The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is attempting to cultivate "broad-based grass-roots support" in the Arab-American community and from left-wing organizations in the United States, according to a confidential FBI report.
The report represents the culmination of a three-year investigation by the FBI into the PFLP, a Marxist faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization with a long history of terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Europe.
The report, completed last June, was designed to provide "a solid base of information" for FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service agents throughout the country in a "format suitable for prosecution," the preface to the 81-page report says.
Focus of Hearing
The Popular Front's activities will be the focus of a deportation hearing next month for eight Los Angeles-area immigrants accused by the government of being members of the PLO faction. The defendants, seven Palestinians traveling on Jordanian passports and a Kenyan, are charged with violating a section of the McCarran-Walter Act, which bars aliens from taking part in activities promoting world communism. All eight have denied the accusation.
Neither the FBI nor immigration officials would publicly comment on the case or on the report.
"Under their true name and under cover names," the FBI report stated, the Popular Front is attempting "to join with various leftist organizations, foreign and domestic, violent and nonviolent, to promote their objectives."
The report called attention to accompanying documents showing that the PFLP has shared information and participated in demonstrations and meetings with the American Communist Party and other left-wing groups in the United States and abroad.
The group's purpose, the FBI said, "is to establish a Marxist Palestinian state and in doing so (to) destroy the present state of Israel."
Formed in 1967, the PFLP is among about two dozen factions represented in the Palestine Liberation Organization's parliament. According to a deposition given last year in the Achille Lauro murder case by Zehdi Labib Terzi, the PLO's permanent observer at the United Nations, the PFLP is one of seven "fighting elements" within the PLO structure. It has been blamed for numerous bombings, shootings and airline hijackings, including the one that ended with the Israeli rescue at Entebbe in 1976.
The FBI study grew out of infiltration by Arabic-speaking agents into suspected PFLP meetings in Brooklyn, N.Y., and confiscation and copying by U.S. Customs agents of scores of memos, letters and records from suspected PFLP activists traveling through New York's Kennedy International Airport.
The key allegations in the FBI report are that the PFLP:
- Conducts "clandestine" activities in the United States through an underground organization.
- "Funds its U.S.-based operations and contributes to the organization abroad" from the Arab American community.
- Attempts "to join with various leftist organizations, foreign and domestic, violent and nonviolent, to promote their objectives."
- "Draws upon the vast manpower pool within the Arab-American communities to assist in filling its military ranks overseas."
Data in Documents
Despite the Popular Front's violent history, the FBI's report did not indicate that the group had carried out any terrorist acts in the United States, although one suspected PFLP document seized by the FBI in New York referred to "fighting capabilities of the area ( sic) ." Nor did the bureau estimate how many members the group has in this country.
In their investigation, undercover agents infiltrated what the FBI described as three anniversary meetings of the Popular Front--two at a Brooklyn Catholic church in 1984 and 1985 and at a private New York City meeting last year. The FBI described organization leaders delivering "dramatic" speeches designed to whip up enthusiasm for PFLP objectives.
FBI agents said they were tipped by a "street source" to the 16th anniversary event in 1984--a meeting described to the Brooklyn church's officials as a "family affair," according to the application to use the church's meeting hall. Clergymen allowed FBI agents into the church in undercover roles after being informed of the agency's "responsibilities to investigate activities in support of international terrorism," the report said.
Mingling among about 600 individuals, agents described the pomp of torch-lit ceremonies and an Arab crowd clapping and yelling "Popular, Popular." Arabic speakers, FBI agents reported, referred to "the Zionist enemy and its Nazi forces" and urged the crowd to ally "with the socialist camp headed by the Soviet Union." After the crowd left, agents picked up a number of items, including a forgotten notebook containing names and telephone numbers in Arabic, leaflets, posters and freight bills on boxes containing political magazines, according to the report.
Women's Groups Formed
Other documents, obtained by U.S. Customs in 1985 from a female "courier bringing reports from PFLP leaders in the U.S. to their international headquarters" in Damascus, discussed the organization of Popular Front women's groups. Cities where women's groups operated, according to the memos, included Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Riverside and Sacramento. The women, a memo indicated, were responsible for spreading propaganda, participating in demonstrations and even collecting "sweaters for fighters overseas."
The courier was also found to be carrying in her luggage brochures for "sensitive military-related equipment" produced in the United States, containing information on "night vision devices and advanced electronic surveillance and detection equipment," according to the report. There was no evidence cited of the group actually trafficking in arms in the United States.
Documents in Arabic seized by U.S. Customs at Kennedy between 1983 and 1985 turned up evidence, the FBI noted, of "full-time paid (PFLP) members" in a "secret organization" using "coded correspondence." Members themselves referred to "circles," "cells," "leagues" and "areas" in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and a number of other cities.
"The party organization enjoys a strong, healthy position and it has no abnormal problems," one memo said. But another memo discussed a "cadre shortage" in cities such as Boston.
Donor Lists Found
At the three New York anniversary events, cash was raised for Popular Front causes, the FBI reported, and donor lists were confiscated or compiled by the agency. FBI agents, for example, recorded the collection of $23,597 at the faction's 1984 affair generated by donations from 78 individuals. Other notes and memos referred to larger amounts collected in the United States--such as "$102,000" and "$78,074.43" but did not elaborate.
