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Chapter 4:  A Black September

"The gun, only the gun!"

Abu Nidal's call to arms after the 1967 war was no more than the standard rhetoric of the time. Traumatized, like practically every other Arab, by Israel's victory, expelled from Saudi Arabia for political agitation, he moved his young family to Amman.

At this time, there were hundreds of thousands of exiled Palestinians like himself who had been waiting for two decades for the Arab states and the United Nations to reverse the harsh verdict of 1948. But now, stricken by another immense disaster, the majority of them united around two basic principles -- first, that the "lost homeland," the object of their painful yearning, could be recovered only by armed struggle; and second, that any negotiation with a triumphant Israel could only spell surrender and had therefore to be rejected out of hand.

Taking up arms against Israel was seen as an essential, morale-boosting formula for national salvation -- a philosophy in tune with that of other third world liberation movements of the 1960s. But what sort of "armed struggle" could the Palestinians seriously wage against Israeli power?

In Riyadh before the June 1967 war, Abu Nidal's "resistance" had taken the form of excited late-night discussions with fellow members of his Fatah cell. If only the Arabs could mobilize their great potential, they must surely triumph. This was the recurring theme. How could a handful of alien settlers overcome the Arabs' teeming millions? The Arab world was a chained elephant confronting an Israeli mouse: Fatah's task was to break the elephant's chains and release its strength.

Such metaphors did wonders for the morale, but Abu Nidal had had no military training and no experience of any sort of armed conflict. His war talk was far removed from the reality of his situation. By day, he was a manager, a pen pusher. His electrician's shop in Riyadh had grown into a small contracting business. He had made money and had handled it sensibly. On arrival in Jordan, therefore, he did not, like many others, head for one of the ramshackle camps that Fatah was setting up on the Jordan River, within gunshot of the enemy, but installed his family in a decent house in Amman. He had a sense of organization, sorely lacking in much of the chaotic and quarrelsome guerrilla movement, and he could work around the clock.

Within a very short time, he had founded a trading company called Impex, whose offices in central Amman soon became a sort of clandestine Fatah "front," a place where people could meet when they came into town and where funds for the guerrillas and their families could be received and paid out. For all his talk of revolutionary violence, Abu Nidal was by nature orderly and methodical, a bureaucrat of armed struggle rather than a fighter, qualities that were noticed and appreciated by Yasser Arafat and other Fatah leaders.

It was in those early months in Jordan that he met and was befriended by Abu Iyad, Fatah's long-serving intelligence chief. In one of our talks, fluent and slightly ironic as ever, Abu Iyad told me that he had first heard the name Sabri al- Banna soon after the June war.

"He had been recommended to me as a man of energy and enthusiasm, but he seemed shy when we met," Abu Iyad recalled. "It was only on further acquaintance that I noticed other traits: He was extremely good company, with a sharp tongue and an inclination to dismiss most of humanity as spies and traitors. I rather liked that! I discovered he was very ambitious, perhaps more than his abilities warranted, and also very excitable. He sometimes worked himself up into such a state that he lost all powers of reasoning."

Abu Iyad enjoyed the younger man's readiness to criticize everything and everybody, not least Yasser Arafat. With the cheekiness of youth, Sabri al-Banna, who now adopted the alias Abu Nidal, behaved as if he were Arafat's equal, because, before joining Fatah, he had been the boss of a tiny Palestinian outfit. Abu Nidal dared say things for which Abu Iyad and other Fatah leaders had a sneaking sympathy -- notably, that Arafat was a dictator who was inclined to rush into impulsive decisions without first consulting his colleagues.

Abu Nidal often drove down to the Jordan valley to visit Abu Iyad at Karameh, a village where Fatah had set up a military base and from which it attempted, somewhat incompetently, to infiltrate men across the river into the occupied West Bank. Karameh was squalid, and Sabri was appalled at the wretched conditions in which Yasser Arafat and Abu Iyad lived. Why did it have to be such a shambles? In contrast, when Abu Iyad paid Abu Nidal a return visit in Amman, he would stay at his clean and comfortable house, have a square meal, take a shower, get a good night's sleep, and play with his host's two young children, Nidal and Badia.

Abu Nidal had no taste for the romantic heroics of the fedayeen or for their extraordinary capacity for getting themselves killed. Abu Dawud, a giant some six feet six inches tall, who would eventually in 1970 command all of Fatah's guerrilla forces in Jordan, remembers that in those days Abu Nidal carried a pistol but was never known to have fired it. In skirmishes in Amman between Hussein's troops and the guerrillas Abu Dawud was out fighting, but Abu Nidal stayed safely indoors, never leaving his office, let alone taking part in the street battles. To a tidy mind like his, such wild and unplanned clashes against superior forces were sheer madness.

By late 1968 or early 1969, Abu Nidal had persuaded Abu Iyad that his talents lay in diplomacy rather than guerrilla warfare and had secured a posting as Fatah's representative to Khartoum.

In the Sudan, Abu Nidal worked hard and intelligently, made contacts across the spectrum of local politics and was soon on good terms with the new regime of Ja'far al-Numeiri, the thirty-five-year-old colonel who, in the summer of 1969, had seized power in Khartoum. It was Abu Nidal's first proper job for the Palestinian cause and a spur to his ambition.

Why did Abu Nidal leave Amman? The question has long been pondered in Palestinian circles. Abandoning his trading company, Impex, and his Fatah comrades, he ducked out just when the guerrillas in Jordan were coming under intense pressure from both Israel and King Hussein -- a move that later earned him the charge of cowardice. Perhaps he was simply more careful than others.


