Colonel Yosef (Joe) Alon was murdered 44 years ago, and the investigation was closed when it reached a dead end.
Now the FBI has reopened the case, as first revealed by American journalist Adam Goldman.
One of the triggers for opening the file was Vladimir Ilich Ramirez, better known as “Carlos the Jackal,” who is serving a life sentence in a French prison.
Colonel Alon was Israel’s Air Force attaché in the US. He was among the founders and pioneers of the Air Force, with dozens of combat sorties to his credit in Israel’s wars of 1956 and 1967 against its Arab neighbors.
On July 1, 1973, he was driving with his wife, Deborah, returning from a diplomatic reception. After entering their driveway in Chevy Chase, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, Deborah got out of the car, and as she reached the front door she heard shots.
She hurried inside the house, closed the door and windows, and noticed a car slowly leaving the scene. She called the police and the Israel Embassy. Then she went outside with her daughter Dalia and found her husband bleeding on the grass. They tried to stop the bleeding with towels, but an hour later he was confirmed dead at the hospital.
He was 43. The cause of death was five bullets to his body from close range, including one straight into his heart.
The Local Montgomery District police and the FBI gave the case high priority. The murder of a foreign diplomat was and still is a rare incident – indeed, Alon remains the only instance of an Israeli official being assassinated on US soil.
The investigators pursued three leads: robbery, a personal vendetta because of a love affair, and a political-terror murder, which eventually became the main motive.
The early ’70s became known as the “war of spooks” between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which spread from the Middle East to Europe. The Mossad (Israel’s foreign espionage agency) was in the middle of hot pursuit of PLO operatives, following the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
PALESTINIAN OPERATIVES retaliated by attacking Israeli targets in Europe, including two Mossad officers. Two days before the murder of Alon, Mossad agents killed Mohammad Bordia, an Algerian-born member of the Palestinian terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), in his Paris apartment. A day after the killing of Alon, PLO radio based in Cairo claimed responsibility. A year later, the PFLP led by George Habash reiterated the same claim.
It became clear to the FBI investigators that the Alon murder was the work of professionals, either Palestinians who entered the country, or American hired guns.
A secret FBI document from 1977 said the murderers were two Arab students who entered the US from Canada with either Lebanese or Cypriot passports, and were supported by friends and sympathizers who sheltered and supplied them with a car and guns.
In another top-secret document, the CIA wrote that “most probably” a Fatah-Black September cell (an organ of Yasser Arafat’s PLO) was responsible for the attack. Nevertheless, the investigation reached a dead end, and the file was closed in 1978.
Israeli intelligence efforts by the Mossad and the Shin Bet (the domestic security service) were even less effective. Their practical contribution to the investigation was very lean. They didn’t have a clue about who the perpetrators were, and relied heavily on the FBI investigation. For 30 years they forgot about the case and buried the file in the archives. One day they were reluctantly forced to look at it again when Alon’s three daughters – Rachel, Yael and Dalia (their mother Deborah died in 1995) – demanded the investigation be reopened.
In early 2004, the three sisters approached me and asked for help. I advised them as best I could, wrote a few articles, and put them in touch with American journalists and researchers, as well as Mossad and Shin Bet officials, past and present. Among the contacts was Efraim Halevy, who just two years earlier had finished his term as head of the Mossad. At the time of Alon’s murder, Halevy was the Mossad representative in Washington, and had contacts in the CIA and FBI.
Halevy told me that he tried to help them, but frankly admitted that he had no new information aside from what the CIA and FBI had told him at the time – and that was very little. But the female trio did not stop their pursuit. They returned to me, and I suggested they approach the Mossad and Shin Bet and ask to look at their files. The Mossad had nothing, and referred them to the Shin Bet. The Shin Bet refused, first because they feared a precedent, and also because the law permits the agency to keep its documents and files classified for 70 years.
The Alon sisters appealed to the Supreme Court, which ordered the Shin Bet to open its files. A mutually agreed-upon person with top security clearance was appointed to read them, but found nothing sensational.
