ABU NIDAL: A GUN FOR HIRE -- THE SECRET LIFE OF THE WORLD'S MOST NOTORIOUS ARAB TERRORIST
Chapter 11: Operation Terror
Abu Nidal's reputation as a terrorist rests largely on the bonfire of violence he lit in the mid-1980s. The casual wickedness of his assaults was shocking -- the grenade attack on tourists at the Cafe de Paris in Rome in September 1985; the hijack of an Egyptian airliner in November 1985, which ended in a massacre at Valletta; the attack on El Al ticket counters at the Rome and Vienna airports in December 1985; the slaughter of Pan Am passengers in Karachi and of worshipers in an Istanbul synagogue in September 1986.
Yet only a year earlier, skulking in Poland and virtually absent from the scene, he had seemed ready to retire from his terrorist career. In June 1984, Newsweek reported that he was on his deathbed, an exaggeration, but it reflected the view, held even by insiders at the time, that he was probably finished. He had broken irrevocably with Iraq, and his relations with Syria had soured. In Lebanon, he seemed in danger of losing control as new cadres, in revolt against his policies, tried to rejoin the mainstream Palestinians and give up terror. Having committed their forces to defending the Palestinian camps, these new cadres were building bridges to Fatah, the movement against which Abu Nidal had fought bitterly for a decade.
It was then that Abu Nidal, with Libyan backing, took a new lease on life with a series of eye-catching international atrocities aimed at Western rather than Arab targets. As if to lay to rest speculative reports of his demise, he gave three boastful and defiant press interviews in 1985 alone -- to a Paris news sheet called France-Pays Arabes, to the German magazine Der Spiegel, and to al-Qabas, a leading Kuwaiti daily. In them, he railed as usual against "imperialism" and "Zionism," but he also declared with outrageous bluster that he would kill several world leaders, including Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Hussein of Jordan, and Mubarak of Egypt. He claimed some of the world's most violent organizations as his allies -- the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatist movement ETA, Germany's Red Army Faction, and France's Action Directe, a signal perhaps that Abu Nidal was going on the offensive. No doubt his new haven in Tripoli, and the wide range of favors and facilities given him by Qaddafi, his new and generous sponsor, contributed to this change of mood.
Certainly, many of his operations at this time were carried out on Qaddafi's behalf, but as defectors were later to tell me, he also had more compelling objectives in mind: to embarrass the Syrians so that they would expel him and make his defection to Libya seem plausible; to reverse the "reformist" trend that had surfaced in Lebanon; and, above all, to regain control of his organization.
Abu Nidal knew that if he hit at Western targets while he was still in Damascus, Syria would come under intense Western pressure to expel him. It had barely managed to avoid the consequences of his terrorist attacks on Jordan and on the Gulf sheikhdoms, but it would be a different matter if he set off bombs in Europe. The point was that he did not want to be seen to run away from Syria: He wanted Syria to evict him. Thus he could pose as a Palestinian hero who had been punished for not taking Syria's side in the War of the Camps. Expelled from Syria, he could then regain control of a movement that, in Lebanon, had grown too big -- and too overt -- for his liking. These were among the reasons for his murderous spectaculars of the mid-1980s.
VARIETIES OF TERROR
There is hardly a player in the Middle East that has not at one time or another resorted to terror. Iraq's government under the Ba'ath was based on terror, as Samir al-Khalil detailed in Republic of Fear (1989). Armenians used terror against Turks to wring from them an admission of guilt for the genocide of their people. Shi'ites in Lebanon used terror in support of Iran during its war with Iraq, and to frustrate Israeli attempts to dominate them. Shi'ite fighters harried the Israeli army, blew up the American embassy, slaughtered American marines, took Western hostages. Syria used terror against its own inhabitants at Hama when they challenged the regime in 1982; it encouraged its proxies to use terror to drive Israel out of Lebanon; and it used terror against Jordan to draw it back from the brink of making a separate deal with Israel.
Israel has also used terror. Even before the creation of the state, Zionist terrorists killed Lord Moyne, the British resident minister in Cairo, in 1944, and very nearly killed the high commissioner in Palestine, Sir Harold MacMichael. In the middle of the Palestine war, the extremist LHI (or the Stern Gang, as it was known, after its founder) murdered the UN mediator, Count Bernadotte, who had negotiated a truce and was attempting to make it permanent -- which would have limited Israel's further expansion. In his book Bernadotte in Palestine, 1948 (1989), Amitzur Ilan shows that LHI's leaders, Nathan Yelin-Mor, Dr. Israel Eldred, and Yitzhak Shamir, were directly responsible for the assassination. As we have seen, Israeli agents bombed Jewish targets in Baghdad in 1950 to terrorize Iraqi Jews into fleeing to Israel. In 1954, an Israeli undercover unit bombed the U.S. information center in Cairo in an attempt to damage U.S.-Arab relations. This was the notorious Lavon affair, named after Israel's defense minister at the time. From 1967 to 1972, Yitzhak Shamir and Geula Cohen, both former terrorists, actively encouraged Rabbi Meir Kahane's Jewish Defense League to harass, sabotage, and bomb Soviet and other targets in the United States and Europe, including the Jewish impresario Sol Hurok, who was promoting Soviet artists in America. Hurok's secretary died in one attack. As Robert I. Friedman has related in his biography of Kahane, The False Prophet (1990), the object was to put U.S.-Soviet relations under such strain that rather than risk damaging detente, Moscow would release hundreds of thousands of Jews, many of whom would have to settle in Israel -- a strategy that was to bear fruit in due course.
For decades, Israel has armed the Kurds against Baghdad, the southern Sudanese against Khartoum, and the Maronites in Lebanon against the Palestinians, as Conor Gearty has suggested in Terror (1991). And the same charge of state terrorism must be made against its long record of assassinating scientists engaged on Arab arms programs, beginning with its attacks on German scientists working for Nasser's Egypt in the 1960s. The latest such victim was Dr. Gerald Bull, the Canadian inventor of Iraq's "supergun," who was killed by Israeli agents in Brussels in March 1990 (as described by William Lowther in his book Arms and the Man: Dr. Gerald Bull, Iraq and the Supergun ). Moreover, Israel has bombed, shelled, and dynamited Lebanese towns and villages, intercepted vessels in international waters and aircraft in international airspace, launched long-range raids against Baghdad and Tunis, and kidnapped, tortured, and imprisoned many suspected opponents.
But whereas Israel's terror always served long-term political goals, Abu Nidal's was usually fitful and purposeless, although several of his attacks were aimed at securing the release of some of his men held in European jails after earlier, and often botched, operations, and his attacks on European targets in the mid-1980s were, as I suggested, intended to embarrass Syria so as to explain his departure from that country. Israel's terror was coherent, professional, and largely successful in achieving its objectives; Abu Nidal's was incoherent, incompetent, and invariably counterproductive to Palestinian interests. Israel wanted to smash the PLO, quell the Lebanese resistance, maintain its military edge, preempt potential threats to its security, and destabilize its Arab environment. Abu Nidal's terror took the form of "services rendered" to his various Arab hosts or exercises in extortion inspired by no strategic vision.
His claim that he wanted to prevent a compromise between the PLO and Israel so as to recover Palestine was not a credible objective. The vast imbalance of strength between Israel and its opponents made such a pursuit suicidal. By degrading the Palestinian liberation struggle to mere criminal violence, Abu Nidal offered Israel the pretext for refusing to negotiate and for giving the Palestinians nothing but the sword.
