ABU NIDAL: A GUN FOR HIRE -- THE SECRET LIFE OF THE WORLD'S MOST NOTORIOUS ARAB TERRORIST
Chapter 5: Made in Baghdad
On September 5, 1973, just two weeks before Abu Dawud's release, five armed Palestinians seized the Saudi embassy in Paris. They took thirteen people hostage and threatened to blow up the building if Abu Dawud was not released from his Jordanian jail.
After lengthy negotiations, the guerrillas agreed to fly out to Kuwait on a Syrian Airways Caravelle, taking some of their hostages with them. More talks followed at a refueling stop in Cairo, and still more at the Kuwait airport, where the gunmen transferred to a Kuwait Airways Boeing and flew over Riyadh, the Saudi capital, threatening to throw their hostages out of the plane if their demand was not met. But when the Saudi authorities insisted that they could not be held responsible for King Hussein's policies, the gunmen eventually flew back to Kuwait, where, after further lengthy negotiations conducted by Ali Yassin, the PLO representative, they surrendered on September 8, thus ending the three- day drama.
ABU NIDAL'S FIRST TERRORIST ACT
This operation was Abu Nidal's first act of terror, planned and directed by him from Baghdad. My sources told me that the man in operational control was Samir Muhammad al-Abbasi (codenamed Amjad Ata), Abu Nidal's aide whom Jorde had caught sight of at the Libyan camp. Amjad Ata was married to one of Abu Nidal's nieces and was to become one of the leading killers in his organization. At the time of writing, he was living in Libya.
Abu Nidal was of course eager to secure the freedom of his friend and fellow radical Abu Dawud: On his release from jail shortly afterward, Abu Nidal offered him a job in the secret group he was then forming. But the larger aims of the Paris operation were more complex.
On September 5, the day of the attack on the Saudi embassy, fifty-six heads of state had assembled in Algiers for the Fourth Non-Aligned Conference, which was opened that day by the Algerian leader Houari Boumedienne, in the presence of UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. But Iraq's president, Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, jealous of Algeria for hosting it, disapproved of the Algiers conference. The Paris operation, which enraged both President Boumedienne and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, was an attempt by Iraq and Abu Nidal to torpedo the proceedings. One of the captured guerrillas later confessed to the Kuwaitis that his orders had been to shuttle the hostages back and forth as long as the Non-Aligned Conference lasted.
Yasser Arafat, who was also in Algiers for the gathering, was deeply embarrassed. He issued a statement condemning the assault as a "plot against the Palestine revolution" and vowed to punish the culprits. Fatah insiders knew that Abu Nidal was the agent and Iraq the sponsor.
A few days later, Abu Iyad and another Fatah leader, Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazin), flew to Baghdad to have it out with the renegade -- but found they had to contend with Iraq as well. Abu Iyad told me that when Abu Mazin started to rebuke Abu Nidal for the Paris operation, an Iraqi official present at the meeting interrupted him brusquely. "Why are you attacking Abu Nidal?" he asked. "The operation was ours! We asked him to mount it for us."
"It was as blunt as that," Abu Iyad said. "Abu Mazin was so angry he got up and left the room. We all followed."
It was now clear to Arafat and his colleagues that their man in Baghdad had put himself wholly at Iraq's service.
DIPLOMACY VERSUS REJECTIONISM
So far, the ostensible reason for Abu Nidal's estrangement from Fatah was the dispute arising from the Jordanian debacle. But the October War of 1973 introduced an altogether more important subject of controversy. In the Arab world, the October War is still thought of as an Arab victory that erased the humiliation of 1967. Arabs prefer to remember the early successes, when Egypt and Syria caught Israel napping and stormed its defenses on the Suez and Golan fronts, rather than the later failures, when Israel regained the initiative. Having proved they could fight and having tasted even limited victory, many Arabs now felt that the time had come to end the conflict with Israel, which had absorbed their energies for over thirty years. The desire for peace was widespread and it involved Arafat's PLO. The despair that had produced the violence of Black September now gave way to optimism. Terrorism was out of fashion as Arafat and his lieutenants sought to muzzle the hotheads and prepare the PLO for a diplomatic role.
