An Authority on Terrorism Offers a Chilling New Theory on the Shooting of the Pope

UPDATED 06/01/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/01/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

The atrocity in St. Peter's Square left the world heartsick and confused. Was the Pope's assailant, Mehmet Ali Agca, yet another Mark David Chapman or John W. Hinckley Jr., an obsessed loner trying to blast away his sense of inadequacy with a gun? In fact, much of the evidence indicates that the 23-year-old Turkish fugitive had sprung from a wholly different and chillingly numerous group of assassins. Though just as wanton, Agca's crime was rooted in political terror and a jumble of fanaticism—apparently part Moslem, part fascist. To most Americans, Agca was an unknown quantity when he shot his way to notoriety, but to one writer he was all too familiar. For more than a decade Claire Sterling, 61, has focused her attention on the spread of terrorism. Now based in Italy, the Manhattan-born journalist has written for the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly and other publications. In her book The Terror Network (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $13.95) she offers the controversial hypothesis that organizations as far-flung as the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany and the Palestine Liberation Organization not only are closely connected, but are being secretly armed and even trained by the Soviet Union. Because of her spiderweb theory, she has been called "the Tarantula of Terror, "and on a New York radio talk show Sergey Divilkovskiy, a Soviet counselor at the United Nations, accused her of writing "a book so provocative...you could start the Third World War." But Sterling is also provocative in the best sense of the word, as PEOPLE'S David Sheff discovered interviewing her about Mehmet Ali Agca's puzzling odyssey and its appalling climax.

Why was the Pope a terrorist target?

It's hard for Westerners who haven't traveled to the Moslem world to understand how deeply we are resented there. This isn't new, either. Some years ago our family of four drove from Rome to India, crossing Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. In eastern Turkey people hurled stones at our van and hostile crowds gathered whenever we parked. They didn't know we were Americans, just Westerners. In Iran I found myself being followed by a menacing line of men. I confess I ran like hell. The farther East, the stronger the resentment against Westerners. In the Moslem world, the Pope isn't perceived as just the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but as the supreme symbol of the intrusion of Western civilization.

What specifically might have turned Agca against him?

Agca said he wanted to kill the Pope to protest Russian and American imperialism. But he has also said he was avenging the 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Now that's interesting, because the occupation of that shrine, the holiest in Islam, was a terribly shocking offense to the world's 750 million Moslems. The Iranian radio put out a report attributing the raid to the CIA and Zionists. In fact, the raiders seemingly were all Moslems whose leaders were trained in Southern Yemen by Palestinians. But the false report spread, and apparently stuck in this fellow's mind as another example of Western evil.

Did Pope John Paul II himself exacerbate tensions?

Yes. His November 1979 trip to Turkey was a terrible mistake. He should never have gone. Everybody around him knew that. He was arriving just at a time when the Islamic revolution in Iran was spilling over, when long-dormant fundamentalist passions in Turkey were awakening. Just a few days earlier Agca had escaped from prison and threatened to kill the Pope as revenge for the Mecca raid. The security precautions were tremendous. The Pope got a very cold reception, a very small audience—the smallest of any of his visits.

Is political violence common in Turkey?

Leading up to and triggering the military takeover last fall, violence had become frightfully common: 250 premeditated murders in 1977; 1,000 in 1978; 1,500 in 1979; 2,000 in the first half of 1980—the world's worst case of raging terrorist warfare. Many of the teenagers recruited as killers seemed to have given very little thought to ideology. The terrorists just say, "We're on the right, they're on the left—go shoot one of them." Underlying it all was unemployment of simply horrible proportions. The population of the countryside was moving to the cities and winding up in shantytowns. These are the kids the terrorists would recruit.

What was Agca's political background?

He was associated with a group nicknamed the Gray Wolves. The Wolves are the paramilitary wing of the neo-Nazi National Action party, a group banned by the military junta that took power in Turkey last fall. The Wolves got their name because of the way they would howl when their leader, Alpaslan Turkes, walked into the meeting hall. He was fond of saying, "If anybody calls me a fascist, I'll tear his mouth apart." When Agca was arrested in 1979 for the murder of an influential moderate newspaper editor, he was described as an agent of the Gray Wolves.

Isn't it odd, then, that after his capture in Rome, Agca claimed to be a follower of George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leading radical left-wing group ?

It may have been a trick to win sympathy, because Habash has a great deal of support from the left in Europe. But it's not inconsistent for him to be a right-wing terrorist and a supporter of Habash. When Habash first started exporting terrorism to Europe in 1968 and 1969, some of the first people he talked to about fund raising, training and recruitment were neofascist rightists in Barcelona, Paris and Munich.

Who most likely aided and subsidized Agca's movements?

Various elements could have helped. Before his sentencing for the murder of the editor, he was given a Turkish military uniform and virtually walked out of prison. That probably came from the Gray Wolves. Of course, he has claimed identification with the Palestinians and that could be—they have trained hundreds of Turkish terrorists, but generally from the left. In any case, he crossed the frontiers of Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Iran on false passports. If you've traveled there you know it would be difficult to get away with forged papers without extra assistance. Also, though he comes from a poor family, he had money.

Did the right also help him travel?

I can only guess. But there have been since about 1968 two service networks for terrorists in Europe—one for the right, one for the left. And there is reason to believe the two networks sometimes cooperate. They're both interested in destroying democracy, so it's understandable that they would team up even though they're supposed to be ideologically worlds apart.

If Agca had help, why has no group taken credit for the shooting?

The Pope is such a formidable symbol, the responsible Moslem world is shocked by this. In 1975 a West German leftist group called the Second of June Movement sent a team to Rome to kidnap Pope Paul VI. But when Wadi Haddad, military commander of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, heard about it, he ordered them back—apparently because he considered it too dangerous and inflammatory an action.

Are you convinced there was no broad conspiracy against the Pope ?

Some people are saying that the Russians plotted this because of the Pope's role in Poland, but I think that's crazy. If it was an organized plot by a serious group, I suspect there would have been a better getaway plan. Maybe this was a sort of kamikaze mission, but usually these people are skillful at escapes. There would have been some distraction in the crowd, some escape route. I could envision a small splinter group of Moslem fanatics with Agca among them vowing to get the Pope. But more likely he made the final decision alone.

Can we ever prevent attacks like this one?

One thing we can do is negotiate with the Russians in a more pragmatic way. Southern Yemen, for instance, is their country. Western reporters rarely can get a visa to go in, but terrorists routinely go there for training. We should use things the Russians want from us as bargaining chips to get them to close access to the camps or stop the Palestinians from distributing Soviet-made weapons. I don't say we can negotiate it all, but unless we start bargaining like this, the bloodshed will go on.

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