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The Development of International Terrorism, as Assessed by the Former Communist Bulgarian Secret Services: Interview with Professor Jordan Baev

In this exclusive new interview with Bulgaria correspondent Christian Filipov, Professor Jordan Baev, a noted expert on Balkan security affairs, reveals several key findings gleaned from his in-depth examination of recently declassified files from the former Communist Bulgarian intelligence services. His assessments shed valuable new light on not only the forerunners of today’s global terrorism during the Cold War, but also on how the threat was perceived by Bulgarian intelligence- and ultimately, by political decision-makers. As such, the interview is required reading for anyone interested in clandestine affairs and activities in the Balkans before the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Dr. Jordan Baev, an Associate Professor in Contemporary History and Senior Fellow in Security Studies at Rakovski Defense College and a visiting professor at Sofia University and New Bulgarian University, has published frequently on intelligence and security issues in the Balkans for over a quarter-century. His most recent book, Sistemata za Evropeiska sigurnost I Balkanite v godinite na studenata voina (The System for European Security and the Balkans in the Cold War Years, Damyan Yakov Publishing, Sofia, 2010), provides a historical overview of the security systems of East and West during the Cold War.

The present interview, however, concerns an important new project in which Dr. Baev participated- the massive, 548-page publication on newly declassified Bulgarian Intelligence and Counterintelligence archival documents from the period 1969-1991, entitled Mezhdunarodniyat Terorizam v Dosietata na DC (International Terrorism in the Bulgarian State Security Files). This new book was published by the State Committee for disclosing of Bulgarian State Security records and launched at Sofia University on November 29, 2010. Portions of the publication can be seen online (.PDF). This and other related works can be found here, as well as at the Sofia University Digital Library. From March 2011, the text will also be available in a broader digital version of about 500 documents- amounting to 3,000 pages of text.

Christian Filipov: What is the most unique aspect of your research?

Jordan Baev: With the exception of several publications that reference mostly the files of the former GDR (German Democratic Republic/Communist East Germany) state security agency Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit/Ministry for State Security), to this day there has not been such a comprehensive research of the files of the former Soviet bloc intelligence agencies on the issue of international terrorism.

The idea for this collaborative research project was born after discussions with representatives of institutions from various countries, including the United States, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania. These countries are currently doing archival research on the declassified documents of the state security and services of the former the Warsaw Pact countries.

CF: What period does your research cover?

JB: Our study of archival documents stretches from the 1960s through the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991. Over the past year, my colleagues and I have managed to review over 25,000 pages of formerly classified files, containing information on international terrorism. For the publication (.PDF) of Mezhdunarodniyat Terorizam v Dosietata na DC (International Terrorism in the Bulgarian State Security Files), we selected about 500 classified files totaling about 3,000 pages. These files contain information on more than 100 terrorist organizations and groups. Part of the examined files – about 98 of them – we selected for the print version of our publication, while the entire collection of classified files is published only electronically.

Apart from illustrative analytical reports, the publication also contains operational files of the Bulgarian intelligence agencies- essentially, reports written by Bulgarian spies resident in Western Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas, reports and memoranda of the counterintelligence units engaged in combating terrorism, correspondence and exchanged information with the KGB and other East European intelligence agencies.

CF: Did your research reveal anything exciting or unique in the archives?

Our main research goal was to examine formally classified documentation and to extract information associated with international terrorist organizations. We discovered that the theory of “Moscow’s long arm” i.e., [the perception that Moscow was] orchestrating leftist terrorist groups in Western Europe, is merely a myth or rather a memory of the Cold War propaganda.

For more than 30 years, the media has been circulating allegations regarding links between the KGB and the Eastern European intelligence agencies with leftist terrorist organizations in Western Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and so on. We did not discover any documentary proof of such links between Bulgaria and ultra-left terrorist groups in Western Europe.

Another important finding is the very special interest, back then, in the origins and expansion of ethno-religious terrorism, specifically Islamic terrorism.

CF: What type of archival sources and document collections did you use?

JB: As the first researchers to have delved into the quite voluminous archives of the former communist intelligence services, we were able to review and publish intelligence data that maps out the transition from politically-motivated terrorist acts to the very serious social problem that international terrorism poses today.