There were three distinct landmarks on the PLO's road from armed struggle to political action.
First, the Palestine National Council, meeting in Cairo in June-July 1974, adopted after much heated debate a ten-point political program that accepted the principle that the PLO should set up a "national authority" on any "liberated" territory. This vote by the parliament-in-exile is widely considered the first formal signal that the Palestinians were ready to give up their maximalist demands to retake Israel and make do with a "mini-state" in the West Bank and Gaza.
Second, at an Arab summit in Rabat, Morocco, on October 20, 1974, Yasser Arafat managed to wrest from the assembled Arab leaders, and especially from a reluctant King Hussein, an admission that the PLO would henceforth be the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." Not all Arab leaders were happy to give the PLO such exclusive authority, but they fell into line when they learned that a Palestinian hit team had arrived secretly in Morocco and was preparing to assassinate them all. In fact the operation was a bluff, dreamed up by Abu Iyad to put pressure on the assembled Arab leaders without doing them any physical harm. At the appropriate moment, Abu Iyad tipped off the Moroccan police and the team was rounded up, having served its purpose. The catchphrase "sole legitimate representative" on which Arafat insisted was intended to advance the PLO's claim to negotiate the recovery of the West Bank in place of King Hussein.
Third, fresh from this Arab success, Arafat addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations on November 13, 1974, and won a standing ovation. Once again, he was signaling his readiness to negotiate a political settlement with Israel.
Several strands may be identified in Arafat's thinking at this time. He believed that after the October War, the United States genuinely wanted an evenhanded settlement in the region and that Henry Kissinger could deliver one. As we have seen, even before the war, he had sent Kissinger no fewer than four messages seeking a dialogue. Arafat now believed that with Israel overwhelmingly strong and the Arabs defeated and divided, guerrilla warfare could not possibly result in statehood. Armed struggle had brought victory to the Vietnamese and the Cubans, but their victories had to be set against a long list of costly failures by other revolutionary movements: the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq; the Polisario in the Western Sahara; other insurgent groups in Thailand, Malaya, the Philippines, Burma, El Salvador, and Peru. No one at that time would have believed that by 1991 the Eritrean People's Liberation Front in Ethiopia would prevail after one of the longest struggles of all. It was difficult, Arafat argued to his close associates in 1974, to win against the formidable defenses of a state. Surely the time had come for the Palestinians to go for a political solution.
Non-Palestinians cannot easily comprehend how unwelcome this pragmatism was to the rank and file. Romantic and irresponsible rejectionism, the refusal to make concessions, the insistence on fighting when there is no chance of victory have a long ancestry in the Palestinian movement, as David Gilmour points out in Dispossessed, The Palestinian Ordeal from 1917 to 1980 (1980). Convinced of the justice of their cause, the Palestinians were rejectionists in 1917, in 1922, in 1936-39, in 1948 -- and with even greater conviction when they started their armed struggle, in 1965. How could any people be expected to surrender voluntarily the greater part of their country? Gilmour quotes a remark by the Irish nationalist leader Eamon de Valera: "The rightful owners of a country will never agree to partition." So whatever Arafat recommended, and whatever resolutions were passed by the Palestine National Council, a negotiated settlement with Israel offended those Palestinians who believed that only force could liberate Palestine and feared that political concessions would lead to a sellout. They were not yet ready to accept the unsatisfactory compromise of a mini-state.
