In the minutes before 7 p.m. on March 1, 1973, a routine diplomatic reception was breaking up at the Saudi embassy in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. But as the ambassadors left the party and disbursed to find their drivers, a volley of machine-gun bullets suddenly interrupted the quiet scene. Eight masked gunmen of Black September, a covert Palestinian organization, burst out from the shadows and commandeered into the embassy's main reception room all those not fleet of foot enough to escape. There the diplomats were sat down on the floor and compelled to identify themselves by nationality.
The assailants then proceeded to release most of them, keeping just five: two Americans - Ambassador Cleo Allen Noel, Jr. and Chargé d'Affaires George Curtis Moore - a Belgian, a Jordanian, and a Saudi. The gunmen sent out a leaflet with their demands, which included: the freeing from Jordan of many Palestinians, including Abu Daoud, a leader of the Black September Organization; the freeing of Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy's killer, from jail in California; and the freeing of "Palestinian women in prison in Israel."
Twenty-six hours of feverish negotiations then went by. On the evening of the 2nd, the Beirut headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) sent an order of execution to the terrorists via radio broadcast: "Why are you waiting? The people's blood in the Cold River cries for vengeance" ("Cold River" was the code word for executing the captives). Recordings of that call have suspiciously disappeared, but it appears that Yasir Arafat, chairman of the PLO then as now, personally delivered this order to murder. Soon after he did, the two Americans and the Belgian were bound, lined up against a basement wall, and executed in gangland fashion - all eight gunmen simultaneously pulling on their triggers.
Mission accomplished, the eight assailants gave themselves up to the Sudanese authorities. Many months of prevarication then passed, as no one in the early 1970s relished the prospect of crossing swords with the PLO. Finally, a Sudanese court on June 24, 1974, sentenced the eight Black September killers to life in prison. This impressive-looking decision was actually a sham, for within hours Sudan's president had commuted the sentences to a mere seven years. He then proceeded to dispatch the eight from his country by putting them on a plane to Cairo. Three of the prisoners promptly disappeared. The remaining five did in fact serve out their full sentences, with a few months tacked on for good measure at the end - a highly unusual event in the Arab countries - before winning their release.
The author of Assassination in Khartoum, a compelling account about this incident and its repercussions, himself played a small part in the drama. In the mid-1960s David A. Korn had worked for Moore, one of the two dead Americans; then, during the siege at Khartoum, he worked at the Department of State's Operations Center, doing what little he could to save the lives of his two colleagues. Unsuccessful in that effort, he kept the story in mind and now, twenty years later, has published a study which suitably remembers the victims and honors their memory.
But Assassination in Khartoum does more: it has a current significance the author could not possibly have anticipated. With the recent signing of a Israel-PLO accord, Korn's meticulous inquiry into the killings at Khartoum raises important questions about the PLO as an institution, the character of its chairman, and American policy.
Bringing the murder of Noel and Moore back to public attention highlights the unpleasant fact that the PLO has on a number of occasions attacked American citizens. Korn doesn't refer to it, but in 1986 the Senate Judiciary Committee published an important document titled The Availability of Civil and Criminal Actions Against Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. Among a wealth of information, it lists forty-two incidents between 1968 and 1985 in which American citizens suffered depredations at PLO hands.
Probably the best-known of these attacks took place in October 1985 when Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly invalid, was shot and thrown overboard the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. In contrast, the most costly incident in terms of American lives is also one of the most completely forgotten: the bombing of TWA flight 707 in September 1974 en route from Tel Aviv to New York. A high-explosive bomb went off in a rear cargo compartment, sending the plane into the Ionian Sea and killing all eighty-eight persons aboard. Other incidents included letter bombs sent to President Nixon and two of his cabinet secretaries (needless to say, they did not get very far), a dead American diplomat in Amman, and a bomb that went off in Boston's Logan Airport. (And the Senate's list is by no means complete: for example, it doesn't mention the April 1973 bombing of an American oil terminal in Lebanon.)
In other words, Americans have their own, serious problem with the PLO quite independent of Israel's. Oddly, however, this point almost never comes up; instead one hears that if Jerusalem is ready to do business with the PLO, who are we Americans to hold back?
