'Revolutionaries around the world, including terrorists, mourn the assassination of Henry Curiel, leader of a Paris-based support apparatus that funneled money, arms, documents, training and other services to scores of leftist groups." Thus, as if in a trade paper's in-house column of Births, Deaths and Marriages, did the Central Intelligence Agency note the passing of a true craftsman.
Henri Curiel, a gray and fatherly-looking figure in half-rimmed glasses, was shot dead on May 4, 1978, in the elevator of his Left Bank Paris apartment, by two featureless gunmen wearing gloves -- the only detail his neighbors noticed. A stateless Egyptian Jew, he had been living in Paris for 27 years. For nearly all that time, he was listed as foreign agent S531916 in the files of the DST, the French internal security service. Every major counterespionage agency in the West had a file on him, and almost anybody in the trade reading through these would assume he worked for the KGB. Nevertheless, he had a foolproof system for evading arrest. "My dossier is the thickest one in the DST, but they can't do a thing about it," he once remarked, rightly.
Henri Curiel ran something politically chic and vaguely charitable called Aide et Amitie (Help and Friendship). He liked to say that it was meant for people working against "undemocratic countries in the Third World," and he would often confide that the operation was slightly illegal. The added spice of breaking the law just a little bit in a worthy cause made it all the more attractive. A hundred or so young volunteers of various nationalities were on his helpful and friendly team, including Catholic worker-priests and Protestant pastors. A Dominican priory in the Rue de la Glacimere gave him houseroom for meetings; a group called France, Terre d'Asile (France, Land of Asylum) gave him hostel facilities just up the street; the Protestant aid mission Cimade gave him the use of its refugee shelter in the suburb of Massy. The foreigners he bedded down for the night, the nocturnal visitors, the couriers to and from distant lands -- Africa, South America, the Middle East -- attracted little public attention. It was all part of his benevolent if rather indistinct image as a doer of good works.
Not until 1976 did the French public get an idea of what Curiel had really been up to for the previous quarter of a century. The lid was lifted by Georges Suffert, a respected journalist who spent three months investigating the story he wrote for the weekly Le Point. One alluring glimpse from Suffert and the lid was clamped down again, unmistakably from somewhere above.
Two personal stories gave Suffert his lead.
In the summer of 1968, a Parisian woman named Michele Firk went to Guatemala with a false passport in the name of "Isabelle Chaumet." A member of the French Communist Party for some time, she had evidently chosen a more active life of revolutionary combat. After several weeks in Guatemala, she rented a car there on Aug. 22. The American ambassador was assassinated six days later. Her hired car, used in the attack, led police to the hideout of the Cuban-backed FAR (Armed Revolutionary Force), which claimed credit for the killing. Rather than face interrogation, Michele Firk committed suicide. Her FAR comrades claimed to know nothing about her, except that she had worked in Paris with an "important" man known as "Julien" or "Raymond."
Seven years later, the South African poet Breyton Breytenbach (also traveling on a false passport) returned to his country from Paris after a long stay abroad. He went there to set up a secret printing press for the South African underground and was soon arrested under the antiterrorist laws. But just as an international campaign was gettiang under way to free him, he pleaded guilty.
The behavior of this talented young poet had puzzled reporters at the time: He seemed to want to go to jail. Once there, in fact, he confided to his brother his nagging suspicion that he had been "manipulated" in Paris. An ardent opponent of apartheid, he had attended several meetings on "aid to underdeveloped countries," whereupon he was recruited for undercover activities. Over the next two years, he worked in an organization called Solidarite (later to become Aide et Amitie). Its chief was known as "Julien" or "Raymond."
Clearly a professional, "Raymond" had an impressive quantity of false passports on hand, was often absent without explanation for days or weeks, and held countless meetings heavily attended by Catholic and Protestant intellectuals. Gradually, the conviction grew on Breytenbach that Solidarite fronted for a deep underground apparatus providing technical services to international terrorist groups. He had the impression that its main purpose was to collect information on the terrorists' plans and movements. But he had no idea who wanted the information or who was paying for it -- in short, exactly who he was working for. Nor could he say just who this "Julien" or "Raymond" was. All he knew was that the man was a Sephardic Jew from Egypt who had once helped to found the Communist Party there.