A history of recurrent defeat forced Palestinian leaders, Abu Nidal among them, to think hard about the strategy of armed struggle -- the attempt to send guerrillas on sabotage missions inside Israeli territory -- which they adopted with blithe amateurishness in the mid-1960s. Israel's counterstrategy was to lash out ferociously not only against the guerrillas themselves, on the principle of an eye for an eyelash, but also against the Arab countries that gave them sanctuary. Inevitably, the host countries turned on the guerrillas, as happened in Jordan and later in Lebanon: Made to choose between helping the guerillas and sparing themselves Israeli reprisals, the Arab states not unnaturally put their own security first.

Abu Nidal seems to have had doubts about the way the Palestinian struggle was being conducted. Rather than open confrontation, he preferred the indirect approach, preparation in the shadows, the blow struck when and where the enemy least expected it.

How did this strategy evolve? Under the pressure of events, his ideas seem to have taken shape gradually between 1968 and 1973, by which time Abu Nidal had developed the tactics and the methods -- in a word, the terrorism -- for which he was to become infamous.

Men who knew him then report that he was much influenced by, and in fact modeled himself on, right-wing Jewish terrorist movements. He was in particular much impressed by the Irgun, the brainchild of the Russian-born agitator Vladimir Jabotinsky, who called for the unabashed use of force -- an "iron wall" -- against the Arabs to establish full Jewish sovereignty over both banks of the Jordan, an agenda adopted by his loyal disciples Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin. Abu Nidal was also struck by the Irgun's more extreme offshoot, the Stern Gang, which under Shamir and others played a crucial role in unnerving both the Arabs and the British in the struggle for the Jewish state. During the Arab rebellion of 1936-39, the Stern Gang was the first to introduce terrorism to the Middle East by exploding bombs on buses and in Arab markets and, in November 1944, by assassinating Lord Moyne, the British resident minister in the Middle East. The Irgun also used terror against British and Arab targets. Its most eye-catching and notorious exploit was blowing up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946, where the British had set up their headquarters. More than a hundred people died in the attack. By today's debased standards, such carnage might seem relatively small scale, but the shock at the time was colossal, and Abu Nidal is said to have been much affected by these acts when he learned about them later, as a young man.

His former comrades told me that in the late sixties, Abu Nidal was forever brooding over the lessons to be learned from the loss of Palestine. Where had the Palestinians gone wrong? In the mid-1930s, they had risen in spontaneous revolt against massive Jewish immigration, but the British had crushed them, reducing the Palestinian community as a whole to helpless spectators for the duration of the Second World War. By contrast, tens of thousands of Jews served in Allied armies and learned how to fight (including the teachings of sabotage and terrorism, which some of them used to devastating effect in 1947-48 against the ill-prepared Arab population of Palestine and the rabble forces of the Arab states).

From 1948 to 1965, as Israel grew stronger and stronger, the Palestinians did nothing. It was not until 1965, seventeen years after the loss of Palestine, that Fatah started small-scale military incursions into Israel with the goal not so much of fighting Israel alone -- Fatah knew that this was impossible -- but of dragging the Arab states into a war that, it hoped, would restore Palestinian "rights." This, in turn, proved a gross miscalculation, not least of Arab military strength. Indeed, although the guerrillas inflicted no significant damage on Israel, they helped precipitate the Six-Day War. Early in 1967, they implicated their Syrian backers in their inept incursions, arousing fears that Israel would retaliate against Syria and try to topple its radical regime. Egypt's President Nasser, who posed as the leader of the Arabs, could not stand by and let this happen. Fearing that an Israeli attack on Syria might catch him unawares and suck him in, he sought to bring the crisis under his direct control by shifting its focus from Syria to Sinai, where he indulged in some saber-rattling of his own. With half his army in Yemen (fighting the royalists in the civil war there), Nasser had no intention of attacking Israel. But he did challenge a vital Israeli interest by closing the Red Sea shipping lane to Eilat, a route Israel had opened in the Suez war of 1956. Israel seized on this casus belli and smashed Egypt, together with its Syrian and Jordanian allies, in its devastating preemptive attack of June 1967 (as William B. Quandt has explained in his Decade of Decision [1977] and as I have written about in Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East [1989]).

The disastrous experience of 1967 should have discredited the old guerrilla strategy, but the Palestinians were seduced into believing that despite the defeat of regular Arab armies, "armed struggle" could still be waged against Israel, on the Algerian or Vietnamese model, in the form of a popular liberation war. Young Palestinian recruits were sent, without much preparation, to set up "revolutionary cells" in the occupied West Bank, more or less in full view of the enemy. With no maquis to hide them, they were soon rounded up or killed. By early 1968, such ineffectual pinpricks had been virtually ended and Israel was ready to counterattack against guerrilla bases in Jordan -- and then against Jordan itself, predictably creating grave tensions between the guerrillas and the king.

Two events in 1968 were of great importance in that they set the Palestinians off once more in the wrong direction. The first occurred in March, when an Israeli armored force of 15,000 men, with air support, crossed the river and attacked Fatah's guerrilla base, at Karalleh in Jordan, with overwhelming strength. The base and much of the village were wiped out, with heavy losses. However, the guerrillas fought back bravely and, with help from the Jordanian army, managed to inflict significant casualties on the Israelis. At a time when Arab demoralization was total in the aftermath of 1967, the fact that the Arabs had actually put up something of a fight was hailed as a great victory. Half the population of Amman rushed out to Karameh to embrace the surviving guerrillas, and thousands flocked to join their ranks. Carried aloft on a wave of popular sentiment, the idolized guerrillas considered themselves demigods and swaggered about Amman and other cities, with scant regard for the local authorities. Not surprisingly, King Hussein saw their undisciplined posturings as a threat to himself and began cooperating secretly with Israel to contain them.

