeli Government, the first and only non-Israeli citizen to be the recipient of that honour.
Even though the tanker didn’t sink, Haddad greatly benefited from the international attention his daring attack at sea garnered, allowing him to demand more and more weapons for a series of attacks he planned for the coming years against Israel and other Western elements.
The KGB also helped one of Haddad’s top operatives, Taysir Quba’a (codenamed “Kim”), to contact members of radical left-wing organisations in western Europe – including the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof Group in West Germany – so he could recruit them for joint operations. With the help of German terrorists, the PFLP successfully seized and diverted an Air France plane carrying Jewish and Israeli passengers to Entebbe in June of 1976, among other attacks.
In return for the arms shipments he received from the KGB, Haddad agreed to carry out assassinations of “traitors to the motherland”- mostly defectors from the USSR.
The close cooperation between Haddad and Soviet intelligence services continued until early 1978, when he was poisoned in an attack attributed to the Israeli Mossad. When doctors in Baghdad stood helpless by his bedside, Arafat asked the KGB to help him. The Soviet spy agency had Haddad hospitalised under a false name at a hospital in East Berlin, but despite the efforts of the best doctors brought in by the Stasi, Haddad died on March 29, 1978.
Expanding ties in the PLO
The KGB may have lost its most important Palestinian agent, but by that time it had already managed to entrench its ties with the other Palestinian organisations. According to the Mitrokhin documents, the KGB provided support to Nayef Hawatmeh (codename “Inzhener” meaning engineer), the leader of the DFLP.
Ahmed Jibril (codename “Mayorov”), the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), also received support, both directly from Moscow and through the commander of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence Directorate, Gen. ‘Ali Duba, under whose wing Jibril operated.
Special ties were also forged between the KGB and the Western Sector – a Fatah unit under the command of Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), who was responsible for the 1975 Savoy Hotel attack and the 1978 Coastal Road massacre, among others.
In 1973, the KGB decided to change its attitude towards Yasser Arafat and his Fatah faction as the Palestinian organisation’s standing in the international arena strengthened. The KGB’s operational and intelligence cooperation with the PLO was mainly conducted through Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), who was responsible for countless terror attacks against Israel.
Abu Iyad, whose codename was “Kochubey,” received a significant amount of weapons, intelligence, assistance and training for his men from the KGB. In return, the KGB directed some of Fatah’s operations and received “information about Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Algeria.” In other words, Fatah spied on Arab nations for the KGB.
Infiltrating the Mukataa
The two most important KGB recruitments from the PLO during the second half of the 1970s were of people who still play a major role in Palestinian politics today.
According to the Mitrokhin documents, the KGB had an agent at the heart of the PLO whose file describes him as “a member of the PLO’s executive committee and a member in the politburo of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).” This was none other than Yasser Abed Rabbo, one of the top officials in the Palestinian Authority, who held a number of senior roles in the PA over the years, was a chief negotiator in talks with Israel, and one of the architects of the Geneva Initiative.
For the most part, the Mitrokhin documents don’t provide details about the information which the agents provided the KGB. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note the way Abed Rabbo is defined in the documents – as an “informant,” who is ranked below “agent” in the level of importance to the KGB.
The second and more important KGB recruitment was of the agent “Krotov” (mole), who was described in the KGB’s files as “born in 1935, Palestinian, prominent figure both politically and socially. Lives in Syria, a member of the PLO Central Council.”
Agent “Krotov” is none other than Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority.
The Mitrokhin documents, which have been corroborated by information gathered over the years by Israeli intelligence services, provide further details about agent “Krotov”.
The KGB began Abbas’ “first stage of recruitment” around 1979, when Abbas arrived in Moscow to study at the Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. In describing those initial contacts, his KGB file notes that “it’s still unclear whether the object will agree to cooperate.”
The university’s declared goal was to aid elements in the Third World and in Africa in obtaining higher education – while increasing the influence of the USSR and of communism in the developing world. But the university had other roles, too. Among other things, the KGB – which essentially controlled the campus – recruited agents there.
Abbas was accepted in Moscow to study for a Candidate of Sciences degree, which is the Russian equivalent of a PhD in Social Sciences.
Abbas’s CandSc thesis, “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism” – a lampoon full of blatant lies, including Holocaust denial and accusations that Zionists “assisted” Hitler – was completed in May 1982 and released as a book two years later.
By that time, Abbas had already returned to Lebanon and used the PLO to spread Soviet propaganda prepared by the KGB and the Stasi, which accused “Western Imperialism and Zionism” of cooperating with the Nazis.
As ties between Abbas and the Russians grew closer, an internal KGB report concisely noted that developing progress: “Krotov is an agent of the KGB.” According to the KGB’s definition, those who reach the level of “agent” are those who “consistently, systematically and covertly carry out intelligence assignments, while maintaining secret contact with an official in the agency.”
Yedioth Ahronoth was unable to obtain a response from Mahmoud Abbas’ office or from Yasser Abed Rabbo by the time of publication.
However, a former senior Fatah official who asked to remain anonymous told us that Abbas was not an agent of the KGB in the sense that he acted against Fatah’s interests but rather was “a Fatah-authorised contact appointed by Arafat to coordinate the transfer of measures and arms from the Soviet Union to the Palestinians” – contacts that the official doesn’t deny.
Ronen Bergman is an Israeli investigative journalist and is senior political and military analyst for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs and numerous other international publications, and is the author of five non-fiction books including The Secret War with Iran: The 30-year Covert Struggle for Control of a Rogue State (One World, 2009). Research and translation from Russian for this report by Will Styles, Alexander Tabachnik, Yana Sofovich and Yael Sass. © Yedioth Ahronoth, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.