TANGLED THREADS OF VIOLENCE
At this stage in my researches I decided to make another list -- this time focusing on international acts of violence that were related to Middle Eastern players -- to see if I could discern a pattern as I had been able to do from the earlier list. I began with the attack on Argov in 1982 but looked more closely at the period 1984-86, when terror in the Middle East was at its height. I marked operations attributed to Abu Nidal with an asterisk so as to set his operations against the background of violence of others.
* June 3, 1982 -- Israel's ambassador to Britain, Shlomo Argov, is shot and seriously wounded in London by an Abu Nidal gunman.
June 6, 1982 -- Israel invades Lebanon, committing to battle 76,000 men; 1,250 tanks; and 1,500 armored personnel carriers, supported by the air force and navy.
June 9, 1982 -- Israel destroys Syria's entire SAM air defense network in the Bekaa Valley, the most prestigious symbol of Syria's presence in Lebanon.
June 13, 1982, to August 12, 1982 -- Israel bombs and shells Beirut from air, land, and sea.
September 1, 1982 -- Over ten thousand Palestinian fighters are forced to leave Beirut.
September 1, 1982 -- President Reagan announces his "Reagan Plan" for Middle East peace. He rules out permanent Israeli control of the occupied territories, calls for an immediate freeze on settlements, and pronounces in favor of Palestinian self-government "in association with Jordan." Israel's Prime Minister Begin says it is "the saddest day of his life."
September 14, 1982 -- President Bashir Gemayel, groomed by Israel to rule in Lebanon, is assassinated, almost certainly with the complicity of Syrian agents. He is succeeded by his brother Amin.
September 16-18, 1982 -- To avenge Bashir, Christian militiamen massacre over a thousand Palestinian men, women, and children in Sabra and Shatila camps, under the eyes of Israeli troops.
November 11, 1982 -- The Israeli army headquarters at Tyre is blown up, killing sixty-seven Israelis -- part of a rising tide of hit-and-run attacks by the Lebanese resistance.
December 28, 1982 -- Israel-Lebanon talks open under American auspices, with a view to concluding a bilateral peace treaty.
April 18, 1983 -- The U.S. embassy in Beirut is blown up by a suicide bomber driving a truck packed with explosives.
May 17, 1983 -- An American-brokered accord between Israel and Lebanon is signed, giving Israel a wide measure of control over its northern neighbor. Syria and its allies in Lebanon declare war on the accord.
August 29, 1983 -- Demoralized by Israel's mounting casualties in Lebanon, Menachem Begin resigns as prime minister of Israel.
September 3-25, 1983 -- Israel pulls its forces out of Lebanon's Shuf Mountains, whereupon Syrian-backed Druze and Shi'ite forces expel Israel's Maronite allies from the area and lay siege to the presidential palace. Hundreds of civilians are massacred and tens of thousands displaced from their homes.
October 16, 1983 -- In a clash with a vast crowd of Shi'ites gathered in South Lebanon for the annual Ashura ceremonies, Israeli troops kill many civilians. Shi'ite anger is directed at Israel's ally America, as well as at Israel itself.
October 23, 1983 -- A car-bomb attack on the U.S. Marine barracks near Beirut airport kills 241 men.
* October 1983-November 1985 -- Syria uses Abu Nidal to wage a terrorist war on Jordan to deter King Hussein from entering into separate negotiations with Israel. (See chapter 6 for details.)
November 1983 -- U.S. secretary of state George Shultz revives a U.S.-Israel agreement on strategic cooperation (first concluded in 1981, suspended when Israel annexed the Golan Heights, but activated in 1982 by Alexander Haig), giving Israel wide opportunities to influence U.S. Middle East policy.
December-January 1983-84 -- American war planes and the battleship New Jersey attack Syrian-backed forces in the Lebanese mountains.
December 4, 1983 -- Eight more U.S. Marines are killed in Lebanon, and two U.S. planes are shot down by Syrian gunfire.
January 26, 1984 -- In his state of the union address, Ronald Reagan declares: "We must not be driven from our objectives for peace in Lebanon by state-sponsored terrorism."
February 29, 1984 -- The Israel-Lebanon accord of May 17, 1983, is abrogated. President Amin Gemayel travels to Damascus to pay homage to President Assad.
March 1984 -- William Buckley, CIA station chief in Beirut, is kidnapped and killed in June. Several other Westerners are taken hostage in Lebanon by Shi'ite militants between 1985 and 1988.
April 3, 1984 -- President Reagan signs a directive authorizing reprisals and preemptive strikes against "terrorists." Pinpointing Syria, Libya, and Iran, George Shultz declares that "state-sponsored terrorism is in fact a form of war," a view echoed by Vice President George Bush and CIA director William Casey.
April 17, 1984 -- A British policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, is killed when a gunman inside the Libyan People's Bureau in London opens fire on anti-Qaddafi demonstrators. Britain breaks off diplomatic relations with Libya.
May 23, 1984 -- Israel's state attorney's office indicts twenty-five Israeli settlers for involvement in a Jewish terrorist underground. They include men who car-bombed and maimed Palestinian mayors on the West Bank in June 1980.
In the summer of 1984, Israel, which had for years labeled all Palestinian fighters "terrorists" so as to deny them legitimacy, greatly expanded its exploitation of this issue, aiming to shape American attitudes. By this time, both the United States and Israel had recognized the grave setback to their policy in Lebanon. The Israelis were being driven out, while the American embassy had been blown up and American marines slaughtered in their barracks. The collapse of American diplomacy was evident in the abrogation of the Israel-Lebanon accord, which George Shultz had brokered.
The new focus was on "state-sponsored terrorism," the phrase used by Ronald Reagan and George Shultz and echoed by Vice President George Bush and CIA director William Casey. America's policy in the Arab-Israeli dispute would thereafter be limited largely to counterterrorism rather than an attempt to trace the roots of violence to the dispossession of the Palestinians, to Israel's invasion of Lebanon, or to the Shi'ites' burning sense of injustice.
President Reagan was apparently greatly influenced, at this time, by the proceedings of a conference organized in Washington in June 1984 by Israel's Jonathan Institute. Edited by Israel's UN ambassador, Benjamin Netanyahu, these proceedings were later published in a book titled Terrorism: How the West Can Win. Like Claire Sterling's The Terror Network in the early Reagan years, the conference papers became the master text of America's obsession with terrorism in Reagan's second term. Part of an elaborate campaign of psychological warfare directed against the PLO, Syria, and Libya, the book helped persuade American opinion that Israel's enemies were also America's, that Arabs in dispute with Israel were terrorists, and that brute force against them was legitimate and desirable.
In a speech at the conference on June 26, 1984, Israel's defense minister, Moshe Arens, called for the closing of all PLO offices around the world because they are "nothing more than support centers for terrorist operations." He identified Syria as the key terrorist state whose "worldwide intelligence apparatus" made use of Palestinians, Armenians, Japanese, and even Thais!
I continued my list (once again marking Abu Nidal's operations with an asterisk):
June 29, 1984 -- The same month in which it mounts its new counter-terrorism propaganda campaign, Israel intercepts a ferry boat sailing in international waters from Cyprus to Beirut and detains nine passengers.
July 18, 1984 -- Israel intercepts a Lebanese merchant ship off the port of Tripoli, escorts it to Haifa, and interrogates the crew.