There is no other way to gather reliable information on what has actually transpired, on what were the actions of the intelligence agencies of the former communist-bloc countries with respect to aiding or counteracting political and ethno-religious terrorism, but to examine the archival documentation of these agencies. Any hypothesis detailing actions of the intelligence agencies that is not backed by documentary evidence can only perpetuate existing myths, or give life to new ones.

CF: Is there evidence about existing links to terrorist groups? If so, have they been receiving aid and assistance by the Bulgarian intelligence agencies?

In our publication we make a very clear distinction between terrorist organizations and other political groups that resort to violence or are engaged in an armed conflict. In three prior studies, published a couple of years ago, I revealed classified information associated with the financial support and military assistance provided by Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries to some national liberation and leftist armed movements in the Third World: Algeria, Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Laos, South Vietnam, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua etc.

In the relevant expert discussions, there is a very clear distinction between “international terrorism” and “freedom fighters’ armed resistance.”  There are over one-hundred definitions; however, most scholars define when acts of [terrorism] target civil institutions and innocent bystanders, and when it is a matter of insurgency or a civil war.

By the way, in mid-2011 in Routledge will publish a new handbook on international terrorism, where one of the famous UN experts on the issue, Alex Schmid, gives about 250 various definitions of that social phenomenon.

CF: Did Bulgaria help recognize international terrorist organizations?

JB: We did not find any documents supporting popular claims that Bulgaria supported or orchestrated directly the actions of known terrorist groups.

That being said, we examined classified data that reveals that in the second half of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, known terrorists were granted a “safe haven” in Bulgaria – the terrorist group led by Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, also known as Carlos the Jackal, the Abu Nidal group, and members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

During the same period, Bulgaria was visited by activists of known terrorist organizations, including the German Red Army Faction – also known as the “Baader Meinhoff Gang” – Turkey’s right- and left-wing extremists from the Grey Wolves and Dev Sol, as well as the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation, or Armenia ASALA. These visits can be associated with the first acts of international terrorism on Bulgarian soil, such as hijacking of airplanes and assassinations of foreign diplomats.

CF: Can you point out any specific examples?

JB: In September 1982, an activist of the Armenian terrorist group ASALA assassinated the Turkish Vice Consul to Bulgaria in the city of Burgas. Classified information reveals that this assassination was part of a global terror campaign targeting Turkish diplomats in Europe and North America.

CF: If Bulgaria was not supporting terrorist groups, then why didn’t the Bulgarian authorities simply arrest the terrorists, or expel them from the country?

JB: Like most other Eastern European countries, Bulgaria would use its intelligence and security agencies only to monitor the actions of known terrorists in Bulgaria, and did not take any actions against them; [this was done] primarily not to irritate the terrorists and entice them to direct terrorist acts against Bulgarian citizens and institutions as a form of retribution.

The classified information we analyzed reveals that undercover agents of the Bulgarian state security services, Darzhavna Sigurnost, did establish contact with terrorists, however, mainly for the purpose of information-gathering- not to recruit terrorists as informants or agents of the agency.

Moreover, the classified files that we examined clearly establish that leftist terrorist groups, despite sharing the same ideology and using leftist slogans, were viewed as hostile, anarchistic, Trotskyite or Maoist organizations. This is not surprising- Che Guevara’s views about the “permanent revolution” and guerilla warfare practices were met with similar reactions of suspicion in the mid-1960s by the Eastern European authorities.

CF: What actions did the Bulgarian intelligence and security agencies take to counteract terrorist organizations?

JB: The archives provide clear signs that the Eastern-bloc countries did not want to be viewed as supporters of terrorist organizations. We found a very large file, codenamed “Operation Bobcats,” which compiled classified data on the movements and visits to Bulgaria of the known terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (Carlos the Jackal). The Bobcats file reveals that during his first visit in September 1979/January 1980, Carlos organized a secret meeting with members of other terrorist organizations in Sofia, and also met with the head of the Iraqi intelligence agency, who visited Sofia incognito- specifically to contact Carlos in person.

During his other nine visits to Bulgaria during the period 1983-1985, his movements were closely monitored by operatives of the Darzhavna Sigurnost surveillance units. In 1986, Bulgaria took action to prevent any visits of Carlos the Jackal, or members of his terrorist groups, throughout Bulgaria. These actions were prompted by coordinated antiterrorist efforts between the Bulgarian, Hungarian and Czechoslovakian intelligence agencies, together with the KGB.

