On March 1, 1973 the Saudi Arabian Ambassador Abdullah al Malhouk held a farewell dinner for DCM Moore who had been in Sudan for the last three years. Around 7 pm that night, seven men from the Palestinian terrorist group Black September Organization attacked the embassy villa armed with automatic weapons. On March 2, 1973, 26 hours after being taken hostages, Ambassador Noel and DCM Moore were executed by the terrorists.
The BSO demanded the release of Arab militants. President Nixon said in a March 2 news conference that the U.S. would “not pay blackmail.” Ambassador Noel, Moore, and the Belgian were allowed to write final letters to their wives; they were killed 12 hours later. Demands for a plane were rejected, but the terrorists surrendered after three days to Sudanese authorities and were later put on trial, but justice was not served. Robert E. Fritts recalls how he was brought in from Washington to replace Moore as DCM, how he helped reestablish morale among the distraught embassy staff, and the frustrating pursuit of justice against the BSO. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in September 1999.
Foreign Affairs Oral History Project - Robert E. Fritts (Excerpt):
The embassy occupied the upper floors of a commercial office building adjoined by others on the main street. Because of the haboob [dust storm], power was out and also, I think, the Sudanese Government cut power to the Saudi embassy, and the area included us. I thus climbed five or six floors up the back steps, carrying my suitcase and my garment bag over my shoulder. The only lighting on the stairway was battery-operated dual emergency lights–very dim. I finally came to the floor where the embassy began. The administrative officer, Sandy Sanderson, was standing there with his glasses on a string hanging around his neck. I couldn’t quite see his face as he was back lighted by the emergency lamps, but I could tell he was crying. He said, “We’ve heard there was gunfire in the Saudi embassy. They may be dead. You’re in charge.”
My next thought was how could I be most useful? Others might behave differently, but I decided it was not to come in and take a high profile approach. I told Sanderson to remain in charge as he had been for the past two days, that I didn’t know the embassy, the staff, or even the city. Nor did I know Sudanese government officials, nor they me. The American embassy staff was very small: only a half-dozen American officers, two or three secretaries, all in shock and without rest. Most of our Sudanese FSNs [Foreign Service Nationals] were hunkered down at their homes. I decided the best thing I could do initially was just do whatever was helpful….
The Department and Embassy Khartoum were linked by a crude direct TTY [teletype] line that printed letter by letter. It was very slow and limited to only several sentences at a time. While talking with Sandy and others, I saw the TTY keyboard and small screen on a table with a chair in the corridor. It was unmanned and only glanced at intermittently when an officer happened to pass by. I knew how thirsty the Department was for information and its frustration with the dead time between questions and responses. So I said, “I’ll start with this.” Because of consultations, I knew who was who in the Department and thought I knew what they needed or would need. I manned the TTY for most of the next 36 hours. It became our embassy cockpit. It also freed up those who needed to be operational with the Foreign Ministry, the police, the Army, the media etc. I developed an increasingly in-depth dialogue with the Department, including sets of short evaluations, impressions, what next, etc. Versions were also being passed to Macomber, who was still in Cairo.
The haboob was still howling. They normally last hours; this one lasted three days. Even the following noon it was black. Dust and grit were everywhere, in your eyes and teeth. Every flat surface was layered. We were covered in gritty dust. The dim embassy lights were still battery powered. It was a scene from hell.
One human vignette I recall vividly is that the BSO operatives “permitted” Noel and Moore to write “last words” to their wives, who were together throughout at the residence. The murdered men’s notes, sealed in incongruously embossed Saudi embassy envelopes, were given to Sanderson by the Foreign Ministry. He asked me if I would deliver them? I said, “Sandy, I’ve never met Mrs. Noel and Mrs. Moore in my life. I’m even here as a live substitute for Moore. They’ve got enough to handle without factoring me in. You know them well, they know you. It’s better if you deliver the letters.” He left for the task in tears. He returned to say how appreciative the wives were for all everyone was doing, including me by name. And he commented that neither wife had shown any tears.
After much too long, the bodies were retrieved from the Saudi embassy basement, where they had been gunned down against a wall. Sandy identified them and he and Braun assisted in the preparation of the remains and putting them into the caskets that every embassy has for emergencies. They lay “in state” in one of our embassy houses overnight and the next day. We had a Marine Security Guard in dress blues in formal attendance, plus the American and ambassadorial flags. It was like a wake: embassy officers and Sudanese staff would come and go and come again. I think a few VIP Sudanese stopped by as well, even though the condolence book was at the embassy.