*March 24, 1984 -- A bomb explodes in the forecourt of the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman two days before a planned visit to Jordan by Queen Elizabeth of Britain. Abu Nidal claims responsibility.
*March 28, 1984 -- Ken Whitty, a cultural-affairs counselor at the British embassy in Athens, is killed when a gunman opens fire on his car. In Beirut, the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Muslims (an Abu Nidal front) claims responsibility.
*November 27, 1984 -- Percy Norris, Britain's deputy high commissioner in Bombay, is shot dead. In a phone call to a London news agency, the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Muslims claims responsibility.
*November 29, 1984 -- The British Airways office in Beirut is bombed. The Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Muslims again claims responsibility.
The killing of British diplomats in Athens and Bombay and the bombing of the British Airways office in Beirut, like the later kidnapping of a British journalist and the attack on British tourists at an Athens hotel, were crude attempts by Abu Nidal to put pressure on the British government to release four of his men held in British jails -- three of them in connection with the Argov affair, the fourth, Ramzi Awad, sentenced for smuggling arms into Britain.
February 12, 1985 -- In London, three Israelis believed to be Mossad agents and a Nigerian are given prison sentences ranging from ten to fourteen years for kidnapping and drugging Umaro Dikko, Nigeria's former transport minister, in July 1984. Dikko had been sought by the Nigerian authorities for embezzling millions of dollars.
February 21, 1985 -- Israeli army units raid eleven Shi'ite villages east of Tyre, killing and wounding many civilians and using bulldozers to crush cars and buildings.
March 8, 1985 -- A massive car bomb kills eighty people near the Beirut apartment of Hizballah's "spiritual guide," Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. He escapes injury. Two years later The Washington Post reported that the explosion was the work of a CIA-trained team under a Reagan-authorized covert action program. In Veil, his book on the CIA, Bob Woodward wrote that CIA director Casey solicited $3 million from the Saudis for the operation.
March 10, 1985 -- A suicide car bomber kills at least twelve Israeli troops and wounds fourteen others in an attack on a convoy near the Lebanese border.
March 21, 1985 -- Israeli army units raid nine villages in South Lebanon, near Nabatiya and Sidon, killing and wounding scores of people and blowing up many houses.
March 24, 1985 -- The Washington Post reports that CIA-backed "counterterrorist" squads have been established in at least twelve countries, including Lebanon.
* March 28, 1985 -- Alec Collett, a British journalist working with the UN relief agency UNRWA is kidnapped by the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Muslims, which demands the release of its members held in Britain.
* May 24, 1985 -- Egyptian police arrest an Abu Nidal agent who was planning to detonate a truckload of explosives outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo. He is said to have received his instructions from the head of Libyan intelligence in Rome.
June 14, 1985 -- A TWA airliner on a flight from Athens to Rome is hijacked by Shi'ite militants and flown back and forth across the Mediterranean between Algiers and Beirut. A U.S. navy diver on board is murdered. The hijackers demand the release of 766 detainees, mostly Lebanese Shi'ites, from Israel's Atlit detention camp.
* July 1, 1985 -- A bomb destroys the Madrid office of British Airways. In Beirut, the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Moslems claims responsibility.
* August 7, 1985 -- A bomb attack on a hotel in the resort of Glyfada, near Athens, injures thirteen, including six British citizens. The attack was claimed by the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Moslems, which alleged that the hotel had been used by British groups as a "spy center against the Arabs and Islam."
September 11, 1985 -- Israel intercepts a boat in international waters between Cyprus and Lebanon and kidnaps Faisal Abu Sharah, a senior commander in Force 17, a PLO security unit. He is taken to Israel for interrogation and imprisonment.
* September 18, 1985 -- A grenade attack on the Cafe de Paris on Rome's Via Veneto injures forty people. The Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Moslems claims responsibility, calling the cafe "a den of American-British intelligence services."
* September 18, 1985 -- Michel Nimri, a Jordanian journalist known for his support for PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, is killed in Athens by an Abu Nidal gunman.
September 25, 1985 -- To avenge the kidnapping by Israel of Faisal Abu Sharah, three Israeli civilians are murdered on a yacht in Cyprus by gunmen from the PLO's Force 17. Israel says the victims were tourists; the Palestinians say they were Mossad agents monitoring Palestinian naval traffic out of Cyprus.
October 1, 1985 -- To avenge the three Israelis murdered in Cyprus, Israeli F-16's raid PLO headquarters near Tunis, killing fifty-six Palestinians and fifteen Tunisians and wounding about one hundred others. Arafat narrowly escapes death.
October 9, 1985 -- In response to the Israeli raid on Tunis, an extremist Palestinian faction, Abu'l Abbas's Popular Liberation Front, hijacks an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, and murders Leon Klinghoffer, a crippled American Jew on board.
November 7, 1985 -- After a meeting with Egypt's President Mubarak, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat publishes the "Cairo Declaration," in which he condemns all forms of terrorism.
November 9, 1985 -- Israel shoots down two Syrian MiG-23s over Syrian territory as they make for home after approaching an Israeli surveillance aircraft flying over Lebanon.
November 21, 1985 -- Jonathan Jay Pollard, a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, is arrested in Washington on charges of spying for Israel.
* November 23, 1985 -- An Egyptian airliner is hijacked by four Abu Nidal gunmen on a flight from Athens to Cairo and is forced to land in Malta. Six passengers are killed before Egyptian commandos storm the plane the following day. Of the ninety-seven passengers who embarked in Athens, sixty die in the ensuing fire and confusion.
December 1985-February 1987 -- Encouraged by Britain's prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, Israel's Shimon Peres tries to draw King Hussein into bilateral peace talks free from Syrian "interference."
* December 24, 1985 -- Abu Nidal gunmen open fire and hurl grenades at El Al ticket counters at Leonardo Da Vinci Airport in Rome and Schwechat Airport in Vienna. The seven gunmen, four in Rome and three in Vienna, kill eighteen persons and wound at least 110 others before four of their number are killed by security guards and the other three are wounded and captured.
January 7, 1986 -- President Ronald Reagan says there is "irrefutable evidence" of Colonel Qaddafi's support for Abu Nidal. He calls the Rome and Vienna attacks "only the latest in a series of brutal terrorist acts committed with Qaddafi's backing."
He signs an executive order declaring that the Libyan government's actions "constitute a threat to the national security and foreign policy" of the United States. The order ends "virtually all economic activities" between the U.S. and Libya.
On January 8, a second executive order freezes all Libyan government assets in the U.S. and in branches of U.S. banks abroad. "If these steps do not end Qaddafi's terrorism, I promise you that further steps will be taken," the president declares.
January 11, 1986 -- Brig. Gen. Gideon Machanaimi, an adviser on counterterrorism to Israel's prime minister, Shimon Peres, says the best way to combat terrorism is to kill terrorist leaders. He declares that Abu Nidal is living in Libya. But Israel takes no action against him.
January 12, 1986 -- Italian prosecutors issue an international arrest warrant for Abu Nidal on charges of mass murder, and on February 12, 1988, he is sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for the Rome airport attack.
January 12, 1986 -- PLO chairman Yasser Arafat again condemns all forms of terrorism directed at innocent people. He adds that some Arab secret services recruit Palestinians for terrorist operations.
January 5, 1986 -- Colonel Qaddafi denies that Abu Nidal is in Libya. He warns President Reagan against attacking his country and threatens to send suicide squads to attack targets inside the United States.