Only one man in Paris answered the description. With that for starters, Suffert went on to piece together the first account ever published of the real Henri Curiel. He couldn't hope to get it all, nor could others of us who have kept trying; the police are still reluctant to talk, and witnesses are afraid to. But there is no doubting the nature of Curiel's mission by now. He was running a triple-tiered service network, probably unique in the world, and catering to the carriage trade.
Paris was the perfect place for it. France has long been proud of its traditions as a haven for political exiles. By the mid-1970s, practically every terrorist and guerrilla force to speak of was represented there: Iranian, Turkish, Greek, Japanese, Spanish, German, Italian, African, Latin American, Palestinian. The Palestinians especially were there in force, running a snappy Europe-wide operation under the flamboyant leadership of Ilich Ramirez Snachez, better known as Carlos the Jackal.
There was no limit to the opportunities for an enterprise providing specialized services, discretion guaranteed; Solidarite was in a class of its own along those lines.
The minimum risks merely involved "traveling" to and from South America or Africa, bearing messages and money. But members who looked more promising would be invited to attend Solidarite's annual congress for screening. They would be given no address, instructed simply to gather at a suburban railway station where cars would be waiting to carry them off to a country house. Those who passed muster at the congress would then get an eight-day course of training. Four or five to a group, they would meet morning and evening with expert but unidentified instructors. Some extremely knowledgeable German, say, would fill them in on the latest police methods and liberation struggles in West Germany, a Brazilian would do the same for Brazil, and so on for Chile, Morocco, Tunisia, the Middle East. Then they would learn a little about how to forge a passport, behave in clandestinity, use the funds they would be carrying abroad, respond to interrogation in case of arrest. In effect, they were taught just enough to become efficient couriers without losing their valuable amateur status -- valuable because, as amateurs, they were still respectable in the progressive religious circles they were largely drawn from, and unknown to the police.
The rock-bottom organization lay beneath, in deep submersion. Its members were sworn to obedience as Soldiers of the Revolution. It used all the familiar underground paraphernalia: invisible ink, codes, letter drops, camouflage, disguise. Its operatives gave training in explosives, sabotage, weaponry, map making, map reading, wire cutting, secret communications. Its assorted services ranged from such limited guerrilla training to intercontinental couriers, safe-houses, money, false papers, temporary jobs and safe passage across frontiers.
The separatists in Canada's French-speaking Quebec province were among the select: A Curiel aide spent months among them sorting out their Marxist hang-ups, and two of them wanted for the kidnapping of British diplomat Richard Gross hid out with Curiel for a full month in Paris, after sheltering in Cuba for several years. Italian terrorists had two safe-houses reserved for them. All the Palestinian formations operating in Western Europe could have help for the asking. So could the front-line guerrilla forces of southern Africa, regularly supplied by Solidarite with funds and clandestine equipment. For the Polisario guerrillas, fighting Morocco for the former Spanish Sahara with massive Soviet armament passed on by Libya, Curiel's group ran the main French show. (Madeleine Rebeirioux, Goerge Montaran and Robert Davezies, directors of the Paris-based Friends of the Sahraoui Republic, were all attached to Solidarite.) And nothing was too good for Iranians fighting the shah. Sadegh Ghotzbadeh, spokesman for Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris and, after the Islamic Revolution, the ayatollah's foreign minister in Tehran, was one of Curiel's valued clients.
