If there is a special section of hell reserved for the top torturers and henchmen of totalitarian mass murderers--men like SS leader Heinrich Himmler of Hitler Germany and NKVD head Lavrenty Beria of Stalinist Russia--China's Kang Sheng must be there, looking up at the Middle East with a smile on his fiendish face. The man who ruled over Mao's secret service was an architect of China's secret alliance with anti-American Arab extremism, building ties with the superstars of international terror, from Yasser Arafat and George Habash of the PLO and PFLP, respectively, to Wadi Haddad of the PFLP (he headed his own faction) and Ahmed Jibril of the PFLP-GC.
Kang, who died of cancer in 1975, was responsible for bringing Abu Nidal to Beijing in March 1972 before he became one of the world's most notorious names in international terrorism. He was accompanied by Abu Daoud, who six months later was responsible for the massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich, Germany. A year earlier, Kang had welcomed another Munich massacre mastermind, Abu Jihad, to China's capital.
Kang's Palestinian connection actually began in the mid '60s, with visits to China by Fatah founder Arafat and Egyptian-backed PLO founder and general secretary Ahmed Shoukairy. But the heyday of cooperation took place during the '70s. Thanks to Kang, hundreds of Palestinian terrorists and guerrilla fighters received military training in China, learning the precepts and principles of "people's war."
Covert operations came naturally to Kang, who was one of the most feared and secretive personalities in China for over a half-century. He was a grand master of murder and intrigue, manipulating and, perhaps even more astonishingly--surviving--the major purges and upheavals, including the Cultural Revolution that plunged China into a long period of bloodshed and chaos. A natural born puppetmaster, the scholarly spyboss specialized in arranged accidents and military airplane crashes, among other assassination techniques.
He may even have developed the technology and know-how for commercial airline hijackings and bombings--including a forgotten bombing of a TWA jetliner bound for New York and a Swissair plane en route to Israel--though the late Habash and Haddad and the surprisingly still alive-and-killing Jibril are generally credited with pioneering airline terrorism.
In 1966, it is believed, Kang was ordered by Mao to develop a contingency plan --in the event of a US attack on China's nuclear arms facilities--for a retaliatory attack on the US homeland. His plan, as China Confidential has previously reported, called for crashing a counterfeit civilian aircraft--containing an atomic bomb--into an American city. The scheme somehow came to the intention of foreign intelligence services, and reportedly was the premise of an obscure, 1969 French novel, Thirty Seconds Over New York, by Robert Bruchard, a Paris journalist with a military background.
So much for fiction. Kang was particularly impressed by the PFLP, which was the second largest member of the PLO during the '70s. In contrast with Arafat's dominant Fatah movement, which sought support among Arab countries, the Marxist-oriented PFLP looked to the Soviet Union and China for assistance. Mainly to Moscow, Kang found, which prevented the group from getting too cozy with Beijing.
But perhaps cozy enough to commit mass murder. On September 8, 1974, TWA Flight 841 departed Tel Aviv en route to JFK International Airport with stops scheduled for Athens, Greece and Rome, Italy. After a 68 minute stop in Athens, the flight departed for Rome. But radio contact was lost 18 minutes after takeoff. The jet crashed into the Ionian Sea, and all 79 passengers and nine crew members were killed.
The US National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the crash was the detonation of an explosive device within the cargo compartment of the aircraft.
There is reason to believe that the design for the device may have originated with Kang Sheng.
In fact, the same method may have brought down another forgotten victim of Palestinian terror four years earlier--Swissair Flight SR330, a regularly scheduled flight from Zurich International Airport to Tel Aviv.
On February 21, 1970, the plane was flying on the route with 38 passengers and nine crew. A bomb detonated in the aft cargo compartment of the aircraft about nine minutes after take-off. It crashed a short time later near Zurich. There were no survivors.
The PFLP claimed responsibility for that bombing. A barometric triggered IED (improvised explosive device) had been used.
On the same day, a bomb exploded aboard a Vienna-bound Caravelle after takeoff from Frankfurt. The jetliner landed safely.
The Palestinians never claimed credit for the TWA bombing, though the airline and the US government were sure they were responsible for the atrocity.
Months before the attack, TWA was warned by US officials that as the only US carrier in those days that flew to Israel, the airline was the number one target for Palestinian terrorists after Israel's national carrier, El Al, which, since a 1968 PFLP hijacking that started the aerial terror wave, had achieved a well deserved reputation as the world's most secure airline.
The IED that destroyed TWA Flight 841 was installed in Athens, a notoriously unsafe airport because of the presence of local, anti-American radical groups who sympathized with the Palestinian cause.
Twenty-two years later, according to some terrorism experts, Revolutionary Guard operatives of China's ally, Iran, may have used a more sophisticated IED to destroy TWA Flight 800. The 747 jumbo jet exploded 20 minutes after departing JFK airport and crashed off the coast of Long Island, killing all 230 people on board.
Again, there was an Athens connection: the plane had just arrived from the Greek capital and was en route to Paris when it blew up. Analysts have speculated that a so-called double-timer type of device--delaying detonation of a bomb to allow for safe landing in and takeoff from New York--may have been used.
A striking similarity with TWA Flight 841: there had been multiple warnings of an Iranian attack on a US civilian airliner.
A decade later, US airlines are still vulnerable to barometric triggered IEDs.
Kang Shang could not have hoped for a better outcome.
A closing note about Ahmed Jibril, a trained demolitions expert who now heads the PFLP, or what is left of the group. The granddaddy of Palestinian terrorism, who has long been protected by Syria, Jibril is Muslim, unlike the late George Habash, who was a Greek Orthodox Christian. His religion has made it possible for Jibril to reconcile his supposed Marxist leanings with support for Shiite Islamist Hezbollah and Sunni Islamist Hamas.
Jibril's China file would make truly fascinating reading.
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