US Knew About Arafat's Key Role in Diplomats' Murders

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - The U.S. government was aware from the outset of Yasser Arafat's hand in the 1973 murder of two American diplomats in Sudan, according to a formerly secret document released Monday by the State Department.

"The Khartoum operation was planned and carried out with the full knowledge and personal approval of Yasser Arafat," said an official U.S. intelligence memorandum dated June 1973.

It added that representatives of Fatah, Arafat's faction of the PLO, "participated in the attack, using a Fatah vehicle to transport the terrorists to the Saudi Arabian Embassy."

The Saudi Embassy in Khartoum was where Palestinian terrorists murdered U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel and U.S. charge d'affaires George Curtis Moore, along with a Belgian diplomat, Guy Eid, on March 2, 1973.

The eight terrorists had seized the diplomats during an embassy function, demanding the release of jailed Palestinian terrorists, including Fatah's Abu Daoud, who planned the attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics the previous year and was in prison in Jordan; and Sirhan Sirhan, Senator Robert Kennedy's assassin, imprisoned in California.

Officially, the U.S. has always blamed the attack on the Black September organization (BSO), a Palestinian faction.

But the document released this week confirms suspicions voiced and published down the years that Arafat was not only involved, but known at the time to be involved.

Arafat went on to be accepted by the world community -- he addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York 20 months after the Khartoum incident; he later entered negotiations with Israel and was honored by the Clinton administration with a number of White House visits between 1993 and 2001, the last just days before President Clinton left office.

President Bush declared the PLO chairman an obstacle to peace and in 2002 urged Palestinian voters "to elect new leaders -- leaders not compromised by terror." Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government confined him to his headquarters in Ramallah, and Arafat died in November 2004.

The June 1973 intelligence memorandum said the terrorists killed the diplomats "after they reportedly had received orders from Fatah headquarters in Beirut."

"Thirty-four hours later, upon receipt of orders from Yasser Arafat in Beirut to surrender, the terrorists released their other hostages unharmed and surrendered to Sudanese authorities," it said.

"The open participation of Fatah representatives in Khartoum in the attack provides further evidence of the Fatah/BSO relationship."

The document also shows that the U.S. government believed a key aim of the Khartoum siege was not to win freedom for jailed Palestinian terrorists but to punish the U.S.

"Initially, the main objective of the attack appeared to be to secure the release of Fatah/BSO leader Muhammed Awadh (Abu Daoud) from Jordanian captivity," it said.

"Information acquired subsequently reveals that the Fatah/BSO leaders did not expect Awadh to be freed, and indicates that one of the primary goals of the operation was to strike at the United States because of its efforts to achieve a Middle East peace settlement which many Arabs believe would be inimical to Palestinian interests."
Radioed instructions

The State Department has evidently been reluctant to publicly link Arafat or Fatah to the Khartoum attack.

According to the department's list of significant terrorist incidents, Cleo and Moore were killed by "members of the Black September organization."

Elsewhere, the department's background note on Sudan also contains a brief reference to the siege, attributing it to "Palestinian terrorists of the 'Black September' organization."

Mideast expert Daniel Pipes wrote in 1994 that, when pro-Israel organizations sought in 1986 to indict Arafat under U.S. law for his role in the Khartoum murders, the State Department "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."

After Arafat died, Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America urged the Bush administration not to send a representative to the funeral of the man who had ordered the execution of the two U.S. diplomats, "just as the U.S. government will not send a representative to the funerals of Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein one day."

In their 1990 book Inside the PLO, researchers Neil Livingstone and David Halevy wrote that the order to kill the diplomats came first from Arafat's commander Abu Iyad, who by radio from PLO headquarters in Beirut told the hostage-takers: "Remember Nahr al-Bard. The people's blood in the Nahr al-Bard cries out for vengeance. We and the rest of the world are watching you."

Nahr al-Bard (Cold River) was a reference to a terrorist training facility in Lebanon attacked earlier by Israel, and a code phrase ordering the gunmen to execute their hostages.

Noel, Moore and Eid were then taken to the embassy basement and shot. "The terrorists fired from the floor upward, to prolong their agony of their victims by striking them first in the feet and legs, before administering the coup de grace," wrote Livingstone and Halevy.

A few minutes later, PLO headquarters radioed again, they wrote. This time it was Arafat himself, who asked whether the Nahr al-Bard code word had been understood. He was assured the instruction had already been carried out.

Livingstone and Halevy said the radio messages were intercepted by the Israelis and transcripts handed to the State Department.

The terrorists surrendered to the Sudanese, who released two of them for "lack of evidence."

After the other six were interrogated, Sudanese vice president Mohammed Bakir said of the terrorists: "They relied on radio messages from Beirut Fatah headquarters, both for the order to kill the three diplomats and for their own surrender Sunday morning."

The six later went on trial, during which the commander, Salim Rizak, told the Sudanese court: "We carried out this operation on the orders of the Palestine Liberation Organization and should only be questioned by that organization."

In June 1973, they were found guilty of murdering the three diplomats and sentenced to life imprisonment. Hours later the Sudanese government commuted their sentences to seven years and flew them out of the country, handing them over to the PLO.

The Nixon administration downgraded relations and withdrew its new ambassador to Khartoum -- Cleo's successor -- in protest.

After Nixon resigned, the Ford administration began a step-by-step process of normalization relations with Khartoum.

The documents released on Monday include official correspondence showing how Washington expressed its dissatisfaction to Sudan, withdrew its envoy, and subsequently moved to restore diplomatic ties to normal.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow