The departed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was never a strictly independent agent. For his entire career, excepting its final decade after the Oslo Accords brought him from Tunis to the Gaza Strip, he was in the hands of some foreign intelligence agency, terrorist network, or spy service.
That was his great secret and it was buried with him in Ramallah on Friday, November 12, 2004. Because that secret never came to light, legions of Western diplomats never understood why all their efforts to convert Arafat from super terrorist to statesmen ran into the sand. There were those who believed he had it in him to be a Palestinian Nelson Mandela and lead his people to independence and statehood. But Arafat could never be a Mandela because he never stood alone on his own two feet, but only as an instrument used by various counterintelligence bodies, who exploited his exceptional gifts of manipulation for their own ends and wars. Apart from those gifts and his great cunning, Arafat lacked the qualities of vision, the conceptual understanding of international strategic trends and the steadfast goals that would have raised him above the rank of a local leader. The wrong turns and tragic disasters that bedeviled the Palestinian people in the second half of the 20th century and during the first four years of the 21st, when the Palestinians opted for armed confrontation with Israel – were rooted in the deficiencies of their leader.
It is important to bring out this largely unknown fact for two reasons:
1. The same group of undercover agencies which pulled Arafat’s strings for most of his public life continues to back the forces, mostly European, which are opposed to President George W. Bush‘s global policies – whether the war in Iraq or the way in which his administration is waging the global campaign against terror. Saddam Hussein‘s removal and Arafat’s death are two steps forward, but by no means the end. The war begun by Bush will outlast him by several years.
2. Without understanding the intelligence engine that galvanized Arafat for decades, it is hard to see where the Palestinian people will go next and what future strategic position awaits Israel in the post-Arafat era. It would be unrealistic to expect new Palestinian leaders to stand up the morning after the funeral and aspire to instant peace with Israel and to act immediately to terminate Palestinian terrorism. Such leaders do exist, but the Palestinians first face a bitter internal ordeal. They have been abandoned by their only acknowledged leader before growing into a fully-formed national entity. Arafat alive held them together by force of his charismatic personality. His death before leading them to a national home leaves the Palestinians in a halfway house. Years may go by before they are capable of coming together and raising another national leader capable of bringing their aspirations to fruition.
Seen from Israel’s perspective, the longest terrorist war in modern history still has a long way to go without a compass. Its aimlessness also springs from Arafat’s secret life and the covert hands which controlled it.
Recruited at 18 by Egyptian intelligence
Yasser Arafat was born Mohammed Waqf al Redwan al Kidwa in Egypt in August 1929. Although today, members of his family hold jobs in the Palestinian Authority – his nephew Nasser al Kidwa, for example, is the PLO observer at the United Nations – Arafat has consistently repudiated his Egyptian origin and family name.
Aged 6, he was sent to Jerusalem to stay with an aunt who sent him to school for three years.
Back in Cairo, he attended an engineering course at Cairo University from 1947 to 1951. At 18, his studies were interrupted before he graduated by Egyptian intelligence which recruited him as an agent with a mission to set up the first Palestinian students’ organization.
These were the early years of the Cold War between the Soviet Bloc and the West. Egypt ruled by King Farouk was an important arena of the undercover war between the two world blocs, along with divided Berlin, London, Paris and Istanbul.
Because in the late 1940s and early 1950s, US intelligence was still in its infancy, especially the counterintelligence branch of the fledgling CIA, Washington relied heavily on the undercover work of the British Secret Service, MI6, in the Middle East and East Europe. This cooperation rested solidly on the Atlantic partnership binding the United States and Britain in the aftermath of World War II.
Over decades of clandestine activity in the Middle East, Britain had developed a dense network of spy cells in the Arab world, which it placed in the service of its American ally and its future destiny as the world’s leading superpower.
American diplomats and intelligence experts had no cause to suspect that many British networks were thoroughly penetrated and that their star talents, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, George Blake and Donald Maclean, were in fact double agents serving Moscow. Their subsequent defection scandalized Washington. (Blake is the only member of the notorious four who is still alive. He goes to the office every day at the Yasenevo headquarters of the FBS, the Soviet KGB’s successor.)