Actually, the Shin Bet file was filled with copies of documents from the FBI and the Montgomery police.
Their next step was to travel to America to ask journalists and researchers to help them. Here, their harvest this time was more successful. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the CIA and FBI released 7,000 documents, some of them heavily redacted.
It turned out that the US investigators did a horrible job. Some of the exhibits and proofs disappeared from the files, and not all potential witnesses or persons with knowledge were questioned.
Against this background, the Alon sisters began to develop a strong belief in conspiracy theories, which were further fed by Israeli Liora Amir-Barmatz, a television director at Channel 1. She produced a documentary called “Who Killed Daddy?” which aired a few years ago.
In that film, the director along with the sisters developed the following theory: Joe Alon was killed because he discovered a conspiracy between Henry Kissinger – then a national security adviser to US president Richard Nixon – and Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan. According to this conspiracy theory, Kissinger and Dayan agreed that Israel would allow the Egyptian army to cross the Suez Canal into Sinai in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War to capture a thin strip and then to stop. In return, the two sides would engage in talks after the war and reach a peace agreement.
The film provided not one iota of evidence to verify the crackpot theory, but those skeptical of it were excluded from expressing their arguments. I was interviewed by the director for nearly three hours; Amir-Barmatz used a 15-second clip.
In a parallel development, journalist Adam Goldman wrote a letter to “Carlos the Jackal” in his French jail cell, after writing his piece on the story. Born to a wealthy Venezuelan family with Marxist leanings, Carlos moved to Europe in the early ’60s and mingled there with the radical left during the exciting days of the student revolution.
But it wasn’t sufficiently exciting and violent for his taste, so Carlos went to the Middle East and joined the PFLP, led by Habash. Carlos carried out a few terrorist operations against Israeli and Jewish targets in Paris and London, including an assassination attempt against Sir Marcus Sieff, chairman of the Marks & Spencer department chain. In another incident, he was almost captured but managed to escape after killing two French police officers.
In 1975 he became a mercenary – a hired gun – in the service of Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
Carlos reached his mythological notoriety that year when he kidnapped the oil ministers of OPEC at their annual meeting in Vienna. One of his accomplices was a Syrian called Kamal Kheir Beik. Carlos continued his terrorist “career” as a hunted man until he was eventually betrayed by Sudan, where he had found shelter. The Sudanese ruler Gen. Omar al-Bashir – a war criminal himself wanted by the International Court of Justice – extradited Carlos to France in 1994.
Goldman was surprised in 2008 when Carlos answered his letter, writing that he had information about the murder but demanded money for it. Goldman declined, but passed on his correspondence to former police officer detective Ed Golian, who was involved in the investigation.
Eventually the information reached senior FBI Agent Eugene Casey, who went to Paris and asked permission from the French security services to question Carlos. Permission was granted. The FBI reopened the case as the Alon sisters wanted.
Casey had three lengthy meetings in 2014 and 2015 with Carlos, who seemed to enjoy the attention, and offered the FBI agent Cohibas – prestigious Cuban cigars. In a piece he wrote for The New York Times in January, Goldman described how the two men smoked cigars during the questions and answers. Carlos told Casey that he heard from his comrade Beik that he had met with the American members of the radical Black Panthers at a café in the Latin Quarter of Paris sometime after 1970.
At first Casey was skeptical and didn’t believe a word Carlos told him. He thought that the notorious but aging master terrorist was pulling his leg. But he explored the leads Carlos offered, and was astonished to verify some of them, though Beik himself was not available for questioning – he had died in Beirut years ago.
Nevertheless, Casey’s investigations reached a dead end, and the prevailing suspicion remained that the Alon murder was an act of terrorism by a Palestinian group, or hired guns on its behalf.
Still Casey, who is now an interrogation instructor at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, hopes somehow to solve the mysterious murder before he retires at the end of 2017.
Unfortunately, the Alon sisters stick to their obsessive belief – like those who continue to toss around wild theories about JFK’s assassination. They won’t abandon their conspiracy theory that their father was murdered on orders from the US and Israeli security services.