[This article was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, for The Jerusalem Post newspaper.]
The revelation that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah nom de guerre is Abu Mazen, was a KGB agent shouldn’t surprise those knowledgeable of the PLO movement and the Soviet Union’s methods.
Since its creation in 1959, the Fatah group and later the PLO were influenced and supported by various Arab intelligence communities, the KGB, and its satellite security services in the communist bloc. Beyond solidifying ideological bonds, the cooperation was a marriage of convenience.
The PLO needed financial support, military training and weapons. The Soviet Union, entangled in the Cold War with the West, wanted to increase its influence in the Middle East.
The Soviet Union and its client states in Eastern Europe supported “progressive” movements and groups around the globe, including those who were involved in terrorism.
While the Soviet Union tried to keep its hands clean, it instructed the security services of its client state to do the dirty work. The East German Stasi and also the Hungarian and Bulgarian agencies trained PLO officers, gave them weapons and documents, and hosted notorious terrorists such as Abu Nidal, Carlos and Wadi Haddad. The Black September terrorists who killed the 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics traveled via East Berlin.
Yasser Arafat himself was photographed by the Securitate, the Romanian security service, in an intimate position in his hotel room in the company of his bodyguards while visiting Bucharest.
The Soviet Union gave grants to and hosted thousands of students from Asia, Africa, South and Central America at its universities.
The Soviet generosity was also a tool to recruit agents of all sorts among the foreign students.
Based on the belief that “quantity will turn into quality,” the KGB method was to recruit as many agents as possible, hoping that some of them would reach the top of their countries or organizations and be a quality agent.
Was Abu Mazen one of them? It shouldn’t be ruled out, despite his denials. In such circumstances, a denial by the president of the Palestinian Authority is only to be expected.
If it’s true, it happened when he studied in the early 1980’s at Moscow’s Oriental University, where he submitted his PhD thesis. But we still don’t know — from the Soviet-era document that reportedly names Mahmoud Abbas as a KGB mole in the PLO — how long he was run as an agent, how often he met with his controller, whether he was a paid agent and if so how much was he paid, or whether he was just an agent of influence who from time to time shared bits of information or estimates with his Soviet contacts.
If indeed he was a full-fledged agent, it was a good catch for the KGB. Abu Mazen was among the founding fathers of Fatah and a close friend of Arafat and the other top leaders of the group. Although throughout his career he mostly dealt with political and diplomatic matters, Abu Mazen must have known at least about some of the terrorist attacks carried out by the PLO against Israel, Jewish targets and Western targets.
One can assume that if he was an agent, he passed some of his knowledge on to the Soviets.
The KGB was a successful professional intelligence agency.
It managed to recruit and plant good agents in many Western countries, including the US and the UK. It also reached the Israeli top echelon, having agents in the Mossad, Shin Bet, IDF, the Foreign Ministry, the Ness Ziona Biological Institute and probably in other government ministries. It can be assumed that not all of them were caught by Israeli counter-intelligence.
One more interesting observation regards the intriguing relations between the Middle East and the world of espionage. The KGB and its satellites were not alone in the game. The CIA and British and French intelligence agencies also went on fishing expeditions, and their catch was not bad at all.
Many Arab leaders were either paid agents or agents of influence for these services.
King Hussein, for example, was a paid agent of the CIA and also worked closely with British intelligence. And so were Syrian leaders in the 1950s and ‘60s. Even Ali Hassan Salameh, who was Arafat’s chief of security and responsible for the planning of the Munich Olympics massacre, turned out to be an asset for the CIA in Beirut. In 1979 Mossad operatives killed him in the Lebanese capital.
The Israeli intelligence community, Mossad and military intelligence didn’t stand idle. The Israelis were also very successful in penetrating the Arab world and the PLO — recruiting leaders, top government officials, scientists and senior military officers. It is interesting to note that, during the Israeli-PLO negotiations in the ‘90s, it was revealed that the Mossad managed to plant a listening device in Abu Mazen’s desk in his office in Tunis.