Terry Milewski: My coffee with Mohammad Issa Mohammad
Convicted Palestinian hijacker once bragged to CBC crew about crime, subsequent release
Mahmoud Mohammad Issa Mohammad, now deported from Canada after two decades of expensive legal wrangling, was one friendly, chatty, guy – despite a fearsome reputation. At least, he was when he first encountered a CBC crew, long before his arrival in Canada.
In July of 1982, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a CBC crew in Beirut sought to interview the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Dr. George Habash.
Habash's PFLP was a notoriously brutal Marxist-Leninist Palestinian group which sought to exterminate Israel and considered Yasser Arafat's Fatah to be far too moderate.
Habash himself was a fan of Che Guevara.
Negotiations for the interview were complex. Once arranged, it involved a couple of car switches and a circuitous route through the back streets of south Beirut to avoid tracking.
At length, we were ushered into a dingy apartment and waited.
The time passed more quickly, though, when it became apparent that our London-based Greek soundman, Bill Psarros, was able to converse in animated Greek with one of Habash's guards.
The guard happily passed around grimy cups of gritty coffee and waved his AK-47 around erratically as he talked.
We watched, nervous and uncomprehending.
First question: is the safety on?
Second question: how come some Palestinian refugee thug in the slums of Beirut is fluent in Greek?
I suggested to Bill that he find out.
The guard laughed. Didn't everyone know that he'd spent years in a Greek prison?
We shifted somewhat uneasily on our plastic chairs and asked why.
The guard proudly described how he'd been involved in an Athens hijacking in 1968, but was freed after his comrades attacked another plane to obtain his release two years later. See?
He'd sprayed the plane with gunfire and killed an Israeli mechanic. The way he saw it, he was somebody!
Sadly, this intriguing interview was soon superseded by a somewhat dull one with Dr. Habash.
The old revolutionary, with one arm paralyzed, pointed accusingly with the other and talked in slogans.
The PLO had betrayed the Palestinian cause, blah blah blah.
On the way out, we thanked the guard for the terrible coffee and hastened to the door. He grinned and waved goodbye, delighted to have impressed us with his revolutionary credentials.
Yes, the guard was Mohammad Issa Mohammad.
Soon, he would embark on a new adventure — sneaking into Canada under a fake name and becoming a grandfather while his case weaved slowly — oh, so slowly — through Canada's bureaucracy.
"It's none of your business!" he once told a TV crew asking whether he regretted his crime.
But he'd changed his story. There was a time when he was thoroughly proud of it.