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The Terrorist’s Terrorist

In fact, Abu Nidal went to work for Iraqi intelligence. His “military committee,” which concentrated on smuggling weapons into European countries and concealing them there for future use in terrorist actions, “seemed wholly an Iraqi creation,” Seale writes. In Baghdad, his contacts with the government were not with the foreign ministry but largely through Iraq’s intelligence chief, Sadoun Shakir, a relative of Saddam, who was himself a former mokhabarat official. According to Seale, the Iraqis handed over to Abu Nidal all of the PLO’s assets and facilities in Iraq, including a training camp, a farm, a newspaper and radio station, $15 million worth of Chinese weapons, and they gave him a $150,000 monthly subsidy.

During his years in Baghdad, Abu Nidal had two main missions. Between 1978 and 1983, his hit men assassinated some of the leading moderates in Fatah. Most of them were PLO representatives in foreign capitals: Sa’id Hammami in London, Ali Yassin in Kuwait, Izz al-Din Qualaq in France, and Na’im Khudr in Brussels. Abu Nidal’s killers also gunned down Issam Sartawi, at the time Arafat’s most dovish advisor, while he was attending a conference in Albufeira, Portugal.

Abu Nidal’s other task while in Baghdad was to carry out attacks on Syria, whose ruling Baath party was bitterly opposed by the Iraqi Baathists. When Assad intervened in Lebanon’s civil war in 1976, Bakr and Saddam took this as an opportunity to launch an underground war against him. “On Iraq’s prompting,” Seale writes, Abu Nidal set up a group called Black June, named for the month when Syrian troops entered Lebanon. It bombed Syrian embassies and airline offices in Europe, took hostages at a hotel in Damascus, and tried to assassinate the Syrian foreign minister, Abdul Halim Khaddam.

Saddam, who was by then president, expelled Abu Nidal from Iraq in 1983, probably because of pressure from the United States, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom Saddam increasingly depended on for help in his drawn-out war with Iran.

Assad’s regime knew a useful terrorist when it saw one. When Abu Nidal proposed moving his headquarters to Damascus, Syrian officials agreed. Seale, who has excellent contacts in Syria, provides a richly detailed account of the relationship between Abu Nidal and Assad. Assad’s government, according to Seale, had two aims in mind. One was to use Abu Nidal to intimidate Arafat and King Hussein, who were then considering taking part in an American-sponsored peace plan which threatened to exclude Syria. Like Iraq earlier, the Syrians found Abu Nidal a “useful instrument,” as Seale puts it. “Assad,” Seale writes, “felt that recruiting a notorious hit man like Abu Nidal was a way of putting pressure on both the PLO leader and the Jordanian monarch to accept Syrian leadership.”

With Syrian encouragement,” Seale says, “Abu Nidal was to wage a terrorist war against Jordan for nearly two years.” Between 1983 and 1985 Abu Nidal’s men assassinated or wounded Jordanian government officials in New Delhi, Rome, Athens, Madrid, Bucharest, and Ankara. In addition, they used bombs or machine guns to attack the Jordanian airline office in Madrid, and the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman. Abu Nidal also may have been responsible for the assassination of a member of the PLO Executive Committee, Fahd Qawasme, in Amman in 1984 shortly after the Palestinian congress I attended.


At first, according to Seale, Syria wanted to use Abu Nidal as an ally against the Muslim Brotherhood, which in 1982 had staged a violent uprising against Assad’s regime in the city of Hama. By the time Abu Nidal moved from Baghdad to Damascus in 1983, however, Assad’s security forces had crushed the Muslim fundamentalists, and the regime no longer required his services for that purpose. Abu Nidal’s relationship with Syria, according to Seale, withered because Assad’s regime insisted on treating him as merely a contract employee of Syrian intelligence rather than as a Palestinian leader. His only relationship with the government went through Assad’s air force intelligence chief, Muhammad Khuly.

In 1985, Abu Nidal gradually began to shift his operations from Syria to Libya, and in 1987, Syria expelled him, probably because the United States and Britain, and perhaps even the Soviet Union, pressed Assad to end his regime’s sponsorship of terrorists.

In Libya Abu Nidal found what appears to be his most secure base. Whereas Assad had kept Abu Nidal at arm’s length, Qaddhafi welcomed him. He allowed Abu Nidal’s group to recruit members among Libya’s small Palestinian community. Defectors from the group and other informants described to Seale how Libyan planes, embassies, passports, diplomatic pouches, communications, villas, and farms were put at Abu Nidal’s disposal. “For all practical purposes, Abu Nidal had ceased to be an independent operator,” Seale reports.

His main places of residence and of work, as well as those of his organization, and the facilities that made his sort of work possible were gifts from Libyan intelligence. He had become so closely involved with Libyan intelligence that it had become impossible to tell them apart.

