CAMERA Op-Ed: When the CIA Took a Terrorist to Disneyland

Forty-one years ago this month, on Jan. 22, 1979, a man named Ali Hassan Salameh finished eating his lunch in his Beirut home, said goodbye to his wife—a former Miss Universe—and got into his Chevrolet. Salameh had driven less than sixty feet when his car drew level with a parked Volkswagen, which promptly exploded, killing him. Israel’s Mossad had targeted Salameh, a charismatic Palestinian terrorist known as “the Red Prince,” for assassination.

But Ali Hassan Salameh was more than a terrorist. He was also a CIA asset. Indeed, the CIA even took Salameh and his wife to Disneyland for their honeymoon.

Understanding the CIA’s relationship with Salameh is important. It has become common to hear that the U.S. government has always had an unwavering “pro-Israel bias.” Indeed, anti-Israel professors and pundits take it as a given. Some, such as Rashid Khalidi, a one-time Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) spokesperson turned Columbia University professor, have even exaggerated the relationship between the U.S. and the Jewish state, with Khalidi inaccurately claiming in a Jan. 8, 2020 Los Angeles Times op-ed that the two countries “fought alongside” each other in Israel’s First Lebanon War.

The U.S. and Israel did not, in any sense of the term, “fight alongside” each other in that conflict, launched in 1982 against Palestinian terrorists who were using Lebanon as a base to attack the Jewish state. Indeed, the U.S. helped ensure the PLO’s withdrawal from Lebanon after its defeat and made Israel promise not to take out the group’s leader, Yasser Arafat. In fact, in the decade before that war, also known as Operation Peace for Galilee, the CIA worked assiduously to cultivate the PLO.

In 1969, the CIA opened up a back channel with the PLO, which was then considered by the U.S. and others to be a terrorist group. At the time, the PLO was pioneering plane hijackings and targeting and murdering Israelis, both in the Middle East and abroad. But it wasn’t only Israelis who were being attacked by the PLO.

On March 1, 1973, the PLO took hostages at the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum. The next day they murdered the U.S. Ambassador to Sudan, Cleo Noel, along with another American Foreign Service officer, George Curtis Moore, and a Belgian diplomat named Guy Eid. PLO head Yasser Arafat would later deny foreknowledge about the attack, attempting to pin it on Black September, a supposedly rogue PLO faction. But the U.S. knew this to be a lie: on Feb. 28, 1973 a secret U.S. Navy listening post in Cyprus had intercepted transmissions of Arafat and his operations chief Khalil Al-Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad, discussing the forthcoming operation.

However, this didn’t stop some in the US government from continuing to reach out to the PLO. Less than a year later, in a November 1973 meeting with Hassan Salameh in Morocco, the CIA formalized an understanding with Arafat’s Fatah movement, which controlled the PLO.

As the journalist Lee Smith noted in an April 11, 2013 Tablet Magazine article, diplomatic cables showed that “Washington overlooked” the PLO’s murderous history “for the sake of winning what it perceived, rightly, to be a much bigger game: the Cold War.”

Henry Kissinger, who served as the Nixon Administration’s National Security Adviser and, from 1973 onwards, Secretary of State, “saw the Israelis as a strategic ally capable of vanquishing Soviet assets—including Egypt, which after the 1973 war jumped from the Soviet camp to the American one.” But, Smith notes, “just because Israel was a valued American ally didn’t mean that Washington would turn its back on Arab figures capable of serving larger American interests by thwarting Moscow’s regional ambitions.” And “the cables show that the Americans were keen to have Arafat on their side.”

To facilitate this relationship, Arafat relied on Ali Hassan Salameh, the head of Force 17, Arafat’s bodyguard and counterintelligence unit. Salameh was an interesting choice, a flamboyant womanizer, he wore leather jackets, consumed alcohol and practiced karate. His father, Hassan Salameh, had been a famous Palestinian terrorist who, among other acts, took part in a failed Nazi plot to poison Tel Aviv’s water supply during World War II, before falling in combat in Israel’s War of Independence.

The CIA first met the younger Salameh in a Beirut café in 1969 and later gave him the codename MJS/TRUST2.

The Agency would later offer to arrange “safe travel” to Europe for Salameh and helped plan a visit for his boss, Arafat, to visit New York City. The CIA told Salameh that “he has friends in high places and so does his cause.”[1]

As the journalist Ronen Bergman recounted in his 2018 book, Rise and Kill First, Salameh even admitted to his handler, CIA officer Robert Ames, that he had recruited a Paris theater owner who had sent agents to blow up a hotel in Israel. Ames thought it was “interesting intelligence” and, on other occasions, “expressed sympathy for the Palestinian cause.”[2] The CIA “even supplied Salameh with encrypted communications equipment to enhance his security, and it considered sending Salameh an armor plated car to protect him from the Israelis.”[3]

The effort to cultivate Salameh was “a high-priority project of the entire CIA,” Bergman notes, so much so that “in late 1976, the agency’s director, George H.W. Bush, sent an official invitation, via Ames, to come to Langley.” During his January 1977 visit to Langley, a CIA operations officer named Alan Wolfe gifted Salameh—who Israelis held responsible for helping plan the 1972 Munich Olympic Games Massacre in which eleven Israeli athletes were held hostage, tortured and murdered—with a leather shoulder holster for his gun.[4]

Perhaps most incredibly, at his request, the CIA subsequently took Salameh and his wife to Disneyland for their honeymoon, accompanying him on the rides and paying for the trip.[5]

The Israelis soon got wind of the CIA’s back channel to Salameh. As one former senior Mossad official told Bergman, “Imagine that we, the Mossad, set up a secret relationship with Osama bin Laden…imagine that we invited him on a visit to our Tel Aviv HQ, kowtowed to him, expressed understanding and sympathy for the Twin Towers attack…How would that be seen by America?”[6]

After Salameh’s death, the head of the CIA station in Beirut, Frank Anderson, wrote Salameh’s son a condolence letter, stating, “Today, I lost a friend whom I respected more than other men. I promise to honor your father’s memory—and to stand ready to be your friend.”[7]

Salameh’s initial CIA contact, Robert Ames, would be murdered, along with 62 others, in an April 18, 1983 suicide car bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. The attack was carried out by Shi’ite jihadists and reportedly planned by Imad Mughniyeh, formerly an operative for Salameh’s group, Force 17.

Nearly a quarter century later, on Feb. 12, 2008, Mughniyeh was killed in a joint CIA-Mossad operation in Damascus.

The last several decades have seen a strengthening in U.S.-Israel security cooperation and intelligence sharing, as recently demonstrated with Israel supplying intelligence for the U.S. operation to take out Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3, 2020.

But the story of the “Red Prince” and the CIA shows that history is never as simple, or as neat, as common narratives suppose.

(Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed in The Jerusalem Post on Jan. 22, 2020)


[1] Bergman, Rise and Kill First, pg. 217

[2] Bergman, Rise and Kill First, pg. 216

[3] Bergman, Rise and Kill First, pg. 219

[4] Bergman, Rise and Kill First, pg. 218

[5] Bergman, Rise and Kill First, pg. 218

[6] Bergman, Rise and Kill First, pg. 219

[7] Bergman, Rise and Kill First, pg. 224

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