Wednesday, April 24, 2013

My Friend the Fulbright Terrorist

Patricio Arguello, an American terrorist
Living long enough means that you acquire perspective. (Which is why some people like the term "elders.")
The 26-year-old linked to the Boston Marathon bombings reminds me of  another 26-year-old who became a terrorist.
Forty-six years have past since I knew Patrick (Patricio) Arguello, a gentle, considerate young man, I thought, who proved to be one of the first modern-day terrorists. You’ve likely forgotten his name, but you may well remember the incident.
On September 6, 1970, Arguello --  an American with roots in Nicaragua  -- partnered with a Palestinian woman to try to hijack an El Al plane flying from Amsterdam to New York, one of four planes hijacked that day.  Arguello, was killed by Israeli security agents on board. Leila Khaled, 26, who had already made a name for herself hijacking a TWA flight to Damascus in 1969, was wounded.
Today, investigators in the Boston Marathon bombings are asking the same questions about the Tsaranev brothers that I asked so many years ago about Arguello:
How is it that an educated American student would turn to terrorism? Why did he pick the target that he did, one seemingly unrelated to his own background? And why did he seem incapable of such violence?
Patricio and I met in 1967 in Santiago, Chile. We were both Fulbright Scholars there, right out of college.
Patricio struck me and the other members of our small Fulbright group as a quiet, considerate student, an old-fashioned type who would hold doors for women and go  out of his way to help people in need.
Over our year-long stay, we learned the outline of his story.  He was born in 1943 in San Francisco; his mother was Irish-American, his father Nicaraguan. When he was about three,  the family moved to Managua, Nicaragua, where Patricio attended elementary school. But in his mid-teens, he decided to return to the United States with an older sister. He worked his way through high school and college, graduated magna cum laude from UCLA and won a Fulbright grant to study politics in Chile.
On hearing about Patricio’s death so many years ago, my fellow Fulbrighters –  shocked, as I was -- talked with each other about the young, freckle-faced man with reddish hair that they had known.
Leila Khaled
Two women in our group recalled a memorable Christmas Eve with Patricio. They were spending the holiday in a quaint village in Chile’s lake region. While having afternoon tea, they saw “Pat” trudging past their cafĂ© with a pack on his back. He joined them as they explored the town and then they all decided to splurge on a steak dinner. Pat insisted on paying the bill  -- and as a result spent a rainy night sleeping under an overturned boat on the edge of the lake. “I think he enjoyed going without a hotel room to do his friends a favor,” one of the women said.
Patricio’s sensitivity inevitably made him irresistible to women. Frequently he dated several at the same time. Once he was so plagued by phone calls from enamoured females that he fixed his telephone so he could call out but no one could call him.

I remember the parties he would have with his erudite British and Latino friends, where we’d discuss books and politics. After all, a war was being fought in Vietnam and the CIA had not kept its hand out of Latin America. In fact, my attempt to spend the summer working on a construction project in southern Chile was thwarted by the student organizers who said that, much as they’d like my help, I might, as an American, be seen as a CIA operative.
Patricio had had his own “radicalizing” experience in Latin America, according to a member of our group. She remembers him telling a chilling story about demonstrating as a teenager against Nicaragua’s Somoza family dictatorship. Marching in the front row as the protestors approached a rank of soldiers with fixed bayonets, he stumbled on a rock, fell and blacked out. When he came to, he felt blood trickling down his face. Feeling no pain, he realized the blood came from the fellow next to him. Everyone around him had been shot.
It wasn’t a story many of us knew. What we did know, though, was that Patricio would mysteriously disappear from Santiago for long stretches of time. Rumor had it he was traveling to Paraguay or somewhere in the jungles of the Amazon, to meet with “third world socialists,” perhaps even Che Guevara before he was killed in Bolivia that year. (Even then international revolutionaries were connecting.)

By June of 1968, Patricio had won a scholarship to the London School of Economics. And we lost touch. He never went. Instead, he returned to Nicaragua to work with students in the Sandinista movement (FSLN) against the government, according to, a website set up to honor heroes of the Sandinista revolution. He was soon ordered to leave the country and ended up in Jordan with other FSLN members receiving military training in Palestinian camps, the website reports.
There he decided to join with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to bring its cause to the world’s attention by hijacking planes.
According to passengers on the El Al flight, he was elegantly dressed, accompanied  by an attractive brunette carrying a basket of fruit. Before the "Fasten Your Seat Belt" sign had gone off, Patricio rose from his seat and, shouting, the two  rushed the cockpit. Patricio carried a small silver pistol; Khaled held a grenade in each hand. The steward pounced on Patricio and after several shots were fired, fell back holding his stomach. Hearing the commotion, the pilot took the plane into a dive, concerned that a bullet might pierce the pressurized cabin. The dive knocked the hijackers off balance and one of two armed security guards shot Patricio, mortally. In his last act, he took a grenade from his pocket and threw it on the floor. It was a dud. Khaled, traveling on a Honduran passport, was overcome by a passenger.
More than four decades later, how is it that we are still asking the same questions? 
To subscribe to this blog, go to on a computer and in the right hand rail you can add your email. Or follow my tweets @UnRetiring


Gretchen Bolton said...

Vengeance, terrorism, and often revolution -- young people seem to get caught up in them either for family or for country, but they lead to death and mayhem, not justice and good government. The tragedy continues. Thanks for sharing, Dotty.

Wendy Lee Forman said...

This is a fascinating and riveting story, Dotty. It is amazing that you knew this person and that he had so many qualities that made it seem unthinkable that he would become a terrorist. It is just as confusing to figure out what went on with the brothers in Boston. Thanks for remembering this so well and sharing it with us.

April Saul said...

Dotty, good read! Interesting that in his passion for social justice, he took up the same kind of causes on behalf of different groups. The disconnect that always baffles me is the willingness to kill innocent people in these acts; maybe that's something that people like your old friend compartmentalize? But thanks for sharing, I would much rather try to understand terrorists than simply demonize them!