A committed Marxist-Leninist, Ramírez Sánchez was one of the most notorious political terrorists of his era. When he joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1970, recruiting officer Bassam Abu Sharif gave him the code name "Carlos" because of his South American roots. After several bungled bombings, Ramírez Sánchez led the 1975 raid on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) headquarters in Vienna, which killed three people. This was followed by a string of attacks against Western targets. For many years he was among the most-wanted international fugitives. Carlos was dubbed "The Jackal" by The Guardian after one of its correspondents reportedly spotted Frederick Forsyth's 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal near some of the fugitive's belongings.
For his part, Ramírez Sánchez denied the 1975 French killings, saying they were orchestrated by Mossad, the Israeli secret service, and condemned Israel as a terrorist state. During his trial in France 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—the liberation of Palestine."
Ramírez Sánchez, son of Marxist lawyer José Altagracia Ramírez Navas and Elba María Sánchez, was born in Michelena, in the Venezuelan state of Táchira. Despite his mother's pleas to give their firstborn child a Christian first name, José called him Ilyich, after Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, while two younger siblings were named "Lenin" (born 1951) and "Vladimir" (born 1958). Ilyich attended a high school in Liceo Fermin Toro of Caracas and joined the youth movement of the Venezuelan Communist Party in 1959. After attending the Third Tricontinental Conference in January 1966 with his father, Ilyich reportedly spent the summer at Camp Matanzas, a guerrilla warfare school run by the Cuban DGI near Havana. Later that year, his parents divorced.
His mother took the children to London, where she studied at Stafford House College in Kensington and the London School of Economics. In 1968, José tried to enroll Ilyich and his brother at the Sorbonne in Paris, but eventually opted for the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. According to the BBC, it was "a notorious hotbed for recruiting foreign communists to the Soviet Union" (see active measures). He was expelled from the university in 1970.
From Moscow Ramírez Sánchez travelled to Beirut, Lebanon, where he volunteered for the PFLP in July 1970. He was sent to a training camp for foreign volunteers of the PFLP on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan. On graduating, he studied at a finishing school, code-named H4 and staffed by Iraqi military, near the Syria-Iraq border.
On completing guerrilla training, Carlos (as he was now calling himself) played an active role for the PFLP in the north of Jordan during the Black September conflict of 1970, gaining a reputation as a fighter. After the organisation was pushed out of Jordan, he returned to Beirut. He was sent to be trained by Wadie Haddad. He eventually left the Middle East to attend courses at the Polytechnic of Central London (now known as the University of Westminster), and apparently continued to work for the PFLP.
In 1973, Carlos conducted a failed PFLP assassination attempt on Joseph Sieff, a Jewish businessman and vice president of the British Zionist Federation. On 30 December Carlos called on Sieff's home on Queen's Grove in St John's Wood and ordered the maid to take him to Sieff. Finding Sieff in the bathroom, in his bath, Carlos fired one bullet at Sieff from his Tokarev 7.62mm pistol, which bounced off Sieff just between his nose and upper lip and knocked him unconscious; the gun then jammed and Carlos fled. The attack was announced as retaliation for Mossad's assassination in Paris of Mohamed Boudia, a PFLP leader.
Carlos admits responsibility for a failed bomb attack on the Bank Hapoalim in London and car bomb attacks on three French newspapers accused of pro-Israeli leanings. He claimed to be the grenade thrower at a Parisian restaurant in an attack that killed two and injured 30. He later participated in two failed rocket propelled grenade attacks on El Al airplanes at Orly Airport near Paris, on 13 and 17 January 1975.
According to FBI agent Robert Scherrer, one MIR and one ERP member were arrested in Paraguay in June 1975. These two would have possessed Carlos's phone number in Paris. Paraguayan authorities would then have handed over the information to France.
On 26 June 1975, Carlos's PFLP contact, Lebanon-born Michel Moukharbal, was captured and interrogated by the French domestic intelligence agency, the DST. When two unarmed agents of the DST interrogated Carlos at a Parisian house party, Moukharbal revealed Carlos's identity. Carlos then shot and killed the two agents and Moukharbal, fled the scene, and managed to escape via Brussels to Beirut.
