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TERRORISTS: L’Affaire Daoud: Too Hot to Handle

8 minute read

The sad-eyed man with the droopy mustache returned to Paris’ fashionable Hôtel Résidence Saint-Honoré at 7:30 on a Friday evening. When he walked in, the men waiting for him identified themselves as agents of the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), the French counterintelligence agency. They asked him to come to headquarters for a routine identity check. He did so without protest. Four days later the suspect was released—thereby touching off one of the most explosive international brouhahas in years. The affair triggered political repercussions from the Quai d’Orsay to the Nile, raised storms of outrage in Jerusalem and Bonn, severely embarrassed the government of French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and touched off outcries against the cynical expediency of French justice.

The man at the center of the storm was Abu Daoud, 39, a member of the Revolutionary Military Command of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Abu Daoud (real name: Mohammed Daoud Mohammed Auda) is a mysterious figure in the P.L.O.’s terrorist operations who is widely believed to have had a key role in the 1972 Munich massacre in which 17 people died, including eleven Israeli athletes (see box). Israeli Foreign Minister Yigal Allon denounced Abu Daoud as an “arch-terrorist” last week; curiously, Israeli intelligence officials—who might have had a special interest in seeing a notorious terrorist apprehended—insisted that since Abu Daoud was now primarily a kind of roving ambassador for the fedayeen movement, he was not on their list of wanted men.

Iraqi Passport. That was certainly not the only anomaly in the affair. Even the circumstances of Abu Daoud’s arrest in Paris were strange. He had come to the French capital as a member of a high-ranking Palestinian delegation to attend the funeral of Mahmoud Saleh, a former P.L.O. representative who had been gunned down a few days earlier on a Paris street. Traveling on an Iraqi passport issued in the name of Youssef Hanna Raji, Abu Daoud made no effort to disguise his easily recognizable features. He breezed through immigration and checked into his $33-a-day room.

Two policemen, thoughtfully provided by the Foreign Ministry, stood guard at the front door of his hotel. Along with the rest of the delegation, Abu Daoud was invited to the Quai d’Orsay, where he met with the Director for Middle East Affairs. That same evening he was taken into custody by the DST agents.

Ordinarily, the detention of a suspected Arab terrorist would have been cleared with Interior Minister Michel Poniatowski and probably with President Giscard himself. But Poniatowski apparently discovered that Abu Daoud was in DST hands only a couple of hours before the West German Interior Minister called him to say that Bonn wanted the Palestinian held, pending a formal extradition request.

The French dilemma was acute. They were fearful of provoking terrorist reprisals—the memory of the Air France airbus hijacked to Entebbe is still fresh. Beyond that, Paris has assiduously cultivated a pro-Arab policy since the early ’60s. France imports 90% of its oil from the Middle East, and the French Defense Minister was at that moment in Cairo negotiating a billion-dollar sale of 200 Mirage jets to Egypt. Giscard was scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia this month, and Foreign Minister Louis de Guiringaud is slated to take a broader swing through the Middle East.

Three Aliases. Following West Germany, Israel weighed in with a demand for extradition. In point of fact, neither Jerusalem nor Bonn moved with excessive speed. Also apparently worried about the dangers of retaliation and political fallout, the West German government did not swiftly follow up its telephone request with the requisite confirmation through diplomatic channels.

Fumed one Chancellery official: “Why couldn’t Daoud have been killed in the Lebanese war?” Retaliation was not the only worry in Bonn. Some legal experts questioned whether the evidence against Abu Daoud was sufficient to make an extradition request stand up and, at a trial, to obtain a conviction. As one Foreign Ministry official noted, “Just imagine what the international reaction against us would be if a German court were to declare Daoud innocent.”