This question fits a curious and long-standing logic whereby Americans see their interests in the Middle East through the prism of what's good for Israel. This is not a complete surprise coming from American friends of Israel, who sympathize with the Jewish state and see its concerns as close to our own. But it is little short of amazing to find that Americans hostile to Israel also proclaim (at least publicly) that they look at Middle East politics through an Israeli prism. In George Ball's classic 1977 phrase, they promote an American policy that would "save Israel in spite of herself."
Examples of this approach are easy to find. The virulently anti-Zionist Talcott Seelye, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, says he long opposed Menachem Begin's policies not because they harmed the American interests but because he found them "antithetical to Israel's long-term interests"! Similarly, Representative John Bryant introduced a bill some years ago to withhold U.S. aid from Israel on the grounds that he sought "to protect the people of Israel from the extreme policies" of the Likud government.
The murder of Cleo and Moore led to another strange case of putting Israel first. Several pro-Israel organizations sought in early 1986, without success, to indict Arafat under U.S. law on criminal charges for his personal involvement in the Khartoum murders. The Department of State ought to have been delighted to find this ally in its effort to protect its own people from terrorism abroad. Not at all: State weighed in against such an indictment on the grounds that Arafat and his colleagues would some day be key to settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In this case, a direct American interest - protecting our own diplomats - was shunted aside in favor of taking steps which might help secure peace for Israel.
This makes no sense. A great power like the United States needs to formulate its own policies in the Middle East. If Jerusalem has its own reasons to overlook the PLO's history of murder that doesn't mean we have to do the same. The PLO's having repeatedly attacked Americans means we have our own issues to settle with it. All of which points to keeping open the possibility of taking a harder line on the PLO than Israel. For example, we need not repeal the many anti-PLO regulations now on the books (a temporary waiver will do); nor need we welcome Yasir Arafat again to our shores. This may sound odd, but it's in keeping with both the tragic events in Khartoum and a close evaluation of American interests.
But now back to Assassination in Khartoum. Like so many studies about foreign subjects, it tells us much more about the American side of this incident than about the Palestinian and Sudanese angles. The author's extensive interviewing endows Noel and Moore with fully developed personalities; in contrast, we never learn so much as the names of their killers. While this skewing is understandable, it's less forgivable that Korn seems to display more anger at Nixon and Kissinger (whose hard-line policy may have cost the diplomats' lives) than at the Sudanese (who in advance excluded the use of force), the Jordanians (who rejected the terrorists' demand that their leader Abu Daoud be released from a Jordanian jail, only to let him go a mere half-year later), or the Palestinians (who did the actual killing).
Korn has an eye for the ironies of the tragedy. Far from being an enemy of the PLO, Curt Moore espoused vehemently pro-Arab and anti-Israel views. As Korn delicately sums up his outlook, he "felt that the Arabs had legitimate grievances and were, in general, more wronged by Israel than wrong-doing against it." In contrast, he criticized Israelis for their "cockiness" and for being "violently and narrow-mindedly nationalistic." Oddly, Arab terrorists have often targeted such anti-Israel American friends, for example almost every hostage or murder victim in Lebanon during the 1980s.
Feb. 28, 2003 update: For important new information, see "In Memoriam - Cleo Noel and George Curtis Moore. An Interview with Former NSA Analyst, James J Welsh" at IsraPundit.
June 15, 2006 update: A just-issued State Department study, Foreign Relations, 1969-1976, Volume E-6, Documents on Africa, 1973-1976, includes a report on "The Seizure of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum." One sentence of the summary reads thus: "The Khartoum operation was planned and carried out with the full knowledge and personal approval of Yasir Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the head of Fatah. Fatah representatives based in Khartoum participated in the attack, using a Fatah vehicle to transport the terrorists to the Saudi Arabian Embassy."
Jan. 29, 2007 update: For why it took 33 years for the truth to out, see Rael Jean Isaac, "Now It Can Be Told." In sum, she writes, "successive U.S. administrations knowingly betrayed their bedrock responsibility to seek justice for the assassination of their own diplomatic representatives."