All in all, his list of clients was impressive. Suffert was able to track down 20 groups, some terrorist and others not. They included the Basques' ETA and GRAPO's urban guerrillas in Spain, Israel's two Communist parties, the outlawed Communist parties of Irqu, Haiti, Morocco and Sudan, and four or five Latin American guerrilla bands, including the Tupamaros of Uruguay. Informants have since tipped off the French and other Western intelligence services to quite a few more. They include the IRA, the German Red Army FRACTION (RAF), the Japanese Red Army, assorted urban bands in Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Portugal, Greece, Iran and Turkey, and Kurdish separatists of Iran, Turkey and Iraq -- for whose sake Curiel's second-in-command, Joyce Blau, learned to speak the Kurdish dialects.
For Latin America, Curiel appears to have offered not just personalized services but a wholesale arrangement. In 1976, at a safe-house of the Trotskyite ERP in Argentina, police found documents revealing a plan to launch a "Europe Brigade" for a strategy of tension on the Continent sponsored by the Junta for Revolutionary Coordination (JCR), formed by the Tupamaros of Uruguay and fellow terrorists of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Paraguay. According to the confiscated documents, the brigade was to be armed and financed by Cuba and mounted from Paris. Its intermediary there was to be France, Land of Asylum, Curiel's serviceable front-group.
The most damning proof of his shadier international connections came along by pure chance. On July 26, 1974, an unusually conscientious French customs inspector at Orly airport opened the briefcase of a well-dressed Japanese passenger from Beirut. The name on his passport was Furuya Yukata. But three other forged passports in different names were found in his briefcase. So were $10,000 in counterfeit bills and a number of coded messages. One, on scented rice paper, said "Little Miss Full Moon. I am ill with desire for you. Let me embrace your beautiful body again. Your love slave, Suzuki!" "Little Miss Full Moon" was a ranking member of the Japanese Red Army cell in Paris, one of the deadliest bands of killers on earth. Another of the coded messages was for the head of the cell, Taketomo Takahashi.
When police came for him, Taketomo tried in the best B-movie style to swallow slips of paper bearing the pseudonyms "Acheme" and "Jean-Baptist." Both turned out to be in regular contact with Taketomo, the one providing his Red Army cell with weapons, the other with fake papers and money.
It was easy to find "Jean-Baptiste," who had been under DST surveillance for months. He was Andre Haberman, a microphotographer believed to be turning out quantities of those beautifully made passports and phony dollar bills for Solidarite -- Curiel's master forger.
Spotting "Acheme" took longer. In real life he was a Brazilian by the name of Antonio Pereira Carvalho. But his occupation became known only a year after Furuya's arrest, when a tremendous shootout with the police obliged Carlos the Jackal to clear out of France. In his haste to make a getaway, the man whose multinational terrorist squad was savaging the Continent -- bombing, murdering, kidnapping, hijacking from one end of Europe to the other -- left a fertile collection of notes and diaries behind. A search of Carlos's flat in Rue Toullier revealed that "Acheme" was in charge of his network's arms supply throughout Europe. Several other aides of Carlos's were found to be in regular touch with members of Curiel's staff.
Neither in this or any other case did Henri Curiel initiate a terrorist action. Violence was distasteful to him. "I have a horror of terrorism," he said after Le Point's front-page story broke, adding that he had often "managed to prevent young people from participating in revolutionary actions." He had the opportunity, he explained, because he was "public relations counselor on Third World problems, which means I meet a lot of people." His overriding concern, he went on, was to help "militant liberation movements fighting to transform societies in the Third World."
But Japan is not in the Third World. Neither is the United States, or Canada, or Northern Ireland, West Germany, Sweden, Italy, Spain. In all these countries, his services were available for armed violence of every sort: ethnic, religious, nationalist, ideological. Yet he denied the same services to several seemingly authentic revolutionary bands in the Third World itself.
In a bluntly worded document he wrote himself, Curiel defined "the attitude to be taken toward pro-Chinese forces" by his network. "If we are dealing with pro-Chinese groups who receive concrete aid from China, their action must be considered as purely interior to the state in which it is applied. No interference from our organization will therefore be tolerated," the document said. "On the other hand, if local activities should opt for a Maoist approach to national problems, simply on a theoretical basis, the assistance of our apparatus becomes perfectly possible."
