This weekend I sat through the full-whack three-part version of the film “Carlos,” the story of Carlos the Jackal, the infamous Venezuelan who turned from a beret sporting revolutionary into international gun for hire. An enjoyable experience, it reminded me once again of the many parallels that seem to exist between the ideas and motivation that drive Islamist extremists and the left-wing extremists who turned to violence in the 1960s and 1970s.
To give a brief history, Carlos, whose real name was Illich Ramirez Sanchez, was born in Venezuela in 1949 to a father so dedicated to the Leninist cause that he named his children, Vladimir, Illich and Lenin (after the great man). Having decided from a young age he was set on becoming a revolutionary, Illich joined and trained with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) for whom he struck repeatedly around the globe. From there he graduated into international celebrity, achieving his greatest notoriety for leading the raid in which he and a team kidnapped the OPEC ministers while in conference at Vienna. Having reached his apex, much of the rest of his career was spent living off the laurels of this infamy, though he led a terror campaign across Europe and against French interests in the 1980s. The collapse of the Berlin wall and disappearance of the communist bloc meant he lost one of major benefactors, leaving him stranded and reliant on the mercy of friendly Arab states who were trying to ascertain their position vis-à-vis the West in the post-Communist world.
The film is useful in highlighting a couple of key lessons that leaders learned after their experiences with terrorism in the 1970s. First of all, that negotiation and capitulation to terrorists’ demands at the end of a gun is something which is really only going to bring you more trouble. Secondly, that state actors tend to play an important role. Carlos and his group are repeatedly reliant on funding from states and the use of their diplomatic cover to move weapons and to travel around. For the supporting states, Carlos and his team provide asymmetric depth to their ideological conflict with the western powers.
More interesting when comparing the problems then to the problems now is the incredibly diverse set of people that Carlos calls upon in his operations. From German members of the Revolutionary Cells, to ETA members, to Palestinians, and other Arab nations, the front that Carlos is seen leading is an international one which is motivated (at least initially) by a deep desire to free the world from what they characterize as “imperialism.” Parallels are easy to draw between this and the idealism behind the individuals who are drawn from an international community to the cause of Islamist extremism. The recent scare to emerge from Waziristan seemed to focus around a possible plot which included British-Pakistani’s, Franco-Algerians, and an assortment of German born or raised young men. In both cases, young people from around the world are drawn by a common ideology to fight against the system.
But equally concerning is the parallel that one might draw when one considers the ideological flexibility these groups and networks can deploy once established. In the film we see Carlos shift from being a revolutionary idealist to a gun for hire – deploying his international network at the disposal of states that are willing to fund his operations. Similarly, these days it is possible to see how networks established to support causes abroad can be turned to support ones at home: Lashkar e Toiba’s European network appears to have provided some support for Richard Reid’s attempting shoe bombing and the structure from which Operation Crevice emerged. There are many such examples, the point being that once created, these networks can easily switch from merely funneling abroad to bringing trouble home.
The film itself is very well made, if a bit long, but I did choose to watch the longer version that I can see in parts could have been trimmed. The lead actor, Edgar Ramirez, is very impressive both in his acting and his capacity to leap quite fluently between languages. However, it is difficult to shake the sense that the film is an attempt to glorify the Jackal; as this reviewer put it, presenting his as “the terrorist as pin up.” Something that might exacerbate the problems this film is talking about. But if that is part of a terrorist’s appeal, then maybe it is unavoidable – films will always be glamorous and it remains unclear whether it is always their fault or their responsibility if people are inspired by media to carry out similar actions.