February 4, 1986 -- In Tripoli, Qaddafi chairs an urgently convened conference of the "National Command of Revolutionary Forces in the Arab World," which undertakes to strike at American interests if the U.S. attacks Libya.
February 4, 1986 -- In an attempt to capture Palestinian leaders, Israeli fighters intercept and divert to Israel a Libyan executive jet carrying home to Damascus a Syrian delegation led by Abdallah al-Ahmar, assistant secretary-general of the Ba'ath party. In the Security Council, the U.S. vetoes condemnation of Israel's "act of piracy."
March 13, 1986 -- A massive car-bomb explosion in central Damascus is variously blamed on Israeli agents, the CIA, Iraq, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
March 23, 1986 -- A U.S. Navy task force off Libya begins "freedom of navigation" exercises in the disputed waters of the Gulf of Sidra. When Libya fires missiles at American war planes, the U.S. responds by attacking Libyan ships and missile installations on the Libyan mainland.
April 2, 1986 -- A bomb on board a TWA jet flying from Rome to Athens tears a hole in the fuselage. Four Americans are sucked out of the plane, which manages to land in Athens.
April 5, 1986 -- A bomb at La Belle discotheque in West Berlin, popular with U.S. troops, kills two people, including an American serviceman, and injures about two hundred others, including more than sixty Americans. U.S. officials say there is "strong circumstantial evidence" linking Libya to the bombing.
April 15, 1986 -- U.S. aircraft, some carrier-based, others flying from Britain, bomb Colonel Qaddafi's home compound in Tripoli and other Libyan targets. Qaddafi escapes unharmed but dozens of Libyan civilians, including his adopted baby daughter, are killed.
April 16, 1986 -- Bombs on trucks and trains in different parts of Syria kill 144 people and wound many more. Some observers blame the attacks on a dirty-tricks outfit set up by Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council and Amiram Nir, Shimon Peres's counterterrorist expert, to strike back at the alleged sponsors of Middle East terrorism.
April 17, 1986 -- In response to the U.S. attack on Libya, two Britons and an American -- Leigh Douglas, Philip Padfield, and Peter Kilburn -- who had earlier been kidnapped in Lebanon are shot dead by their captors.
* April 17, 1986 -- An Israeli security guard at London's Heathrow Airport discovers Semtex explosives in the false bottom of a bag that Nizar Hindawi, a Jordanian recruited by Syrian intelligence, gave to his pregnant Irish girlfriend to take on board an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Hindawi is arrested after implicating the Syrian embassy. As we shall see, Abu Nidal was involved.
* April 23, 1986 -- In retaliation for Britain's role in the U.S. attack on Libya, the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Moslems releases a videotape in Lebanon purporting to show the "execution" of Alec Collett, the British journalist kidnapped in March 1985.
May 14, 1986 -- Colonel Qaddafi calls on Cyprus to close down British bases on the island which he says helped the U.S. to launch "its vile, barbaric, vicious, Crusader aggression against us."
May 17, 1986 -- In an interview with The Washington Post, President Assad of Syria denies any connection between Syria and terrorism. In a speech in Athens on May 28, he calls for an "international forum" to distinguish between terrorism and legitimate acts of national resistance.
* August 3, 1986 -- Rocket and mortar shells are fired at a British military base at Akrotiri, Cyprus, injuring two British women and a Cypriot. In Lebanon, the "Nasserite Unified Organization-Cairo" (an Abu Nidal front) claims responsibility.
* September 5, 1986 -- Gunmen seize a Pan Am jumbo jet at Karachi airport with 358 passengers and crew on board. When Pakistani troops storm the plane, a score of passengers are killed. The hijackers surrender. On September 10, U.S. defense secretary Caspar Weinberger accuses the Abu Nidal organization of responsibility.
* September 6, 1986 -- Two Abu Nidal gunmen kill twenty-one Jewish worshipers in an attack on the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul during the morning Sabbath service. Though Abu Nidal claims responsibility, the Israelis do not retaliate.
September 30, 1986 -- Mordechai Vanunu, a Moroccan-born Israeli nuclear technician who sold secrets of Israel's Dimona bomb-making plant to the Sunday Times of London, is lured by a female Mossad agent from London to Rome, where he is kidnapped and taken to Israel. He is put on trial and given an eighteen- year prison sentence.
* October 12, 1986 -- The British Home Office confirms that six persons suspected of being members of Abu Nidal's organization have been asked to leave the country.
October 24, 1986 -- Nizar Hindawi, convicted of attempting to blow up an El Al airliner in April, is sentenced to forty-five years' imprisonment, the longest sentence in British criminal history. Within hours of the verdict, Britain breaks off relations with Syria.
November 3, 1986 -- A Beirut newspaper, al-Shira, publishes the first report of the covert U.S. arms-for- hostages trade with Iran. The subsequent Irangate scandal shows how Israel drew the U.S. into covert dealings with Iran in order to provide cover for its own secret arms sales to Iran, designed to keep the Gulf war going, tie down Iraq, and so prevent the emergence of an Iraqi-Syrian "eastern front."
The first conclusion to emerge from this list is that Abu Nidal was hardly the only or even the most dangerous terrorist at large in the mid-1980s. But what distinguished him from most of the others -- the individual as well as the state terrorists -- was that none of his attacks seemed to be in the Palestinian cause. His motives appeared to be either self-serving or mercenary, and to be so reckless as to guarantee a hostile backlash. Abu Nidal had come a long way from his early commitment to the Palestine cause. He had become a gun for hire, a nihilist.
The attempt to blow up a truckload of explosives outside the American embassy in Cairo in May 1985 and the hijacking of the Egypt Air Boeing to Malta that November were both anti-Egyptian mercenary operations carried out on Libya's behalf. They should be seen in the context of the quarrel raging at that time between Cairo and Tripoli: Egypt had accused Libya of sending saboteurs to kill its citizens as well as Libyan exiles, and destabilize its government, while Libya retorted by expelling Egyptian workers and denouncing Egypt's "treaty of submission" with Israel.
Defectors from Abu Nidal's organization later told me that Abu Nidal simply lent his services to Libya in the hijacking of the Egyptian plane. Using diplomatic passports to avoid controls, members of Libya's People's Bureau in Greece delivered the weapons to Abu Nidal's team in the transit lounge of Athens airport. The team then carried the weapons on board and took control of the plane when in flight.
The original plan was to fly the plane to Libya, but fearing adverse publicity, the Libyans decided at the last minute not to let it land and diverted it to Malta. An enraged Mubarak deployed troops on the Libyan frontier and sent commandos to Valletta to storm the plane, with great loss of life.
To divert attention from himself, Abu Nidal claimed responsibility in the name of the Organization of Egyptian Revolutionaries, saying that the aim of the operation had been to free the group's prisoners from Egyptian jails. In fact this radical Egyptian group, connected in the Arab mind with Khalid Abd al-Nasser, son of the late Egyptian president, had nothing to do with the hijacking. But Abu Nidal wanted to cash in on the support it had gained for its attacks on Israeli and American officials in Cairo between 1984 and 1987, in which two Israelis were killed. (In 1991, an Egyptian court acquitted Khalid Abd al-Nasser of channeling funds to Egypt's Revolution, but sentenced the organization's leader, Mahmud Nur al-Din, to life imprisonment with hard labor.)