From Beirut, Carlos participated in the planning for the attack on the headquarters of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) in Vienna. On 21 December 1975, he led the six-person team (which included Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann) that attacked the meeting of OPEC leaders; they took more than 60 hostages and killed three: an Austrian policeman, an Iraqi OPEC employee and a member of the Libyan delegation. Carlos demanded that the Austrian authorities read a communiqué about the Palestinian cause on Austrian radio and television networks every two hours. To avoid the threatened execution of a hostage every 15 minutes, the Austrian government agreed and the communiqué was broadcast as demanded.
On 22 December the government provided the PFLP and 42 hostages an airplane and flew them to Algiers, as demanded for the hostages' release. Ex-Royal Navy pilot Neville Atkinson, at that time the personal pilot for Libya's leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, flew Carlos and a number of others, including Hans-Joachim Klein, a supporter of the imprisoned Red Army Faction and a member of the Revolutionary Cells, and Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann, from Algiers. Atkinson flew the DC-9 to Tripoli, where more hostages were freed, before he returned to Algiers. The last hostages were freed there and some of the terrorists were granted asylum.
In the years following the OPEC raid, Bassam Abu Sharif, another PFLP agent, and Klein claimed that Carlos had received a large sum of money for the safe release of the Arab hostages and had kept it for his personal use. Claims are that the amount was between US$20 million and US$50 million. The source of the money is also uncertain but, according to Klein, it was from "an Arab president". Carlos later told his lawyers that the money was paid by the Saudis on behalf of the Iranians and was "diverted en route and lost by the Revolution."
Carlos left Algeria for Libya and then Aden, where he attended a meeting of senior PFLP officials to justify his failure to execute two senior OPEC hostages – the finance minister of Iran, Jamshid Amuzgar, and the oil minister of Saudi Arabia, Ahmed Zaki Yamani. His trainer and PFLP-EO leader Wadie Haddad expelled Carlos for not shooting hostages when PFLP demands were not met, thus failing his mission.
Manuel Contreras, Gerhard Mertins, Sergio Arredondo and an unidentified Brazilian general traveled to Tehran in 1976 to offer a collaboration to the Shah regime to kill Carlos in exchange for a large sum of money. It's not known what actually happened in the meetings.
In September 1976, Carlos was arrested, detained in Yugoslavia, and flown to Baghdad. He chose to settle in Aden, where he tried to found his own Organization of Armed Struggle, composed of Syrian, Lebanese and German rebels. He also connected with the Stasi, East Germany's secret police. They provided him with an office and safe houses in East Berlin, a support staff of 75, and a service car, and allowed him to carry a pistol while in public.
From here, Carlos is believed to have planned his attacks on several European targets, including that on the Radio Free Europe offices in Munich in February 1981. On 16 February 1982, two of the group—Swiss terrorist Bruno Breguet and Carlos' wife Magdalena Kopp—were arrested in Paris, in a car containing explosives. Following the arrest, a letter was sent to the French embassy in The Hague demanding their immediate release. Meanwhile, Carlos unsuccessfully lobbied the French government for their release.
In retaliation, France was struck by a wave of terrorist attacks, including: the bombing of the Paris-Toulouse TGV train on 29 March 1982 (5 dead, 77 injured); the car-bombing of the newspaper Al-Watan al-Arabi in Paris on April 22, 1982 (1 dead, 63 injured); the bombing of the Gare Saint-Charles in Marseille on December 31, 1983 (2 dead, 33 injured), and the bombing of the Marseille-Paris TGV train (3 dead, 12 injured) on the same day. In August 1983, he also attacked the Maison de France in West Berlin, killing one man and injuring twenty-two. Within days of the bombings, Carlos sent letters to three separate news agencies claiming responsibility for the bombings as revenge for a French air strike against a PFLP training camp in Lebanon the previous month.
Historians' examination of Stasi files, recently accessible after German reunification, demonstrates a link between Carlos and the KGB, via the East German secret police. When Leonid Brezhnev visited West Germany in 1981, Ramírez Sánchez did not undertake any attacks, at the request of the KGB. Western intelligence had expected activity during this period.
With conditional support from the Iraqi regime and after the death of Haddad, Carlos offered the services of his group to the PFLP and other groups. His group's first attack may have been a failed rocket attack on the Superphénix French nuclear power station on 18 January 1982.
These attacks led to international pressure on East European states that harboured Carlos. For over two years, he lived in Hungary, in Budapest's second district known as the quarter of nobles. His main cut-out for some of his financial resources, such as Gaddafi or George Habash, was the friend of his sister, Dietmar Clodo, a known German terrorist and the leader of the Panther Brigade of the PFLP. Hungary expelled Carlos in late 1985, and he was refused sanctuary in Iraq, Libya and Cuba before he found limited support in Syria. He settled in Damascus with Kopp and their daughter, Elba Rosa.