Another organization that was closely monitored was the Turkish Grey Wolves. Efforts were steeped up after Mehmet Ali Ağca, a member of that terrorist group and “trigger man” of the attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II, made public claims that the Bulgarian intelligence agency orchestrated the attempted assassination.

After receiving information from the East German STASI regarding 334 designated Grey Wolves functionaries, the Bulgarian State Security services found out that 129 of those persons had crossed Bulgarian territory on their way from Turkey to Western Europe.

CF: Does your investigation of the Bulgarian intelligence agency’s classified files shed new light on Bulgarian intelligence activities related to the Middle East, Islamists, etc.?

Islamic terrorism and extremist organizations in the Middle East developed gradually and have several historical layers.

The first layer was the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest and largest Islamic political organization. This organization, founded in Egypt in the 1920s to promote Islamic values, quickly branched out in many other Arab countries, and has served as the ideological foundation for most Islamic-fundamentalist movements.

Over the years, the “Muslim Brotherhood” was banned in Egypt on the grounds that it promotes an Islamic fundamentalist agenda. At the same time, however, the organization’s branches in other Arab countries thrived. In the classified analytical reports, memoranda and cables of the Bulgarian intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies, we found information and references to the roots of today’s Islamist terrorist organizations. Extremist organizations such as Al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah were created or influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood ideologues.

The next landmark layer in the history of Islamic terrorism came with the collaborative actions in the 1970s of Islamic fundamentalists, Western European, Armenian, and Japanese terrorist organizations, prompted by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the early 1980s, immediately after the Iranian Islamic revolution, many armed Islamic fundamentalist groups were born in the Muslim world, the most notable ones being in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Iraq and Lebanon. As we know now, it was not long before these Islamic extremist groups redirected their attention from the “Invading Infidels” from the East, e.g., the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, to wage Jihad against the “New Crusaders” from the West.

CF: What means did the Bulgarian security agencies use to get information?

JB: While examining the State Security files we discovered, for instance, extensive reports on the meetings of the leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. Part of the intelligence information came to Bulgaria via the Bulgarian intelligence officers stationed in the Middle East; another part of the information was gathered by Bulgarian counterintelligence officers monitoring suspected members of these terrorist organizations residing in Bulgaria.

Also, in a Bulgarian State Security report of 1984, it was indicated that more than 70 suspected members of the “Muslim Brotherhood” were living in Bulgaria, some of them studying in different Bulgarian universities and high schools. There were also a number of militants from radical rival Palestinian groups, whose activity worried the Bulgarian authorities in regard of possible terrorist incidents on Bulgarian territory.

Bulgaria’s security services also had another problem to deal with in those years- they acquired evidence regarding secret competitions and mutual struggles between some Middle East intelligence servicemen under diplomatic cover at the embassies of Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and South Yemen.

CF: Does this historic information on Islamic extremist groups aid today’s intelligence agencies in the ongoing war on terror?

JB: The tasks assigned to Bulgaria within the framework of intelligence cooperation among Warsaw Pact countries corresponds to its geographical location- active intelligence-gathering in the Balkan region and the Middle East. A significant portion of the classified information that we reviewed is associated with the activities of terrorist organizations in these regions.

However, our documentary collection is only the beginning [of what will be] a more comprehensive study of the topic. Further study requires comparative archival research.

The history of international terrorism is not an academic pastime, but rather a vantage point to understand Islamic terrorism- a phenomenon that has been causing the greatest level of public concern and has been stirring up international relations today.

Presently, we are continuing our research by working on our next book where, for the first time, KGB and other Soviet bloc antiterrorist analyses will be compared with some available CIA intelligence estimates on international terrorism.

CF: Did you discover any information that fundamentally changes or challenges any perceived historical truths about Bulgaria during the Cold War?

JB: In our research we reviewed a large number of intelligence reports and classified correspondence devoted to the “assassination of the century”- the attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II by Mehmet Ali Ağca of the Turkish Grey Wolves terrorist group.

While it has been already established that no documents give credibility to the theory that there had been a “Bulgarian connection” in the attempted assassination of the Pope, our research revealed that the Bulgarian political and state authorities were taken completely by surprise by the claims linking Bulgaria’s intelligence agencies to the assassination attempt; “Darzhavna Sigurnost” was also shocked initially by media claims about the association attempt made between the Bulgarian airline representative, Sergei Antonov, and the Turkish terrorist Ağca.

