Carlos the Jackal is back in the news today. He brought havoc throughout Europe and the Middle East during his heyday of terrorism in the 1970s. He was eventually tracked down and jailed by the French after a capture that involved a kidnapping straight out of Hollywood (drugged, rolled in a carpet and hauled onto a private jet bound for Paris). It was classic stuff that could have, yes a cliche – come straight from Frederick Forsyth himself, author of ‘The Day of the Jackal’ which Carlos supposedly had amongst belongings in London.
He was jailed in Paris’ main prison and I first came into his orbit after interviewing fugitive spy David Shayler who ended up in a cell next to Carlos. Shayler described him as being a bit of a Hannibal Lecter, ‘He was always whispering to me about Col. Gaddafi and Lockerbie because I’d worked on that case in MI5′ he told me.
My interest was piqued, I slowly read through the books, I interviewed one of my journalistic heroes David Yallop and I started putting feelers out amongst contacts in the French and British intelligence community. Eventually, these efforts paid off and a few months later, I travelled to Paris to interview his then lawyer – and later wife – Isabelle Coutant Peyre. She was a character straight out of a thriller also: a leather-trousered, cigar-smoking and husky voiced supporter of Left-wing politics who held court in an office that was as stylish as it was opulent. No, I couldn’t interview him – but he would give me answers to questions via her.
Bizarrely, there was a price for this exchange and she requested I provide Carlos with some cigars for his time, which she assured me she’d smuggle into prison for him.
The article below is the result of this strange experience. It includes some references to material she brought out of prison from Carlos for me – letters and other communiques he insisted I read. I was sweating bullets as I took these through French customs en-route home days later.
There’s a footnote to all this: months later a pal of mine – Emmy-award winning documentary director Ross Wilson – was filming in Cuba about Kennedy/Krushchev’s ‘Thirteen Days’ stand-off during the 1962 missile crisis. I called Ross on his cellphone when he was in Havana and asked him to buy me the best box of cigars he could lay his hands on. They were duly purchased, passed to me in Scotland and I immediately sent them to Coutant-Peyre.
Weeks afterwards Madame Coutant-Peyre called me late at night. I remember pulling my car over onto a grass verge on a lonely road near where I live in the remote Scottish Borders and taking the call and watching my breath in the deep-winter frosty air. She simply wanted to say she’d visited her husband in jail and he’d been very touched I’d kept my end of the bargain by mailing over the cigars.
“They were very fine…” she added. “Carlos just wanted me to tell you personally, that if you ever need anything from him, don’t hesitate to contact me… He regards you as trusted friend.”
I’m not sure what favour I might ever need from Carlos – but there it was – my new friend The Jackal.
Well, a deal is a deal after all and I always try to keep my word. Also, I’m not sure Carlos the Jackal is the kind of man you break an ‘arrangement’ with – especially one involving his wife, claims he was in on the original plans for 9/11 and cigars.