368. Paper Prepared in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research1


International Terrorism

Papal Assailant and Bulgarian Smuggling Make Bizarre Mix

Mehmet Ali Agca’s claim this week that the plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II on May 14, 1981 was planned by Bulgarian agents has not been confirmed.2

Nonetheless, Agca’s apparent connections with three Bulgarians [less than 1 line not declassified] is significant. The head of the Balkan airlines office in Rome, Sergei Antonov, was arrested in late November in connection with the plot. Agca reportedly described Antonov’s office to Italian investigators. And according to the press, he had a list with the Bulgarian’s phone number, as well as that of the Bulgarian Embassy in Rome and the home number of another Bulgarian who worked at the Embassy whose arrest warrant was issued this week. An arrest warrant also is out for a Bulgarian who worked as a secretary to the Bulgarian military attache in Rome.

Bulgarian police have arrested Bekir Celenk, a Turkish smuggler whom Agca claimed arranged meetings for him with Bulgarian agents and offered him $1.2 million to shoot the Pope.

Since his arrest on the day of the shooting, Agca has been caught in several lies about his activities to throw the investigation of the papal assassination attempt off the track. We thus view his current “confession” as reported in the Italian press with some caution until further confirming evidence comes to light.

The 18-month investigation has at least made it clear that Agca was deeply involved with Turkish and possibly Bulgarian nationals who are part of major smuggling operations run out of Sofia. Agca stayed in Sofia in July–August 1980, then travelled throughout Western Europe before going on to Rome to shoot the Pope. He stayed at the Vitosha hotel in Sofia, which has been identified as a center for business deals [Page 1183] involving smuggling of arms, narcotics and other contraband. Yugoslav diplomats in Sofia, for example, recently told our Embassy there that Yugoslav smugglers “hang out” at the Vitosha and conduct much of their business there. Moreover, Agca’s Turkish contacts in Sofia, who reportedly assisted him in the assassination attempt, are well-known smugglers who cooperate with Bulgarian operatives in transporting illicit goods to Western Europe and the Middle East.

[1 paragraph (5 lines) not declassified]

Agca’s known contacts in the milieu of right-wing terrorism in Turkey and his claimed relations with leftist extremists would easily have provided access to the smuggling underworld, including those Turkish operatives who did business with Bulgaria.

Corruption connected with Bulgarian smuggling operations apparently reaches high levels in the Bulgarian government, [1 line not declassified] It remains unclear, however, whether the smuggling and official corruption that facilitate such activities reflect traditional “Balkan corruption” or a conscious official Bulgarian policy. It is also unclear to what extent, if any, smuggling operations may be used to facilitate official Bulgarian covert activities, including, at least hypothetically, a political murder. There are, however, also economic incentives for official Bulgarian involvement in smuggling, particularly the need for hard currency.

Bulgaria’s hard currency debt of approximately $2.2 billion is not large. But like other East European countries, it is experiencing a hard currency squeeze that is exacerbated by falling prices of Soviet crude oil and oil products, which the Bulgarians re-export as one of the country’s major means of earning hard currency.

Although Bulgaria remains one of the most credit-worthy countries in CEMA, it has in 1982 developed its first hard currency deficit since 1978. Bulgaria’s deficit vis-a-vis Western Europe amounts to an unusually high (for Bulgaria) $895 million. Soviet subsidies buffer Bulgaria’s hard currency problems, and Bulgarian smuggling operations were observed well before the current credit crunch. Nonetheless, Bulgarian officials undoubtedly view large-scale illicit trafficking as an easy means to offset hard currency difficulties.

There is no information on whether the three Bulgarians cited by Italian investigative magistrate Ilario Martella—and now by Agca himself—as deeply involved in the assassination plot, were connected with smuggling operations. But Antonov, [less than 2 lines not declassified] would have been in a position to support—and benefit from—Bulgarian-connected drug trafficking.

Although most of the smuggling of contraband occurs overland or by ship, Bulgarian airlines may play a role in narcotics trafficking. The US Embassy in Malta, for example, citing British, Vatican and other diplomats in Valletta, hypothesizes that increasingly visible [Page 1184] Maltese-Bulgarian friendship may reflect an official or unofficial agreement in which Balkan airways would be given favorable treatment and Bulgarian companies special advantages in Malta if Bulgarian government officials look the other way when narcotics—a big business in Malta which is facilitated by Maltese officials—are loaded onto Bulgarian planes for transport to Western Europe.

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Office of the Director of Central Intelligence, Job 84B00049R: Subject Files (1981–1982), Box 12, Folder 287:DCI Meeting with Judge Clark Re: MX/Dense Pack, Central America, Counterintelligence, Suriname, & INF/NSC Meeting. Secret; Noforn; Nocontract; Orcon; Wnintel; Exdis. Drafted by Kathleen Fitzpatrick (INR/GIS); approved by Natalie Bellocchi (INR/AR).
  2. Agca shot Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981, in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.