Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire
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.
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.
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.
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."↩
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.↩
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.↩
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).↩
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).↩
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.”↩
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.↩
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.↩
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).↩
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).↩