As for the rocket-and-mortar attack on Britain's Akrotiri, Cyprus, base in August 1986, this too was a mercenary operation on Libya's behalf, and followed closely on Qaddafi's speech calling on the Cypriots to close down the British bases. Sources inside Abu Nidal's organization told me that the weapons were brought into Cyprus by Libyan diplomatic bag and that the small boat used by the team to land on the island and then escape from it was also Libyan. Hani Sammur, a well-trained officer of Abu Nidal's organization, led the attack, which was directed from Lebanon by the then head of the Intelligence Directorate, Abd al-Rahman Isa, whose taped recollections were given to me by Abu Iyad. One member of the team, Hisham Sa'id, was arrested. Once again, Abu Nidal claimed responsibility in the name of a nationalist-sounding Egyptian group, the Nasserite Unified Organization-Cairo. But the Egyptian connection was wholly bogus.
ROME AND VIENNA
The most spectacular of Abu Nidal's operations at this time -- and the most destructive to the Palestinian cause -- were the attacks in late December 1985 on the El Al ticket counters at Rome and Vienna airports. Their random cruelty marked them as typical Abu Nidal operations.
Austria and Italy were the two European countries with which the PLO had had the closest relations, and with their encouragement, a European-Palestinian dialogue had been developing satisfactorily. Behind the scenes, leaders of these countries were attempting to bring together Palestinians and Israelis interested in reaching a peaceful understanding. The blow fell at precisely this moment, and it was inevitable that the PLO would assume that the object of the attack had been to force Italy and Austria, under pressure from their own public opinion, to sever their ties with the PLO.
The gunmen were Palestinian youngsters, the bitter products of refugee camps, who had been brainwashed into throwing away their lives in what they supposed to be a worthwhile cause. The only gunman to survive the Rome attack had lost his father, a taxi driver, in the Sabra and Shatila camp massacres. Another, who died in the attack, was a certain Muhammad Nazzal who, I was told, was actually in possession of a valid Lebanese passport and a visa for the United States, where he hoped to start a new life. Before setting out, he had asked the organization to give him some military training, which he thought might come in handy. It was during a brief course in the Bekaa Valley that he was persuaded to take part in the senseless operation that cost him his life.
Doped on amphetamines, the young killers had been instructed to throw their grenades and open fire blindly at the check-in counters. They had been told, I later learned, that the people they saw standing at the counters were Israeli pilots in civilian clothes, returning home from a training mission -- the same pilots who had bombed their families in South Lebanon. This is what Abu Nidal later claimed to believe when his associates demanded an explanation for the operations. Fatah sent its own intelligence officers to Italy and Austria to investigate his claim but, of course, found that it did not stand up.
To this day, no one in the Palestinian movement knows why these operations were mounted, but a former close aide of Abu Nidal told me that the original plan was to hit not just Rome and Vienna but the Frankfurt airport as well -- with the help of Ahmad Jibril, head of the PFLP-General Command and one of the most effective military officers in the whole guerrilla movement, who had a long record of anti-Israeli operations. The Frankfurt job had been assigned to Jibril, who at the time was competing with Abu Nidal for Qaddafi's favors, perhaps hoping to escape his dependence on Syria.
But shortly before the agreed date for the attack, Abu Nidal changed his mind. Jealous of Jibril, or perhaps fearing that Jibril's group had been penetrated and might expose him, Abu Nidal decided to go ahead on his own. Angrily, Jibril complained that Abu Nidal had gone back on their agreement and criticized the way the Rome and Vienna operations had been conducted: Since the weapons had been smuggled into the transit area at the airports, the strikes could have been made with greater precision and inflicted more damage on the Israelis.
When I discussed these operations with Abu Iyad in Tunis in the summer of 1990, he told me that after Rome and Vienna he had given perhaps twenty press interviews to explain that the PLO had nothing to do with these atrocities. But it was not easy. "When such horrible things take place, ordinary people are left thinking that all Palestinians are criminals," he said. The damage to the PLO was immense.
He told me that most people in the West, and even many Arabs, could hardly distinguish between Abu Nidal's Fatah and Arafat's. When Abu Nidal perpetrated a massacre, all anyone remembered was that Palestinians had done it -- and that the PLO was a liar. Its claim to have renounced terror was obviously a fraud. "Abu Nidal, and all those who plot with him, want people to doubt our word -- and I fear they have succeeded," Abu Iyad said.
"How can we convince Europeans of the justice of our cause?" he added. "How can we convince Gulf Arabs that the murder of Ghubash [the UAE minister of state killed by Abu Nidal in October 1977] had nothing to do with us? How can we convince the family of the UAE ambassador murdered in Paris that we don't have blood on our hands? I saw their faces when I went to pay my condolences. How do we convince Kuwaitis that the bombs in their cafes were not thrown by us? In their minds, all Palestinians are guilty."
Former members of Abu Nidal's organization told me that Libyan intelligence took part in the planning and supplied the weapons, which, in traditional fashion, were given to the gunmen by a contact man at the very last moment. The Tunisian passports used by the gunmen were passports that Libya had confiscated from Tunisian workers expelled from Libya in 1985. The Libyan news agency, JANA, hailed the attacks as "heroic operations carried out by the sons of the martyrs of Sabra and Shatila." Qaddafi himself was too crafty to discuss such operations with Abu Nidal, but his intelligence officers, according to my informants, certainly did -- men who specialized in assassination and terror, like Sayyid Qaddaf al-Damm, Abdallah Hijazi, and Salih al-Druqi.
On Abu Nidal's side, the chief planner of both the Rome and Vienna operations was Dr. Ghassan al-Ali, head of the Intelligence Directorate's Committee for Special Missions. His colleague Alaa directed the operations on the ground and was in Vienna at the time, watching things from afar. These men were, of course, on my short list of possible Israeli penetration agents.
Abu Iyad was convinced that in the case of Rome and Vienna, Abu Nidal's organization had been manipulated by Israeli agents. Only Israel stood to gain from such outrages, he said. He didn't know whether Abu Nidal himself had been recruited by Mossad, but he believed that his criminal and embittered character made him exceptionally vulnerable to external manipulation.
When Abu Iyad told me this, I could not believe -- and still cannot believe -- that the Israelis would deliberately attack El Al ticket counters and kill their own people. Israel would not massacre Jews, whatever political or propaganda advantages could be derived from such an operation.
Yet the puzzling and inexplicable fact was that although everyone knew Rome and Vienna were Abu Nidal's operations and that he had moved his headquarters to Libya, which was perfectly accessible to an Israeli strike, Israel did not retaliate -- not against Libya or against Abu Nidal or against the men directly involved, Dr. Ghassan and Alaa. If, as Abu Iyad suspected, these men were the Mossad link, it was hard to explain why they had attacked Israeli targets. But they had, and Israel, uniquely in this case, had done nothing to punish them. But whoever ordered the attacks, the intended political effect was clear: to stop short the developing contacts between Italy and Austria and the PLO for an accommodation with Israel.
As the principal victims of Abu Nidal's terror, both in the number of men killed and in the loss of reputation, the PLO was particularly concerned to discover who had penetrated and manipulated Abu Nidal's organization. The Rome and Vienna operations had created violent anti-Arab feeling in the West; they had enabled Israel to make political capital out of the terrorist issue; and -- together with the bomb at La Belle discotheque in Berlin, in which Abu Nidal had no part -- they had prepared the ground for the American attack on Libya of April 1986.
