In a hauntingly sad analysis of the cold-blooded murder in the Sudan of two American diplomats--Cleo Allen Noel, Jr. and George Curtis Moore--plus a diplomat from the Belgian embassy, David A. Korn sheds light on a painful chapter in America's initial attempts to deal with Palestinian terrorism. By implication, he also takes up the challenge of terrorism internationally at a time when this phenomenon began to claim an ever-increasing number of innocent victims.
On the evening of March 3, 1973, Curtis Moore, chargé d'affaires at the American embassy in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, was the guest of honor at a reception at the Saudi embassy. Just before 7 p.m., as the reception was winding down, armed members of a terrorist group known as the Black September Organization (BSO) stormed the embassy, taking Noel, Moore, and three others hostage. Little more than one day later, the White House of President Richard Nixon announced the brutal deaths of the American diplomats.
In the months that followed the assassination of Cleo Noel and Curt Moore, and before the case was relegated to the obscurity of sealed filing cabinets in remote storage facilities, several inquiries were held. Those involved in these inquiries found their efforts blunted by the absence of information about three main issues:
1. Was Black September an integral part of Fatah, or an independent organization secretly created by members of Fatah's intelligence arm, Jihaz ar-Rasd? Did Black September draw its membership from Fatah only, or also from other Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) factions?
2. Who authorized the planning of the Khartoum operation? Who controlled it operationally as it was executed? Most important, who actually gave the order for the execution of the three diplomats?
3. Could the U.S. government have done something to prevent the tragic outcome, or was it preordained? Was the Black September team in Khartoum prepared to negotiate? Did it have the latitude to negotiate an outcome short of its major objective?
Korn answers the first question clearly and with authority, showing that the Black September was a creation of Fatah, Yasir Arafat's faction of the PLO, and had never operated independently of it. Creation of the Black September permitted Fatah to use a brand of terrorism that included the assassination of diplomats and innocent civilians, yet maintain plausible denial.
But the author is not as emphatic and authoritative as he should be on the second point, when it comes to assigning Fatah responsibility for the murders. He names the late Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), the number two man in Fatah, as the head of the Black September, and he identifies four other top officials of Fatah as Black September leaders. But somehow, he leaves Yasir Arafat's role in the Black September and in the Khartoum massacre unexplained. We learn that Arafat disowned the perpetrators but refused to condemn the assassinations. But we do not learn who in the top leadership of Fatah sent the coded signal to the Black September team in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Khartoum to carry out the executions. Indeed, the culpability of the top leadership of Fatah/BSO is not established in this book except by inference, and that, perhaps, is its major flaw. Korn suggests that Abu Iyad was responsible for the whole operation as well as the fateful coded signal that led to the murder of the diplomatic hostages. Yet many find it hard to believe that Abu Iyad would act independently of Arafat in an affair with such potentially far-reaching consequences.
Korn is at his best when he deals with the third question, of what in his opinion was clearly an inadequate U.S. response. US intelligence on Fatah/BSO in 1973 was poor to non-existent. CIA attempts to enlist Ali Salamaeh, a principle Fatah/BSO member, went awry when Salamaeh balked at CIA efforts to recruit him as an agent rather than establish him as a point of contact between it and Yasir Arafat. (Only years later was the CIA finally able to reestablish contact with him.) In 1973, the U.S. intelligence community was still in the process of assessing the danger that Fatah and Black September were beginning to represent. A cabinet committee to combat terrorism had just been created, but the chairman of the working committee, Armin Meyer, was a general without an army. Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, had adopted a policy of no negotiations, no deals, and no concessions, but without debate or study of this policy's implications. The policy had not been made public before Khartoum, and Secretary of State William Rogers had actually refused to sign on to it. The U.S. government had no anti-terrorist force in place, and U.S. embassies had not been made secure against terrorist raids of this sort.
For all these reasons, no one in the U.S. government seemed to be in a position to determine how it should respond to the siege of the Saudi embassy and the hostages, leaving it to the Sudanese to deal with the problem on their own, without guidance. Washington seemed to hope that the terrorists would give up on their own as they had done in 1972, at the Israeli embassy in Bangkok, when the threat of Thai army tanks convinced Palestinians to release six Israeli diplomats in return for safe passage out of the country.
Perhaps Korn's greatest contribution in Assassination in Khartoum is to raise questions about an appropriate response to a hostage-taking incident. What should a government do when it cannot rescue hostages? How should it act when the lives of hostages hang in the balance? Is negotiation and ransom an appropriate reponse when that is the only way to save innocent lives? Korn endorses the advice given by the FBI to Armin Meyer: do everything to save lives and then go after the perpetrators. The author underscores, as the only avenue when all else fails, U.S. acquiescence to the ransoming of Ambassadors Clinton E. Knox in 1972 and Burke Elbrick in 1969, and Golda Meir's secret agreement to ransom the Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in Munich.
At the same time, Korn expresses a legitimate concern about the need to adopt policies that do not preclude ransom. Such policies could have saved the lives of Noel and Moore. But a willingness to pay ransom, however defined, should not be the centerpiece of a policy--it would only encourage terrorist acts. More important, the U.S. government should pursue terrorists regardless of whether they have been paid ransom or not. Moreover, ransom should never publicly be acknowledged and should be delivered through third parties or by other indirect means. And the paying of ransom should not preclude active attempts to pursue terrorists and bring them to justice after the event. In other words, paying ransom is appropriate only as a last resort to save lives when all other measures are thought to be unworkable.
Assassination in Khartoum is beautifully written and contributes significantly to public awareness of this important incident and, more broadly, of terrorism and the human problems in dealing with terrorist incidents. It is also timely. The book should remind Yasir Arafat, as he seeks to improve relations with the United States, that there are many in this country who have not forgetten the deaths of Cleo Noel and Curt Moore, and that forgiveness will come only if responsibility is acknowledged and atonement made.