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The Terrorist’s Terrorist

It is a lot easier to believe that Iraq, still Abu Nidal’s employer at the time, ordered the shooting of Argov.3 Seale neglects to remind us that Saddam’s fortunes were falling dramatically in the months and even weeks before the attempt on Argov’s life. Strong Iranian counterattacks were reversing the gains that Iraq’s forces had made when he launched the war against Iran in 1980. Iraqi troops had retreated from Abadan and Khoramshahr in May and were expecting an Iranian assault on the important Iraqi city of Basra. Iran’s leaders became so confident in the spring and summer of 1982 that they announced the conditions on which they would make peace with Iraq, including the removal of Saddam as president. In April, Assad, acting as Iran’s ally, closed off Syria’s border to Iraq, shut down an Iraqi oil pipeline that went through Syria, and broke off diplomatic relations with Baghdad.4

As Saddam’s situation in the war with Iran became more desparate and his longstanding dispute with Syria more intense, Abu Nidal’s men went into action. Saddam’s own army was too busy with the Iranians to start a war with Syria. What better alternative than to provoke a war in Lebanon in which Assad’s forces would be defeated and humiliated by Israel? That, after all, is precisely what happened. The British Guardian even identified one of the London hit men as a colonel in Iraqi military intelligence.

Seale does not discount the possibility that Saddam might have been looking for a face-saving way out of the war with Iran, and points out that he called for a cease-fire as soon as the Israelis moved into Lebanon. Saddam may have believed that a war in Lebanon would have diverted attention from his embarrassing stalemate with Iran. He may not have expected that Israeli forces would go so far as to drive the PLO out of Beirut. But, as should by now be clear, he never has been good at calculating the military reactions of his opponents; and he may not have cared much about Arafat’s defeat in Lebanon in any case. It was not until Arafat’s violent feud with Assad in 1983 that his relations with Saddam became warmer.

Seale is no doubt correct that the presence of moderates in the PLO such as Hammami, Yassin, and others posed a threat to Begin’s policy of refusing to negotiate with the Palestinians. Still, there is little reason to doubt that Iraq, not the Mossad, was behind Abu Nidal’s assassinations of the PLO representatives between 1978 and 1983. Seale himself tells us that President Bakr admitted to PLO officials that Iraq had ordered Abu Nidal to kill Sa’id Hammami in London. Bakr and Abu Nidal have reportedly denied murdering the other Palestinian moderates, but why shouldn’t we suppose that they did? The assassinations took place as Iraq renewed its “rejectionist” campaign against Arab moderates following Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem; and Arab radicals have been known to murder Arab moderates without being told to do so by the Mossad. While the murders served the Likud’s interests, they also served Iraq’s. The murders, in fact, promoted a furious reaction against Iraq from within the PLO at the time. After Hammami was killed, his brother tried to seize the Iraqi embassy in Paris in revenge. After Yassin’s murder, Arafat’s men fired rockets at the Iraqi embassy in Beirut.

Seale also makes much of the case of Nizar Hindawi, the Palestinian who was convicted in Britain in October 1986 of planting a bomb intended to blow up an Israeli airliner in mid-flight to Tel Aviv. Defectors told Seale that Abu Nidal provided the suitcase bomb that was meant to go off, and Syrian officials claimed that the scheme was a Mossad trap, perhaps one devised by Abu Nidal. What Seale himself makes clear, however, is that senior Syrian officials themselves had recruited Hindawi as a Syrian agent and used him to carry out the EI Al bombing. The British government broke off relations with Syria after evidence at Hindawi’s trial revealed that Syria had a had in the plot.

Seale also suggests that the Mossad may have ordered the massacres at Rome and Vienna airports in December 1985 to sever the increasingly friendly relations between the PLO and the governments of Italy and Austria. This makes no sense. The PLO’s relations with Italy were not of much consequence anyway, since Italy can do little to help the PLO. If such a specific political motive were involved, Abu Nidal would more likely have been assigned to gun down passengers at airports in the US or Britain, two countries which are vastly more important in Middle East diplomacy and which were then involved in diplomatic efforts to organize peace negotiations.