A second decisive event was the hijacking in July 1968 of an El Al passenger plane on a scheduled flight from Rome to Tel Aviv and its diversion to Algiers. Women, children, and non-Israelis on board were soon freed, but to Israel's rage, the remaining twelve Israeli men among the passengers were held for thirty-nine days and were only released in exchange for fifteen Palestinians detained in Israeli jails.

This was the first terrorist operation of its kind, the prototype for many others to come, and its mastermind was Wadi Haddad, a Palestinian revolutionary from Safad who had graduated as a medical doctor from the American University of Beirut. Outraged by the violence Israel had done to his people, he had vowed to use violence in return. With three American University friends and contemporaries -- Syrian Hani al-Hindi, Palestinian George Habash, and Kuwaiti Ahmad al-Khatib, the last two medical doctors like himself -- Haddad founded a political party, the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN), which was to develop offshoots in several Arab countries. Its banner was a three-word slogan, "Fire, Iron, and Revenge," and its philosophy was that until the Palestinians regained their rights, the whole world could burn.

Not long after Fatah embarked on "armed struggle," Habash and Haddad gathered the Palestinian members of MAN into a separate organization that became the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Envious of the bigger and more solidly implanted Fatah, and unable to match Fatah's operations on the ground, the PFLP resorted instead to terrorist spectaculars, such as the El Al hijacking, which won it immense prestige among Arabs and set the pace for the resistance as a whole.

Had the first hijacked plane not been Israeli, such piracy might have been rejected by the Palestinians themselves from the very beginning. It needs to be recalled that in the twenty years from 1948 to 1968, the Palestinians had never considered attacking an Israeli, still less a Jew, outside Israel. Terror was not on their agenda. From 1965 onward, Fatah's "armed struggle" was directed at such targets as Israeli water pipelines and railway tracks. Fatah disapproved of hijacking and had no intention of following the PFLP's example. But because the PFLP's target had been an "enemy" plane, the Arab world was loath to condemn the hijacking.

After this first "success," Wadi Haddad went on to hijack planes of other nations and to establish relations with European and Japanese terrorist groups. An unexpected windfall was that airlines started to pay him large sums in protection money. For example, two international airlines paid Haddad $1 million a month each, monies that he turned over to his organization and that allowed the PFLP to acquire a measure of independence from its Arab sponsors.

In Jordan, meanwhile, the overconfident guerrillas started preaching sedition against King Hussein and calling openly for his overthrow. Excited by the precedent of Aden, where armed irregulars affiliated with MAN had forced the British out, then routed their local rivals and seized power, some guerrillas believed that power in Jordan, too, was theirs for the taking. The crunch came in September 1970, when, in a hijacking orgy, the PFLP forced no fewer than three passenger planes to land at a disused airstrip in Jordan. An outraged King Hussein determined to fight back. Stiffened by the United States and by a threat of intervention by Israel, he unleashed his tanks against the guerrillas and his air force against some Syrian armor that had crossed half-heartedly into Jordan in their support. In the running street battles and the shelling of the refugee camps, several hundred guerrillas were killed, another three thousand were captured, and some ten thousand Palestinians were wounded, most of them civilians. Such was the gruesome balance sheet of that "black" September.

At a stroke, the guerrillas lost their vital sanctuary in Jordan, from which they had dreamed of pushing Israel back from the Jordan River -- and so liberating Palestine inch by inch. The dream and the strategy had now to be abandoned, plunging the whole guerrilla movement into distress and disillusion.

From distant Khartoum, Abu Nidal followed the unfolding drama as best he could. But in early 1970, unable to contain himself any longer, he turned up in Amman, several months before the disastrous September denouement. He was there by February, in time to witness one of the first serious clashes between the guerrillas and the army, and it profoundly affected him.

Both militarily and politically, it seemed to him that the Palestinians were set on the wrong course. Militarily, their "armed struggle" had been totally ineffective and had lost them the sympathy and backing of Jordan, the Arab country with the longest frontier with Israel. Politically, the Palestinian resistance was far from a disciplined or cohesive movement. Commando groups had formed, merged, disbanded, split, and changed their names in a bewildering dance that outsiders found incomprehensible. These groups were divided by personal hatreds and rivalries but also by divergent views on how to achieve the common objective of the recovery of Palestinian land and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Palestine Liberation Organization, the "umbrella" apparatus for the resistance movement as a whole, had been born out of the decisions of the first Arab Summit Conference, of January 1964, when Arab leaders, unable to do anything about a major water pipeline Israel was then completing to carry Jordan water to the Negev, decided to defuse Palestinian anger and frustration by giving the Palestinians an organization of their own. Ahmad Shuquairy, a loquacious Palestinian lawyer who had never carried a gun, was made PLO chairman and a Palestine National Charter was approved, calling for the destruction of Israel. It remained a dead letter until June 1967, when the defeat of Arab regular armies stimulated the emergence of Palestinian commando groups, of which Fatah was the best organized and the most powerful.

By 1969, Yasser Arafat had become PLO chairman and Fatah had gained control both of the PLO Executive Committee and of the Palestine National Council, the Palestinians' parliament-in-exile. Being far and away the biggest of the commando groups, Fatah could, and no doubt should, have imposed its will on the other factions and unified the resistance movement into an effective force. As it represented the reasonably pragmatic mainstream, it could have saved the Palestinians a lot of heartache had it done so. But for reasons that remain obscure, Arafat and his colleagues felt it best to accommodate within the PLO the various shades of Palestinian opinion, with the result that from the very beginning, the PLO was paralyzed by internal quarrels.

