Notorious terrorist mastermind in the dock

For decades, Carlos the Jackal was the world’s most feared terrorist – he boasted of having killed thousands. Now, on trial for bomb attacks in France, he retains his deadly charisma.

He is a self-styled revolutionary, a borderless criminal and a cultural icon. With a bloody track record of bombings, hijacks and kidnappings, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez – better known as Carlos the Jackal – was once one of the world’s most notorious terrorists.

But his criminal years are over. Already serving a life sentence in Paris for the 1975 murder of two policemen, he is now on trial for a series of bomb attacks which killed 11 people and injured 200 back in the 1980s. Under French law, Sanchez might one day have been eligible for release on parole. If he is convicted of the bombings, that chance is gone for good: Carlos the Jackal will die behind bars.

He is thought to have committed many more crimes than he will ever be charged with, including the near-fatal shooting of Marks and Spencer president Edward Sieff, the kidnap of OPEC oil ministers in 1975, which left three people dead, and involvement in the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Sanchez himself has boasted of having killed nearly 2,000 people in pursuit of his extreme anti-Zionist agenda.

The son of a Marxist lawyer in Venezuela, Sanchez studied in Moscow during the Cold War before joining the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. A hardline campaign to destroy the state of Israel was the driving force behind his blood-soaked terrorist career. At its close he was hiding in Sudan, training Islamist fighters to follow in his deadly footsteps.

For the Jackal, though, this murderous record is not a cause for shame. Like many left-wing terrorists who emerged during the Cold War, Sanchez sees himself as a soldier in the great struggle against the ‘imperialist’ powers of the West. On trial in 1997 he said: ‘When one wages war for 30 years, there is a lot of blood spilled, mine and others. But we never killed anyone for money, but for a cause.’

And it is not just Sanchez who buys into this romantic vision: journalists, filmmakers and writers have all been attracted by his story – seeing him as a compelling renegade, rather than a mindless murderer.

Man and myth

Despite the mythology surrounding him, many argue that Carlos the Jackal has done nothing to deserve our attention. He chooses to see himself as a revolutionary freedom fighter, but the only remarkable thing about the Jackal is the size of his ego. He is a mad, evil, and ultimately pathetic man, for whom the best punishment is to be ignored.

His crimes are inexcusable, others say, but that does not mean Sanchez should be disregarded. To be interested in the compelling character of the man, and curious about what drove his actions, is not the same as supporting violence.

You Decide

  1. Why are some people so attracted to the idea of a murderous criminal like Sanchez?
  2. Can violence ever be justified?


  1. Write a summing up speech for the prosecution lawyer in the Carlos the Jackal trial.
  2. You are an officer working for an international intelligence organisation. Draw up a profile of one terrorist group. What are their motives, tactics, and history?

Some People Say...

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What has Sanchez got to do with Palestine?
He adopted the Palestinian cause as an embodiment of the struggle he perceived between the West and Marxism. The cause has historically attracted both moderate and violent campaigners.
Who represents him in court?
Sanchez’s lawyer was originally Jacques Verges, who also offered to represent Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. He was replaced by Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, who later married Sanchez in prison, and represents him for free.
What’s with his name?
‘Carlos’ is a codename;The Guardian nicknamed him ‘the Jackal’ after Frederick Forsyth’s novel, Day of the Jackal, was found among his belongings.

Word Watch

Opposition to the state of Israel. Anti-Zionism is not a coherent ideology and is associated with many different positions, including the outright antisemitism of Sanchez’s ideas.
The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
1972 Munich Olympics
During the Munich Olympics, Israeli athletes were taken hostage and eventually killed by the pro-Palestinian group Black September. 11 Israelis were killed.
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
A Marxist and often violent organisation campaigning for freedom for Palestine.


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