Abu Iyad told me: "When I met Abu Nidal in 1987, I asked him about Rome and Vienna, but he couldn't tell the story straight. He floundered and kept contradicting himself. He couldn't justify the operations at all.
"I then told him the following story. On a visit to Austria in 1988, I attended a party given by the Friends of Palestine and was struck by a handsome woman who spoke with enthusiasm about the Palestine cause. A former foreign minister of Austria, who was present, turned to me and said that the lady had actually been one of the passengers at Vienna airport. A grenade had landed at her feet but had failed to explode. Yet she had remained a friend of the Palestinians! 'They do these things out of despair,' she cried. 'I now support them more than ever!'"
When Abu Iyad finished this story, Abu Nidal could say only, "If twenty more had been killed, it wouldn't have mattered. They're all Zionists!"
According to Abu Iyad, the American raid on Libya that hit Qaddafi's residence and other sensitive installations could have found the targets for their smart bombs only with the help of someone inside Libya. On April 17, 1986, The Washington Post reported that Israeli intelligence had provided continuous updates on Qaddafi's whereabouts, the last at 11:15 P.M. Libyan time, just two hours and forty-five minutes before the U.S. attack began. Abu Nidal's organization, working closely with Libyan intelligence, could easily have given this information to the Israelis.
In Abu Iyad's admittedly obsessive view, Libya and other sponsors of Abu Nidal put themselves at grave risk by allowing such a suspect organization to operate freely on their territory, to use their facilities and enjoy access to their intelligence services. The implication he drew -- and in view of his hatred of Abu Nidal, it was a self-serving one -- was that Abu Nidal's organization provided Israel with a means to penetrate not just the Palestinian movement but Arab society as a whole. Libya's involvement with Abu Nidal, he believed, had undermined its security and exposed it to physical attack.
THE HINDAWI AFFAIR
At London's Heathrow Airport on April 17, 1986, an Israeli security guard discovered 1.5 kilograms of Semtex, a powerful plastic explosive of Czechoslovak manufacture, in the false bottom of a bag that an Irishwoman, Ann Murphy, was about to carry onto an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. The bomb's detonator was disguised as a pocket calculator. Ann Murphy, a chambermaid at a London hotel, had been given the bag by her Jordanian boyfriend, Nizar Hindawi, by whom she was five months pregnant. He had promised to join her in Israel, where they were to be married. The thirty-two-year- old Hindawi had taken his fiancee to the airport in a taxi, priming the bomb on the way by inserting a battery in the calculator. It was timed to go off while the aircraft was in flight.
Leaving his fiancee at Heathrow at about 8 A.M. on April 17, Hindawi traveled back into London and later that morning boarded a Syrian Arab Airlines bus to return to the airport to catch a 2 P.M. flight to Damascus. But before the bus set off, news broke that a bomb had been discovered at Heathrow. Hindawi left the bus hurriedly and went to the Syrian embassy, where he asked the ambassador, Dr. Lutfallah Haidar, for assistance.
I had investigated this terrorist incident, which implicated the Syrians, when I was researching my biography of President Assad. Could Assad have known about it? Given his anxiousness to avoid war with Israel, I could hardly believe that he would sanction the Heathrow bomb. Had the destruction of an Israeli civilian aircraft been traced to Syria, Assad's country and regime would have been at immense and immediate risk.
What I did not know then, but what I learned in 1990 from a well-placed defector in Tunis, was that Abu Nidal's Technical Committee had manufactured the suitcase bomb and had delivered it to Syrian air force intelligence, the outfit that sponsored Abu Nidal in Syria. Air force intelligence then sent the bomb by Syrian diplomatic bag to London, where it was handed over to Hindawi. Apart from Hindawi, the only people thought to be in the know were two or three officers in Syrian air force intelligence, including its chief, General Muhammad al-Khuly, and two or three of Abu Nidal's members.
It was widely supposed that Khuly's motive was revenge for an incident two months earlier, when Israel, hoping to capture Palestinian guerrilla leaders, had intercepted and forced down in Israel the executive jet returning Syrian officials to Damascus. On this interpretation, the Heathrow affair seemed to be a bungled rogue operation by an uncontrolled branch of Syrian intelligence. However, Abu Nidal's involvement gave it another dimension.
Hindawi was known to Dr. Haidar, the Syrian ambassador in London. In 1985, some months before the Heathrow incident, Haidar had recommended Hindawi to Syrian intelligence as a London-based free-lance writer and opponent of the Jordanian regime who might come in useful in the campaign Syria was then waging against Jordan. (What Haidar did not know was that his radio message to Damascus about Hindawi was intercepted by British intelligence -- and most likely circulated to a number of countries, including Israel, cooperating with Britain on counterterrorism.) So when Hindawi showed up at the Syrian embassy asking for help, the ambassador, presuming him to be a Syrian agent in some sort of trouble, passed him on to his security men, who took him to their lodgings, where they attempted to alter his appearance by cutting and dyeing his hair.
But early the next morning, April 18, for reasons that are unclear, Hindawi fled the Syrians and, after contacting his brother, a clerk at the Qatar embassy in London, gave himself up to the British police.
He was interrogated intensively for a number of days, during which his sleep was interrupted. He then confessed that he had met General Khuly in Damascus in January 1986 and that a month later one of Khuly's officers, Colonel Haitham Sa'id, had given him a Syrian service passport in a false name and instructed him to place a bomb on an El Al aircraft in London. He was sent to Britain on a practice run. On his return to Damascus, Sa'id had shown him the suitcase bomb and told him how to prime it. On April 5 he was sent back to London and was given the bomb and detonator by a man he thought was an employee of Syrian Arab Airlines.
This confession was to be the basis of the prosecution's case at Hindawi's trial at the Old Bailey in October 1986. However, in court, Hindawi retracted his confession and claimed he was the victim of a conspiracy, probably by Israeli agents. He alleged that the British detective sergeant who had arrested him and taken part in his interrogation had threatened to turn him over to the Mossad and had told him that his father and mother, who lived in London, were also under arrest. He complained that the police had invented statements attributed to him and had forced him to sign them unread.
Unimpressed, a British jury found him guilty, and he was sent to jail for forty-five years, the longest sentence in British criminal history. Within hours of the verdict, Britain broke off relations with Syria, and urged its allies to do the same.
However, to Mrs. Thatcher's anger, the French prime minister, Jacques Chirac, said in an interview with the Washington Times on November 10, 1986, that West German chancellor Kohl and foreign minister Genscher both believed, as he said he tended to do himself, that "the Hindawi plot was a provocation designed to embarrass Syria and destabilize the Assad regime." Behind it were "probably people connected with the Israeli Mossad."
In interviews with senior Jordanian officials in Amman, I learned that the Hindawi family were originally Palestinians who had settled in the East Jordan village of Baqura and they had a history of involvement with the Mossad. The father had worked as a cook in the Jordanian embassy in London before being revealed as an Israeli agent. He was tried in Jordan and sentenced to death in absentia, but he escaped sentence by staying in Britain. It was in his father's apartment in a London suburb that Hindawi stored the suitcase bomb for ten days in April 1986. Hindawi himself had a record as a petty free-lance agent, courier, and contact man with no ideological commitment. A senior Jordanian official told me that he had worked in various small capacities for Syria against Jordan, for Jordan against the Palestinians, for the clandestine Jordanian Communist party -- and for the Mossad, "and been paid for it."
