The PFLP/RAF terrorist who evaded the UK border control system: Zohair Akache and the ‘German Autumn’

Zohair Yousif Akache before the Lufthansa hijacking

Zohair Yousif Akache before the Lufthansa hijacking

In 1980, Lord Carrington, the new Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, ordered a review of how the UK border control system was utilised in the fight against terrorism, particularly in relation to terrorists from the Middle East and North Africa. The catalyst for this review were two incidents in May 1980 – the siege at the Iranian Embassy and the killing of an Iranian dissident working for the BBC in Bayswater. Carrington asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

[I]n what ways can we tighten up on the issue of visas; how can better checks be made; what categories of people should be most closely examined? Can controls at the ports in Great Britain be effectively tightened to improve screening?… What of conducive leave to enter and deportation? (FCO 50/685, NA)

I have written an article (currently under review on this topic) and outline that there were four major actions proposed and/or taken arising from this review. They were:

  1. Interviews and security checks before the issuing of visas to most Middle Eastern and North African nationals
  2. A special landing card (with photo) for these nationals to be required when arriving in the UK
  3. The requirement that these nationals report to the police if staying longer than three months
  4. The withdrawal of the ability to appeal a deportation order before being deported (only proposed – not introduced)

These strict measures seemed to be aimed at all Middle Eastern and North African visitors and as I have written in the article:

In the course of trying to achieve the UK’s counter-terrorism objectives, the actions of the border control system placed blanket restrictions on certain nationals in order to prevent a minute number of potential ‘threats’ entering the country. From a counter-terrorist and border control perspective, it seemed that the procedure was to treat all Middle Eastern and North African nationals seeking to visit the UK as potential terrorists until considered otherwise.

FCO staff were also highly critical of this blanket approach, arguing that any terrorists attempting to enter the country were likely to be trained and sophisticated enough to slip through the border control system. The British Embassy staff in Tripoli submitted a report during this review that doubted the usefulness of the measures sought by Carrington and others. The report stated:

We have no doubt that if Libya was determined to send a terrorist to the UK, through our new system, she could arrange, with relative ease, for him to be provided with convincing documentation and to be adequately briefed for our interview. (FCO 93/2356, NA)

This post is not about the findings or an overview of my article, but about one interesting bit about the files of the review in the National Archives. One of the questions raised during the review was how effective can the border control system be in detecting potential terrorists and there is an assumption that the border control system had failed during the 1970s as several terrorists from the Middle East and North Africa had come to the UK to commit terrorist acts.

One of the failings of the border control system during this period was its failure to detect Zohair Yousif Akache, a terrorist attached to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Pakestine (PFLP), who was deported in 1976, but managed to re-enter the UK in 1977 to assassinate three people and then depart from the UK before being detected. It is interesting that this bungling was not mentioned anywhere within all the correspondence generated by Lord Carrington’s review.

Akache is probably best known as the leader of the RAF/PFLP group that hijacked the Lufthansa Flight 181 in October 1977 in order to force the West German government to release the four jailed members of the RAF, including Andreas Baader. Akache had been a ‘student’ in London during the mid-1970s and according to Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees:

This man was not formally deported but in March 1976 was allowed instead to make a supervised departure from this country, and instructions were issued that he was not to be readmitted. The Commissioner of Police informs me that police inquiries have taken into account the possibility that he may have re-entered under a false name.

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According to The Times, he was deported after serving a six month jail term for hitting a policeman. In April 1977, Akache apparently re-entered the UK under a false name and killed three people in Hyde Park – the former Prime Minister of the Yemen Arab Republic Kadhi Abdullah al-Hagri (or Qadi Abdullan al Hijri), his wife and another Yemeni minister. According to Rees:

The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis tells me that detailed police inquiries have established that Akache, against whom warrants of arrest have been issued for the murder of three Yemen Arab Republic subjects in London on 10th April 1977, left the country that afternoon. He left through Heathrow Airport, using a Kuwaiti passport in the name of Ahmed Badir Al-Majid. Soon after the murders had been committed the police and the immigration service at Heathrow were alerted, but the descriptions of the suspect provided to the police were insufficiently detailed to enable Akache to be identified and apprehended. It was not until the following day that urgent and painstaking police inquiries provided evidence linking Akache with these crimes.

There are two files in the National Archives in Kew relating to this incident. I have yet to go through them to see whether they can contain information about Akache. There are also four other files relating to the Lufthansa hijacking. I can only assume that these files have more information on Akache and his time in the UK, although one of the files (PREM 16/1675) is closed and retained by the Cabinet Office.

Future Tory Home Secretary Leon Brittan questioned Rees in parliament after the Lufthansa hijacking over the UK’s inability to detect Akache when he was in the country in 1977. Brittan stated:

Does not the Home Secretary agree that there is likely to be continued anxiety over the case of Zohair Akache, who was deported from this country, then allowed to re-enter the country, was suspected of committing in broad daylight the murder of three prominent North Yemenis, was then able to leave the country again and is now suspected of being responsible for the hijacking which ended in Mogadishu?

