Commentary Magazine

The Plot to Kill the Pope, by Paul Henze; The Time of the Assassins, by Claire Sterling

“Wet Affairs”


The Plot to Kill the Pope.
by Paul Henze.
Scribners. 216 pp. $14.95.

The Time of the Assassins: Anatomy of an Investigation.
by Claire Sterling.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 264 pp. $14.95.

These two very interesting books on the attempted assassination of John Paul II in May 1981 both reach the same conclusion: Mehmet Ali Agca, the youthful Turk who missed killing the Polish Pope by a finger, was piloted by the Bulgarian secret service (the DS, for darzhavna sigurnost). Since the latter, according to experts in this field, is thoroughly subservient to the Soviet KGB, there is every reason to believe that Yuri Andropov, the man then in charge of that organization, was the person ultimately responsible for what would have been one of the century’s great murders.

The two authors’ approaches to their subject are quite different. Paul Henze, a scholar whose distinguished governmental career included important posts in Turkey and a term on the National Security Council staff of Zbigniew Brzezinski, describes in turn the atmosphere of uncontrollable terrorism in the Turkey of the 1970′s that made an Agca possible; the Soviet state’s traditional reliance on terror at home and abroad as an instrument of policy; and the motives the Soviets might have had for wanting Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, dead.

Claire Sterling, though an investigative reporter rather than an expert, has become one of the most knowledgeable sources on international terrorism; her purpose in The Time of the Assassins is to demonstrate how this phenomenon threatens the Western democracies. In her previous book, The Terror Network, Mrs. Sterling showed the interconnecting links among the many terrorist bands, in Italy (where she lives) and elsewhere, and that these links were manipulated not locally but in Moscow. Her conclusion, considered rather novel at the time even though intelligence professionals had been calling attention to it for years, was that revolutionary states, the Soviet Union foremost among them, are perfectly capable of making use of terrorists whose own allegiances are to other, even to adversary, causes—so long as the actions for which they are used “objectively” serve the interests of the pilots. Of Mehmet Agca himself, Mrs, Sterling writes:

Ideologically, he declared himself to be on neither side, and both. “I make no distinction between fascist and Communist terrorists,” he said. “My terrorism is not red or black; it is red and black.” He styled himself an “international terrorist” pure and simple, the prototype of a new breed emerging after a decade of planetwide terrorist warfare.

This thesis was not especially well liked when Mrs. Sterling first published it in the Reader’s Digest, for it seemed axiomatic (as it still does to many) that terrorists must be on one side or the other, and would not do something so irrational as to serve each other’s cause. Much of the early discussion of the attempt against John Paul therefore focused on which side Agca could be determined to have come from (neither side claimed him). As Mrs. Sterling writes:

Not many could judge a case like Agca’s dispassionately. One side had him ticketed and labeled as a rightist, the other as a secret agent of the leftists. The thought that he might have been both would scarcely cross their minds.



Terrorism in Soviet eyes is an instrument of war against liberal, or bourgeois, democracy, to be used or rejected on the basis of strictly pragmatic considerations. This is not an easy notion for citizens of liberal democracies to accept; it is much easier to suppose that terrorists are bred by factors purely local, awful injustices that exist in Turkey or El Salvador or the West Bank or, at the limit, Italy or Germany. And indeed local factors there may be. But it is a fact, to cite only the Turkish case, that when the generals took charge of a country on the brink of disintegration in September 1980, they rounded up 43,000 terrorists who had been supplied with over 800,000 weapons of foreign origin, which were being used to commit a political murder every hour. “Though there is a great deal yet to be learned about terrorism in Turkey,” writes Paul Henze, “we already know enough to justify two basic conclusions”:

Terrorism was fomented on a massive scale by the Soviet Union utilizing surrogates such as Bulgaria and Syria as principal channels for arms and Palestinians as major “subcontractors” for training; and the Soviet modus operandi included multifaceted infiltration and build-up of rightist groups to serve as a foil for the Left and accelerate the destabilization process.

Agca himself was widely believed to have been a member, or at least a fellow-traveler, of the “Grey Wolves,” an extreme Right organization which took part in the terrorist onslaught of the 70′s. Henze and Mrs. Sterling both establish convincingly that the Grey Wolves, or Idealists (the name is apt), had connections to the “Turkish mafia,” a criminal enterprise that prospered during Turkey’s desperate years. This mafia, in turn, worked closely with the Bulgarian DS, particularly when it came to trading drugs for guns. The interest of the Bulgarians lay in the fact that the spread of crime further weakened the Turkish state which they and their Soviet masters were intent on undermining. In addition, however, the criminal organization’s reach, extending to the Turkish guest-workers in Western Europe, was useful to the Bulgarians when they organized assassinations, or “wet affairs” (as the relevant secret-service department is nicknamed), far from home.

The connection between violent, totalitarian revolutionaries and common criminals has been popularized and to some degree trivialized by trashy novels, but it is a well-established phenomenon, one that Dostoevsky and Conrad understood well. If the Soviets wanted to kill the Pope, it would be plausible for them to make use of non-Soviet agents whenever possible; and why not nonideological criminals? Henze quotes Ladislav Bittman, a Czech agent who defected in 1968:

The activities of the satellite intelligence services are usually underestimated by the West, but these offshoots from the Soviet apparatus play an important role in the Soviet overall scheme. . . .