Arafat had to contend not only with George Habash's PFLP, founded in December 1967, which vociferously rejected any thought of a compromise settlement with Israel, but also with Nayif Hawatmeh's Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a Marxist organization formed in 1969 by extreme leftist defectors from both the PFLP and MAN, dedicated to an anti-imperialist third world liberation struggle. Another group that was to give Arafat a lot of trouble was Ahmad Jibril's PFLP-General Command, formed in 1968 from a split in the PFLP. Jibril, a stalwart military man, had been an early commando, with a history of guerrilla activity stretching back to 1959. His blunt philosophy was that the Palestinians should spend less time talking and more time fighting. Supported by Syria and Libya, he specialized in suicide raids into Israel.

Arafat had also to wrestle with two pressure groups controlled, respectively, by Syria and Iraq, states that were not inclined to leave the all-engrossing and highly dangerous confrontation with Israel in Palestinian hands alone. Syria's outfit was known as al-Sa'iqa (the Thunderbolt), formed in 1968 with members from the Palestinian branch of Syria's Ba'ath party. Its Iraqi equivalent, a rival of al-Sa'iqa, was the Arab Liberation Front (ALF), formed in 1969 by Palestinians close to Iraq's Ba'ath party. And this was by no means the end of the story. Other groups, with varied sponsors and objectives, emerged in subsequent years to muddy Palestinian waters and render it virtually impossible for a clear strategy to emerge or for the PLO to project a coherent message to the outside world.

Prominent among the troublemakers whom Arafat failed to control was Abu'l Abbas, leader of the Palestine Liberation Front, a small offshoot from Jibril's organization, which enjoyed first Iraqi and then Libyan backing. Among its later exploits, all disastrous for the Palestinian cause, were the seizure of the Achille Lauro in October 1985 and the murder of a crippled Jew on board, and then, in May 1990, an abortive guerrilla raid on the Israeli coast at Tel Aviv, which caused the United States to suspend its dialogue with the PLO.


None of this was to Abu Nidal's liking. Early in 1970, foreseeing the coming showdown with King Hussein, he started to pester Abu Iyad, and indeed anyone in the Palestinian leadership who would listen, to send him once more to represent Fatah abroad -- this time in Baghdad. As it happened, at that moment Fatah badly needed someone to lobby the Iraq government. Iraq had some fourteen thousand men stationed in Jordan, elements of a short-lived Arab "Eastern Command" that had once included Egypt and Syria. The Fatah leaders were anxious to know if they could count on these Iraqi troops to side with them in the event of an all-out fight with Hussein. To sound out Iraqi intentions, Arafat and Abu Iyad had in July 1970 met secretly with two leading members of the Iraqi regime, Abd al-Khaliq Samirra'i, a member of the Revolutionary Command Council, and the interior minister, General Salih Mahdi Ammash, at an Iraqi army camp near the Jordanian town of Zarqa. They had been given assurances that Iraqi troops would fight with them. But Fatah needed someone in Baghdad who could hold the Iraqis to this pledge, someone able and forceful enough to make personal contact with President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and his army commander, General Hardan al-Takriti. Abu Nidal seemed the right man for the job.

In late July, just two months before all hell broke loose in Amman, he took up his new post in Baghdad, leaving the anarchy of Jordan behind him and once again arousing the suspicions of some of his comrades that he was running away to save his skin.

But Abu Nidal failed in his mission. When King Hussein's tanks blasted guerrilla positions that September, the Iraqis did not move. The battles between the Jordanian army and the fedayeen raged on for ten days with the dead and wounded piling up in the streets, but Fatah's desperate cries for help were ignored in Baghdad.

Arafat narrowly escaped capture, but Abu Iyad and another prominent Fatah leader, Abu al-Lutf (Faruq Qaddumi), later known as the PLO's "foreign minister," were seized by the Jordanians and interned. To break their morale, their captors made them listen to a tape of a telephone conversation between King Hussein and General Takriti in which the Iraqi commander confirmed that, in accordance with their prior agreement, Iraqi forces would not intervene. Iraq had betrayed the guerrillas.

The Fatah leaders were soon to have another shock. Immediately after the September carnage, Abu Nidal began to attack them over the Voice of Palestine, their own radio station in Baghdad, accusing them of cowardice in battle and condemning them for having agreed to a cease-fire with King Hussein. The man Abu Nidal singled out for particular abuse was none other than Abu Iyad, his old friend and mentor, who had given him the job in Baghdad.

Abu Iyad told me that, in retrospect, he had come to believe that something important had happened to Abu Nidal in 1969 or 1970 to set him on this new and suspect course. He wondered whether Abu Nidal had been recruited in Khartoum by Iraqi intelligence or by the Mossad. It was a puzzle Abu Iyad wrestled with until the end of his life.

By 1971, as Abu Nidal continued his radio attacks on his Fatah comrades, Arafat and his chief military colleague, Abu Jihad, decided to expel him from Fatah. But Abu Iyad advised caution. He was the butt of Abu Nidal's wounding criticism, but he felt it would be wrong to lose such an able man to the Iraqis -- that is, until they could get an explanation from him for his alarming change of attitude. Moreover, Iraq was likely to interpret Abu Nidal's expulsion from Fatah as a criticism of itself. Fatah had just clashed bitterly with Jordan, and Abu Iyad thought it should beware of quarreling with Iraq as well.

In 1972, Iraq invited Fatah to send a delegation to Baghdad to discuss their increasingly sour relations. The delegation consisted of Abu Iyad, Abu al-Lutf, and Abu Mazin (Mahmud Abbas). High on their agenda for the talks was Iraq's failure to assist them in Jordan in their hour of need. As Abu Iyad recalled, Abu Nidal met them at the airport, but Abu Iyad was angry with him and refused to shake his hand.

