Schoolchildren have Wednesday afternoons off in Paris, so the bombers must have known that on the afternoon of Sept. 17 the Tati discount department store would be filled with mothers and their kids. At 5:28 p.m. the display windows exploded into shrapnel and the mundane chatter of shoppers turned suddenly into screams of the injured and the dying. The toll: 53 wounded, five dead. It was the fifth bombing in the French capital in 10 days, and the targets seemed calculated both to inflict the greatest number of casualties and to humiliate the government of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. In the ultimate affront to French confidence, a blast ripped through the Paris police headquarters, leaving one dead and 51 injured. All told, 163 Parisians were injured and nine killed in the murderous onslaught.

In Paris' La Santé prison, several miles from the Tati store, Georges Ibrahim Abdallah sits in sinister silence in an isolation cell, where he is held to protect him from his fellow prisoners. The man in whose name the bloody siege of Paris has been carried out, he is at once the most hated person in France and, in the view of American and West European security experts, one of the most dangerous terrorists ever unleashed by the warring forces of his native Lebanon. Abdallah, 35, is the presumed mastermind and leader of a Lebanon-based terror cell called the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Faction (LARF). Imprisoned since October 1984, he is serving four years for possession of weapons and false identity papers, but he is suspected of far graver crimes. Abdallah was allegedly responsible not only for terror bombings in Rome, Geneva, Lyons and Paris in the past five years but also for the assassinations of a senior American army officer, Lt. Col. Charles Ray, and an Israeli commercial attaché in Paris. The Italian Government has made tentative moves to extradite him for complicity in the murder of U.S. diplomat Leamon Hunt in Rome two years ago, and the U.S. government has made known its determination that Lt. Colonel Ray's murderers be brought to justice. But given the wave of bombings in Paris—apparently an outrageous blackmail campaign by Abdallah's followers to force his release before he can be tried and sentenced for his crimes—no nation can be sanguine about having him in its custody.

If he has an ideology, it is difficult to fathom. Born into a Maronite Christian family in the Lebanese village of Qubayat, he found his way as a youth into the Byzantine byways of Lebanese politics, joining a pro-Syrian group, then becoming a Communist. He was an officer in George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and received military training in Syria and China. In 1981 he formed his own terrorist splinter group. Still a Marxist, he is nonetheless believed to have worked closely with the right-wing extremist Action Direct group in France. "He is a very interesting personage," observes an Italian judicial authority. "He manages to make connections with the various factions fighting amongst themselves in Beirut." At the time of his arrest he declared, "I am an Arab revolutionary," and the Lebanese press has quoted him as saying, "I do what I do because of the injustice done to human rights where Palestine is concerned."

Witnesses to the Tati bombing identified Abdallah's brother Emile, 28, as one of the two men in a black BMW who deposited the bomb in a trash can in front of the store. His brother Robert, 20, was identified by a witness as the man who planted a bomb in a Paris cafeteria five days earlier. Virtually all members of Abdallah's violent clique—experts put the total number at no more than 30, including five brothers and five cousins—were apparently recruited from his village and a neighboring one in northern Lebanon. Says Brian Jenkins, a Rand Corp. expert on terrorism: "The LARF appears to be very much a family affair."

The tight-knit LARF network was finally penetrated in August 1984, due largely to one Italian immigration officer's lucky hunch. While questioning a train passenger at the Yugoslavian border he discovered what appeared to be a quantity of explosives. The man claimed the substance was "Oriental sweet" and actually ate some in an attempt to prove his point. Later identified as Abdallah Moh'D el Mansouri, a relative and cohort of Abdallah, he is now serving 16 years for transporting explosives. Thanks to information passed on by the Italians in that case, French police set up a two-month surveillance of Abdallah, who was posing as an Algerian electronics engineer. Aware that he was being shadowed, but not sure by whom, Abdallah then made what appears to have been a comic mistake. When arrested by the police in Lyons he complained that secret agents of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, were trailing him. On closer investigation, the arresting officers found that Abdallah had five fake passports, and he was eventually sentenced to four years. At this point, French authorities claim, they still had no idea that Abdallah was a major terrorist.

Then on March 23, 1985 LARF kidnapped Gilles Peyrolles, the director of the French cultural center in Lebanon's Tripoli, and offered to ransom him for Abdallah's release. Though the French government refused to confirm it, a deal was apparently struck. Peyrolles' captors set him free within a week, but in the meantime French investigators had discovered an apartment in Paris secretly rented by Abdallah's gang. Inside, they found a cache of explosives and weaponry, including a Czech-made 7.65mm automatic pistol. Ballistics tests proved that it was the weapon used to kill both Lt. Colonel Ray in January 1982 and, three months later, Israeli commercial attaché Jacov Barsimantov. LARF has claimed responsibility for those murders, as well as that of American diplomat Leamon Hunt in Rome on Feb. 15, 1984, but Abdallah does not. "It would be for me an honor [to have done it]," he says, "but unfortunately I don't deserve it."

American officials have privately criticized France's plan to release Abdallah in exchange for the LARF's hostage, and the U.S. government has retained Parisian lawyer Georges Keijman, President Francois Mitterrand's personal attorney, to press the investigation of Lt. Colonel Ray's murder. Releasing Abdallah now, however, seems politically unthinkable in any case. According to a recent poll 70 percent of the French oppose such a move and Prime Minister Chirac has pledged that France will "in no way yield to blackmail or the threat of force."

The French courts could decide in a matter of weeks whether there is sufficient evidence to hold Abdallah for a murder trial; he will otherwise become eligible for parole by the end of this year. Early parole is hardly likely for him, but as shock waves from the blasts continue to reverberate throughout the country, it is less than clear who is the more truly captive: Georges Abdallah or the people of France.

  • Contributors:
  • Pamela Andriotakis,
  • Logan Bentley.