Accordingly, Curiel's staff was forbidden to have anything to do with the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Spain, the Workers' Party of Haiti, certain factions of the Tudeh Communist Party of Iran, and similar groups anywhere else -- Guyana and the Antilles, for instance -- receiving "concrete aid" from Peking. There are not too many plausible explanantions for so categorical a refusal of assistance from an organization otherwise broad-minded and generous to a fault. The simplest is that Communist China is, or was until Mao's recent eclipse, Soviet Russia's single biggest rival for the hearts and minds of revolutionaries the world over.
Like the Afrikaner poet Breyton Breytenbach, dozens of committed leftists outside Moscow's orbit began to suspect that they were being used. Those willing to talk about it (not all, by any means) believed that Solidarite was cleverly designed to extract information from terrorist groups and national liberations movements in exchange for prodigal handouts. Some suggested that the recipients even knew this and didn't mind, considering the arrangement of mutual benefit. By and large, in any case, they felt that Solidarite bore an unmistakable Soviet imprint.
The most ingenuous of Curiel's helpers couldn't quite laugh that off. Most seemed to think of him as a quietly knowing and hardworking man, growing old before his time in pursuit of a lifelong cause. It was the cause itself they couldn't be altogether sure about. Who were some of the Bonnies and Clydes passing through his doors? Why should a Frenchwoman he sent haring off to Guatemala have killed herself rather than face interrogation? Where did Curiel go when he vanished from Paris for days or weeks at a time? How could he afford the prodigal sums he spread around on a labor of love? Where did he get the money?
The questions still nag at Western security agents, who to this day haven't been able to pin a piece of totally incriminating evidence on Curiel. "The Agency kept telling me the fellow was KGB, but I don't buy it," one senior CIA operator in Europe remarked to me. "The man was a pro, and he was incredibly good. He had plenty of leeway, and he didn't make mistakes. But he was KGB, all right," said another, closer to the scene and, judging from the only kind of evidence around -- the circumstantial kind -- probably closer to the truth.
Henry Curiel was born in 1915, the son of a wealthy Jewish banker in Cairo, and became a Communist in his early 20s -- an orthodox Communist undeviatingly loyal to Moscow, then and forever after as he kept telling whoever asked.
Sheltered by his father's position and fortune, young Henri would entertain privileged middle-class leftists like himself in the family villa on the Nile and drift on to the flyblown Arab cafes where early Marxist grouplets were forming. He could count on support from both quarters when he helped found the Egyptian Communists Party in 1942.
Imprisoned by King Farouk from 1946 to 1948, Curiel then took off for Europe until a military junta deposed the king in 1952. It was during those blurred early years of his in Europe that French police found the first hard evidence of his Russian ties.
In a raid on the Casablanca villa of the Morroccan Communist Party's general secretary, they discovered the minutes of a secret meeting held near Algiers on Nov. 5, 1951. Attended by several North African Communist leaders and the same Leon Feix from Paris, the meeting was chaired by a "Monsieur Marcel" on behalf of Mikhail Suslov (now the Soviet Communist Party's chief theoretician) then heading the Cominform's IV Division -- the Kremlin's Arab network. The discussion dealt with special training for anticolonialist officers and students in Algeria, whose war for independence from France would break out three years later almost to the day. The meeting's organizer was Henri Curiel.
Shortly after that secret Algiers meeting, Curiel settled down in Paris for good -- a refugee with no papers, no profession, no visible source of income and, for the first nine years, no residence permit.
In the course of the Algerian War for independence from France (1954 to 1962), Curiel was a key man in Paris for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), providing information, cover and sizable sums of money smuggled into France from unidentified sources in Switzerland.
As usual, it was by pure chance that he got into trouble. In the autumn of 1960, the DST picked him up for routine questioning about his FLN activities. A casual check at the home of a close collaborator led to discovery of documents having nothing to do with the Algerian War. They were photocopies of the minutes on secret talks between the French and German governments, which could only have come from classified files in the Quai d'Orsay. Curiel's refusal to explain how he had come by the documents led to his imprisonment for two years at Fresnes. When the Algerian War was over, though, he was free as a bird again.
