The shot that for more than 20 years established him as the world's most wanted man was fired in a leafy north London suburb on December 30th, 1973. In the crisp winter stillness in St John's Wood, the doorbell rang at the home of Joseph Edward Sieff, head of the stores group Marks & Spencer. It was around 7 p.m. His Portuguese employee opened the door to a young, darkhaired gunman, who forced his way in and rushed upstairs.
The man found Sieff in the bathroom and shot him in the face at close range. Sieff, the 68-year-old deputy chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, a fund-raising group for Israel, collapsed in a pool of blood, wounded from a bullet lodged in his jaw. Two years later, after a reader's tip-off to a newspaper, Scotland Yard found the 9mm Browning used for the attempted murder in a Bayswater (London) arms cache which they linked to Carlos the Jackal.
At the Paris Assizes Court next month, nearly 24 years after the Sieff shooting which marked the start of Carlos's terrorist career, he will make his first appearance before a jury. Now aged 48, he will face charges that he shot dead two French secret service officers and injured another at a flat at 9 Rue Toullier in the Latin Quarter in June 1975. The case will be a rerun of a 1992 trial in which he was found guilty in absentia.
As the prisoner takes the stand, his status will shift from that of the world's most wanted man to its least desired defendant. Ilich Ramirez Sanchez - nom-de-guerre Carlos, dubbed the Jackal after a 1975 newspaper article - has been linked to more than 80 politically motivated deaths in half a dozen countries since 1973 and with groups ranging from the IRA to Baader Meinhof and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
His knowledge of terrorist networks and their backers during the cold war years is unmatched, and therein lies the danger. Since French secret agents scored an amazing publicity coup by abducting him from Sudan in August 1994 he has never ceased to remind his captors of how politically explosive his revelations in court could be.
Although Scotland Yard detectives have travelled to Paris to interview Carlos about the Sieff shooting, Britain has failed to request his extradition. The same applies to Austria, which sent investigators to question him about the December 1975 kidnapping of 12 oil ministers in Vienna.
Over several months the Guardian newspaper has explored the character of Carlos the Jackal, drawing on his correspondence, interviews with his lawyers who are the only people allowed to visit him in jail, testimony of his former friends and lovers and the experience of one of Carlos's rare court appearances last year.
The picture that emerges is of a man who seems as obsessive as he is shrewd, a voracious reader of more than 30 daily and weekly publications from around the world, which are delivered to his isolation cells at La Sante and Fresnes jails. He has a television set in his cell and reads fringe books. His unpredictability and veiled threats leave his lawyers as well as his captors unsure of whether they are being manipulated by a clever man or misled by a confused inmate trapped in a timewarp.
Journalists and authors who have written about Carlos have received letters from him, reeking with vanity, in which he denies things said about him such as that he has owned a Ferrari, that he used to be on the run or has a "weak" personality. But he does not question assertions of guilt.
In a letter written in May, Carlos demands that Le Figaro should correct an assertion that his father was a champagne socialist. "My father is a doctor of criminal law and a revolutionary. It is not thanks to me that the Arab world should have become `synonymous with terrorism', but due to Zionist propaganda."
The letter, written in near-fluent French, ends with the greeting: "Revolutionary best wishes".
Jean-Louis Bruguiere, the investigating magistrate and specialist in terrorism who led the inquiry into the Rue Toullier shootings, also appears at times to have been led a merry dance, as his interrogations deteriorated into long discussions about French semantics. The interviews were held every month between August 1994 and May 1997. Each began with Carlos listing his occupation as "professional revolutionary".
Some of the interviews at Bruguiere's tightly guarded office in the Palais de Justice in Paris would last several hours. Sometimes Carlos held the whip hand: "Your question touches on the virtue of a Venezuelan woman from a very good family. I cannot possibly answer," he said in an interview in February this year.
Equally, he can be moody and rude. "The judges of the Federal Republic of Germany are true descendants of Nazi justice," he told a Frankfurt state attorney on November 27th, 1996. A week earlier, two Scotland Yard detectives made a wasted journey to Fresnes, where Carlos refused to see them because his guards would not let him wear a belt.
In a French secret service report, he is described as having "a personality characterised by a feeling of superiority and a high opinion of himself. He displays unpredictable reactions and behaviour in certain situations. Unable to accept being contradicted, he cannot control himself and reactions of pride and revenge should not be excluded. He speaks Spanish, English, Arabic, French and Russian."
Yet despite Carlos's erratic behaviour, his early years, particularly the political context in which he grew up, go a long way towards explaining how his face ended up on the wall of virtually every customs post in the Western world.
Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (the name is not coincidental - his two younger brothers are called Vladimir and Lenin) was born in Caracas, Venezuela, on October 12th, 1949. The son of a left-wing lawyer, Ilich grew up to live and breathe Marxism at a time when his country was ruled by a right-wing dictatorship.
"My father was a man of conviction, with a quasi-religious sense of commitment to the cause," Carlos told Bruguiere.
In 1964, at the age of 15, he joined the banned Venezuelan Communist Youth League, in which he appears to have coordinated anti-government demonstrations. Perhaps out of concern for his safety, Ilich's mother, Elba Maria Sanchez, travelled to London with her three sons.
Vladimir, Ilich and Lenin rented a flat with their mother in west London and were sent to a fee-paying public school in Kensington. In 1967, aged 17, Ilich passed exams (A levels) in physics, chemistry and maths.
Ilich left London in 1968 for Moscow, to study chemistry and physics at Patrice Lumumba People's Friendship University. In June 1970, he was thrown out of the Soviet Union with other students who had taken part in a demonstration. It has been suggested that the expulsion was a cover for his recruitment as a KGB agent.
But last May, in one of Carlos's customary "right to reply" letters to French newspapers, which remain unpublished, he rebutted the KGB connection: "I was thrown out of Patrice-Lumumba at the request of the Venezuelan Communist Party which had expelled me for Guevarism." (In the mid1960s, the Venezuelan Communist Party split because the "Castro-Guevarists" refused to renounce the armed struggle.) Ilich went from Moscow to Jordan, probably at the invitation of a PFLP contact he had met in Moscow.
The PFLP, headed by George Habash and Wadi Haddad, was a Marxist-Leninist antiAmerican, anti-Zionist group which pioneered high-profile terror to draw attention to the plight of the occupied territories. In 1969, its members hijacked a TWA LondonTel Aviv flight and in 1970 they opened fire at Munich airport on a bus carrying passengers to an El Al plane.
It was in Jordan that Ilich was given his nom de guerre, Carlos - a corruption of Khalil (intimate and sincere friend) to suit his Latin American roots. Carlos had barely begun his PFLP guerrilla training when King Hussein of Jordan ordered the bombing of Palestinian camps around the capital, Amman.
This "Black September" plunged Carlos into active service. "I was in a frontline position in the mountains. I fought until the winter of 1971," he told Bruguiere, adding that Habash then ordered him to set up a European base. So it was back to London.
There, Carlos impressed the female students with his seductive charm. He also swept a Colombian woman, Maria Nydia Romero de Tobon, off her feet when they met at a Christopher Columbus day party on October 12th, 1972, Carlos's birthday. "I found myself opposite a man with a very different smile from those I had known before," she has written. "He had a magnetism which was true charisma."
TOBON, separated from her husband and living alone in London with one of her three children, was typical of the many women Carlos befriended and used in Europe: intelligent, left-wing, Spanish-speaking and a long way from home.
Responsibility for the attack on Edward Sieff was claimed, from Beirut, by the PFLP. It would be followed, three weeks later, by the bombing of the Hapoalim Israeli bank in Cheapside in the City of London, in which several people were injured, although no firm link between this attack and Carlos has ever been proved.
In late January, 1974, Carlos is believed to have travelled to Paris for a meeting with Michel Moukharbel, the Lebanese joint chief of the PFLP in Europe. It was the first of a series of increasingly regular trips to France during which Carlos established a network of safehouses in the flats of women who admired him.
Rue Toullier, a narrow street between the Sorbonne and the Luxembourg Gardens, is every foreign student's dream location for a pad in Paris: the buildings aren't quite straight, it has literary links, there is a cafe on the corner and a bistro half-way down. On June 27th, 1975, Carlos invited Moukharbel to a party at a studio flat at 9 Rue Toullier, rented by two Venezuelan women, Nancy Sanchez Falcon and Maria-Theresa Lara Santa-Maria. We are not aware of any evidence to suggest that either woman played a part in the killing to come.
Accounts of the evening, which left Moukharbel and two secret policemen dead, vary. We don't know which version will be heard at next month's court case. But the events shot Carlos to global fame.
So far as it is possible to judge from his erratic instructions to his lawyers, Carlos is determined to keep the political stakes high and avoid being judged merely as a coldblooded murderer facing life imprisonment. Is the man who for decades ran rings round the police across continents finally to be pinned down as nothing more than a sordid criminal? Or is he still playing a game whose purpose only he knows and which he will reveal when it suits him, to the maximum embarrassment of governments world-wide? At this point it seems a safe bet that he will live up to the badge of the world's least wanted defendant.
Additional research: Darius Bazargan