The Danish connection

The 1969 assassination attempt on Ben-Gurion: Was it a trap?

ben gurion 311 (photo credit: R.M. Kneller)
ben gurion 311
(photo credit: R.M. Kneller)
One of the very first times Denmark experienced the waves of violence emerging from the Middle East up close was in 1969. The case revolved around a plan to assassinate Israel’s legendary prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who had been the spokesman of Zionism since the 1930s and after the establishment of Israel, its leader. During his period of power, there were also many attempts to assassinate him, and one of them originated in Copenhagen.
On May 22, 1969, three people were imprisoned in Copenhagen on suspicion of plotting to murder Ben-Gurion. The group consisted of the female Palestinian artist Mona Saudi, the Iraqi Suheir Razzak and the Swede Rolf Svensson. The case was reported in the Danish and Swedish press and the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter described Svensson as the leader of a terrorist group with headquarters in Stockholm.
When the police stormed their hotel room, they found a pistol, a fragmentation grenade and ammunition. The plan, according to the newspapers, was that the trio was to travel to Rio de Janeiro and murder Ben-Gurion in Brazil. They were released after three weeks by the Danish police, and the press in both Denmark and Sweden was rife with rumors, albeit with only few reliable pieces of information. The real story, however, only came to light in 2002 when a Swedish investigation of the country’s intelligence service examined the case.
According to the findings, Saudi arrived in Sweden in the spring of 1969 to exhibit Palestinian cartoons in Stockholm. During her stay, she met with Svensson, who in the report is characterized as an untrustworthy adventurer. Svensson and Saudi decided to execute a terrorist operation and from Sweden they traveled to Copenhagen and then on to Beirut, where they stayed for 11 days. According to Svensson, it was during this trip they were assigned to eliminate Ben-Gurion.
From Beirut, they traveled back to Copenhagen. PET (Politiets Efterretningstjeneste – police intelligence service), however, was now alerted about a possible terrorist plot and its chief executive, Arne Nielsen, telexed the Swedish security service, Säpo, to tell it of the intelligence acquired that Arabs and Svensson were meeting in Copenhagen to plan an attack on an El Al plane.
Danish police now began to surveil Svensson, who was living in the Skandinavia Hotel in Istedgade, before he moved to the Carlton Hotel, where Mona Saudi also moved in on the May 20. Finally, Razzak also arrived in Denmark and checked into the Carlton as well. And on May 22, the police decided to strike, arresting all three. With this police action, Denmark’s first serious case of terrorism had been cracked.
During interrogation, Svensson claimed he had been paid for taking part in the assassination. Saudi admitted that she had delivered a package of weapons to Svensson, but denied being guilty and accused Svensson of being in league with the Mossad. After three weeks, they were released.
Was it a trap?
What was the truth about this inquiry? In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Saudi claimed she had been led into a trap. The Swedish examination reads that it was proposed that she was a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine activist. But it was not only a claim as Politiken could cite a PFLP source from Amman, who told the newspaper that Saudi was an active member of the PFLP. As such, she took part on September 6, 1970, when the PFLP hijacked four planes and brought them to Dawson Field in the Jordanian desert – an act that brought the PFLP great prestige and gained attention from around the world. Saudi was, according to several Saudi Arabian Web sites, including her own, an active member in the execution.
Several left-wing radicals could, as guests of the PFLP, follow everything up close as the planes exploded. Gotfred Appel claimed to have been present, but a newly released report from the PET-commission questions this allegation.
A little more of the truth surrounding this incident was gained during the trial of “Blekingegadebanden” in 1989-1990 as the case concerning the planned assassination of Ben-Gurion appeared in the prosecutor’s presentation as the first example of PFLP activity in Denmark. According to the presentation, it was Wadi Haddad who had planned the murder of Ben-Gurion. It was then revealed that Rolf Svensson had received 30,000 kroner from the Mossad for betraying his comrades. In short, there was no doubt that there was a plan to murder Ben-Gurion and that PFLP was involved, but information indicates that the Mossad knew it and merely used Svensson as a spy.
The murder plan
Possibly, the closest thing to discovering the truth about this case is to be found in the archive of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ministry noted that the Danish police had confirmed the stories in Danish newspapers concerning the plan to murder Ben-Gurion. Basically, the newspapers were spot on in their reconstruction of the events. Furthermore, documents from the ministry show that it was Razzak’s job to carry out the murder itself somewhere in South America and that Svensson’s part was smuggling a pistol and a fragmentation grenade into Argentina, to which they both had plane tickets.
The case busied the Iraqi embassy as Razzak was representing their nation and he was subsequently quizzed about his involvement in the plot. The Danish embassy in Cairo reported great interest in the Egyptian media about the incident and awareness that Swedish radio had reported Svensson’s role in revealing the identities of his associates. Meanwhile, the Egyptian press with links to Jordanian sources reported that Saudi was a PFLP member.