The PFLP's George Habash, one of the most ardent advocates of continued armed struggle, broke with the PLO at this time and took the lead in setting up a "Front Rejecting Capitulationist Solutions," which came to be known simply as the Rejection Front. Formally launched at a conference in Baghdad in October 1974, with the backing of Iraq, Algeria, and South Yemen, it opposed all negotiations. The front provided an umbrella for those Palestinian factions that shared this view: the PFLP; the Syrian-backed breakaway group that its leader, Ahmad Jibril, named the PFLP-General Command; and Iraq's own creation, the Arab Liberation Front. Meanwhile, Wadi Haddad, leader of the PFLP's military wing, continued incorrigibly to mount terrorist operations, although by now his organization was so penetrated by half a dozen intelligence agencies that most of his plans were aborted. He eventually died, following a mysterious illness contracted in Baghdad. Some say he was given a poison pill supplied by another Arab government to make it seem that Iraq was to blame. Abu Iyad was particularly incensed by Wadi Haddad's continued hijackings. "Which madman," he would storm despairingly, "would want to trap the Palestine cause in an airplane? If the plane blows up, the Palestine cause might blow up with it!"
Abu Nidal was perhaps the most violent "rejectionist" on the Palestinian scene, but he never formally joined the Rejection Front, which may have been too overt for so passionate a convert to clandestine action. In any event, he was busy setting up his own secret organization, and in this he had the inestimable advantage of having become Iraq's favorite Palestinian protege.
From the start, Iraq's Ba'athist leaders set themselves up as the main champions of the Palestinian rejectionists. Far from the scene of the Arab-Israeli conflict, untroubled by fear of Israeli retaliation, and with no Palestinian refugee problem to cope with, Iraq could afford this grand gesture. There were also personal factors involved. The Iraqi president, Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, a simple soldier of nationalist convictions who was fond of declaring that his most cherished dream was to die fighting in Palestine, had an unbounded contempt for Yasser Arafat. The antipathy was mutual and dated back to an incident in early 1969, when Arafat (still only Fatah's official spokesman and not yet chairman of the PLO's Executive Committee) paid a visit to Baghdad accompanied by Abu Dawud. Their reckless driver crashed into a truck. Arafat's hand was broken and his ribs crushed, while Abu Dawud's face and eyes were badly hurt by flying glass. They were taken for treatment to a military hospital in Baghdad, where Bakr came to inquire after their health. After the customary exchange of civilities, a dispute broke out in the hospital room over the friendly relations -- too friendly, in Bakr's view -- that Fatah had entertained with the preceding Iraqi regime, overthrown a year earlier by Bakr and his Ba'ath party. Sharp words were exchanged -- and a lasting chill ensued, which was to have considerable political consequences.
Accordingly, by early 1974, when Fatah was considering its switch from guerrilla warfare to diplomacy in the wake of the October War, Iraq's Ba'athist leaders invited Arafat to visit Baghdad again. Men like Bakr and his powerful second-in- command, Saddam Hussein, considered the Palestinian cause inseparable from their party's historic mission: They could not tolerate an independent PLO that was not under their direction, an attitude not very different from that of Hafez al-Assad of Syria. Thus, Bakr and Saddam Hussein pressed Arafat to move his men to Iraq and reject all political compromise. If he did so, they promised, he would have Iraq's full backing! But Arafat refused their offer and, instead, went to Cairo to win support for his "moderate" ten-point program at the June meeting of the Palestine National Council. Iraq was furious and launched a propaganda campaign against Arafat.
Abu Nidal was the first to benefit from these developments. Though he was Fatah's man on the spot, he was a known opponent of Arafat. Iraq's instinct in the circumstances was to give him a secure geographical base and use him against the man they now saw as a traitor. Indeed, had it not been for Iraq's quarrel with Arafat, Abu Nidal might not have split from Fatah but might, at most, have led a strong opposition movement inside it, leaving the balance of power among the Palestinians to decide the issue in due course.
Abu Nidal also became the beneficiary of the endemic rivalry between Iraq and Syria, which dated back to the great Ba'ath party schism of 1966, which over the years had hardened into enmity between the two Ba'athist states. Seen from Iraq, Arafat's Fatah, which by 1972 had established itself in Lebanon, just across the Syrian frontier, was now in Syria's orbit. Syria had also created al-Sa'iqa (the Thunderbolt) as its own wholly controlled Palestinian organization. Iraq felt the need for a counterweight in the form of a Baghdad-based Palestinian group.
