Cloak and Dagger
What Did KGB Get From Palestinian President?
The evidence is clear and convincing that the Soviets cultivated Mahmoud Abbas, but what did that bring them in the past, and what does it mean in the present?
In a way, it was the most anticlimactic news item of the year.
In 1983 the KGB recruited Mahmoud Abbas, who is now president of the Palestinian National Authority and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, according to two Israeli scholars researching Soviet-Palestinian relations.
Identified by his codename “Krotov,” or “Mole” in the documents cited by the researchers, Abbas is described in a capsule biography that includes his birth in British Mandate Palestine in 1935, his membership in the central committee of Fatah, his political party, and the PLO, followed by the citation of his alleged recruitment by the KGB in Damascus, where he spent his childhood and passed his formative political years, and where he had returned from other ports of exile in the Middle East in the early 1980s.
Also of interest: the main liaison between the Israelis and Palestinians today is Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who twice acted as Moscow’s ambassador to Damascus, the first stint beginning in 1983, the year Abbas supposedly was turned.
The timing of this embarrassing disclosure may have been suspicious, coming amid a news cycle in which Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying to foster Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Moscow, one more regional role that Putin lately usurped from his American counterpart. However, the provenance of the information was decidedly more convincing.
Gideon Remez and Isabella Ginor of the Truman Institute at Hebrew University in Jerusalem came across Abbas’s name in documents of the Mitrokhin File, a tranche of handwritten copies of decades of KGB archives, which was painstakingly smuggled out of the then-collapsed Soviet Union in 1991 by the eponymous former archivist, Vasili Mitrokhin.
To date, no one has successfully refuted or debunked any of the contents of this archive, which resides at the Churchill Archives Center at the University of Cambridge and has furnished two important volumes on the Cold War, The Sword and the Shield, an internal history of the Soviet special services going back as far as 1918, and The World Was Going Our Way, a catalogue of the KGB’s efforts at promoting Marxism-Leninism, or just anti-Western subversion, in the Third World. Both books were co-written by British historian Christopher Andrew; the second was published a year after Mitrokhin’s death in 2004.
Scholars and Western intelligence officials believe the Miktrokhin Archive’s descriptions of Soviet skullduggery have done an enormous amount to illuminate the darkest recesses of Eastern bloc clandestinity and in aggregate constitute what the FBI reportedly has termed “the most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source.”
Nevertheless, Palestinian officials insist that the accusation that their boss ever worked for Moscow Center is risible.
“There’s a clear trend of attempting to damage Abu Mazen [Abbas],” a fellow central committee member of Fatah, Mohammed al-Madani, told the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “This is another attempt to slander him.”
And, as The New York Times’ Peter Baker reports, the PLO and Fatah brass have noted that the recruitment of Abbas would have been superfluous given the well documented and rather public affiliation between the Soviet government and these stateless institutions. Abbas even headed a Palestinian-Soviet “friendship foundation,” which put him well within the Russian orbit.
Abbas’s curriculum vitae is murky and contradictory.
On his presidential website, for instance, Abbas writes in the first person that in 1982, “ahead of the [Israeli] invasion of Lebanon, I discussed my PhD thesis, entitled ‘The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and the Zionist Movement,’ at the Moscow Institute of Orientalism.”
(As one can probably glean from the title, that dissertation, later turned into a monograph with a similar name, caused Abbas some headaches in later years when he succeeded the late Yasser Arafat as the top man in the PLO and the Palestinian administration.)
And this is where the murkiness of Abbas’s self-accounting comes in.
In 1982 there was no Moscow Institute of Orientalism, as his autobiography states; or better said, the school was possibly incorporated into Moscow State University in 1954, almost 30 years before Abbas’s scribblings on Zionism and its discontents. But there was a similar-sounding Institute for Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences, which is where the PLO chairman probably earned the equivalent of a doctorate. That is the conclusion of the Congressional Research Service and is confirmed to The Daily Beast by Grant Rumley, a research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who is writing a forthcoming biography of Abbas.
In 1982, the director of the Institute for Oriental Studies was Yevgeny Primakov, a famed Soviet Arabist, intelligence operative and diplomat whose career spanned the Communist and post-Communist eras.
Primakov had served as Pravda’s correspondent in Cairo (where he was also likely a spy) before going on to become chairman of the Supreme Soviet, the highest legislative body in the USSR, and the first deputy chairman of the KGB. (His immediate successor, as the KGB refashioned itself into the Federal Security Service, or FSB, was a then semi-anonymous operative out of Dresden and a mayoral administrator in St. Petersburg named Vladimir Putin.)
In the wake of the abortive Communist coup in 1991, Primakov became the head of the SVR, Russia’s new-minted foreign intelligence service, and culminated his career in Russian government as prime minister under Boris Yeltsin.
In 1999, Primakov famously ordered his plane en route to Washington, D.C., to turn around midair and fly back to Moscow when he discovered that NATO had begun bombing Serb forces in Kosovo; an ostentatious cancellation of a long-planned state visit that cost an economically straitened Russia $15 billion in U.S. trade deals.