Then there was the departure ceremony. With the haboob over, Air Force One or Two, which had staged to Cairo, arrived with Macomber. We and the Sudanese arranged a tarmac exit ceremony for the coffins and the widows, attended by the government and diplomatic corps. In one of those poignant paradoxes you often see in Africa, the coffins, carried by the Marine Guards with the wives, me, and the other embassy officers following, were accompanied by Sudanese troops slow-marching to a Sudanese military bagpipe band playing Auld Lang Syne as a dirge.
In-Box Exercise, This Time for Real
You know, there’s an “in-box” exercise for Foreign Service applicants where they arrive at a post to replace an officer who’s died suddenly. They have to go through the contents of an in-box and determine priorities. Well, I now had two in-boxes and it was for real.
Among the papers in Noel’s box was a photo, taken by the desk where I now sat and developed at the embassy, of his taking the oath as ambassador on the day of his capture. He had come to the Sudan on an interim appointment and been confirmed by the Senate in absentia. Curt Moore had delivered the oath of office. The two men and their wives were wrapped in laughter and friendship. Hours later, both men were dead. If I had arrived in Khartoum directly from Jakarta, I might have been with them.
I learned later that Moore had possibly been at least vaguely aware of being under surveillance, but had discounted it. Noel had also been advised to be cautious, but, with his deep experience in Khartoum, had said that very day, “Nothing will happen to me in the Sudan.” He was right about the Sudanese, but wrong about the BSO, Libya, and, maybe, Yasser Arafat.
Among the papers in Moore’s box was a hand-written welcome letter to me. It ended with “So at the close of three and one-half of the finest years of my life, I welcome you to Khartoum and hope you will be able to make the same statement when you leave.”
Patching Up a Shattered Embassy
The small embassy was in psychological shock and depression. Although the Americans did not know Cleo Noel well, they knew his reputation. His few months at post had been impressively reassuring. They virtually revered Curt Moore. The Sudanese [Foreign Service Nationals] appreciated both men as friends of the Sudan and everyone knew that Noel and Moore were as close as brothers. The embassy was shattered, absolutely shattered.…
The first week or two was just terrible; each day worse than the one preceding. Aside from lack of knowledge and contacts, it was a challenge to resuscitate and inspire officers from such a trauma. I set initial personal and embassy goals, at first day-to-day and then longer. I soon realized the American officers found solace in focus. They also had been bonded by a crisis that encompassed me. It was March and they began to respond to my game plan of rendering honor to the fallen by having the embassy rebound as a fully functioning professional entity by July 4, 1973. If successful, we could top it off symbolically with the first formal July 4 celebration in an Arabic state since 1967. If we could do that, I would have done what I could as Charge. The embassy would then be a proven, ready, and able vehicle for a new ambassador with shoulder patch to move forward. Sounds rehearsed, but it was embedded in my mind and recallable today.
In retrospect, I consider Khartoum the formative period in my Foreign Service career. It justified the approach I had always taken of wanting responsibility and across-the-board experience. Frankly, when I left the Sudan, I felt I could handle any task the Foreign Service could assign.
Going to Court, Conviction, Release and the Big Picture
It was a tortuous process. The Sudanese Government’s initial chagrin and outrage became progressively modified by internal and foreign policy concerns. The first step, which took months, was a magisterial inquiry, sort of like a grand jury. After fits and starts and a series of our demarches to the government, the magistrate finally lodged charges of murder against the principal BSO assassins.…
Months further…they were convicted in a trial on charges of murder. The good news was that our foremost policy goal had been met: the conviction of anti-American terrorists in an Arab state. The sentence was life imprisonment, which the Sudanese Supreme Court commuted to X years. The bad news was truly bad. They were eventually turned over surreptitiously to the PLO to “impose the sentence” and spirited out by plane to Cairo. I think then-Ambassador Brewer only found out about it after the fact. The USG pressured the Egyptians not to release them and they were put in a form of progressively loose house arrest in a Nile mansion. Eventually, they evaporated. A travesty!
One of the controversies in later years was that the White House and State eased the pressure, partly for Middle East foreign policy reasons and partly because the major State principals were progressively transferred in a normal career sequence. Kissinger is cited as having a bigger picture in mind and State as viewing the matter as “an” issue, but not “the” issue it had been.…