The Terrorist’s Terrorist

Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire

by Patrick Seale
Random House, 339 pp., $22.00
Abu Nidal
Abu Nidal; drawing by David Levine


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…

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