Hence the Bulgarians, who are specialists in “wet affairs” and, as it happens, the only subjects of the Soviet empire who seem satisfied, even enthusiastic, about their satellite status. Taking Bittman’s point one step further, one can posit Soviet use of criminal organizations at any number of levels. Agca was an “international terrorist, pure and simple” who was trained and aided by common criminals and Bulgarian secret agents; ultimately it was up to the Soviets to decide how to make use of him.

So far, no smoking gun—except Agca’s—has been found in the plot against John Paul II. This has led some observers to question the “Bulgarian-connection” thesis advanced by Henze and Mrs. Sterling. It is quite possible that their thesis would not hold up in an American court; whether it holds up in an Italian court will be seen when Judge Itario Martella decides to return an indictment against Agca’s alleged Bulgarian accomplices. Rules of evidence in international politics differ from those in a court of law, however. A better explanation than this one has not yet been advanced.

If Agca was under DS, and ultimately KGB, control, it has to be established that the Soviets feared John Paul II enough to desire his physical elimination. Henze convincingly argues that Wojtyla was the most dangerous Pope ever faced by Soviet rulers. The Polish Catholic Church has been the major center in the Eastern bloc not only of spiritual but also of intellectual and ultimately political resistance to the Communists. In fact, when Wojtyla, known for his strong anti-Communism, became John Paul II in October 1978, “his selection was initially welcomed by some Communists in Warsaw because it removed him from the Polish scene.” Yet a year after his historic eight-day visit to his homeland—“nothing like it had ever been seen in any country before”—Solidarity was triumphant, the first free trade union ever recognized by a Communist regime.

It is at the very least plausible that the Soviets calculated that the elimination of John Paul II would solve their Polish problem. With Cardinal Wyszinski, the leader of Polish Catholicism, on his death bed, the Soviets must have realized they had an opportunity to decapitate the Polish church, closely allied in their view (as indeed it was) with Solidarity. The Soviet media went on an extremely violent campaign against John Paul II, calling him an enemy of the Soviet state and a Nazi collaborator. To be sure, the Soviets do not assassinate everyone whom their media vituperate, but it is worth bearing in mind, as Henze reminds us, that in their view he was not merely a dangerous foreign leader but an internal enemy who had emigrated, like Trotsky and Krivitsky in their time. Moreover, after the attempt on his life, the Soviet media went to ludicrous lengths to try to establish that it was an American plot (in which Henze himself was supposedly implicated). They could, of course, simply have been milking a propaganda opportunity for what it was worth, but the energy with which they pursued this theme, after the manner in which they had assailed Wojtyla, seemed a little excessive.



If there are good general reasons for pointing a finger at the Soviets, what reasons exist for suggesting that Agca himself was under their control? In the violent atmosphere, bordering on civil war, that he grew up in (he was only twenty-three when he fired a Browning at John Paul II), he came into contact with individuals traced (by Claire Sterling) to the Bulgarian DS. Whether they were leftists or rightists hardly matters, and it certainly did not matter to Agca. This, indeed, is exactly how his controls would have wanted him. The more twisted or obscure his motivations, the harder he would be to trace back to them. However, the Italian police found evidence that Agca, when in Rome, was in close contact with Bulgarians possessing all the characteristics of DS agents. And Mrs. Sterling demonstrates, in what amounts to a fascinating, albeit at times a little confusing, detective story, that the Turks he was in contact with during his financially well-oiled peregrinations through Europe were working for the Bulgarian import-export firm that is one of the DS’s most useful fronts.

Who is Mehmet Ali Agca? He came from a poor family, did well at school, and made it to university. He achieved notoriety for murdering, or for taking part in the murder of, Abdi Ipekci, Turkey’s most widely respected newspaper editor. He was sentenced to death for this crime, in absentia: he escaped, or more precisely was sprung, from a maximum-security prison while awaiting trial.

To some, Agca must have been more useful outside than in. Although they denied it, the Grey Wolves were given the credit for the Ipekci murder. In fact, if any faction benefited from the death of Ipekci, who was pro-Western, it was the extreme Left. It is not implausible that one of the Left’s violent gangs made use of one of the “international terrorists, neither red nor black,” that the desperate years had spawned, and then got him out of jail in order to make use of him again some day—especially now that his “fascist” reputation was fairly well-established. (If he had stayed too long in jail, he could be expected to lose confidence in his associates, whoever they were. This is precisely what seems to have happened to Agca in his Italian prison.)

When the plot was hatched against John Paul II, someone, according to Claire Sterling and Paul Henze, must have pointed out that the perfect gunman was available and in DS safekeeping (Agca was in Bulgaria after his escape). Why, indeed, not shoot the Pope with a “fascist”? And a “Muslim fanatic” to boot?

Actually, Agca’s Muslim fanaticism, though proclaimed by himself, has turned out to be rather shallow. He had no history of interest in religion, and during his jaunt across Europe he partook of the distinctly secular pleasures of drinking and whoring. The fascist label, however, stuck more effectively. Against the leader of Christendom, an ultra-nationalist fascist crazy Turk—this somehow made sense.



And this he may well have been, and be still. We do not know, and perhaps he does not either. However, what incenses both authors (Mrs. Sterling especially, who devotes half her book to it) has been the reluctance of many government officials and journalists in the West to give any credit to the hypothesis that the Soviets might be capable of making use of such a man. The conclusion that would have to be drawn—that the Soviet Union is a revolutionary state and can be expected to behave like one—is, apparently, too awful. In the end, this may be the most important lesson to be drawn from this most spectacular of “wet affairs.”



About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.