The evidence points to a hidden hand in the massacres, but we don’t need to look very hard to find it. Though he suspects a Mossad link, Seale himself reports that Libya gave crucial support to the airport bombings. “Former members of Abu Nidal’s organization,” Seale writes, “told me that Libyan intelligence took part in the planning and supplied the weapons.” The gunmen, he adds, used Tunisian passports which the Libyans had confiscated from guest workers who were expelled from Libya in 1985.

The Reagan administration’s anger at Libya, largely caused by Qaddhafi’s links with Abu Nidal, led to the bombing of Tripoli four months later, in April 1986. Five months after the US attack, which took Qaddhafi’s residence as one of its targets, Abu Nidal’s men slaughtered Jewish worshipers at a synagogue in Istanbul and seized an American plane in Karachi. Significantly, the attacks took place in Muslim but non-Arab countries which had strong military ties to the US. In view of Abu Nidal’s record as a hit man for Arab governments, these attacks clearly seem to have been Qaddhafi’s way of retaliating for the Tripoli raid.

Seale’s suspicions about a Mossad link were strengthened by what he believed were indications that three senior Abu Nidal aides were working for Mossad: Suleiman Samrin, known as Dr. Ghassan Ali, head of the Secretariat; Mustafa Awad, known as Alaa, head of the Intelligence Directorate; and Mustafa Sanduqa, head of the Committee for Revolutionary Justice.

Seale was told, apparently by defectors, that Alaa and Dr. Ghassan had plotted some of the attacks, such as the Rome and Vienna massacres, that had damaged the Palestinian cause, and that they, along with Sanduqa, had arranged for the killing of some six hundred members of Abu Nidal’s group in Lebanon. Dr. Ghassan and Sanduqa were said by some of the defectors to have behaved suspiciously when Mossad spies were captured; and all three men seemed to be immune from Israeli retaliatory measures.

Closely examined, this evidence is not very convincing. The factional bloodletting in Lebanon began in 1987 as part of an internal power struggle in Abu Nidal’s organization. The mass killing shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Abu Nidal, as many incidents in Seale’s book make clear, is extremely paranoid and has had many suspected spies and traitors killed. The speculation by defectors that the mass killing was Israel’s way of getting rid of the “best officers and the bravest fighters” is absurd. By Seale’s own reckoning, these men rarely if ever attacked Israel. Israel could have profited more by leaving them alive, ready to carry on factional wars with Arafat’s men.

Seale is correct in saying that Israel appears to spare Abu Nidal and his group from retaliation. This may not be as mysterious as it seems. Abu Nidal has only rarely attacked Israelis directly, perhaps because his Arab sponsors feared that the Israeli government might consider such attacks a casus belli. For the same reason Syria has scrupulously observed the ceasefire in the Golan Heights for nearly twenty years. The Israeli government may feel less domestic political pressure to average attacks on Jews who are not Israeli citizens, and, in any case, the Israelis would probably be discouraged from doing so by the US.

Mossad agents or Israeli commandos have assassinated leading PLO officials in the past. In Beirut in 1973 they killed the PLO’s spokesman Kamal Nasser and the Black September leaders Kamal Adwan and Abu Jusuf; and in Tunis in 1988, they killed Khalil Wazir, the PLO’s commander of the intifada. But the targets were almost always men whose whereabouts and movements were highly predictable, unlike the ultra-secretive Abu Nidal, who made his headquarters in tightly guarded police states. In any case Mossad officials did not have to invent or sponsor Abu Nidal in order to decide their strategic interests were served by not killing a terrorist who discredits the PLO while also causing extreme violence within Palestinian ranks.5

Perhaps the most intriguing piece of evidence for the Mossad theory involves the assassination in June 1981 of Na’im Khudr, the PLO representative in Brussels. The defectors Seale talked to told him that the assassin was one of Abu Nidal’s men, Adnan Rashidi. According to the Israeli writer Yossi Melman in his book on Abu Nidal, The Master Terrorist, Khudr’s killer was also identified by eyewitnesses as having taken part in Abu Nidal’s 1981 attack on a Vienna synagogue. An otherwise unidentified Mossad agent, however, is named as Khudr’s killer in By Way of Deception, the book by the former Mossad agent Victor Ostrovsky.