Does not the Home Secretary agree that it is extraordinary that, after all this time has passed, it is still not possible for him to confirm or deny that this man Akache, who entered and left the country in those circumstances, is in fact none other than the Captain Mahmoud responsible for the Lufthansa hijacking?

Rees replied:

If I were basing my information on the newspapers, and only on them, I would be able to confirm that. But it is not my business to confirm a story when the police do not have the basic information on which I can be absolutely sure.

On the other issue, what the hon. Gentleman says is right. I see in the newspapers from time to time that I am accused of being devious about it, but there is no clever stuff behind the events. The man came into the country and went out again. He was using a false passport and so on, and I have the details. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to say it, a mistake was made, but it certainly was not by design. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to run around all the time saying that an error was made—well, I have said it now, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied.

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As Akache was killed during the Lufthansa hijacking, he was never questioned about his involvement in the assassination of al Hagri, but it has been assumed that Akache was responsible for these killings. There is nothing more in the public record (that I know of) that casts doubt on this allegation. I am wondering whether the archival records hold more relevant information.

What is surprising is that this episode, which seems to show an explicit failure of the border control system in detecting a dangerous person from entering the UK, was overlooked in discussions of how to tighten up border security with regards to the country’s counter-terrorism agenda only a few years later. One would’ve thought that Carrington could have used this incident to show that Labour was ineffective in both border and national security and that it highlighted a reason for tighter controls.

I’m still not sure what the Akache indicent tells us about the border/national security system in the UK during the 1970s, but I’m very interested in looking further at these files!




Piecing together the death of Ian Macleod: The responses in West Germany and Britain

How Macleod's death was first reported in The Times

How Macleod’s death was first reported in The Times

Early in the morning of June 25, 1972, the West German police raided a supposed ‘safehouse’ of the Red Army Fraction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, in Stuttgart. There had been supposed telephone communications between the flat in question and a group of Swiss anarchists who had allegedly been in contact with Andreas Baader. During the raid, Ian Macleod (also spelt as ‘Ian Mcleod’ or Iain Macleod’) was shot in the back of the neck. Macleod, a UK citizen, was naked and unarmed when he was shot. Since then, the West German police (now obviously just the German police) have argued that Macleod had some connection to the RAF, whilst others have alleged that the police had shot an innocent man and this grave mistake by the police was covered up.

I came across the response by the British government to the shooting in some files at the National Archives whilst doing research on the UK’s counter-terrorist strategies in the 1970s and I have been interested in how the media and government in both countries reacted to the death of a foreign national in a high profile counter-terrorist manhunt. The Times first reported the death on page 1 on 26 June, 1972, largely based on accounts from officials in Stuttgart and Bonn. It reported that:

According to well-placed sources in Stuttgart tonight, Mr Macleod was suspected by the police of being at least a contact man for the gang.

However over the next few days, the newspaper was reporting that these contacts might not have existed and that the police shooting was unwarranted. On June 27, the newspaper stated:

The West German authorities have so far been unusually tight-lipped over the shooting.

The following day, the paper went further:

Lawyers and newspapers in West Germany today attacked the police for unnecessarily killing Mr Iain Macleod, a British businessman, as the official case against him began to disintegrate

Several newspapers here have underlined the impression Mr Macleod must have had when he opened the door and saw what was apparently a civilian brandishing a machine gun at him first thing on a Sunday morning. He screamed and slammed the door, whereupon the policeman fired two shots. 

While reporting that the police accepted that they acted ‘negligently’, The Times also remarked that the police’s case against Ian Macleod was ‘at best highly circumstantial’ and there nothing in the police account to reject the notion that Macleod’s actions (that caused the policeman to open fire) were:

the frightened reaction of someone awakened by noises in his home who finds a man with a machine-gun at his bedroom door at 6.30 on a Sunday morning.

The newspaper reported that the British Consulate in Bonn was liaising with the West German government and the National Archives has part of this correspondence. The only official statement I have been able to locate by the British Government was in Parliament in late July 1972:

Mr. Arthur Lewis

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what action he has taken or intends taking to protest to the West German Government at the shooting of Mr. Jain Macleod, a British businessman, by a West German policeman on 25th June, 1972 in Stuttgart; and whether he will demand compensation from the West German Government for Mr. Macleod’s next of kin.

Mr. Kershaw

Soon after Mr. Macleod’s death we expressed our concern to the Federal German authorities and asked for a report as soon as possible. We have been kept fully informed by the German authorities on the course of their inquiries, the latest state of which show no basis for suspicion against Mr. Macleod. But the case is still under investigation and until this has been completed, it is not possible to say what action Her Majesty’s Government intend to take.

I haven’t had a chance to look at other British media outlets from the time, but I expect that similar reporting could be found in The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. My next place to look will be The New Statesman, which hopefully covered the case.