In our study of the classified files, we also discovered that most of Bulgaria’s intelligence data on the “Grey Wolves” was compiled after the assassination attempt, not prior to it. Apparently, Western media reports on the alleged “Bulgarian connection” in the assassination attempt prompted the Bulgarian intelligence agencies to start gathering extensive intelligence data on the “Grey Wolves,” and to devote its intelligence resources in Western Europe to monitor the movements and contacts of their known members.

CF: As we know, the Grey Wolves were used as a “stay-behind” paramilitary force even in the 1960’s. Did you found any information about their activity before 1982 in the Darzhavna Sigurnost files?

JB: Actually, there exist three operational files on the “Bozkurtlar” organization (Grey Wolves), codenamed “Spiders,” “Kurt,” and “Wolves.” One of these files discusses even the broader biographic data of the Wolves inspirer and boss Col. Alparslan Turkeş – his background as a Turkish liaison officer to German Wehrmacht in 1944, his active participation in the military coup in 1960 and  the assassination of the Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, etc.

The Bulgarian intelligence documents commented as well on the Grey Wolves role in the internal right-wing terror against the liberal and leftist intellectuals in Turkey in the mid-1970s. However, the significance of the Grey Wolfs as an international terrorist organization was defined after Ali Ağca attempt on the Pope’s life. The organization was viewed also as dangerous from the point of view of its hostile activity against Bulgarian citizens and facilities in Western Europe in the mid-1980’s, when the relations between the two neighboring Balkan states drastically eroded due to the bad treatment of the Bulgarian Turks.

CF: Have you discovered classified intelligence reports on ‘famous’ world security events, i.e., assassinations, terrorist plots, high profile crimes?

JB: With respect to other “famous” security events,” such as the assassinations of the Italian Prime minister Aldo Moro, Bulgarian classified analytical reports reveal that there is no merit to media claims that the assassination was orchestrated by Eastern European intelligence services.

Documentary proof for “a Bulgarian connections” is also lacking in respect to the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986, and the attempt on the life of Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal in 1988, as claimed during the Cold War years. On the contrary, nowadays there has appeared new documentary evidence linking Palme’s assassination with the South African intelligence agency, at the time of the apartheid regime. With respect to Ozal’s attempted assassination, it was announced in Istanbul in September 2010 that this terrorist act has to be attributed to the Turkish paramilitary nationalist group, Ergenekon.

While the files on Western European leftist terrorist groups, such as the Italian Brigate Rosse, the Red Army Faction/Baader-Meinhoff Gang in Germany and the French Action Directe are thickly coated in Cold War-inspired ideological language, our research confirmed what was already known about the composition of these terrorist groups and their motivation.

Actually, the files reveal that the communist leadership in Eastern Europe did not relate to the causes embraced by the Western leftist groups; moreover, the communist leadership mistrusted them and repeatedly expresses the view that left-wing terrorism was a problem of capitalist societies that Eastern Bloc countries should be involved in [countering]. This is evidenced by the level of cooperation and sharing of intelligence data on ultra-left terrorist groups between the intelligence services of the West and those of Eastern Bloc countries. One example was the collaboration between Bulgaria’s Darzhavna Sigurnost and the West German authorities in the case of the “Red Army Faction.”

CF: So, there is information on collaborative efforts of East European and Western intelligence agencies in the countering of international terrorism organizations?

JB: There are occurrences of secret contacts made by the intelligence agencies on both sides of the Iron Curtain, most notably the cooperation between the Bulgarian and West German authorities in the surveillance of “Red Army Faction” members’ eventual presence on Bulgarian territory. Members of the “Red Army Faction” were arrested in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Sunny Beach [near Nesebar] in the summer of 1978, in a collaborative action of the Bulgarian and West German counter-intelligence agencies.

This collaboration continued and, in December 1985, the Bulgarian authorities took immediate action against known RAF terrorists residing in Bulgaria, upon the request of the West German security services.

We discovered archival data on similar secret contacts of the Bulgarian Darzhavna Sigurnost and Austrian and French intelligence agencies; we also discovered files describing secret anti-terrorism collaboration between the Bulgarian intelligence agencies and the security services of Japan and the United States: for example, there was intelligence exchange and joint discussions between the Bulgarian, Japanese and U.S. agencies in December 1990 and January 1991, in order to prevent terrorist acts against the U.S. Embassy in Sofia that were being planned by Japanese and Philippine terrorists.

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