They were soon deep in discussions with Iraq's leaders, notably with Abd al-Khaliq Samirra'i, the man who had promised them that Iraqi troops would intervene on their behalf and who was understandably embarrassed because the promise had not been kept.

"He took us to see President Bakr," Abu Iyad told me. "On the way there he tried to prepare us for what to expect. 'You won't be able to stay very long,' he warned. 'The president is tired. Don't bother to embrace him when you greet him.' The first thing that struck me as we entered Bakr's office was that he didn't rise from his desk. Such discourtesy from an Arab ruler toward Palestinian leaders was unheard of! I could sense that Samirra'i was getting still more embarrassed."

By all accounts, it was a glacial meeting. As it drew to a close, Abu Iyad said, "Mr. President, it seems you are busy. Please allow us to take our leave. But before we go, may I just say that we were upset by the decision not to support us in Jordan -- no doubt taken without your knowledge."

"It was my decision!" Bakr snapped back. "I personally supervised the withdrawal of Iraqi troops." At this Abu Iyad felt compelled to ask the president for his reasons, to which Bakr replied: "You in the Palestinian resistance have nine lives, like a cat. If they kill you, you can rise again. But we are a regime! In Jordan in 1970, there was a conspiracy to draw us into a battle in order to destroy us. And had we been destroyed, we would have been finished!"

"And that was it," Abu Iyad told me. "The whole meeting barely lasted ten minutes. Once outside the room, I took Abu Nidal aside, cursed him, and gave him a piece of my mind. 'Is this the regime you are defending?' I stormed. That evening I went to his house and had it out with him in the presence of his wife. I said he had tied himself too closely to the Iraqis. I had heard he had a special relationship with Sa'dun Shakir, then head of Iraqi intelligence.

"Abu Nidal flew into a rage at my accusation. 'I'm no one's agent!' he protested. But my doubts persisted. Before I came to suspect a possible Massad link, I believed that Iraqi intelligence had contacted him when he was in the Sudan and that his eagerness to be transferred to Baghdad had not been entirely his own idea."

However, even after this visit, Abu Iyad advised his colleagues in Fatah that it would be better if they tried to contain Abu Nidal rather than expel him, not to risk pushing him even further into the arms of the Iraqis. As Abu Iyad admitted to me, he was still fond of him. But he was worried by what was happening to him. There was something about Abu Nidal that frightened him. He did not, however, share his anxieties with his colleagues.

The Fatah leaders had to face the grim fact that their man in Baghdad had switched allegiance. Instead of defending their interests, he had made himself the echo of Baghdad's views and sniped at them over the airwaves. Abu Nidal had become a painful thorn in their flesh, but as he now enjoyed Iraqi protection, they could not easily pluck him out.


The matter of Abu Nidal's indiscipline was dwarfed by the turmoil into which the whole Palestinian movement was thrown by its catastrophic clash with King Hussein, and which was to be the backdrop to the next stage in Abu Nidal's development. The battle for Amman of September 1970 had routed the guerrillas but also profoundly divided them. When, at the height of the fighting, the besieged Fatah's leaders grasped that the king was out to destroy them, they held a council of war and decided to disperse -- in effect, to run away. Some went to Cairo or Damascus, others went underground. The instinct was to survive to fight another day.

But some commanders would not give up the fight, chief among them being the fearsome, if misguided, Abu Ali Iyad (not to be confused with Abu Iyad), who had won prominence as a guerrilla leader during the battle of Karameh. Before that, he had been Fatah's chief military instructor at its camp in al-Hameh, near Damascus, where he had been responsible for training Palestinian recruits, some hardly more than fourteen or fifteen years old. These ashbal, or "tiger cubs," were in great awe of him because of his strict discipline and fierce appearance: He had lost an eye and damaged a leg in an experiment with explosives.

After the battle of Amman, Abu Ali Iyad would not run away. Determined to carry on the fight, he headed north with a group of his tiger cubs to the wild country around Jarash and Ajlun in Jordan, where there were woods and caves to hide in. It was a suicide mission. In house-to-house combat in Amman, the guerrillas had had a chance against Hussein's armor, but out in the open they were no match for it. Abu Ali Iyad was lame and practically blind. The terrain was rough. In the early summer of 1971, the king sent troops to hunt him down. Their orders were strict and no quarter was given. Palestinians say that tanks were driven over the bodies of wounded men, providing a sight so harrowing that some seventy of Abu Ali Iyad's cubs fled across the river and, waving white shirts, preferred to surrender to the Israelis rather than face death at the hand of Hussein's troops.

On July 23, 1971, Abu Ali Iyad was reported killed. However, such was the wildness of the place that his corpse was never found. A few days earlier he had sent a man down the mountain with a letter to the Fatah leaders, bitterly criticizing them for running away and ending with a phrase that was to become the rallying cry of the survivors -- "We will die on our feet rather than kneel." Those of his tiger cubs who escaped the carnage broke up into small clandestine groups, acquired arms and explosives, and vowed to avenge him.

Four months later, on November 28, Jordan's prime minister, Wasfi al-Tal, who had been King Hussein's right-hand man during the onslaught on the guerrillas and a fanatical enemy of the Palestinians, was shot dead in Cairo, on the steps of the Sheraton Hotel. "At last I have done it. I am satisfied, I have spilled Tal's blood!" one of his killers, Munshir Khalifa, was heard to say defiantly on his arrest. Khalifa was one of Abu Ali Iyad's cubs. With this assassination, the Palestinian terrorist campaign known as Black September was born.

That Tal had been made to pay for the slaughter of the Palestinians was a source of exhilaration in guerrilla circles. Spirits that had been downcast were now raised and a great impetus was given to violence. Some fighters, with little grasp of reality, imagined that Tal's disappearance would allow them to return to Jordan and resume their fight against Israel from there. But as it turned out, the Palestinians' resort to terrorism was not a prelude to further armed struggle but only a tawdry substitute for it. Tal's murder was an expression of Palestinian weakness and frustration rather than of real Palestinian militancy.