After Yeltsin’s decline and fall, Primakov soon emerged as Putin’s failed rival for control of Russia. He died last year.
So it is entirely possible, not to mention titillating to consider, that the spadework for recruiting a young and ambitious Palestinian refugee from Syria can have been conducted at an elite institute for higher learning, headed as it then was by a veteran spook fluent in Arabic and widely regarded as Russia’s most valued expert on the Middle East.
But would Primakov have even needed to perform any spadework by the time Abbas was ready to defend his thesis?
There is another celebrated school in Moscow that was very well connected to KGB agentry, especially for someone out of the Levant.
A 2010 article in the Russian news service RIA Novosti states that despite “widespread myths,” Patrice Lumumba University “did not release from its walls very many successful politicians: about a dozens future ministers and only two future leaders of their countries… One was Bharrat Jagdeo, president of Guyana who received his masters in economics in 1990 in Moscow, and the second was Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian National Authority, who graduated from the law faculty… and then in 1982, defended his candidates’ dissertation on the topic… at the Moscow Department of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences.” (Other sources, including Abbas’s website, suggest he earned his law degree in Syria.)
Founded in 1960 as the Peoples’ Friendship University, the academy was renamed a year later for the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba and expressly established as a finishing school for tiers-mondiste “intelligence cadres,” in the words of Nikita Khrushchev. Among Soviet officialdom, the objective was “to educate students from underdeveloped countries so they can return to their homelands to become the nucleus for pro-Soviet activities.”
The first vice rector of Patrice Lumumba was Pavel Erzin, a major general of the KGB. He was by no means the only faculty member with a sideline in espionage. The American journalist John Barron, who published a pathfinding history of the Soviet special services in 1974, wrote that “other KGB officers and agents serve on the faculty, which must obey the dictates of the KGB. Students are selected primarily on the basis of their potential usefulness to the KGB.”
Questions of Abbas’s scholastic tenure in Moscow previously emerged in a bizarre accusation leveled a year ago by the narcoleptic Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson who insisted that the Palestinian, Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei all knew each other as classmates at Patrice Lumumba University in 1968.
Leaving aside the fact that Putin would have had to be a very precocious 16 year-old in 1968 for this to be true, and that there is no biographical evidence (or even rumor) of his attendance at Patrice Lumumba, intriguing whispers in the Russian state media that Khamenei may have also once graduated (he was declared a marquee alumni in a 50th anniversary celebration on RT) have so far failed to yield any documentary corroboration. Abbas, on the other hand, is listed as a graduate on one of the university’s alumni websites, albeit decades after Carson suggested.
Among the more visible second or third-tier graduates of Patrice Lumumba, which today goes by its original name, are Anna Chapman, the pouty pinup Mata Hari of the 10-person Russian spy ring broken up by the FBI in 2010, and Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, more commonly known as “Carlos the Jackal.”
Carlos, who was arrested by the French in Khartoum in 1994 and is currently serving a life sentence at Clairvaux Prison for his murder of French policemen and counterintelligence officials in Paris, briefly attended Patrice Lumumba with his brother Lenin and a bevy of other Venezuelan communists.
Both Carlos and Lenin distinguished themselves in Moscow only as loudmouth poseurs with a kitsch understanding of Marxism; their preferred form of agitation was chasing skirts and playing guitars. They were expelled for “anti-Soviet provocation and indiscipline” and although Carlos was eventually able to set up training camps in East Berlin and Budapest, the Warsaw Pact nations never warmed to him. He kept insisting that he, too, was a KGB agent, a claim the KGB denied steadfastly. Mitrokhin judged his claims to be baseless braggadocio.
That said, Carlos did become infamous for his work for the KGB’s preferred proxy terror organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), whose deputy leader and head of foreign operations, Dr. Wadi Haddad, was an active Soviet agent throughout most of his career, codenamed “NATSIONALIST.”
Haddad was recruited in 1970 after the PFLP’s successful hijacking two years earlier of El Al flights bound for Tel Aviv. The PFLP received regular consignments of weapons and ammunition from the KGB, typically transferred under the cover of night at sea off the coast of Aden. “The nature of our relations with W. Haddad,” KGB chairman Yuri Andropov told Brezhnev the year of Haddad’s enlistment, “enables us to control the external operations of the PFLP to a certain degree, to exert influence in a manner favorable to the Soviet Union, and also to carry out active measures in support of our interests through the organization’s assets while observing the necessary conspiratorial secrecy.”
Thus employed as an arms-length proxy for carrying out difficult assignments that Russian operatives did not want their own fingerprints on, the PFLP carried out the (botched) Operation VINT, which was an attempt to kidnap the deputy station chief of the CIA in Beirut for exfiltration to the Soviet Union. It also struck an Israeli oil tanker, Coral Sea, using RPGs supplied by the Soviets.
