Arafat and the PLO in the Service of Cold War Counterintelligence

When Yasser Arafat founded the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1964, the international intelligence agencies which ran him were fanned out across the Middle East and Europe, the better to wage the mighty Cold War contest raging between the United States and Soviet Union. Egyptian intelligence, which had high hopes of its talented agent al-Kidwa, encouraged him to establish the PLO and bankrolled its first steps. It was the second Palestinian paramilitary framework this service had created in nine years for missions of terror in Israel and around the Middle East.

The first was created in 1955, when Palestinian students at Egyptian and Gaza Strip universities were enlisted for suicide units known as Fedayeen. Some penetrated Israel and got as far as the approaches to Tel Aviv; others carried out massacres at outlying civilian locations. The Fedayeen threat was one of the triggers of the 1956 Sinai Campaign fought between Israel and Egypt. It ended with the Israeli army destroying most of the Palestinian units.

In 1964, Egyptian intelligence decided to apply the lessons it had learned in the 1955 experiment. Arafat was designated to create a much broader organization whose cells were to be spread through the Middle East and Europe, the two primary Cold War theatres.

But Egyptian intelligence was not Arafat’s only master. President Gemal Abdel Nasser was then president of Egypt and a leader of the non-aligned bloc of nations that was predominantly anti-American. Egypt’s military and intelligence links were channeled primarily through Soviet bloc clandestine services, chiefly the Russian KGB. The year that the PLO came into being found Kim Philby, senior coordinator of British MI6 Middle East and southern European networks, in Moscow. He had defected two years earlier from Beirut aboard a special Russian vessel which rescued him before he was arrested as a Soviet spy. From the Soviet capital, this British turncoat continued to run most of the MI6 networks by means that have never been discovered.

Challenged by Washington for an explanation, the British government offered two. The first was a denial that this was happening and a declaration that all British networks had been purged of the influence of and links to Philby and his four co-traitors. When this claim was not accepted, the British tried a second explanation. They admitted that some of Philby’s agents were still active in the British networks, but stressed that they were now working solely for London – not Moscow. In any case, they provided the only conduit through which London could get its penetration agents planted inside Moscow, in KGB networks, in Arab spy rings and in pro-Soviet Arab circles of influence.

In those days, when individual double spies of exceptional talent dominated the intelligence scene, the Cold War powers were in a constant race to swamp one another with double agents, many of whom posed as defectors. In this environment, not only were Philby’s Middle East networks and their double agents deemed by London and Washington essential counters in the Cold War intelligence contest, so too were their sub-networks, including Arafat’s PLO.

That was how it happened that the Moscow-run PLO, whose operatives were armed by Soviet bloc nations and trained by Russian, Polish, East German, Rumanian and Czechoslovak intelligence officers, received its propaganda and image-building guidelines from the British. London. Since most of the PLO operatives in London were in fact members of the Philby networks, the PLO and Arafat subsisted on simultaneous backing from the communist bloc and the West, although the latter was orchestrated from Moscow.


A short jump from intelligence to terrorism


Henri Curiel, one of the few super-spies of the day who had known Arafat-al Kidwa as a youth in Cairo, was in Paris in the 1960s laying the groundwork for the international terror movement that a decade later sprouted the European branches: Italy’s Red Brigades, Germany’s Baader Mainhoff, the French Directe Action and the Japanese Red Army. That was when Curiel and Philby secretly integrated the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its leader, Yasser Arafat, into the international terrorist movement.

Only six years later, in 1969, did one of the most accomplished American Middle East agents, Robert Ames, manage to connect with a member of Arafat’s inner circle, Ali Hassan Salameh. The CIA rated this feat as a signal success. However, it did not last long.

It was standard practice for the spies trained in the double agent trade to offer enough correct and sometimes useful information to keep the connection with the opposition afloat. Arafat exploited this practice for more ambitious ends; in addition to using it to cover major terror operations such as the hijack of Western airliners, he applied every trick taught him in the intelligence book and every connection he developed to destroy American positions and influence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

For 24 years, the Palestinian leader preserved his old connections from 1969. It was only in 1992 that he came to terms with the fall of the Soviet empire and seemingly turned aside for peace negotiations with Israel under US auspices that culminated in the 1993 Oslo peace framework accord.

It soon transpired that Arafat had been taught to wear many deceitful faces in the hard school which had reared him, but never to build anything positive. He exploited the lull and promise of prosperity ushered in by the Oslo accord to extensively prepare his suicide terror confrontation with Israel. This last round of Arafat’s war on Israel erupted in September 2000 and has outlasted him. But he died without gaining any of his goals. When looking back on Arafat’s checkered history, there is no escaping the conclusion that, although he was used and controlled continuously by one intelligence body or another, he never availed himself of his many historic opportunities, high-powered connections and ties with the greatest powers on earth to achieve anything much for the Palestinian people.

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