Now the case had evolved into a diplomatic inquiry and on May 27 the Danish ambassador in Cairo had a conversation with a leading official in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry where the Arabic press coverage was discussed. The Egyptian proposed that the whole thing was possibly pure fiction, manufactured by Israel in an attempt to damage relations between Denmark and the Arab countries. The Danish ambassador admitted the case to have certain puzzling features but also reminded his counterpart about the discovery of weapons in the hotel room. The Egyptian official exclaimed that he hoped the case could finish with an expulsion and subsequent public attention could be avoided.
The Arabic press now started to circulate rumors that it was a trap laid down by the Mossad. According to this version, the Mossad’s aim was to obscure Mona Saudi’s art exhibition featuring the drawings by Palestinian children. The case was not harmless to Denmark as it might have sparked riots in the Arab countries.
There was actually a similar incident in Switzerland running parallel with this particular one, also featuring Palestinian terrorism. In February 1969, a Palestinian group attacked an El Al plane in Zürich airport, which had several high-ranking Israeli officials on board. Four terrorists shot at the plane with rifles. The plan was to prevent the plane from taking off and afterward bombard it with fragmentation grenades. The plane was hit by 50 to 60 bullets, and the PFLP had already prepared leaflets assuming responsibility. But an Israeli security guard shot back at the attackers, killing one of them, while the three others were arrested, among them a woman.
The arrests and the subsequent trial attracted great attention, and demonstrations in front of the Swiss embassy and in the streets of Cairo supporting the terrorists were arranged. Some Palestinians managed to gain entry to the embassy and demanded to speak to the ambassador. Under great pressure, he accepted a meeting and put a halt to the rising outcry. Something similar would not be very welcome during the Danish trials, which took place later that year, and the threat was indeed apparent with the PFLP urging all Arabs to fight for the release of Saudi and Razzak.
When all accusations finally failed, it resounded through the Arabic press. Once again, the case was highlighted in Egyptian newspapers. Denmark’s expulsion of the three foreigners was not without any trouble though, as the Arabs feared they would be kidnapped by the Mossad. To avoid such an occurrence, the Jordan ambassador requested the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to very cautiously release Saudi, possibly with a police escort. The ministry promised to look into this request. But on June 12, a note from the ministry explained that a policeman would not be placed at Saudi’s disposal, but the Israeli embassy would only be notified after the expulsion had taken place.
The ministry apparently did regard the Jordanian request as legitimate and the kidnapping threat as serious. The note also reads that the expulsion was accompanied by a decision to ban the terror suspects from returning to Denmark, indicating that it believed the suspicion against Mona Saudi and her associates to be well documented.
On June 13, 1969, the three suspects were expelled from Denmark. But the case kept appearing in other connections. When the Danish ambassador in Damascus, Hans Berthelsen, had a conversation with the Syrian minister of foreign affairs, he warned against Palestinian terrorist acts as they could possibly damage the sympathy for “the just Palestinian cause.” The minister announced his agreement but made it clear that Syria did not have any influence on Palestinian groups’ terrorist operations. At the same time, the minister inquired about the case concerning the plot to assassinate Ben-Gurion.
Razzak told the influential Egyptian newspaper AlAhram how he had been led to PET’s interrogation rooms forquestioning. He refused to answer any questions without a defenseattorney, which he had gotten himself by the next interrogation. He hadimmediately after his arrival in Denmark sensed that he was beingwatched by the Mossad, and during the interrogation, the PET officerhad threatened him with a possible kidnapping to Israel. Razzak alsobelieved that the Mossad had been following him and his group fromtheir departure from Copenhagen and that he and Saudi only lost them inParis during an intermediate landing, flying to Algeria afterward.
There is a sequel to the case. The source is the former spy GunnarEkberg, who in 1968-1974 was a part of the Swedish militaryintelligence service known as Informationsbyrån (IB). He speaks abouthis experiences in his 2009 autobiography, De ska ju ändådö (“They even have to die”). Ekberg tells how he, togetherwith left-wing radicals such as the author Jan Guillou, was operatinginside the Swedish Palestina movement. His Palestinian contacts tookhim to meetings in the Middle East with the PFLP’s operational leader,Wadi Haddad. Ekberg was a trained diver and offered his expertise tothe PFLP.
Ekberg tells how, a short time before Saudi, Svensson and Razzak werearrested in Copenhagen, his friend Guillou had been in the city tocomplete a task assigned by the PFLP – to investigate El Al’s securityin Kastrup Airport. According to Ekberg, PFLP circles in Sweden hadclose contact with associates in Denmark. One of the intriguing piecesof information in the book is the revelation that as he gained contactwith Haddad in 1970, the Mossad also became involved. While acting outhis part with the PFLP, he reported back to two Mossad agents inCopenhagen using the cover names of “Danny” and “Martin.”
When it dawned on the PFLP that Svensson was paid by Israel to revealthe plan to murder Ben-Gurion, the PFLP decided to murder him. The PFLPasked Ekberg to locate Svensson for others to carry out the task ofeliminating him. In his autobiography, Ekberg reprints his report to IBin which he tells about his assignment in finding Svensson. Ekberg,however, never told the PFLP where Svensson was to be found.
Razzak has not left any traces and Svensson died in 1978. Saudi isstill in the arts and one can read about her art on her Web page. Butshe cannot return to Denmark as her expulsion is for life.