When the French had still not received a diplomatic follow-up from the Germans by Monday night, they began to get worried. Complained Poniatowski: “We’re being had by the Germans.” The next day, in a court hearing on the extradition requests, Abu Daoud was represented by seven lawyers, among them Roland Dumas, whose clients include Socialist Leader François Mitterrand and the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné (see THE PRESS). The lawyers contended that the German request for extradition was invalid because none of the three aliases mentioned included Youssef Hanna Raji, the name under which Abu Daoud was arrested. Nor was the arrest warrant dated. Finally, the Germans had failed to send the diplomatic note. As for the Israeli extradition request, the lawyers argued that France’s extradition treaty with Israel did not, at the time the massacre occurred, include crimes committed in third countries, and was not applicable retroactively. At the end of the 20-min. hearing, the judge agreed and ordered Abu Daoud freed. He was hastily whisked off to Orly Airport and putaboard a commercial fright—with a first-class ticket to Algiers.

Technically, the judge seemed to have legal grounds to rule as he did, but not for a moment did anyone in Paris doubt that the decision to free Abu Daoud was a hard political judgment made for reasons of state. Giscard is the leading P.L.O. supporter among Western leaders (France has informally recognized it), and Abu Daoud’s capture threatened to rupture France’s painstakingly built bridges to the Middle East.

Israel charged that France had broken its extradition treaty, withdrew its ambassador to France, Mordechai Gazit, and called in the French ambassador, Jean Herly, to deliver a “vigorous protest.” In Tel Aviv, a crowd of 1,000 that included families of the Munich victims hurled rotten eggs at the French embassy. Summed up Jerusalem’s daily Ma’ariv: “With cowardice, meanness of spirit and cynicism, the government of France has raised the white flag to the oil suppliers and Mirage purchasers.”

Bonn, too, professed amazement and “regret”—even though officials could barely conceal their relief. Editorialized Hamburg’s Bild Zeitung: “France lies weak, cowardly and humbled on its knees. The worst of it is, nobody knows whether any other European country, West Germany included, might not have done the same.” Even pro-government French newspapers condemned Abu Daoud’s release. “When acts so cruelly belie words, we are no longer in the political realm,” said Le Figaro.

In Washington, President-elect Jimmy Carter said he was “deeply disturbed,” although he did not mention the incident in a telephone conversation with Giscard about an economic summit. The State Department expressed its “strong conviction that terrorists should be dealt with sternly by legal authorities.” The protest was rejected by the Quai d’Orsay as “inadmissible comment on the acts of French courts.”

Tipped Off. So who had had Abu Daoud arrested and why? That was the question of the week. The most plausible answer was Israel, whose intelligence agents keep close watch on P.L.O. terrorists. By alerting friends in the DST to Abu Daoud’s presence in France, they could both embarrass Giscard for his pro-Arab policy and score another round against the Palestinians. Yet despite reports that Israeli agents had tipped off the French in Beirut that Abu Daoud was on his way to Paris, intelligence sources in Tel Aviv denied that they had had anything to do with it. One top-level official said: “We never wanted Abu Daoud and never tried to assassinate him. The whole affair is typical of internal French intelligence and has nothing to do with Israel, West Germany, or even with antiterror operations.”

But if the Israelis were not behind it, who was? According to one account circulating in Paris last week, the DST had sent out a tracer to Western intelligence agencies at the time the Palestinians requested their visas. The CIA, followed by the British and the Israelis, confirmed that Raji was Abu Daoud.

The information was passed to the West Germans, who signaled Paris of their intention to seek Abu Daoud’s arrest and extradition. The DST’s failure to inform higher-ups led some to believe that pro-Israeli officials in the DST and other ministries were out to torpedo the pro-Arab government of Giscard.

In fact, the DST is notorious for playing political games—and Giscard’s government was clearly the loser in the debade, although no one expected it to affect French foreign policy seriously. Declared one former French Foreign Ministry official: “There’s only one way for France to go. The Arabs are the future, and we’re honest enough to admit it. We realize Abu Daoud will probably come back to Paris one day as a Palestinian government Cabinet minister.”

For his part, Abu Daoud in interviews in Algeria blamed his arrest on “Zionists” within the French police who were opposed to the “official French position regarding the rights of the Palestinian people.” He boasted that he would soon return to fighting Israel and Zionism—after a brief vacation in Algeria. “The Israelis are looking to kill all the Palestinians,” he said. “If they want to kill me, then they want to kill a revolutionary, not a terrorist.”

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