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From Captain Mahmud to Abdulmutallab

13/01/2010

There’s a good discussion going on at Kings of War, our academic cousins in the KCL family.  Rob Dover’s post, Terror on Campus, has kick-started some informed debate about the role of higher education in radicalisation, and the susceptibility of well-educated persons to radical narratives and ideas.

In response to Rob’s suggestion that ‘a look back in history might be worth while’, the commenters have come up with several historical examples, touching on the ‘engineers of jihad’ phenomenon and the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s.  David Betz mentions the Red Army Faction (RAF/Baader-Meinhof) and wonders about the ‘revolution is sexy’ interpretation of RAF recruitment, which Steve Corman develops further.  I’ve just finished reading Stefan Aust’s The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008), the revised edition published as a tie-in to the film of the same name that acts mainly as a visual portrayal of the book.  David is right about the narcissism of the main protagonists, particularly Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, and the relatively dispassionate tone of movie and book allows this facet of their characters to emerge quite naturally.  Although we can happily argue that the initial impetus of the RAF derived in part from the broader political milieu of the turbulent ’60s, including the student movements of the far left―radicalised bourgeois youth, let’s not forget―it’s hard to ignore the role of charisma in the sustenance of the first and second generations of the RAF.

More pertinent to the radicalism/education discussion, I came across a passage late in the book on the life of Zohair Youssif Akache prior to his role as ‘Captain Mahmud’ in the hijacking of a Lufthansa 737 in 1977.  The hijacking was intended to force the West German government to release Baader, Ensslin and other RAF members from prison, and ended in Mogadishu in October 1977 after the plane was successfully stormed by German special forces.  Have a read of what Aust has to say about Akache, and note the similarities between this account and the concerns raised recently about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s background and the intelligence failings prior to his attempted destruction of Delta Flight 253:

‘Captain Mahmud’, whose Iranian passport bore the name of Ali Hyderi, and whose real name was Zohair Youssif Akache, was known to the police.  He had enrolled as a student of the Chelsea College of Aeronautical and Automobile Engineering in London in 1973, and received his diploma in aeronautical engineering two years later.

He first came to the notice of Scotland Yard in December 1974, when he suddenly attacked police officers at a peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Trafalgar Square.  He was known to be a member of the PFLP, and was in danger of being deported, but was finally allowed to remain and continue his studies.  A year later, Akache attacked the police during another pro-Palestinian demonstration.  This time he was arrested and ended up in Pentonville prison.  After going on hunger strike, he was deported to Beirut.

He was back in London at the beginning of 1977.  Under a false name he moved into a hotel opposite the Royal Lancaster, where the former prime minister of North Yemen was staying.  On 10 April, the ex-prime minister, with his wife and a member of the staff of the Yemeni embassy, got into a Mercedes outside the hotel.  Akache had been in wait behind the car.  He walked around the vehicle, opened the right-hand front door, and fired a pistol fitted with a silencer at the three occupants.  They died instantly.  Akache managed to fly out of London the same day.  Scotland Yard had had him under surveillance before the assassination, but had not sent his personal details and description through to Heathrow Airport. (pp.384-5)

Six months later he was dead on the Somali tarmac, and dozens of airline passengers could breathe again.  The differences between the two men are as great as their superficial similarities but 32 years later, does any of this sound even remotely familiar?