The 1975 OPEC Attack: 3 Lessons to Fight Terrorism Today
It is considered one of the most spectacular terrorist attacks in history. 40 years ago, on 21 December 1975, a commando of six stormed the Conference of Ministers of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna and took 62 hostages, among them 11 oil ministers. Never before, and never again thereafter, were so many high-ranking politicians in the hands of terrorists.
The hostage-takers had received their orders from Wadie Haddad, the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-Special Operations Group (PFLP-SOG) residing in Aden. Among them were two Palestinians, two West German extreme left-wingers, a Lebanese Fatah member turned mole in the rival PFLP, and their leader, the 26 year old Venezuelan Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal.
While the crisis turned into a media spectacle with live broadcasts in radio and television, the Austrian government led by Chancellor Bruno Kreisky negotiated with the kidnappers. Although the terrorists had killed three people (an Austrian policeman, an Iraqi security guard, and a Libyan delegate), they were provided with a plane to fly out to Algeria in return for the release of a part of the hostages. After a nerve-racking flight back and forth between Algiers and the Libyan capital of Tripoli, a deal was finally struck on 23 December: For safe conduct and a ransom reportedly between 5 and 50 million dollars, all remaining hostages were freed, including the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers, which were supposed to be killed at the end of the operation.
It is worth to use the fortieth anniversary of the OPEC raid to take a look back. A review of the historical events calls to mind some insights about terrorism that are still (some would argue, particularly) relevant today. Firstly, it reminds us that terrorist organizations are often manipulated and supported by states. The OPEC raid was tasked by the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who also supported Carlos’ terror commando with the weapons for the raid and the necessary inside information on the OPEC building. (Libya is, of course, a member state of OPEC.) As part of a power struggle within OPEC, Gaddafi tried to influence its price politics and used the terrorists as proxies to put pressure on his opponents, Saudi Arabia and Iran, who were against his plan to further increase the price of oil. Today, Iran supports Hezbollah, which committed terrorist attacks on three continents, and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence supports the Haqqani network, which commits spectacular terrorist attacks in Afghanistan against local, Indian, and Western targets — to name but two eminent examples.
Secondly, it reminds us that the policies and machinations of certain Arab states that lead to terrorism or directly support specific groups are often not truly investigated or called out in the West because of economic and political interests. Until today, none of the perpetrators of the OPEC raid were charged in Austria and the investigation of the case had been kept minimal, to say the least. One reason was that the Austrian government feared negative political consequences if it was seriously going to prosecute the case. At that time, plans were forged out to make Vienna a hub for international organizations and, especially, the location of a third United Nations headquarter. To realize this goal, the votes of the Arab states were needed. There were also economic reasons to limit the efforts to investigate the background of the attack. Only a few months before the OPEC raid, the Austrian government had initiated a cooperative relationship with Libya to pursue economic interests. These good relations did not break-off because of the attack and the Libyan connection accordingly didn’t play any role in Kreisky’s assessment of the raid. In the following years, Austrian oil, weapons, and steel companies secured major business deals in Libya.
Today, Saudi Arabia’s investment of billions of dollars to spread the puritanical, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Islam promoted by the kingdom’s religious establishment everywhere in the Islamic world will have to be confronted to seriously diminish jihadist violence, considering that the large Sunni jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda and its affiliates, the Nusra Front, and ISIS are all ideological offsprings of Wahhabism. Western states never call the Saudis on that since their economies depend on the flow of the oil from Saudi Arabia and the allied gulf monarchies (and they often profit from lucrative weapons sales).
Political considerations play a role too, as many in the US foreign policy establishment see Saudi Arabia as the ideal ally to counter the regional influence of Iran. Accordingly, the Western powers have for months either supported or turned a blind eye to the war the Saudis have launched in Yemen this year. This war of choice has not only created a humanitarian disaster but also considerably strengthened Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and facilitated the emergence of a new and particularly ruthless ISIS branch in Yemen.
In the 1970s, Kreisky preferred to establish a respectful working relationship with Gaddafi — in the hope that the Libyan strongman would use his influence on Middle Eastern and European extremists to prevent them from committing attacks in Austria — rather than to criticize and confront the significant support Gaddafi offered to many terrorist groups. Today, the US government aims to preserve a security cooperation with states like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia to receive information on concrete terrorist threats and support for drone strikes, rather than to confront the central role they play in fostering the very jihadist terrorist threat.
Thirdly, a revision of the OPEC raid and the reaction of the Austrian government remind us of a promising nonviolent approach to terrorism: political solutions to underlying problems and the preventive elimination of political causes of terrorism. Kreisky aimed to prevent further terrorism in Austria with foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East, particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Austrian chancellor advanced the recognition of the Palestinians (who at the time were still mostly referred to as Arabs in the West) as a distinct people, and promoted the “normalization” and international recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In 1980, Austria would become the first Western state to officially recognize the PLO. Kreisky’s diplomatic initiatives aimed to strengthen Arafat and his moderate Fatah and isolate more radical leaders and groups.
Today, several political initiatives in the Middle East could significantly reduce causes and mitigate conditions that allow the emergence of terrorist groups. Besides the obvious need to end the war in Syria and form an inclusive, non-sectarian government in Damascus, they include a peace accord in Yemen that guarantees an adequate political representation of the Shia minority, and the Houthis in particular, and ends the foreign military intervention in the country; a major regional accommodation between Saudi Arabia and Iran that puts an end to their disastrous proxy war (instead of support for Saudi Arabia as a proxy to contain Iran); and an overdue peace settlement for Afghanistan (that takes the legitimate concerns of India, Pakistan and Iran into consideration, while also making these regional stakeholders accountable).
Admittedly, such political initiatives are ambitious long shots and an active diplomacy in the entangled region is not entirely without risks either. Kreisky’s protection of Arafat and the PLO provoked a reaction from the rival Abu Nidal Organization and its state-sponsor Syria, which aimed to control the PLO, leading to three terrorist attacks in Austria between 1981 and 1985. (Overall, however, Kreisky’s strategy certainly contributed to the rareness of international terrorist attacks in Austria and their low casualty figures compared to other Western European countries.) But considering that most of the current counterterrorism practices are expensive suppressions of symptoms at best and counterproductive at worst, the potential security gain through political solutions of conflicts underlying terrorist violence — for humans in the Middle East and the West alike — makes them worth a serious try.
Want to know more about the Vienna OPEC attack in December 1975 and its political background? For those lucky enough to understand German — the language of the poets and philosophers — I highly recommend the brand new e-book by the Austrian historian Thomas Riegler, “Tage des Schreckens: Die OPEC-Geiselnahme 1975 und der moderne Terrorismus”. For cinephiles, part 2 of Oliver Assayas’ TV miniseries “Carlos” (2010) is recommended.