How Der Spiegel reported on the case

How Der Spiegel reported on the case

As expected, the West German media covered the case in quite a bit of detail, although sources are not as accessible from Australia (and my German is quite limited). The current affairs weekly Der Spiegel reported that this was the sixth death by the police in the hunt for RAF members and seemed to conclude that Macleod’s death was one of mistaken identity. The same issue of the magazine contained a lengthy interview with two senior policemen in Stuttgart who were involved in the case. An English translation of the interview (thanks to Google Translate) opens with:

SPIEGEL: One of your officers has shot dead last week during the search of an apartment a recognizable defenseless man. Has the fear of the Baader-Meinhof people your police so messed up that it already is holding a naked man who starts up from sleep dangerous?

RAU: Certainly not. But we had to assume that the flat of the Baader-Meinhof people’s lives, had all experiences expected that BM group members ruthlessly shoot – and of weapons and ammunition that cause death. We also know that these people are smart and do not be surprised readily. That our officials did not count on the door so that the door is flung open suddenly and that he then fell into a deep psychologically explicable only state of emergency, of course, is extremely unfortunate.

Further in the interview, the senior police officers tried to explain the use of machine guns in the raid:

SPIEGEL: Why did you have your people equipped with machine guns! For an arrest a rather unusual armament.

RAU: In Baader-Meinhof operations we always take with machine guns.We must orient ourselves to the armament of the enemy – with 7.65 guns our government officials were always inferior in case of emergency. Incidentally, the MP of the shooter was set to single fire. He fired two shot.

SPIEGEL: Even if you wanted to grant him to have fired the first shot with excitement uncontrollably – one must not judge differently the second shot?

FREY: I think this all happened in the same psychological situation. It also went in quick succession: Päng. bang – I heard it on the hallway entrance to the apartment, I was also there. The shooter has explained to me spontaneously that he wanted to reach for the latch as the door was flung open from the inside. He saw only one head – wearing nothing of whether he was naked or – and suddenly the man had moved, as if to bend down. He had assumed that now he shoots, felt a burning sensation in the lower abdomen – “I already have one or I get ‘another’ – pulled the trigger, and as he has.

Weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, reported the following month that the Federal Prosecutor announced there was ‘no reasonable suspicion’ for Macleod and expressed concern that mere suspicion placed the police at Macleod’s residence that Sunday morning, armed with heavy weaponry and faulty intelligence: The suspicion is always a dangerous and too often an unreliable ally.”

Der Spiegel announced in July 1973 that the case had now been deliberated on by prosecutors in Stuttgart and the case against the policeman who shot Macleod had been dropped.

In 2007, two MPs from left wing party Die Linke (‘The Left’) requested information from the Bundestag (German Parliament) on the deaths of people at the hands of the police, prisons and the criminal justice system in the state’s fight against the RAF. In their request, they specifically mentioned the death of Macleod, stating that the full details of his death were still not known. The response by the Bundestag stated that 7 suspected RAF members had been killed between 1970 and 1998, with another 15 people injured.

In 2013, a former journalist from a local Stuttgart newspaper wrote that questions still needed to be answered about the case:

In July 1972, federal prosecutors closed the file McLeod. The Ninth Criminal Chamber of the Stuttgart Regional Court decided to not open a criminal trial of the gunman. The 36-year-old Detective Chief Master had acted in putative self-defense. The Labour MP Gavin strand of the Edinburgh constituency, from the Ian McLeod came, had called for an acknowledgment of the innocence of the murdered compatriot by the German authorities. He has received a diplomatic embellished with flourishes final report. The mother was offered a compensation of 135 000 marks, which she accepted a little later.

The police has been the case McLeod never worked. The newspaper did not also. My attempt to talk to the now 93-year-old Kriminaldirektor Frey about these past has failed, and the now 77-year-old gunman silent. From the former police leadership has only Günther Rathgeb (79), then head of the police, expressed at the time. He says:.. “In reality, politicians and security forces were taken by surprise, were not prepared and were sometimes completely helpless the events against a rule, barely stayed opportunity to actively and preventively to influence events almost exclusively one could only respond, had be wide awake, often take emergency decisions without guarantee of success and trust to luck. “

Where Ian McLeod is buried, I could not find out.

A German website dedicated to the history of political opposition in Germany has a page dedicated to the death of Macleod, with a lot of contemporary material from radical German groups and their responses to the death, as well as to the RAF more broadly. I enquired last year with the German State Archives about material relating to Macleod’s death. I was told that there are two closed files, which I can apply to have opened, although my success at gaining access is probably rather limited. But then again, I may apply to see them later in the year.

A radical interpretation of the events

A radical interpretation of the events

I have not mentioned what the FCO files from Kew say as I am hoping to put together a journal article on this case eventually. Anyone knows of any other potential sources should get in touch. I would also be interested in hearing from any German/German speaking historians who might be interested in working on this project with me – Google Translate can only help me so much!