The resistance movement in 1971 was in utter disarray. It had been crushed by Israel on the West Bank and by Hussein's army on the East Bank. The rebellious Gaza Strip, teeming with hapless refugees, had suffered the same death and destruction. In that year alone, nearly a thousand "terrorists" -- Israel's term for whoever dared challenge its rule -- were killed or captured under the heavy hand of General Ariel Sharon. Elite Israeli commando units were unleashed against the civilian population. There were prolonged curfews, demolition of homes, torture, summary executions, mass detention of families of wanted men, and the destruction of orchards, the only means of subsistence.

Desperate for a safe haven, survivors from all these battlefields regrouped in southeast Lebanon, only to be pursued there by punitive Israeli raids. Every man's hand was against them. No one, it seemed, was ready to accept the Palestinian resistance movement as a serious political force. Maddened by the killing of their fellows, hounded on every side, but also, it must be said, excited by the media attention the early hijackings had received, some fighters from all the various Palestinian factions turned in 1972 to "foreign operations" -- in other words, to terrorism. Their inability to hit the enemy on his home ground had convinced them that their only option was to seek targets abroad.


The dirty war of terror and counterterror between Israel and the Palestinians of 1972-73 was something of a new phenomenon, different in significant ways from the violence that preceded it and from the violence that was to follow. Before 1972, terrorist attacks on Israeli and foreign targets were the work not of Yasser Arafat's Fatah, which disapproved of such "adventurism," but of radical groups like George Habash's PFLP. Such, for example, was the PFLP attack on December 26, 1968, on an El Al Boeing at the Athens airport, in which one Israeli was killed. Characteristically, Israel responded two days later with a one-hour commando raid on the Beirut airport in which thirteen Lebanese civilian planes, more or less Lebanon's entire fleet, were destroyed.

And such again was the PFLP hijacking, on August 30, 1969, of a TWA Boeing on a flight from Rome to Tel Aviv and its diversion to Damascus. Two Israelis on board were quietly exchanged for two captured Syrian pilots, but Israel's response then took the familiar form of air raids, artillery barrages, and ground assaults against Arab and Palestinian targets. Reprisals became still more violent when Golda Meir took over as Israel's prime minister in March 1969, inaugurating a policy of "active self-defense," which meant seeking out and destroying Palestinians -- before or in case they attacked. Such state terror, aimed at liquidating Israel's enemies, was a good deal more destructive than the disastrous strategy of haphazard terror pursued by the guerrillas, although it did not always find its mark. In July 1970, Mossad agents fired rockets into the Beirut apartment of Wadi Haddad of the PFLP but failed to hit their quarry.

In 1972-73, there was a significant change of pattern when, under the banner of Black September, Fatah radicals joined with Wadi Haddad and others in a widespread terrorist campaign. Three distinct trends were discernible: Some of these militants wanted to kill Israelis; others wanted to put pressure on King Hussein to release the three thousand Palestinian prisoners held in his jails since September 1970 and allow the guerrillas back into Jordan; still others wanted to attack American targets, especially airlines and oil companies, to punish the U.S. for its support of Israel. In the dirty war that followed, both Israel and its opponents, abandoning all restraint, resorted repeatedly to murder.

Black September made a great impact on Abu Nidal. He admired its operations. But he was not part of it -- in fact, its angry young men ignored him. They did not want him to participate in their operations even though several of them were actually planned and launched from Baghdad, where he was based. He was already drinking heavily, seemed overly self- important, and they felt he might spoil any operation in which he took part. None of these avenging tiger cubs were later to join his organization. But their indirect influence on Abu Nidal was considerable. He resented being left out and was determined to force his way in. As a challenge of sorts, he threw himself into terrorism, as if to convince those Palestinians already engaged in it that he was stronger and more effective than they were. Undercover work, identifying the enemy's weak spots, and hitting him hard -- all these accorded with his temperament and fitted in with the philosophy he was then evolving.

But by 1973, after the murders and counter-murders of the War of the Spooks, Fatah and Israel were ready to conclude an unofficial truce. Fatah was now in a stronger position to regain control over undisciplined Palestinian fighters still thirsting for revenge, partly because Muslim opinion in Lebanon had rallied massively behind the resistance after an Israeli commando raid in central Beirut in which three top Fatah leaders were killed. As a result the Palestinian movement felt more secure in Lebanon. For another, the October War of 1973 had opened up prospects for a peaceful settlement, taking the sting out of Palestinian frustrations and making terror seem largely irrelevant.

It is often said that Black September was a secret arm of Yasser Arafat's Fatah. The truth is more complex. Some Fatah commanders approved of Wasfi al-Tal's killing, the incident that launched the violent movement. But Black September was never officially authorized by Fatah, nor was it a structured organization at Arafat's command. It was more a kind of mutiny within Fatah, a protest by disgruntled fighters at what they considered the blunders and passivity of their leaders.

Angry, vengeful guerrillas, graduates of the same camps, often friends or relatives bound together by common loyalties and common hatreds, were not easily reined in. To bring these mutineers under control, the Fatah leadership had to provide them with political cover. Within Fatah, Abu Iyad defended the young terrorists, and did so as well for international consumption. For example, he justified the attack on the Israeli athletes at Munich -- an operation that, perhaps more than any other, tarnished the Palestinians' reputation -- with the specious argument that Israel had taken the Palestinians' rightful place at the games. Because of such ill-conceived pronouncements he has been considered the mastermind behind Munich. Whether or not he was directly involved in planning the operation is still a matter of controversy, but as he disingenuously remarked to me in Tunis in the summer of 1990, "Defense lawyers are often called upon to defend causes they don't believe in!"