Was Adnan Rashidi, Abu Nidal’s hit man, working for the Mossad? Perhaps he was. It would be surprising if the Mossad had not managed to plant agents in Abu Nidal’s organization, as it has in all the other PLO groups. According to Seale, Abu Nidal admitted to Abu Iyad in 1987 that Mossad agents, an apparent reference to North African Arabs recruited by Israel, had infiltrated his group. But it is an entirely different matter to suggest that the penetration was so extensive that the Mossad virtually runs Abu Nidal and instructs him to carry out specific assassinations and mass murder.

Seale comes up with another intriguing story about the Mossad, although it rests entirely on the word of defectors from Abu Nidal’s group. According to Seale, one of Abu Nidal’s officials, named Yusif Zaidan, disappeared in Lebanon, and Mustafa Sanduqa, the head of Abu Nidal’s Committee for Revolutionary Justice, dispatched somebody Seale identifies only as “Sanduqa’s man” to find him. His orders were to penetrate the group formed in Lebanon by the Abu Nidal defectors, called the Emergency Leadership.

The defectors in Lebanon promptly arrested “Sanduqa’s man,” who then confessed that he was

working for Mossad; that his case officer was none other than Mustafa Ibrahim Sanduqa; and that his mission had been to find Yusif Zaidan to help him escape, and, if he couldn’t, to kill him.

The Emergency Leadership, Seale says, concluded that it had stumbled onto a Mossad cell that would also have included Dr. Ghassan, Zaidan’s old and close colleague. But the unconfirmed word of an unidentified Abu Nidal aide, known only as “Sanduqa’s man,” is not persuasive evidece.

Why would Abu Iyad and the Abu Nidal defectors promote the Mossad theory if it has no sound basis? Partly, in my view, to quiet anxieties of their followers, who would be far more demoralized if forced to accept that a fellow Palestinian and their Arab “brothers” were committing odious crimes against the PLO cause. Apart from this, the PLO leaders are deeply embarrassed by their inability to halt or control Abu Nidal, and the Mossad theory provides a convenient explanation for their failure. As the PLO’s intelligence chief, Abu Iyad was responsible for limiting Abu Nidal’s power and his inability to do so was particularly frustrating for him. Every time an attack by Abu Nidal occurred, it damaged Abu Iyad’s prestige, a guerrilla leader’s most precious asset. Other Arab macho men, Saddam, Assad, or Qaddhafi, were able to manipulate and betray the Palestinian cause by using Abu Nidal; and Abu Iyad was unable to stop them.

The PLO leaders, moreover, have always portrayed their organization as a Palestinian David against the Israeli Goliath. By investing the Mossad with mythical powers, they can more easily explain—or divert attention from—their many misfortunes and mistakes. By attributing Abu Nidal’s actions to the Mossad, the PLO is also trying to implicate the Israelis in terrorism. At the same time, blaming the Mossad for Abu Nidal enables PLO officials to conveniently sidestep further confrontations with Abu Nidal’s powerful Arab sponsors, which could only lead to additional embarrassment.

Seale’s theory that the Mossad is behind Abu Nidal, moreover, assumes that Abu Nidal’s terrorism has been primarily responsible for discrediting the PLO and instilling fear in moderate Palestinians who are inclined to accept a compromise deal with Israel. But both assumptions are questionable. Terrorism has indeed harmed the PLO’s cause, but Abu Nidal is not the main cause of the harm. George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—a faction that is officially a part of the PLO, and is not run by a renegade like Abu Nidal—launched Palestinian terrorism on a large scale in 1967. For several years, airplane hijackings and even airport massacres were apparently a source of pride—not embarrassment—for PLO officials and perhaps even for most Palestinians, frustrated as they were over their inability to defeat Israel.

Abu Nidal’s acts of violence certainly help to perpetuate the PLO’s image as a terrorist organization. But one reason they do so is that Arafat has been equivocal about terrorism. If Arafat convincingly repudiated terrorism, Abu Nidal’s violence would more clearly be seen as nothing more than what it is: the acts of a criminal. But because Arafat, to cite only one of many possible examples, looked the other way when Abul Abbas carried out the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, the PLO has had difficulty dissociating itself from the atrocities carried out by Abu Nidal’s men.