For some years he had been a pawn in the shadowy middle ground between hostile Middle East intelligence services. Because of his background, Jordan had refused to renew his passport in 1985, and he had offered his services to Syria. In the Heathrow incident, there were several odd aspects to Hindawi's behavior: He had rushed to the Syrian embassy once the bomb was discovered to ask the ambassador for help (their conversation was monitored by British intelligence); he had then run away from the Syrian security men; and he had not attempted to go underground or flee the country. Instead he had given himself up. It was as if he had gone out of his way to implicate the Syrians.
There was, of course, no doubt about the involvement of Syrian air force intelligence in the Heathrow incident: It had recruited Hindawi, given him an official Syrian government passport in a false name, and sent him to London, where it supplied him with the suitcase bomb. But could Hindawi, who is said to have worked for several intelligence services, including the Mossad, have been a double agent, working for Syria but controlled by Israel? Could he have been deliberately planted on the Syrians or spotted as a potential double once Syria had recruited him? On this theory, he was the instrument for an Israeli penetration of Syrian intelligence, an agent provocateur whose mission was to smear Syria as a terrorist state. If this was true, then the Heathrow bomb was never intended to go off and its discovery by an Israeli security guard was a charade, rather than the result of exceptional vigilance. Hindawi himself may have been persuaded that he would get only a short sentence, since nobody had been hurt.
The political background to the affair lends some support to this interpretation. On March 13, 1986, there was a massive car-bomb explosion in central Damascus, the opening shot in a campaign apparently designed to destabilize Assad's regime. On April 15, the United States attacked Libya; on April 16, bombs on trucks and trains in different parts of Syria killed no fewer than 144 people and wounded many more; on April 17, Hindawi's bomb was discovered at Heathrow, bringing instant worldwide condemnation of Syria.
In the months preceding these events, Israel's prime minister, Shimon Peres, had launched a vast diplomatic offensive aimed at drawing King Hussein of Jordan into direct talks with Israel. Drumming up support in Europe and the United States, he had called on the king to come forward. He made plain that the PLO was unacceptable at any price, that the Soviet Union was ineligible, unless it restored diplomatic relations with Israel -- and that Syria was the main obstacle. Blackening Syria as a "terrorist state" would be a way of elbowing it out of the way.
Peres was strongly supported by Margaret Thatcher, whose close relations with King Hussein made her well placed to promote the Israel-Jordan accord Perez wanted. She seemed unable to grasp why Syria objected to Jordan's doing a separate deal with Israel. She believed that Assad was against peace in general.
In the wake of the Hindawi verdict, condemnation of Syria reached its climax, while Israel redoubled its efforts to draw Jordan into separate talks, the high point being the so-called London Agreement of February 1987. It was reached at a secret meeting of Peres and Hussein at which they approved American terms for a bilateral negotiation. (To Peres's great disappointment, the London Agreement was not followed up, because Shamir's obstruction paralyzed the Israeli government.)
On hearing of the Heathrow incident, Assad believed it was the prelude to a physical attack on Syria, either by Israel alone or in conjunction with the United States. He suspected his enemies wanted to bring him down to allow the Israel-Jordan deal to go forward and give Israel regional supremacy. In an interview with Time magazine on October 20, 1986, he claimed that Israeli intelligence had planned the Hindawi operation. Senior Syrian officials told me, after conducting their own postmortem of the affair, that their intelligence had fallen into an Israeli trap. Some parts of their service had been penetrated and manipulated in order to smear Syria with terrorism and isolate it internationally. Colonel Mufid Akkur, an officer of air force intelligence whom Hindawi named in court, was arrested in Damascus on suspicion of working for Israel. His chief, Colonel Haitham Sa'id, disappeared from view for a while. The head of the service, General Khuly, Abu Nidal's former protector, lost his powerful job and was transferred to another air force post.
But if Syrian intelligence had been penetrated, what role had Abu Nidal played in it? He had supplied the suitcase bomb. But had he -- or perhaps Dr. Ghassan al-Ali -- also sold the Syrians the idea of an attack on El Al in the first place? Had his organization been the main channel for an Israeli penetration?
Senior Syrian officials told me they were convinced that their country's security had been compromised by Abu Nidal's relationship with General Khuly's air force intelligence, and they recalled an earlier incident of lesser importance, in which one of Abu Nidal's men, a certain Adnan al-Faris (code-named Sami Abu Haitham) had been arrested at the Damascus airport in 1985, carrying an intelligence report about various internal matters in Syria, the second time something like this had happened. Abu Nidal's organization had apparently been collecting information about the Syrian army, scandals involving leading Syrians, even the workings of the black market and the price of bread. The Syrians now suspected that Abu Nidal had been trading this information for facilities elsewhere, and some of their intelligence analysts believed that Israel was involved. In late 1986, the Syrians finally put the organization under surveillance and tightened their controls over it.
HIJACKING AT KARACHI
The Hindawi affair strained Syria's relations with Abu Nidal severely, but the incident that finally ended the relationship was the hijacking of a Pan Am jumbo jet, with 358 passengers on board, at the Karachi airport on September 5, 1986.
Technically, it was well done, at least in its opening stages. Four gunmen, dressed as Pakistani security personnel and riding in a passable imitation of a police van, managed to enter the airport and board the Boeing 747 when it stopped for refueling early in the morning, on its way from Bombay to New York. The passengers and crew were soon overpowered. But a few hours later things started to go wrong. The captain managed to leap from the cockpit and immobilize the plane. The hijackers lost their nerve and started firing. As Pakistani forces stormed the plane, someone opened an emergency exit and screaming passengers came tumbling out. Over twenty people were killed in the confusion before the hijackers surrendered.
From defectors, I learned that the strategist of the operation was one of Abu Nidal's most cunning men, Samih Muhammad Khudr, whose first important assignment, eight years earlier, had been to lead the team that assassinated a friend of President Sadat, Egyptian editor Yusuf a-Siba'i, in Nicosia in February 1978. By the mid-1980s Khudr was based in Lebanon, the proud holder of three genuine Lebanese passports and the husband of three foreign wives -- a Swede, a Finn, and a Dane -- whom he had married for cover and whom he visited in their respective countries whenever his work allowed. As the real dynamo behind Abu Nidal's foreign operations, he was in Karachi at the time of the hijack but escaped capture (although his assistant, Muhammad Harb al-Turk, also known as Salman Ali al-Turki, was arrested).
The team had been trained on a model of the plane at a camp in the Bekaa Valley run by Abu Nidal's Intelligence Directorate. To persuade them to volunteer, its members were told that the aircraft would be flown to Israel and blown up over an important military installation. The team was prepared to die. But the team leader, code-named Abbas, who was to carry the explosives in a belt around his waist, was secretly instructed to destroy the plane as soon as it was airborne. On completing their training, the men were taken to Syria and told to prepare for departure from the Damascus airport.
In Damascus, Abbas had second thoughts about his mission, which he confided to his maternal uncle, Fu'ad al-Suffarini, a high official in the organization. But Suffarini, who had served as the director of Abu Nidal's office in the 1970s and had planned several early operations, was himself contemplating defection (and later fled to Jordan). He persuaded his nephew not to throw his young life away on a senseless enterprise.
At a crucial moment in the hijackers' negotiations with the control tower, Abbas pushed one of the American stewardesses into the lavatory and began to fondle her -- evidently, an attempt to abort the operation. With Abbas occupied with the stewardess, the plane's captain escaped. Other members of the team, who may also have had their doubts about suicide, lowered their guard. The plane was then stormed.