What choice did it have? A possible candidate was the PFLP, run by George Habash and his trigger-happy colleague Wadi Haddad, but these were prickly, strong-minded men who could not easily be controlled. Another possibility was the experienced officer Ahmad Jibril and his militarily effective PFLP-General Command, but having started life in the Syrian army, Jibril tilted naturally toward Damascus. Then there was Abu Nidal: ambitious, active, wanting power over others, a provocateur of the first order -- and in many ways already Iraq's man. He seemed ideally placed to oppose Arafat's errant leadership. Furthermore, he let the Iraqis know that many cadres in Fatah thought as he did: He meant, for example, such well-known men as Abu Dawud and Naji Allush and even his former mentor, Abu Iyad. Moreover, as a member of Fatah's Revolutionary Council, he was already some way up the Fatah ladder.
Arafat and his Fatah central committee were by now thoroughly outraged by the disloyalty of their man in Baghdad. Ever since 1971 there had been moves to sack him -- moves that Abu Iyad had repeatedly blocked, in the belief that Abu Nidal might still somehow be saved. But now a decision could no longer be deferred. In the early summer of 1974, it was decided to send Abu Mazin to Baghdad, accompanied by Abu Iyad and Abu Dawud, to inform Abu Nidal that he was being replaced.
Abu Iyad told me later that even at this eleventh hour, he wanted to make one last attempt to save Abu Nidal. Before the interview, he and Abu Dawud conferred secretly with Abu Nidal to urge him to plead with Abu Mazin not to expel him. They coached him in how to put his case. When the meeting took place, Abu Mazin gave Abu Nidal the dressing-down of his life. But in reply, Abu Nidal grossly overplayed his act. He was so abject and groveling that Abu Iyad had to leave the room in embarrassment. Abu Mazin guessed that Abu Iyad had schemed yet again to block Abu Nidal's expulsion.
"Abu Mazin and I were very close friends," Abu Iyad told me, "but it was about the tenth time that I had taken Abu Nidal's side against a central committee decision. Abu Mazin was very angry and uncomfortable and that evening had the first signs of the heart problem that was later to trouble him."
But Abu Iyad could no longer stem the tide. On July 26, 1974, the Palestinian news agency WAFA reported that Sabri al-Banna, "known by his alias of Abu Nidal," had been removed from his post as Fatah representative in Baghdad.
ATTEMPTED MURDER OF ABU MAZIN
Even before the formal announcement, Abu Nidal sought revenge for his humiliation -- -and he did so by plotting Abu Mazin's assassination. The affair was both complicated and controversial, but it was to precipitate the final split.
In June 1974, Fatah intelligence came upon a letter written in Baghdad by a certain Mustafa Murad (code-named Abu Nizar) -- a close associate of Abu Nidal -- to two men in Damascus, instructing them to spy on Abu Mazin's movements in preparation for an attempt on his life. Thus forewarned, Fatah proceeded to round up Abu Nidal's known sympathizers among Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon; when Abu Nizar went to Damascus on a mission in July 1974, he was seized by Fatah and imprisoned in its jail at Hammuriyah, near Damascus.
Three months later, Abu Nizar was put on trial before a Fatah court. A gun, equipped with a silencer, which he confessed to having supplied, was submitted in evidence, together with sketch maps prepared by the conspirators showing the location of Abu Mazin's house. In early November, Abu Nizar was sentenced to eighteen months in jail, to be served at Hammuriyah. Abu Nidal, the alleged mastermind behind the attempted assassination, was sentenced to death in absentia.
The death sentence was confirmed at a meeting of Fatah's Revolutionary Council -- in the teeth of strenuous protests from Abu Dawud and Naji Allush, the radical journalist, who thus showed where their sympathies lay. Abu Mazin, the intended victim of the assassination attempt, left the meeting in anger. But still not giving up, Abu Dawud pleaded that Abu Nidal be given a last chance to put his case. It was decided to invite him to Beirut for questioning, with Abu Dawud personally vouching for his safety. Such was the incestuous relationship between these comrades and former comrades that the breach was even then still not final.
