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The Terrorist’s Terrorist

Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire

by Patrick Seale
Random House, 339 pp., $22.00


In November 1984 I was in Amman, where the Palestinians were holding a national congress, and had lunch with one of the founders of Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s guerrilla organization. We met in his hotel suite and, after a long discussion about Arafat’s strategy, I asked about the terrorist Abu Nidal. A British television network had recently reported his death but I was finding this difficult to confirm.

Oh yes, he’s dead,” Arafat’s colleague assured me. “He has been ill with heart trouble, you know. You can quote me. This is the end of Abu Nidal.”

Abu Nidal, alas, was still very much with us, and the following year turned out to be the bloodiest of his career. For eighteen years he has run probably the world’s most successful terrorist organization, which has carried out more than one hundred attacks, many of them requiring very sophisticated planning. It has seized airliners in Asia and taken over embassies in Europe. Abu Nidal’s thugs have killed more than 280 people, according to US figures. Yet he himself has managed to stay almost completely hidden from view, and it is hard to think of him as a real person. In contrast with the pervasive images of Arafat, we have only a few old photographs of Abu Nidal. One shows him, slight and balding, sitting behind a desk in a nondescript office. In another we see him walking in a field, perhaps at a remote training camp. He has given only a few interviews in his life.

Abu Nidal’s invisibility may help to explain the false assurances of my luncheon host. But I think they had more to do with the tendency of Palestinian guerrilla leaders to see things as they would like to see them rather than as they are. Most of the officials in the Palestine Liberation Organization would like to see Abu Nidal dead or, at the least, put out of business. If he is fighting for Palestine, they ask, what did he think he was achieving, for example, when he organized the massacre of eighteen people, mainly Europeans and Americans, at the Rome and Vienna airports in 1985? And if Abu Nidal’s motive is instead pure vengeance for the injustice inflicted on Palestinians, why does he seem to shy away from attacking the country that most Palestinians regard as the main enemy, Israel? Why does he murder so many of his fellow Palestinians? Abu Nidal, these PLO officials say, has done nothing but blacken the image of the Palestinian cause.

Abu Nidal may be a shadowy presence, but for many years it has been clear to me that he is not a “Palestinian terrorist,” that is, a Palestinian who uses terrorism to achieve Palestinian national aims. Rather, he is a murderer and an extortionist who happens to be a Palestinian. More specifically, Abu Nidal is a contract killer who has put his organization at the service of Iraq, Syria, and, currently, Libya. In that sense, he is a sort of mutant form of a diseased institution that has afflicted the Arab body politic for many years.

Every Arab government, like its former counterparts in the Communist bloc, has created an apparatus for keeping potential dissidents under control and fighting dirty wars against its Arab enemies. In Arabic it is called the mokhabarat, “the intelligence” or “secret police,” and its function is to use fear and terror to maintain a regime’s power and privileges. The mokhabarat is particularly important in Libya and in the Baathist regimes that govern Iraq and Syria, the three countries with which Abu Nidal has most closely collaborated.1 He helped them carry out their killings. They helped make him internationally notorious.

These realities are painful ones for most Palestinians. It is hard for them to accept that so evil a traitor has emerged from within their own ranks; and it is distressing for them to hear that some of their Arab “brothers” have enthusiastically supported an organization that has harmed their national goals. For at least ten years, many Palestinians have been putting forward a conspiracy theory that provides a more agreeable explanation of why Abu Nidal does what he does: Abu Nidal, the theory goes, is actually an agent of the Israeli spy agency Mossad.

Patrick Seale’s book is the first to bring the reader close to Abu Nidal and his followers. He gives an extremely interesting portrait not only of an important terrorist group but also of the gangland underworld of Arab politics in which it has flourished. A Gun for Hire provides many details showing how Abu Nidal’s career as a terrorist has been closely bound up with the intelligence services of police-state Arab regimes.

Seale was for many years the London Observer‘s Middle East correspondent, and he is the author of the only extensive biography of Syria’s Assad. He got much of his information on Abu Nidal from highly placed Palestinian sources, and notably from Salah Khalaf, better known as Abu Iyad, the late intelligence chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Abu Iyad was one of the main proponents of the theory that Abu Nidal was an agent of the Mossad. He invited Seale to Tunis and suggested he investigate the theory; he then put Seale in touch with defectors from Abu Nidal’s organization who were living under the PLO’s protection in Tunis, and they provided him with much new information.

Abu Nidal’s real name is Sabri alBanna. He was born, Seale tells us, in Jaffa in May 1937. His father was a prosperous orange grower who fled Jaffa during the Zionist advance in 1948, when Sabri was eleven, and moved the family to Nablus, which fell under Jordanian rule. His father had twelve children by two wives, but Abu Nidal’s mother was the family maid and she was turned out of the house when his father died in 1945. He was, Seale writes, “scorned by his older half-brothers and -sisters,” and he had little formal education. In 1955, at eighteen, Sabri joined the authoritarian, extreme Arab nationalist and violence-prone Baath Party.