Abu Nidal then proceeded to follow the same pattern he established in Iraq and Syria; he organized attacks on the enemies of his friends. By 1985, Libya’s enemies included the US, Egypt, and the ruling circle of the PLO, particularly Arafat and Abu Iyad. Abu Nidal’s men may have quietly assassinated one or two Libyan dissidents abroad, but he specialized in more spectacular acts of extreme violence. In May 1985, his agents tried unsuccessfully to bomb the US embassy in Cairo. In November of that year, they hijacked an Egyptian airplane to Malta, and sixty people died when Egyptian commandos tried to rescue the passengers. In December, the massacres at the Rome and Vienna airports took place. The following September, Abu Nidal’s men seized a Pan Am plane in Karachi, which resulted in a dozen or so deaths, and they gunned down twenty-one Jews at Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue.

In working with the mokhabarats of Iraq, Syria, and Libya, Abu Nidal ran his organization as if it were his own police state. Seale’s book is the first to give a detailed account of how he did so. He describes how members of the organization live in fear of being tortured by methods that are “exceptionally barbarous.”2

They included…forcing a naked prisoner into an automobile tire with his legs and butt in the air; then whipping, wounding, salting, and reviving him with cold water; then repeating the process…. Another method was to heat oil in a frying pan and then, while holding the prisoner steady, fry his male member.

As for the conditions in Abu Nidal’s jails, defectors gave Seale the following account:

A prisoner might be placed in a freshly dug grave and have earth shoveled over him. A steel pipe in his mouth sticking out of the ground would allow him to breathe. Water would be poured in from time to time to keep him alive. When word came [that a death sentenced had been handed down] a bullet would be shot through the tube, which was then removed and the hole filled up.

Seale was also told of “forty-seven prisoners…killed en masse in 1987, without even having been interrogated…”

According to eyewitnesses, interrogators seemed hardly concerned to discover the truth about detainees or to investigate their background. Sentences were passed on the basis of confessions, and condemned men would be shot at night and buried in the woods….

A bulldozer was brought in to dig a deep trench. Blindfolded, roped together, and with their hands tied behind their backs, the men were then lined up, sprayed with machine-gun fire, and immediately pushed in for burial, some of them struggling and still alive.


Seale’s detailed history of Abu Nidal’s collaboration with Arab intelligence services is supported by many documented facts, and it is corroborated by Palestinian, Arab, Israeli, and Western sources. But Seale is less than convincing when he attempts to show that while Abu Nidal was working for the Arab governments, it was the hidden hand of the Mossad that was guiding his bloody actions. Here Seale acknowledges that the evidence is circumstantial and inconclusive, and he ends by saying that “readers must reach their own conclusions about Abu Nidal”; but often the evidence consists simply of wild speculation or charges based on the say-so of shadowy and self-serving Palestinian sources, who, apart from Abu Iyad and a few others, are not identified.

The theory Seale puts forward is that the Mossad has penetrated Abu Nidal’s organization and has manipulated Abu Nidal to carry out atrocities that would discredit the Palestinian cause. The Mossad, Seale writes, may have hired Abu Nidal himself, or possibly only high-level officials in his organization. If Israel’s Likud government could discredit the PLO’s efforts to be seen as a genuine political representative of the Palestinians, the theory goes, it would have an easier time brushing aside Palestinian political demands and proceeding with its plan to incorporate the West Bank into Greater Israel.

Seale’s case for this theory rests on four main points: Abu Nidal’s killings have damaged the Palestinian cause to Israel’s advantage; the behavior of some officials in Abu Nidal’s organization has raised suspicions among their colleagues that they were working for the Mossad; Abu Nidal has rarely attacked Israel directly and has shied away from involvement in the intifada; and Israel has conspicuously failed to retaliate against Abu Nidal’s group.

Seale can’t quite bring himself to accept the main difficulty with these claims. Even when the involvement of the Mossad in Abu Nidal’s terrorist operations seems plausible, although far from proved, the operations in question can much more convincingly be explained by other hypotheses, and particularly by Nidal’s connections to Arab intelligence services, which Seale himself shows were very close.

The most famous case involves the attempted assassination of Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador to London, outside the Dorchester Hotel in June 1982. Seale argues that the Mossad may have directed Abu Nidal to attack Argov in order to provide Menachem Begin’s government with the pretext it needed to launch its invasion of Lebanon and destroy the PLO. That the Israeli government would have one of its principal ambassadors shot in such a bizarre scheme strains credulity, however, and Seale is evidently unable to believe it himself; he goes on to say that the Mossad may have given Abu Nidal a general order to carry out a provocation and left him to choose just how it would be done.

It is true that the PLO had carefully observed a cease-fire with Israel for the preceding months. But are we to believe that the Mossad feared that the PLO had become a nonviolent organization and a force for peace, and therefore had to invent a Palestinian attack? If the Mossad really controlled Abu Nidal, why didn’t it simply arrange for Abu Nidal’s followers in Lebanon to launch a cross-border rocket attack, which would have provided a much better justification for General Sharon’s invasion? In assigning Abu Nidal to carry out an attack in London, the Mossad would have been taking the most Byzantine route imaginable to its alleged goal. In any case, Seale gives no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, that it did so.

  1. 2

    Seale’s descriptions of Abu Nidal’s violent methods of control and punishment are very similar to the accounts published in Amnesty International’s annual reports of methods long used by the Baathist regimes in Iraq and Syria.

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