He formed Solidarite in 1963. But it did not get cracking until 1966, a vintage year. It was in 1966 that the Tricontinental Conference in Havana launched its global assault on Western imperialism and, with Soviet blessings, opened an era of international guerrilla warfare. For the next 15 years, Solidarite perfectly reflected the policies laid down in Havana.
The faithfulness of the pattern alone might have been enough to arouse suspicion. On top of it, though, was the weighted presence in the network's top echelons of hard-lining pro-Moscow Communists and their all too familiar brand of symphathizers, not to mention the peculiar state of the network's finances. Apart from Curiel, who wore his heart on his sleeve, there were his indispensable assistants Father Maurice Barth and Pastor Rene Rognon: Both were long-standing activists in the World Peace Movement, one of the hoariest Soviet front groups still around. Michele Firk, before going to Guatemala for Curiel, had worked for the French Communist Party's daily, L'Humanite, a Stalinist journal if there ever was one. Two other orthodox Communists turned out to be the answer, at last, to the eternal question of where Curiel's money could be coming from. They were Raymond Biriotti and Bernard Riguet, both on solidarite's board of directors.
According to authoritative French sources (who confirmed it privately to me), Biriotti and Riguet were largely responsible for funneling the funds into the network. They were, respectively, the founder and commerical director of the Societe d'Echanges et de Representation, an export-import firm with offices at 2 rue Colonel-Driant. Their company maintained a current account at the Banque Commericial pur l'Europe du NORD (BCEN) in Paris, owned outright by the central bank of the Soviet Union. The BCEN, which also handles the account of the French Communist Party, is the Soviet Union's paymaster bank abroad. It has been notorious for years as the Kremlin's instrument for distributing illicit funds throughout Western Europe.
He happened also to have a remarkably interesting family connection, though that didn't come out until very late in the day. In all those years of watching Curiel so warily, nobody in a dozen Western intelligence services seems to have associated him with a younger cousin he once took under his wing. The son of Henri's mother's brother in Holland. George Bihar was sent to Cairo in 1936 after the breakup of his parents' marriage. The Curiels had agreed to take him in and see to his education at the fashionable English School. He was an impressionable 14 when he arrived and was given a room next to Henri's. His fascinating cousin was almost 22. They became fast friends, with Henri patiently explaining the intricacies of radical politics and letting George tag along on those absorbing rounds of Cairo's left-wing salons and Arab cafes.
From George Bihar, he went on to become "George Blake" in London -- a member of Britain's MI 6 who betrayed 40 Western spies and every state secret he could lay his hands on to the KGB before he was caught -- the most stunningly successful double agent in modern history.
We are unlikely ever to discover whether "Blake" made his first contact with the KGB directly through his cousin Henri. The cousin is dead, and "Blake," lounging in the club for retired British spies in Moscow, is hardly the man to tell. He never did explain how he got into the trade, beyond confessing with some amusement that he did it all "for nothing." He testified behind closed doors and was sentenced to 42 years in prison, the longest such sentence on record. After serving barely four, at Wormwood Scrubs, he climbed over a wall on a ladder contrived mostly of knitting needles and escaped. In good time, he proceeded on his leisurely onward journey to Moscow.
By his own account, he began to pass information systematically to the KGB from Hamburg in 1951, just about when Curiel opened shop in Paris, an hour or two away by plane. Did they ever meet, somewhere on the Continent, from then on until Blake was arrested a decade later? (Curiel did tell reporters once that he often crossed over into Germany, "borrowing a friend's passport and changing the photograph.") "Blake" escaped from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966 with the help of a fellow prisoner, Sean Bourke of the IRA. Did Curiel, a valued benefactor or the IRA by 1966, have a hand in that? He was decorated in Moscow with the orders of Lenin and the Red Flag in 1970, honors never bestowed upon a fellow club members like Philby, Burgess, McLean, but reserved soley for civilians on active service. What sort of active service might "George Blake" have been active on, in Moscow?