Abu Nidal was a very careful man. It was, therefore, with considerable hesitation that he traveled to Beirut, where Abu Dawud met him at the airport and took him to a safe house. Fearing a trap, he insisted throughout his visit that Abu Dawud never leave his side. To give Abu Nidal every chance to clear his name and return to the Fatah fold, Abu Iyad diplomatically wrote out the questions to be put to him -- and the answers expected from him. But this scheming came to nothing. Abu Nidal was no longer willing to humble himself. With Iraqi backing, he was beginning to feel both powerful and destructive. Angrily, he returned to Baghdad. Both sides had passed the point of no return.
It may be, as some Palestinian insiders suggest, that Abu Nidal never really intended to kill Abu Mazin but merely to frighten him; and that Fatah's death sentence, in turn, was more for public consumption than a genuine attempt to bring him to justice. In any event, no effort was made to carry it out. If Fatah had truly wanted to kill Abu Nidal, it could have sent someone to Baghdad to do the job.
But the psychological impact of the sentence on Abu Nidal was considerable. It had the effect of driving him out of Fatah altogether and of making him cling ever more closely to Iraq. As an acquaintance put it, "For Abu Nidal, self is everything. When he feels personally threatened, he goes berserk."
THE SPLIT BECOMES FORMAL
Abu Nidal's reaction to the death sentence was to denounce Arafat as a heretic whose willingness to accept a peaceful solution of the Palestine question was a betrayal of Fatah's original ideals. In support of his accusations, he published the resolutions of Fatah's Third Congress, which Arafat had forced through. So incensed had Abu Nidal been by these resolutions that his first thought had been to call his new movement Fatah: The Fourth Congress, to indicate his total rejection of everything the Third Congress had approved. But on reflection, in October 1974 he settled for Fatah: The Revolutionary Council: He was, after all, a member of Fatah's Revolutionary Council, most of whose members were his friends and held hard-line views like his own: Arafat might control the top of the pyramid, but its base, as he believed, was solidly with him. He thought of himself as representing not just a splinter group but a majority within the Palestinian movement. And in true sectarian fashion, he took to referring sneeringly to Arafat's Fatah as Fatah: The Executive Committee. His was the legitimate face of Fatah, Arafat's the face of treachery!
Many Fatah members across the Arab world were attracted to Abu Nidal's stance and thought him a brave and principled politician who had stood up against a sellout. The fact that he was no outsider, that he had a background in Fatah, made cooperation with him easier.
His strongest card was that he was now a source of considerable patronage, because the Iraqis had turned over to him all Fatah's assets in Iraq. These included a training camp at Ramadi, west of Baghdad; a large farm where food for his men was grown; passports, a more precious commodity for stateless Palestinians than food; scholarships for study abroad; a radio station; a newspaper; and a stock of Chinese weapons worth $15 million, which Abu Dawud had ordered for his militia in Jordan but which never got further than Iraq when the September 1970 crisis erupted. Abu Nidal sold some of them off: It was the beginning of his fortune. He also became the recipient of the regular financial aid Iraq had given to Fatah: 50,000 Iraqi dinars a month, the equivalent at the time of about $150,000. In addition, as a special bonus to set himself up, Iraq gave him a lump sum of $3-5 million. All this represented real wealth and power. Within a very short time, Abu Nidal became "Mr. Palestine" in Iraq, dominating the entire Palestinian community there. Any Palestinian who needed anything at all from the Iraqi government had to go through him.
His main supporter in Iraq was President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, the man from whom his power truly derived. They shared an anxiety about the "dangers of the peace process" and held Arafat in contempt. Abu Nidal cleverly suggested to Bakr that because of the position he had taken, he risked being killed by Fatah, so from the start he enjoyed Iraq's sympathy as well as the assiduous protection of its intelligence service, whose chief, Sa'dun Shakir, became his close friend.
THE KILLING OF AHMAD ABD AL-GHAFUR
An event then took place that was to have a profound effect on Abu Nidal, propelling him down the path of violence, or at least giving him a pretext for taking that road. One of his closest friends was killed by Fatah in Beirut.
Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur (code-named Abu Mahmud), a fervent nationalist and rising Fatah cadre, was one of the first and certainly one of the most important members of the secret group that Abu Nidal had formed inside Fatah in 1972-73. In the 1960s, he had worked for an oil company in Libya, where he made money and acquired management experience. He also struck up an acquaintance with the young Libyan officers who, under the leadership of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, seized power from the aged King Idris in September 1969. The following year, Fatah called him to Jordan to help manage its slim resources, and he proved to be good at it, dipping into his own pocket when the need arose.
But like many others, he was shattered by the slaughter of the Palestinians in Jordan in 1970. A dramatic change came over him. This once sober man joined Black September and became one of its most bloodthirsty members. He was determined, he declared, to cleanse Fatah of its "heretics" and wreak vengeance on all supporters of Israel. To Abu Iyad's alarm, as he later explained to me, Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur took to propounding a dangerous terrorist theory: The way to win support for the Palestinian cause was to send gunmen to shoot people at random in the streets of Europe and the United States. In court, the gunmen would declare that they had killed in order to bring an oppressed and persecuted people to the attention of the world.
In 1972, Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur broke away from Black September, moved to Lebanon and, while still linked to Abu Nidal, formed a fighting group of his own made up of men he was able to seduce away from Fatah. As he was popular in the refugee camps, he soon had a large body of followers and angered Fatah by mounting terrorist operations just when Fatah was trying to put terror behind it. One of his most notorious operations was an attack on December 17, 1973, at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, on a Pan Am Boeing 707 about to take off for Beirut and Tehran. Five fedayeen hurled incendiary bombs inside the aircraft, killing twenty-nine people, including Aramco employees and four senior Moroccan government officials who were on their way to Iran.
Then, in 1974, to Fatah's even greater alarm, word reached it that Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur and Abu Nidal were working more closely together and were considering merging their two organizations. The combination of Abu Nidal backed by Iraq and Abd al-Ghafur backed by Libya -- two crazy and destructive men, as Arafat believed at the time, in the pay of two extremist regimes -- represented an intolerable threat to the political course on which Arafat had embarked. Abd al-Ghafur had to be stopped, and Arafat's military chief, Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), gave orders for him to be killed. Fatah may also have felt the need to clip the wings of a rival organization that was becoming a significant force in Lebanon, an especially sensitive theater of operations for Fatah. So Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur was gunned down in the Ashrafiya district of Beirut in late 1974 by a certain Azmi al-Sughayyir, a Palestinian of murky background who had worked for the Israelis, then for the guerrillas. (He would eventually be killed in southern Lebanon, during Israel's invasion in 1982.)
Abd al-Ghafur's ideas did not die with him. One of his disciples, a Palestinian named Abu Mustafa Qaddura, took over his group and, with backing from both Libya and Abu Nidal, organized the hijack of a British Airways VC-10 at Dubai when it landed there on November 22, 1974, on a flight from London to Brunei. The four gunmen on board, who called themselves members of the Martyr Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur Squad, forced the plane to fly to Tunis, where one of their hostages, a German doctor, was shot and tossed out onto the tarmac. Their most pressing demand was for the release from Egyptian jails of the five comrades who had staged the attack on the Pan Am plane at Fiumicino in December 1973 and who were awaiting trial by the PLO.
President Sadat of Egypt appealed to Abu Iyad for help in negotiating with the gunmen and sent a plane to take him to Tunis. Abu Iyad recounted to me that when he first spoke to the gunmen from the control tower, they were violent and abusive, but he was gradually able to influence each one of them in turn, including their leader, who called himself Tony. They kept threatening to blow up the plane, but he persuaded them to release a few passengers at a time. "Let the passengers go, and then do what you like with the plane," he argued.
