Who controlled Abu Nidal?
Patrick Seale International Herald Tribune
Thursday, August 22, 2002
Terror in the Middle East
TOURRETTES, France A few days ago, on or about Aug. 16, Abu Nidal, the most notorious Palestinian terrorist of the 1970s and 1980s, was gunned down in his Baghdad apartment in what seems to have been a joint Palestinian-Iraqi contract killing. Politically, he had been more or less dead for a decade, but his name still had enough resonance for his enemies to want to bury him.
After the conclusion of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestine Liberation Organization's return to the West Bank and Gaza robbed outside factions, such as Abu Nidal's, of much of their importance. As the center of Palestinian politics moved back to the occupied territories, other Palestinian splinter groups located in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq or elsewhere suffered the same fate. The main challenge to Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, no longer came from outside opponents like Abu Nidal or Ahmed Jibril, but from organizations which were fighting Israel inside the territories, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Yet, even though Abu Nidal was largely a spent force, Arafat had good reason to want him dead: He had done tremendous damage to the Palestinian cause. From 1978 to 1983 he had assassinated the cream of the moderate Palestinian leadership, culminating, in a final deadly flourish in 1991, in the killing in Tunis of Abu Iyad, the PLO's intelligence chief, with whom he had been engaged in a duel to the death for a quarter of a century.
Worse still, by his random violence against international targets he allowed Israel to portray the whole Palestinian national movement as a gang of terrorists.
Saddam Hussein may also have wanted to end Abu Nidal's career. With Washington seeking to connect Iraq to terrorism, it was time to get rid of an embarrassing guest whose presence might have provided the pretext for an attack. By withdrawing protection from Abu Nidal, Saddam may have wished to signal that he had severed his links with terror.
Ideologically, Abu Nidal was never easy to pin down. He cast himself as an extreme "rejectionist," as an opponent of any form of negotiated settlement with Israel. Judging Arafat to be too mild, he broke with Fatah in the mid-1970s and gradually built up his own secret, hierarchical and extremely violent organization of killers, training camps and far-flung "sleepers," which he ran with great brutality. Apparently without scruple or principle, he was prepared to do the dirty work for a variety of state sponsors: Iraq used him against Syria from 1974 to 1983; Syria used him against Jordan and the Muslim Brothers from 1981 to 1985; Libya then took him over, providing him with a decade-long base for his foreign operations.
In the mid-1990s, after slaughtering scores of his members whom he suspected of plotting against him, he moved briefly to Cairo (where his wife and two children still live), offering his services to Egypt in its war against militant Islamic groups. But once his presence became known, the Egyptian authorities thought it best to expel him. His shadowy troops dispersed - some to Lebanon, others (with Israel's approval) to the Palestinian occupied territories, still others, including Abu Nidal himself, to Iraq, the first sponsor of his terrorist career.
The greatest puzzle about Abu Nidal is whether he also sold his services to Israel. The circumstantial evidence is substantial. It is well-known that, in its long war against Palestinian nationalism, Israel penetrated every faction and recruited a veritable army of Palestinian informers and collaborators. Why not Abu Nidal himself?
Abu Iyad, whom I interviewed at length in 1990 shortly before his death, was convinced of it. Israel wanted to destroy the PLO (as Ariel Sharon today wants to destroy the Palestinian Authority) and prevent negotiations that might lead to a peaceful solution and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Any genuine negotiations would necessarily involve the surrender of territory, which is why Israel had gone to such lengths to persuade the world that the Palestinians were terrorists with whom no deal could be contemplated. Abu Nidal, he believed, was Israel's prime instrument for this purpose, central to its strategy.
Shortly after Menachem Begin became Israel's prime minister in 1977, Abu Nidal started killing leading Palestinian moderates, the very people Begin, as a champion of "Greater Israel," feared and hated because they favored a two-state solution.
It is an extraordinary fact that although Abu Nidal attacked some Jewish targets in his worldwide rampage, such as the El Al counters in Rome and Vienna and a synagogue in Istanbul, Israel never attacked him. Other Palestinian militants were hunted down mercilessly. He seemed to enjoy immunity. In turn, he never carried out anti-Israeli operations in the cccupied territories, not even to throw a stone. Instead, as if to turn opinion against the Palestinians, he mounted spectacular operations in countries most supportive of the Palestinian cause, such as Greece, Cyprus and Sudan.
Of the four men who founded Fatah in 1959, Mohammed Yusuf Najjar was killed in 1973 in his home in Beirut by an Israeli assassination squad, and Abu Jihad, the PLO's military chief, was killed at his home in Tunis in 1988 (two operations in which Ehud Barak played a prominent part).
Then Abu Iyad was killed in January 1991 by an Abu Nidal agent. Of the four founders, only Arafat survives, despite Sharon's efforts. Many less prominent Palestinians were killed but it was not always clear whether Israel or Abu Nidal was responsible, or was it perhaps the one working through the other?
The writer, author of "Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire," contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.