In suggesting that Seale investigate Abu Nidal, Abu Iyad told him he feared that Abu Nidal’s acts of terrorism were blackening the PLO’s image and making it difficult for Arafat to be accepted in the West. But Seale fails to convey Abu Iyad’s disingenuousness. Several years before Abu Nidal came on the scene, Abu Iyad personally directed the attack that most people still associate most closely with Palestinian terrorism: the abduction and subsequent killings of Israeli athletes at the 1972. Munich Olympics, an act for which Abu Iyad, as far as I know, never expressed public regret. Palestinian moderates have had good reason to fear Abu Nidal. But after talking with many of them I believe that the main source of their reluctance to assert conciliatory views was their loyalty to their leaders in the PLO and a concern not to exacerbate divisions in the Palestinian community. In any case, for many years, moderates who stepped too far out of line had as much reason to fear the men of Arafat and Habash as they did those of Abu Nidal.

Ironically, Abu Nidal’s most important recent act of terrorism was the assassination of Seale’s main source, Abu Iyad. The killing, by an Abu Nidal agent who had talked his way into a job as a PLO bodyguard, took place in January 1991 at a villa in Tunisia on the eve of the US-led allied attack on Iraq. Once again, Seale is ready to see the hand of the Mossad. Abu Iyad opposed Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait in August 1990, and he and other PLO leaders were trying to convince him to withdraw. If the PLO had succeeded, both Iraq and the PLO would have won a diplomatic victory. Therefore, Seale writes, the Israelis may have struck. The murder of Abu Iyad led Arafat to abandon his diplomatic efforts. Saddam was then attacked and the PLO fell into disarray.

The story adds a final touch of drama to Seale’s account, but the notion seems to me pure fiction. For once, no hidden hand is necessary to explain why Abu Nidal killed Abu Iyad. They were longtime enemies. For many years Abu Iyad had been trying to undermine Abu Nidal, who had been trying to kill Abu Iyad. Abu Iyad’s closest aides have told me how he supplied Western intelligence agencies with information that foiled several of Abu Nidal’s plots.

Abu Iyad was suspected of intriguing to bring about the violent split in Abu Nidal’s organization, during which hundreds of men were killed. If he did not in fact do so, he certainly moved quickly to support the dissident faction. He relentlessly tried to undermine Abu Nidal’s prestige, hoping finally to destroy him. Qaddhafi continues to provide Abu Nidal with an expensive base of operations; and he had long hated Abu Iyad as one of the most strong-willed of the PLO leaders. Now Abu Iyad was picking on Qaddhafi’s chosen ally; when Abu Nidal hit back, he had Qaddhafi’s blessing.

I knew Abu Iyad, and as soon as I heard of his death, I called an official in Arafat’s office in Tunisia to see what they knew. “It’s Mossad,” he yelled into the phone. “Mossad did it.” Abu Iyad’s body wasn’t even cold, the investigation had barely begun, but he was certain about the identity of the killer.

  1. 3

    Many experienced Middle East analysts, in fact, have written of their belief that Iraq was behind the Argov shooting. See, for example, David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East (Faber, 1984), p. 407; Dilip Hiro, The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict (Routledge, 1991), p. 63; Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, Israel’s Lebanon War (Simon and Schuster, 1984), pp. 99–100.

  2. 4

    See “Ideology and Power Politics in Syrian-Iraqi Relations, 1968–1984,” by Amazia Baram, in Syria Under Assad, edited by Moshe Maoz and Avner Yaniv (St. Martin’s Press, 1986).

  3. 5

    In an article on Seale’s book, David Ignatius, The Washington Post‘s foreign editor, quotes a US official concerned with antiterrorism who suggests that the Israelis have no reason to risk the lives of their own agents in seeking to destroy an organization that poses little strategic threat. “The action of these guys,” he said, “does tend to make the Palestinians look bad and undermine their standing in the West. Why go after them?” (The Washington Post, February 3, 1992).

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