In the meantime, President Sadat agreed to release the five prisoners held in Egypt, who were flown to Tunis to join the gunmen on board the plane. Once the passengers had been freed and the gunmen, their comrades, and the crew were alone on board, Abu Iyad persuaded them to give themselves up in exchange for free passage to a country of their choice. When they chose Libya, Abu Iyad got President Bourguiba to agree to the transaction. He then contacted the head of Libyan intelligence at the time, Abd al-Mun'im al-Huni, and he too approved the plan. They agreed that on arrival in Tripoli, the gunmen would be handed over to the local PLO office.
But when Abu Iyad arrived in Tripoli a day later, he found that contrary to the agreement, the gunmen had been allowed to go on to Benghazi, where, in protest at the handling of the affair by the Tunisian government, they had actually been allowed to take over the Tunisian consulate. Qaddafi was clearly settling a few scores of his own -- against Tunisia. Abu Iyad thought the whole thing a scandal.
"I raised the matter with Qaddafi," he told me. "Why had he not honored our agreement to hand the gunmen over to the PLO? I had, after all, saved his reputation by resolving the crisis peacefully. Had it ended violently, his connection with the gunmen would have been made public!
"He pretended ignorance of the whole business, but asked me who on the Libyan side was responsible for the blunder. I replied that it was his own intelligence people, Sayyid Qaddaf al-Damm and Abdallah Hijazi. He summoned them and scolded them in a schoolboy manner, with lots of giggles. He said he wanted the hijackers handed over to me on the morrow. They laughed, nodded, and left.
"On my way out, I quizzed al-Huni, the Libyan intelligence head, about the colonel's manner. Was this how he usually behaved? Did he not have enough authority over those men to make them take him seriously? al-Huni turned to me: 'Don't be misled,' he said. 'Take it from me: He's a wolf in sheep's clothing.'
"It's a description of Qaddafi I have never forgotten," Abu Iyad said.
The incident illustrated the stress, embarrassment, and frantic maneuvers imposed upon Fatah and Arab regimes as they struggled to contain such terrorist operations. In turn, the operations themselves had, by this time, very little to do with defending the Palestinian cause and a great deal to do with squabbles between Arab states and among Palestinians themselves.
As Abu Iyad conceded to me, Fatah had made a terrible error in killing Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur. His assassination introduced violence into intra-Palestinian relations, which had so far been largely absent. The death of Abd al-Ghafur released a ferocious tide in Abu Nidal's nature and gave him an excuse for his own later murders of Palestinians.
Why did Fatah not rid itself of Abu Nidal as well? The answer must be that at this late stage, he was still being protected by Abu Iyad, as he himself told me:
"I used to believe there were two ways of dealing with him: One was to cut him down, as many wanted to do; the other was to win him over. In spite of everything, I still hoped to do so." He explained that Fatah could have killed Abu Nidal when he came to Lebanon in 1974, but they did not do it because at that time he was only calling for reforms. "If we were to kill everyone who called for reform of the PLO, we would have to slaughter thousands," he said with a laugh. "Anyway, we claimed that ours was a democratic movement, and this was a way of proving it."
Abu Iyad felt that Abu Nidal voiced significant criticisms of the PLO -- criticisms that in some ways he shared. "I wanted to let him loose on our movement so that he could act as a corrective to trends of which I disapproved," Abu Iyad said, despite Arafat's conviction that Abu Nidal was dangerous.
It was a view he came bitterly to regret, and one he would eventually pay for with his life.
BEGINNINGS OF THE MILITARY COMMITTEE
Abu Nidal spent his first years in Iraq as head of his own organization in careful preparation for an international role. He set up an ultrasecret Military Committee and proceeded to equip it for "foreign work." From the start, he was more interested in such operations than in cross-border raids into Israel, the traditional expression of Palestinian militancy. Whether or not this was because he already had a link with the Mossad must be a matter of conjecture. It is a subject to which we will return in a later chapter, once his connections with Arab sponsors have been explored. Abu Nidal's argument at this time was that Iraq was a long way from Israel, and his enemy Yasser Arafat would never allow him a free hand in front-line areas. One of his earliest recruits, known as Basil (later to be a commander of Abu Nidal's forces in Lebanon), whom I interviewed in Tunis, recalls him saying in 1973 that "the battlefield on the borders of the enemy" was closed to him. The argument was spurious because he did in fact have men in Jordan and Lebanon who, like members of other groups, could have struck into Israel if he had instructed them to do so. But this was evidently not his first priority.