The dumfounding question is how British intelligence could have hired "George Blake," knowing nothing of the cousin he held in such admiring esteem. Everything else about his family and relations was in his dossier for his chiefs to see. The one fact that might have warned them escaped them, "precisely because it wasn't there," observed Lord Radcliffe, who headed the security commission of enquiry. It remained for Le Point's correspondent, 10 years after "Blake's" escape, to unearth his birth certificate as George Bihar, grandson of a Smyrna merchant, nephew of the Cairo banker Daniel Curiel, cousin of foreign agent S531916 in Paris.
That's that. You can't blame a man for his relatives, and nothing else known or still likely to be uncovered in the story proves a thing about Curiel. He denied all knowledge of "Blake's" nefarious double life, as was only natural. He also denied all the other lurid charges against him in the press, as did his associates. Indeed, they all threatened to sue, but none did.
Three months after Le Point's expose, Solidarite disappeared. The Aide et Amitie group that replaced it was carefully laundered. A bullet took care of Curiel barely over a year after that.
He died a free man. The material gathered so painstakingly against him was never enough to bring him to court. Even upon sending him briefly into forced exile in October 1977, the French Interior Ministry did not make its charges public. It could only send a confidential note to the council of state responsible for refugees, summing up the main ones: operation of a "very sophisticated clandestine organization" supporting "revolutionary movements -- some of them engaged in armed struggles," especially but not exclusively in the Third World; "active participation" in terrorist operations by providing false documents to the Japanese Red Army; "constant and concealed intervention in French affairs and centers of tension, especially in the Middle East conflict;" "extremely dangerous activities conducted from French territory," threatening to "undermine" French diplomacy in several countries "and to create a situation . . . harmful to public order."
The circumstances of Curiel's murder in May 1978 are wholly mysterious. Somebody claiming to speak for something called "Delta" sent a statement to the press: "The KGB agent and traitor Henri Curiel ceased his activities at 2 p.m." But Delta, an assassination squad of the right-wing French extremists in the OAS during the Algerian War, had been defunct for more than 15 years. Who else might have wanted him dead just then?
It was not an ordinary moment. For the first time since 1952, he was preparing to leave France not as "Julien" or "Raymond," but as Henri Curiel, with valid papers. For all anybody can tell, he might have been planning no more than the little holiday in Greece he said he was looking forward to, or getting out for good.
Among the more singular features of Curiel's career was the delicate handling he received in high places. Kept under more or less continuous DST surveillance since 1953, he had nevertheless gone about his business without a single leak from the French authorities to the press until 1976. The leak evidently caused distress in certain official quarters, since the French press was thereupon given to understand that it was expected to lay off the subject. Access to further information about him has required heroic effort, as I for one can testify.
A possible clue goes back to those wartime days in Cairo, when he had given a hand to the Free French Mission. It is not unreasonable to assume that French Resistance leaders would remember Curiel's wartime services and reward them with a measure of indulgence. Nor would it be poor form to speculate on the chances of his having discreetly furnished information in return. Nobody gives anything away for nothing in this business. There seems little doubt, in any event, that his special relationship was with the Gaullists. When the general himself retired from the national scene in 1968, Curiel's position in France "changed dramatically," or so he told the Economist Foreign Report's Robert Moss shortly before his death.
That alone could have caught him in the perpetual crossfire of rival secret services in France -- assorted official kinds or the eternally elusive "parallel police." Somebody in those quarters might have felt obliged to stop Curiel before he could get out of the country -- either to silence him because he knew too much or to punish him because French courts never would.
On the other hand, the French might have had nothing to do with the cessation of Curiel's activities. If he did work for the Russians, he was of no use to them once his cover was blown, and what he knew could hurt them. The hasty dismantling of his network within three months of its exposure suggests how worried somebody must have been about any more leaks like that. Somebody has also made sure, since then, that we are never going to find out anything more about Solidarite from the only man who knew all about it.