One device Fatah adopted to tame Abu Ali Iyad's tiger cubs, aged at the time between seventeen and twenty-four, was to marry them off. An Arabic proverb says that marriage makes a man both prudent and thrifty. One of Wasfi al-Tal's killers is now married and the father of seven children.


Meanwhile, in Baghdad Abu Nidal had become, despite his public row over the airwaves with his Fatah colleagues, very much a diplomat. As chief Fatah representative in Iraq in the early 1970s, he spent his days making contacts in the media, meeting Arab and foreign envoys, and improving his relations with the Iraqi authorities. The Iraqis thought he was good at his job -- no doubt because he defended their point of view. But on the quiet, he was up to something quite different: stitching together, with like-minded men in Iraq and other Arab countries, a secret group inside Fatah opposed to Yasser Arafat.

The immediate backdrop to his conspiracy was the Palestinians' catastrophic defeat in Jordan and the subsequent dirty war with Israel, which, as is clear from the list I drew up at the start, took a heavy toll of Palestinian lives. Within the resistance movement, radicals and moderates were quarreling over what had gone wrong and how to proceed. Abu Nidal had already emerged as a leading radical at Fatah's Third Congress, the first big Palestinian postmortem on events in Jordan, which was held late in 1971 at Hammuriya, in the leafy outskirts of Damascus, some six months before Black September first made itself known when it hijacked the Sabena flight from Vienna to Tel Aviv. What the Fatah leaders did not know at this time was that Abu Nidal had already moved beyond verbal criticism and was actually plotting against them. As the mainstream Palestinian leader, Arafat tried to steady his reeling followers at the congress by pleading for political realism and defending his cease-fire with King Hussein. It had been a clear mistake, he argued, for fringe groups like the PFLP to force a showdown with the king. Such a political miscalculation should not be allowed to recur, and now that the Palestinians had given vent to their rage by killing Wasfi al-Tal, any further violence would only play into the hands of their enemies.

Arafat's arguments were violently contested by a "leftist" group that included Abu Dawud, the intellectual Naji Allush, an admirer of third world revolutions -- and Abu Nidal, who had become their chief spokesman. Far from making it up with the king, they clamored for a campaign of sabotage and terror to bring him down. He was the enemy of the Palestinian people! A war of "continuous explosions" should be waged against him. Rather than the old bankrupt strategy of armed struggle by ill-trained, poorly armed guerrillas, the resistance should go underground and launch military operations from clandestine bases. Abu Nidal was the most vocal exponent of these ideas.

Fatah was used to being racked by fierce disputes over policy and also over what were known, in the jargon, as "organizational questions," in other words disputes over how power was to be exercised. The resistance movement was in a state of almost permanent dissidence. Military officers had mounted a number of minor mutinies against Arafat, while some political cadres, rebelling against their leader's "personal style," castigated his mistakes and fallibilities, his reluctance to consult, and his tight grip on the purse strings, one of the ways he has maintained his power over the Palestinian movement. As has already been suggested, Arafat's closest colleagues were not unhappy to hear these criticisms, because they felt that they served as a healthy brake on Arafat's natural authoritarianism. Abu Iyad, himself on the left of Fatah, had considerable sympathy for the rebels. As he told me, he was not much upset by Abu Nidal's diatribes at the congress because he still thought of him as a sort of wayward disciple whose career he had launched.

The radicals were united on two issues: First, they demanded more democracy within Fatah, an issue on which they had majority support; second, they pressed for violent action against King Hussein -- a policy that, after the disasters in Jordan, was rejected as "adventurist." Had they chosen to fight on the first issue, they might have won; but instead, they chose the second, allowing Arafat to steer the congress away from their incendiary views and gain the upper hand. It was the last Fatah congress Abu Nidal was to attend. But he had made his mark.

Shortly afterward, his radicalism and personal ambition were further stimulated when, as a Fatah representative, he led a three-man mission, which included his friend Abu Dawud, on a ten-day journey to China and North Korea, from March 28,1972, to April 8, 1972. They flew from Kuwait to Shanghai, where a private plane took them on to Beijing. But as they approached the Chinese capital, they ran into a storm. Temporarily unable to land, they circled the city to Abu Nidal's increasingly vocal alarm. Not knowing any English, he could not follow the pilot's explanation. "Why are we doing this?" he hollered. "Why aren't we landing?" Suffering what appeared to be an attack of hysteria, he found he could no longer move his legs. To calm him down, Abu Dawud tried to engage him in a game of chess, but as Abu Dawud told me later, Abu Nidal remained hysterical until the aircraft finally came down.

Cut off from the world and still in the throes of its "cultural revolution," China received the Arab delegation as if they were the leaders of the whole Palestinian movement. Abu Nidal was gratified and remained on excellent terms with the Chinese for the next decade. His fanatical nature found considerable affinity with Maoism. His quarrel with the Soviets may also have contributed to the warm welcome he received from the Chinese. Abu Nidal had come to dislike the Soviet diplomats he met in Baghdad, and they in turn found him too reckless for their taste. Their main quarrel was over the boundaries of a future Palestinian homeland: The Soviets backed the 1967 boundaries, whereas Abu Nidal dreamed of those of 1948, preaching the destruction of Israel and the recovery of the whole of Palestine.

As Abu Dawud told me, in discussions with the Chinese, Abu Nidal made it his ingratiating habit to open with a violent diatribe against the Russians, which finally caused Prime Minister Chou En-lai to react. "I don't think you can survive without Soviet help," he chided him. "They are an important force on the international scene, and you must deal with them. But try to avoid becoming a part of their regional strategy."