When the PFLP split in 1972, upon its founder Dr. George Habash’s repudiation of terrorism, Haddad set up shop in Baghdad and started the Special Operations Group, all the while continuing to receive Soviet assistance and materiel. Its fortunes dimmed considerably after the hijacking of an Air France airliner which culminated in Israel’s daring raid on Entebbe in 1976, and after another busted-flush hijacking that culminated in a West German commando raid in Mogadishu the following year. Haddad’s died in 1978.
Carlos, meanwhile, was excommunicated from the PFLP in 1975 in the aftermath of what should have been his most spectacular success, the siege of the OPEC conference in Vienna, which made the Latin American “revolutionary” a household name.
Only, instead of executing the Iranian and Saudi oil ministers, as he’d been instructed to do, Carlos and his team (which consisted of Baader-Meinhof veterans) instead ransomed them back to their governments in exchange for millions, rationalizing that this money could be used to conduct even bolder operations against Israel, the West and its constellation of allies. Not that the Special Operations Group needed more money, of course, given the steady largesse of a nuclear superpower. The OPEC siege, Mitrokhin and Andrew write, was “almost certainly” carried out with the foreknowledge, if not quite coordination, of the KGB.
Carlos would eventually outstay his welcomes in East Germany and Hungary, whereupon he relocated to Damascus in 1985. By then the PLO leadership, including Abbas, was establishing a new base of operations after their eviction from southern Lebanon by the Israelis in 1982, and from Tripoli in northern Lebanon by the Syrians in 1983.
Where Andropov saw the PFLP as malleable and plausibly deniable prop to further pro-Soviet subversion internationally, he viewed the PLO, codenamed “KARUSEL,” with far more skepticism, mainly because the KGB disliked its then chairman, Yasir Arafat, so much.
The Cairo-born Arafat was first introduced to the KGB by his Egyptian mentor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose regime was Moscow’s most strategically important ally in the Middle East in the late ’60s and early ’70s—the KGB ran a virtual state out of the Arab world’s most populous nation—until Anwar Sadat put a definitive end to the special relationship in favor of a pro-American alignment.
Arafat’s first official visit to Moscow was in 1972. It did not go well.
According to Mitrokhin and Andrew, he “failed to impress the Centre, which distrusted the ‘slanted’ nature of the information he provided and found him anxious to maintain contact with ‘reactionary Arab regimes’ as well as with the Soviet bloc.” He had also lied about his own life story: he wasn’t born in Jerusalem, as he’d always maintained, but in Cairo. And Arafat never fought to defend Port Said during the joint French-British-Israeli attack on Suez in 1956, as he claimed, because he was in Czechoslovakia at the time attending a student conference assembled by the Communists.
Still, perhaps eager to keep a rising talent in Palestinian nationalism closely tethered, Moscow Center simultaneously “cultivated” and spied on the chairman. From 1968 onward, the Soviets had a well-placed agent, codenamed “GIDAR,” who appears to have been Hani al-Hasan, Arafat’s intelligence advisor and personal confidant, even as Lt. Col. Vasili Samoylenko, an officer in the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, was attempting to run Arafat. (Years later, Arafat and Samoylenko would be photographed standing next to each other at a wreath-laying ceremony in Moscow.)
The Communist regime to which Arafat was closest was Ceaușescu’s in Romania.
Not wanting to be out-marshaled by a lesser satellite state, Moscow continued to “cultivate” Arafat and the PLO throughout the ’70s. A Politburo resolution in 1973 even instructed the KGB to maintain contact with Arafat’s operatives via the Beirut rezidentura, the spy outpost located in every Soviet embassy. After formally recognizing the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people the following year, the Soviets also opened an office for the organization in Moscow, a privilege then only accorded to one other insurgency: the National Liberation Front of Vietnam.
By the time Reagan was in office, coincidental with the time of Abbas’s alleged recruitment, the KGB somewhat warmed to the PLO. Arafat’s efforts to rebrand himself an international figure with statehood aspirations were seen as valuable. So much so that when Abu Iyad, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, traveled to Moscow in 1978 to complain about the peremptory behavior of a KGB officer in the Beirut rezidentura, that officer was replaced.
The Soviets even went so far as to train nearly 200 PLO militants in Russia, albeit with a reminder of why they wisely stayed aloof in the first place.
According to the PLO commander Ahmad Rashad, “The participants in the course did not correctly understand the political aspects of sending military delegations abroad. As a result, the upper echelon of the delegation, namely the participants in the battalion officer courses, refused to study and asked to return using all sorts of illogical excuses.”
Thirteen PLO fighters were dismissed from the training course, according to Ahmad, for offenses ranging from alcoholism to the trading of counterfeit money to sexual “perversion.”
It took almost half a decade for Arafat to rehabilitate this dysfunctional relationship with a moribund Soviet Union, although the chances that one or more of his underlings were themselves being groomed or poached by the KGB during the locust years are high. Abbas has claimed that he never intended to join the PLO at all, but suddenly found himself “selected” to its executive committee in 1980 by Fatah’s Central Committee, while he was in Moscow ostensibly pursuing his academic study.
One wonders how that happened. And who in fact did the selecting.