Arafat was recruited as an Egyptian agent a short time before Maclean was transferred from Washington to Cairo after he had aroused American suspicions and given a cover job as British embassy counselor and head of chancery. His MI6 superior was Philby.
Cairo became an important world espionage hub both because of its location at the center of the Middle East and its proximity to Europe and the presence of another notorious and dedicated Soviet spy. Henri Curiel, son of a rich Egyptian banking family, had just founded the Egyptian communist party, but his great talent lay in his innovative approach to espionage. Curiel is credited with inventing the modern concept of double agents which developed as the key to the world of mirrors inherent in the craft of counterintelligence. After he moved to Paris in the late 1960s, Curiel went on to create the first urban terror groups, thus planting a seed which later grew to terrifying international dimensions.
Arafat’s alma mater was therefore Cairo in a period when it was a roaring powerhouse of international intrigue, creative espionage and incendiary ideas. The notion of combining espionage with terrorism was born then in the Egyptian capital. The young, ambitious al-Kidwa was surrounded with brilliant career opportunities. Most of his similarly placed contemporaries sold their allegiance to the highest bidder. Arafat decided to go for bigger game by parlaying his talents for playing off Egyptian, Russian, local communist and British intelligence agents against one another, while also exploiting his former ties with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In those days, he aspired above all to prominence and status rather fortune.
He meets his first Palestinian refugees in Kuwait
In 1952, the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown by a junta of officers who proclaimed Egypt a republic. Two years, later, Gemal Abdel Nasser became Egyptian premier and, in 1956, he was elected president. In the 1957, al Kidwa like many other Egyptians migrated to the Persian Gulf in search of work. In Kuwait, where he was employed as an engineer although he never graduated, he encountered Palestinian refugees for the first time. They had fled Palestine during Israel’s 1948 war of independence. Al-Kidwa’s intelligence controllers in Cairo told him to start recruiting these landless Palestinians as agents to operate in the new networks he was to set up. This project was a great success.
Al Kidwa moved from Kuwait to Jordan in the early 1960s. His masters in Egyptian intelligence were impressed with his ability. So too presumably was Curiel who was then working hard to whip together around a common cause the Palestinians who had fled from different parts of the new state of Israel. They were to be united to launch a struggle to recapture the homes and lands they lost when the Arab states which attacked Israel in 1948 were defeated.
Curiel decided to harness the young al-Kidwa to the task of enlisting the Palestinians who had fled to Jordan.
It was then that Yasser Arafat was born as the undercover codename given him for his mission among the scattered Palestinian communities by two intelligence agencies, the Egyptian service and Kim Philby’s MI6 networks. Curiel and his ring contributed to the cause the concept of grafting the Palestinian struggle onto the new world terrorist movement.
Gifted with extraordinarily long vision, Curiel had prepared a manpower pool for this long-term project, providing men like Arafat with a track for personal advancement along which he was propelled by two great counterintelligence forces, both closely linked to Moscow.
A VIP in Moscow
Curiel’s master plan bound the Palestinian national movement to Moscow for three decades by making it dependent on the Soviet Union for the training of military cadres, weapons and financing, for three decades. From the 1960s until 1991 when the Soviet empire collapsed, Palestinian dependence on the Communist bloc endured. Over those years, the Palestinian national organization was clearly and indelibly marked as a spearhead of the anti-American world terrorist movement.
Early on, as a young agent in Cairo, Arafat was singled out as a Moscow protege. He was spotted by Vladimir Kryuchkov, a shadow associate of Yuri Andropov (who later rose to head the KGB and in 1983 became Soviet president) who was attached to the Soviet embassy in Cairo in the early 1950s to supervise Russian Middle East spy rings in the key capitals of Cairo, Beirut and Istanbul.
In 1974, Kryuchkov was promoted to head of the First Directorate of the KGB and in 1988, head of the Soviet secret service.
From his close work those networks, Kryuchkov had come across the missions they assigned Yasser Arafat. His supportiveness contributed to Arafat’s high standing in Moscow and Soviet bloc capitals and the Palestinian national movement’s centrality in the Soviet Cold War lineup.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Exclusive Expose of Arafat’s Intelligence History will be continued in the next issue on November 18, 2004.