The Palestinian delegation posed for photographs with Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai before flying on to North Korea for talks, and more photographs, with Kim Il-Sung. Abu Nidal never returned either to China or North Korea, nor did he undergo training in either country, as is sometimes alleged. Still, the trip provided him with some new slogans and a heightened sense of his own importance.

As the head of Fatah in Iraq, Abu Nidal was officially on a par with Fatah's other representatives in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Libya, the main Arab centers of its activity. But following the expulsion of the guerrillas from Jordan, the Iraqi job had become somewhat more important than the others. In Baghdad, Abu Nidal had managed to procure Iraqi documents for thousands of exiled fighters and their families. Iraq was a thoroughfare to the Persian Gulf and the place where Palestinian volunteers from the Gulf came for training in camps put at their disposal by the Iraqi authorities. Arms were stored there. Donations flowed in from ordinary Iraqis. Militancy and political radicalism were in the air under the Ba'athist regime of President Hasan al-Bakr and his formidable deputy, Saddam Hussein. Inevitably, some of Iraq's considerable prestige in Arab affairs rubbed off on Fatah's chief representative in Baghdad.

But with Jordan now lost to them, how were the guerrillas to fight Israel? Many Palestinian fighters believed that they had been unjustly thrown out of Jordan and that King Hussein should be coerced into letting them back in. Many of them still dreamed of waging guerrilla warfare against the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and between 1971 and 1973, the Palestinians attempted repeatedly to placate King Hussein. They appealed to Arab intermediaries like King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to intercede for them, asking to be allowed back to fight Israel in full coordination with the king, if he so wished. But Hussein was not inclined to trust men who had very nearly overthrown him and who had killed his prime minister. Wanting safe and peaceful frontiers with Israel, Hussein firmly rejected their overtures.

Such was the background to Abu Dawud's ambitious plan of February 1973 to lead a sixteen-man hit team into Jordan. In later accounts, the target was said to be the American embassy, but at the time the real aim was to strike at the king, or at least to scare him into releasing the hundreds of Palestinians who had been picked up on the streets and in the camps in 1970-71 and who had been held in jail without trial ever since. Abu Dawud's operation deserves recounting in some detail because of its impact on Abu Nidal's career.

In East Germany, Abu Dawud had learned the trick of taking a car apart and concealing weapons in the cavities of the chassis. Several vehicles were thus loaded up and driven into Jordan by members of his team. Abu Dawud let his beard grow and, posing as a Saudi on holiday, crossed the frontier uneventfully, accompanied by his "wife." In fact she was the wife of one of his team members and had volunteered for the job. In Amman, he immediately contacted a Fatah sleeper, a certain Mustafa Jabr -- but unfortunately for Abu Dawud, Jabr had been "turned" by Jordanian intelligence.

"The moment I saw him," Abu Dawud told me later in Tunis, "I knew from the look in his eye that he was going to betray me. I took him by the collar and whispered, 'Look here, Mustafa, if you ever think of squealing, you're a dead man!'"

Sensing danger, Abu Dawud determined to strike within twenty-four hours. But Mustafa must have alerted the Jordanians first, because Abu Dawud was arrested on his way back from seeing him.

For four days Abu Dawud was beaten and questioned, but he gave nothing away. By coincidence, on the fourth day the Jordanians arrested a young man in an empty car whom they suspected of smuggling marijuana. He was a member of Abu Dawud's team and his car was laden with hidden weapons. The Jordanians decided to show Abu Dawud to this man to see if he recognized him. Abu Dawud was lying slumped on the floor, where he had fainted from pain.

"Do you know who this is?" they asked the young man. "Why yes," he replied. "That is Abu Dawud. I came here with him!"

They dragged Abu Dawud back to the interrogation room, determined to make him talk. He was beaten again, for six or seven hours a day, for an entire month. Meanwhile, from the boy's confession the Jordanians managed to round up all the members of the team, who had been waiting at various hotels for the signal to move. They lined them up and hauled Abu Dawud in front of them. His face was swollen and his arms and legs bruised and useless. He must have been pretty well unrecognizable.

Only one man knew where the weapons were hidden in the cars, and he cracked after two weeks of torture. At that point, the game was up. Abu Dawud and his team were all condemned to death. Twice he was dressed in the red death- row suit and taken down for execution, but each time it was deferred at the last minute.

Abu Dawud never let his captors know that Mustafa Jabr had betrayed him, and pretended not to know him at all. Later,  in order to trap Mustafa, Abu Iyad sent him word from Egypt that he wanted to mount a really big operation in Jordan to secure Abu Dawud's release. The Jordanians could not resist the temptation of finding out what Abu Iyad had in mind, so they sent Mustafa Jabr to meet Abu Iyad in Cairo. He was seized there by Fatah and smuggled out to Libya, where he was imprisoned. Three years later, in 1976, on a plea from his old father, Jabr was released and on his return to Jordan was appointed director of cultural affairs at the ministry of information, a post he may still be holding.

As Abu Dawud told me, "I was myself released far sooner as a result of numerous appeals on my behalf. The Kuwaitis agreed to pay King Hussein $12 million to save my head, and the ruling Soviet troika of Brezhnev, Kosygin, and Podgorni sent Jordan a tough telegram. In 1973, the king knew that war in the Middle East was coming within a very few weeks and he didn't want to hold prisoner hundreds of Palestinians during a conflict which he hoped to stay out of. This was probably what got me out.

"On September 18, 1973, a few days before the outbreak of the October War, we were all released under a general amnesty. The king himself came to my prison cell and told me I was free."

Such was the immediate background to Abu Nidal's first act of terror.

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