The Syrian government forced Carlos to remain inactive, and he was subsequently seen as a neutralized threat. In 1990, the Iraqi government approached him for work and, in September 1991, he was expelled from Syria, which had supported the American intervention against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. After a short stay in Jordan, he was accorded protection in Sudan where he lived in Khartoum.
Western accounts long claimed Carlos was a KGB agent. Some attacks may have been attributed to him for lack of anyone else to claim credit. His own boasts about probably nonexistent missions have further confused the issue.
The French and US intelligence agencies offered a number of deals to the Sudanese authorities, and Sudan cooperated. In 1994, Carlos was scheduled to undergo a minor testicular operation in a hospital in Sudan. Two days after the operation, Sudanese officials told him that he needed to be moved to a villa for protection from an assassination attempt and would be given personal bodyguards. One night later, the bodyguards went into his room while he slept, tranquilized and tied him, and took him from the villa. On 14 August 1994, Sudan transferred him to French agents of the DST, who flew him to Paris for trial.
He was charged with the 1975 murders of the two Paris policemen and of Moukharbal and was sent to La Santé Prison to await trial. In 1996, a majority of the European Commission of Human Rights rejected his application related to the process of his capture.
The trial began on 12 December 1997 and ended on December 23, when he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez had a sporadic correspondence with Ramírez Sánchez from the latter's prison cell in France. Chávez sent a letter in which he addresses Carlos as a "distinguished compatriot".
In 2001, after converting to Islam, Ramírez Sánchez married his lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, in a Muslim ceremony, although he was still married to his second wife.
In June 2003, Carlos published a collection of writings from his jail cell. The book, whose title translates as Revolutionary Islam, seeks to explain and defend violence in terms of class conflict. In the book, he voices support for Osama bin Laden and his attacks on the United States.
In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights heard a complaint from Ramírez Sánchez that his long years of solitary confinement constituted "inhuman and degrading treatment". In 2006 the court decided that Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) had not been violated; however, Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) had been. Ramírez Sánchez was awarded €10,000 for costs and expenses, having made no claim for compensation for damage.
In 2006 he was later moved from La Santé to Clairvaux Prison.
On 1 June 2006, Chávez referred to him as his "good friend" during a meeting of OPEC countries held in Caracas.
On 20 November 2009, Chávez publicly defended Carlos, saying that he is wrongly considered to be "a bad guy" and that he believed Carlos had been unfairly convicted. Chávez also called him "one of the great fighters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation". France summoned the Venezuelan ambassador and demanded an explanation. Chávez, however, declined to retract his comments.
In May 2007, anti-terrorism judge Jean-Louis Bruguière ordered a new trial for Ramírez Sánchez on charges relating to "killings and destruction of property using explosive substances" in France in 1982 and 1983. The bombings killed eleven and injured more than 100 people. Ramírez Sánchez denied any connection to the events in his 2011 trial, staging a nine-day hunger strike to protest his imprisonment conditions. The trial began on 7 November 2011, in Paris. Three other members of Ramírez Sánchez's organization were tried in absentia at the same time: Johannes Weinrich, Christa Margot Fröhlich, and Ali Kamal Al-Issawi. Germany has refused to extradite Weinrich and Fröhlich, and Al-Issawi, a Palestinian, "is reportedly on the run." Ramírez Sánchez continues to deny any involvement in the attacks. On 15 December 2011, Ramírez Sánchez, Weinrich and Issawi were convicted and sentenced to life in prison; Fröhlich was acquitted. Ramírez Sánchez appealed against the verdict and a new trial began in May 2013. He lost his appeal on 26 June 2013 and judges in a special anti-terrorism court upheld his life sentence.
In October 2014, he was also charged for a Paris drugstore attack in September 1974 that killed two and wounded 34. After a lengthy appeal of the charges, in May 2016 his trial was ordered to proceed and opened in March 2017. On 28 March 2017, he was sentenced to a further life term for this attack.
In his 2003 book, Revolutionary Islam, Sanchez Ramirez professed his admiration for the Iranian Revolution, writing that "Today, confronted by the threat to Civilization, there is a response: revolutionary Islam! Only men and women armed with a total faith in the founding values of truth, justice, and fraternity will be prepared to lead the combat and deliver humanity from the empire of mendacity."