As with so many Abu Nidal operations, the Karachi hijack was a criminal act that served no conceivable Palestinian purpose and was probably meant to avenge the U.S. attack on Libya the previous April.
A spokesman for Abu Nidal's organization denied all involvement in the fiasco. But when photographs of the hijackers appeared in the press and were recognized by members of the organization, they realized that the operation had indeed been one of theirs.
Usually, if an operation failed or aroused great hostility or if Abu Nidal was uncertain of the approval of his sponsor, he would claim responsibility for it in the name of some fictitious organization. His anti-British operations, for example, were carried out in the name of the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Moslems; the Rome and Vienna operations were claimed by the Cells of the Arab Fedayeen; the bomb attacks on Kuwaiti cafes were ostensibly the work of the Arab Revolutionary Brigades; and the hijack of the Egyptian airliner was the work of the Organization of Egyptian Revolutionaries. On each occasion, the communique was couched in language to fit the made-up name.
But Abu Nidal also took credit for operations in which he had played no part. When Zafir al-Masri, the Israeli-appointed mayor of the West Bank city of Nablus, was assassinated in March 1986, Abu Nidal issued a long communique claiming credit in the name of his organization, whereas everyone in the Palestinian movement knew that it was George Habash's PFLP that had been responsible.
Among Abu Nidal's more outrageous lies was his claim to have mounted the IRA attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher at Brighton in November 1984 and to have been behind the devastating fire at Bradford City's soccer ground in England in May 1985. When the American spaceship Challenger exploded in flight, he published a congratulatory note in his magazine and ordered sweets to be distributed to his members, leading the small fry to imagine that their organization was capable of such exploits. When Pan Am 103 was downed over Lockerbie, Scotland -- an act of terrorism with which he had no connection -- he said with an air of mystery, according to one of his associates, "We do have some involvement in this matter, but if anyone so much as mentions it, I will kill him with my own hands!" If an American soldier tripped in some corner of the globe, Abu Nidal would instantly claim it as his own work, his associate added.
EXPULSION FROM SYRIA
From the summer of 1986, Abu Nidal started quietly moving his organization out of Syria. Though he had engineered the situation so as to become persona non grata in Syria, he nevertheless wanted to leave on his own schedule, not be caught unawares by an expulsion. His first move, following the Karachi raid, was to instruct his intelligence chief, Abd al-Rahman Isa, to remove the organization's archives and other important documentary material to Libya. (Two copies of the archives were made: one for the organization, which Isa hand-carried to Tripoli, the other for Abu Nidal's personal use.) Gradually, whole directorates and their staffs were transferred to Lebanon and Libya. Cadres who were blindly faithful to him were sent to Lebanon; others, like the ideologue Atif Abu Bakr, the voice of the new, more liberal trend that Abu Nidal detested, were sent to Libya, where he could control them.
At the same time, a number of offices and apartments were disposed of. The Syrians had thought that he operated out of about a dozen buildings, but they were later surprised to discover that his organization had occupied more than two hundred locations. Not a single document or piece of paper was found in any of them.
But as efficiently as the move was planned, an arms cache was mistakenly left behind. Over the years, Abd al-Rahman Isa and others had, on Abu Nidal's instructions, smuggled arms into Syria. Suitcases full of pistols and submachine guns had been brought in on Libyan diplomatic passports. "If the Syrians find a single gun, we'll be in real trouble," Isa had warned. "Today's ally is tomorrow's enemy. We may need the guns inside Syria," Abu Nidal replied. In any event, a large cache of weapons, some seventy submachine guns, mainly Polish Scorpions and Israeli Uzis, had been walled in and plastered over in the basement of a house owned by the Intelligence Directorate. Abu Nidal must have forgotten they were there because, in the months when he was planning to leave Syria, he asked his financial people to sell the house, which was bought by a Syrian officer.
Some three years later, in 1989, someone dug the arms cache out of its hiding place in the basement wall and gave it to the Syrians as a gift. (When Assad heard about it, he is said to have exclaimed: "With such an arsenal, the opposition could have killed me and the whole government!") In the organization there was consternation when the news got out. Who had blundered? Who had betrayed them?
One of the few people who knew about the weapons was the man who had walled them in -- Nidal Hamadi (code name Bajis Abu Atwan), known in the organization as the Executive. He was the minute-taker of the Intelligence Directorate, which meant that he kept the archives and the secret maps of overseas arms caches. Bajis had joined the organization in Iraq when he was very young and had worked in intelligence almost since childhood. He had a detailed knowledge of the organization's foreign operations and its clandestine relationships with foreign groups and states.
Now, at the very time when the weapons were dug out and handed over to the Syrians, Bajis decided to defect to Syria -- with his father, brother (both also members of the organization), and no fewer than fifteen other members of his family. Some sources say it was Bajis who gave the guns to the Syrians. Others say that on hearing of the gift, he decided to run for his life because he knew that he would be in danger once Abu Nidal heard of the affair. In February 1990, he was reported to have left Syria for Jordan, where the authorities are believed to have offered him safe haven. Abu Nidal is said to have made several attempts to kill him there.
The Syrian authorities neither knew nor approved the Egypt Air hijacking of November 1985, the Rome and Vienna operations a month later, or the Karachi hijacking in September 1986, though the Pakistanis sent Syria a dossier showing that Abu Nidal's gunmen had made use of the Damascus airport and other Syrian facilities. Despite these embarrassments and repeated protests from the United States and other countries, the Syrian authorities had been slow to act against Abu Nidal.
But the Hindawi affair gave them a serious jolt: Syria was publicly implicated and its international reputation severely damaged. Perhaps more to the point, the internal power structure was shaken because the culprit appeared to be the powerful General Khuly. For several months, the Syrian government investigated the complicated affair, trying to establish responsibilities. Only then were the Syrians convinced that Abu Nidal was a dangerous associate and that it was time to be rid of him.
But the Syrian system works slowly, and matters did not come to a head until March 1987, when ex-President Jimmy Carter made a private visit to Damascus, having been briefed by the State Department to raise the Karachi incident with President Assad. Assad called for the dossier the Pakistanis had sent to Syria and privately read it for the first time. On June 1, 1987, all members of Abu Nidal's organization, together with their wives and children, were expelled from Syria and their offices closed.
But Abu Nidal did not wait for the expulsion order. Two months earlier, on March 28, 1987, Abu Nidal had left Syria for good. Accompanied by his intelligence chief, Abd al-Rahman Isa, he had first gone to Poland before flying on to Libya three days later, on March 31. Libya was to become his permanent place of residence. His wife, Hiyam, and their three children, Nidal, Badia, and Bissam, stayed on in Damascus until August to pack up the big house in Zabadani.
Whether or not Abu Nidal or his senior colleagues had worked for Israel, inside his organization Abu Nidal had achieved what he wanted: The dangerously reformist, aboveground trend in Lebanon had been contained; the organization would soon be purged, and split between Lebanon and Libya. So far as he was concerned the attacks at Rome, Vienna, Heathrow, and Karachi had served their purpose.
According to his testimony in the taped debriefing I listened to, March 31, 1987, was a memorable date in Abd al-Rahman Isa's diary.
"Why do you keep going on about that date?" Abu Nidal asked him more than once.
"Because it marks the end of our wretched life in Syria and the prelude to real joy in Libya!" Isa replied.