Seized records, the FBI noted, revealed "a considerable amount of money moving around within the organization." Overseas funds transfers were assumed by FBI agents from memos which noted that collections were earmarked for the "occupied land."
In 1984, Customs detained at Kennedy an African man arriving from Libya and seized and photocopied various documents. According to the FBI, the African said he was minister of foreign affairs for the communist Front de Liberation National du Congo (FLNC), which, the FBI said, had a goal of overthrowing the Zaire government. Address books and notes the African was carrying listed individuals active with the PFLP, the FBI said, and recorded a 1983 meeting between the PFLP and FLNC in New York City.
Other documents seized by Customs and turned over to the FBI showed that Popular Front members in the United States have ties to the American Communist Party and other left-wing organizations in this country. The PFLP here also is linked to PFLP organizations in 22 other countries, including the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe Soviet bloc countries and Libya, Syria, Iraq, South Africa, Cuba, El Salvador, Greece, Italy and Spain.
The FBI report also discussed evidence that Arab-Americans have been recruited to fight in the Middle East. In 1983, Customs at Kennedy found records on a Palestinian from Ohio returning from a Middle East trip indicating the PFLP "does military recruiting within the U.S." Notes referred to recruitment numbers "25" and "70" with no explanation.
At the 1984 anniversary meeting, an FBI agent reported observing posters of Palestinians described as martyrs "of the community in America" who died while fighting in the Middle East. The posters, the FBI said, "would indicate" that the PFLP was recruiting from Arab-American communities.
Among other overseas travel by U.S.-based PFLP members, according to documents seized at Kennedy, was a reference to a trip to attend a "secret cycle" meeting in Libya. "In view of Libya's well-known support of internal terrorist groups this 'secret' activity most likely means military training," the FBI concluded.
Asked to comment on the evidence developed by the FBI, Dan Stormer, lead attorney for the defendants in the Los Angeles deportation case, said: "The PFLP, as they seem to be describing it, exists only in the fertile imaginations of the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They are attempting to make unlawful legitimate political thought concerning the Palestine refugee situation."
'Stay Within the Law'
"Sure, there's an infrastructure," said Nubar Hovsepian, a Palestinian expert who heads a Cambridge, Mass.-based Middle East research group and who is working for the defense. "The (Palestinians) as a community bring their politics with them. But they stay within the law. It was the same with the Eastern Europeans who brought their socialist ideas with them (following World War II) and who were targeted in the McCarthy era. . . . It is that type of association rather than anything else. These are not Popular Front activities."
Terrorism experts interviewed by The Times--individuals who are not involved in the Los Angeles case and who cover the political spectrum--take a different view.
"There isn't any factual question that the PFLP has an organization in the U.S.," said Terrell Arnold, former deputy director of the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism in 1983 and 1984. In the United States, Arnold said, the Popular Front engages in "institutional behavior," such as fund raising and propaganda activities, calculated "to make the system invisible to a Palestinian in the same way that NORAID is invisible to the Irish here." NORAID is viewed by the British government as the U.S. fund-raising committee for the Irish Republican Army, but the organization says it sends only humanitarian aid.
Yonah Alexander, who heads the state University of New York's Institute for Studies in International Terrorism, said the FBI was not "imagining shadows" when it talked of a structured Popular Front here. Palestinians living here, Alexander said, "don't consider (Popular Front activities such as meetings) as violations of the law. They see them as a legitimate struggle for the liberation of their land."
Questions of Motives
Robert Kupperman, a senior adviser to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes that the fundamental question should be whether the Popular Front's organization is gearing up for any acts of terrorism in the United States.
"You may end up with a politically viable structure which may be unpleasant but not that dangerous," he said. "I'm concerned that we don't end up with test cases for national hysteria. I don't want (the government) to try out legal theories on one group."
Former State Department official Arnold disagrees. The fact that the FBI report did not indicate imminent violence doesn't mean that PFLP activities here should be looked upon as "benign," Arnold said. "They're not engaged in terror in the United States. But they support terror abroad. They're running a support mechanism in this country."
Irwin Suall, fact-finding director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, added that "it would be incredibly naive to believe that (the PFLP), that has a long history of engaging in terrorism throughout the world, doesn't represent a potential threat of terrorism in the United States as well."
Asked to respond, James Zogby, executive director of the Washington-based Arab-American Institute, said Suall was wrong. "It's not in (the Arab) makeup or philosophy to attack targets or individuals in America," he said.
There appear to be several parallels between the FBI's New York and California surveillance of the suspected members of the PFLP. Surveillance pictures taken in New York showed PFLP suspects at a Kennedy freight terminal receiving shipments of a pro-Popular Front political magazine, Al Hadaf. In one case, pictures were taken by personnel of an international air carrier and turned over to the FBI.
FBI surveillance of the eight Los Angeles-area defendants also included copious picture-taking, according to government and defense sources. FBI agents secretly photographed the eight defendants at local Palestinian cultural events and picking up Al Hadaf at Los Angeles International Airport.
After their arrests last Jan. 26, some of the Los Angeles defendants were shown pictures of five of them performing at a dabka, a Palestinian folk dance, at the Glendale Civic Auditorium on Feb. 15, 1986, said a source close to the case. Khader Musa Hamide, 32, of Glendale, alleged by the government to be the Popular Front leader in California, was emcee of the event. The dabka was attended by about 800 people who were asked to contribute to "humanitarian" Palestinian causes, according to several people who were there.