Opportunities for young Palestinian men were scarce in Nablus and he moved in 1958 to Saudi Arabia. He had a head for business and he set up an electrical contracting shop in Riyadh. The Gulf countries were full of young Palestinian migrant workers with bitter memories of the “catastrophe”—the establishment of Israel in Palestine in 1948. During the 1950s and 1960s many different Palestinian groups were organized in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other countries.

Abu Nidal formed his own group, calling it the Palestine Secret Organization, although he managed to attract only a few followers. In 1967, when the Palestinian groups began to grow more militant, the conservative rulers in the Gulf cracked down on them. Abu Nidal, by this time a fairly successful businessman, was deported and wound up in Amman. He was welcomed into Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s group, which had already become the largest of many Palestinian commando organizations. Abu Nidal established a trading company called Impex which served as an important front organization for Fatah.

He himself, it seems, did not have the stomach for guerrilla war. When Arafat and his men had their historic clash with the Israeli army near the Jordan Valley village of Karameh in March 1968, Abu Nidal stayed safely behind in Amman. In 1969, he was sent to Khartoum as the PLO’s representative. In July 1970, he was transferred to the same post in Baghdad. There he became an agent of Iraq’s intelligence service. But his career as a terrorist began while he was still ostensibly working for Arafat’s Fatah guerrilla group. His first act of terrorism was to order the seizure of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Paris in September 1973, and the people there taken hostage.

According to Seale, Iraqi officials later admitted to the PLO that they had commissioned Abu Nidal to carry out the attack. One of Iraq’s rivals, Algeria, was acting as host to a meeting of “nonaligned nations” at the time, and the Iraqis thought a major terrorist attack in Paris by Arabs would embarrass the Algerians before the world. But Abu Nidal’s men in the embassy made a specific demand; they would hold the hostages until King Hussein, vulnerable to pressure from his wealthy Saudi cousins, released a terrorist named Abu Daoud from a Jordanian prison. Abu Daoud was a senior official of Arafat’s Fatah, more specifically of its secret commando wing known as “Black September”; he had organized a terrorist attack against Hussein following the PLO’s defeat by Jordan in the 1970–1971 civil war and had been arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death. Shortly after the Paris episode, Hussein freed Abu Daoud in what he called a general amnesty.

In the months that followed, relations soured between Arafat and Abu Nidal. Abu Nidal himself has suggested that he became estranged from Fatah because of Arafat’s hints in 1974 that the PLO might accept a compromise West Bank state instead of the total liberation of Palestine. But as is common within the PLO, the main reason for the split may have been a dispute over organizational loyalty. Abu Nidal grew increasingly friendly with his Iraqi hosts and Arafat was wary of losing authority over his representative in Baghdad. He sent an envoy to Baghdad in mid-1974, Seale tells us, to inform Abu Nidal that he was being replaced.

Arafat’s move pushed Abu Nidal into Iraq’s camp, if he was not in it already. His connection with Iraq at this point in his career is significant since, in the regimes run by the Baath party, assassination and even indiscriminate murder are a way of life. Abu Nidal was clearly attracted to such a world. Trying to explain why this is so, Seale mentions Abu Nidal’s disturbed childhood and the bitterness brought on by the Zionists’ capture of his birthplace. Some Palestinians who know Abu Nidal have told me they believe that his special affinity for violence might be explained by mental illness. He once murdered his brother-in-law in a quarrel over money.

Not surprisingly, one of Abu Nidal’s first acts as an Iraqi protégé was to attempt, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to assassinate one of Arafat’s top lieutenants, Abu Mazzen, the messenger who had brought the order dismissing him. Soon after his attempt to kill Abu Mazzen failed, a Fatah tribunal convicted Abu Nidal of treason in absentia and sentenced him to death, a judgment that still stands.

Abu Nidal fit into the plans of Iraq’s president, Ahmed Hassan Bakr, and vice-president, Saddam Hussein, who had jointly taken power in 1968. The Palestinian dispute had always been at the heart of Arab politics, and the Iraqis, flush with oil revenues, were eager to prove themselves the leaders of the Arab world. As Egypt, Syria, and the PLO showed signs of willingness to negotiate with Israel, Bakr and Saddam, in October 1974, sponsored the Rejection Front, which was made up of PLO factions opposed to any conciliation. Abu Nidal did not join, perhaps because three months earlier he had been formally expelled from the PLO, and he was still organizing his own splinter group with the help of Bakr and Saddam. He defiantly called it “Fatah—The Revolutionary Council.” Some PLO guerrillas in Iraq signed up, perhaps believing, as indeed Abu Nidal himself may initially have done, that Abu Nidal was continuing the “armed struggle” at a time when other PLO leaders were beginning to sell out.

  1. 1

    For an excellent description of Iraq’s mokhabarat, see Samir al-Khalil’s Republic of Fear (University of California Press, 1989), particularly the first chapter, “Institutions of Violence.”

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