Instead, he concentrated on smuggling arms into European countries and concealing them there. In 1973-75, when security at airports and land borders was not as strict as it was to become, the clandestine movement of arms was still relatively easy. For this traffic, Abu Nidal used Iraqi diplomatic pouches, secret compartments in cars, and containers on ships sailing from Iraqi ports. In some cases, arms were bought locally from extremist groups, and suitable places to hide them abroad were located and mapped on land that was not going to be farmed or developed; woods were preferred. Weapons were stored either in small quantities, enough to arm one or two men, or in so-called strategic dumps, which could be drawn on several times and then hidden away or locked up for further use. Such larger dumps were placed in the custody of a "resident," usually someone married to a local girl or otherwise enjoying good cover. Great care was taken to protect the residents and to conceal any information that might link them to Abu Nidal's organization.
In those early days the main arms dumps were in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Italy, and France -- some of which are still there today and could in theory permit Abu Nidal to mount operations in Europe. According to Basil and other sources, Abu Nidal learned his terrorist techniques from Black September but also from Iranian revolutionaries who were then plotting to overthrow the shah, some of whom had trained with the Palestinians in Iraq.
At this stage Abu Nidal's Military Committee seemed a wholly Iraqi creation. He did Iraq's bidding and was rewarded with access to Iraqi funds, airlines, embassies, and diplomatic bags. His enemies were Iraq's enemies, his operations were dictated by Iraq, and his various institutions -- the Military Committee and other bodies dealing with finance, external relations, and internal organization -- seemed no more than extensions of Iraqi intelligence.
Yet Abu Nidal's vanity would not allow him completely to be anyone's agent. In his view, he had not been "recruited" by the Iraqis but rather had entered into a partnership with them, founded on his personal friendship with their leaders. They provided the logistics, he paid in "services rendered." As he confided to one of his associates, "When I take, I give." It was a principle that was to govern his relations with other sponsors over the years.
The attack on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Paris in September 1973 was Abu Nidal's first recorded operation and one clearly carried out on Iraq's behalf. In December of that year, he sent two Tunisian members of his still embryonic organization to disrupt the Geneva conference, stage-managed by Henry Kissinger after the October War. The plan was that they should invade the conference hall or gun down the delegates to indicate their rejection of any sort of peace settlement, to which both he and Iraq were virulently opposed. But his men never got a chance to act. The conference opened at the Palais des Nations on December 21, 1973, and, after ceremonial speeches, adjourned that same afternoon. Henry Kissinger had conceived it as a fig leaf to legitimize his secret objective of a bilateral deal between Egypt and Israel. It never became the forum, as many had hoped, for a wide-ranging multilateral negotiation to implement UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called on Israel to withdraw from occupied territories, in exchange for secure and recognized borders. Thus, Abu Nidal had to call off his operation and bring his men home.
WAR ON SYRIA
By 1976 Abu Nidal's organization was ready for more ambitious operations. The Lebanese civil war had broken out, pitting Muslims of that country and their Palestinian allies against the once-dominant Maronite Christians. The Palestinian guerrilla commander Abu Dawud soon found himself in the thick of things. Although he was still in Fatah, he was also cooperating secretly with Abu Nidal. In early 1976 he brought about fifty of Abu Nidal's men into the port of Sidon, on the south coast of Lebanon, to fight under his command alongside other Palestinian troops in the commercial district of Beirut.
By the spring of 1976, the tide of war had turned against the Maronite Christians, who found themselves besieged in the mountains by a combined force of Palestinians and radical Muslims. Fearing an Israeli intervention to save the Maronites, President Assad of Syria sent his army into Lebanon in June 1976 to force the Palestinians to call off their offensive. But Arab opinion could not accept that an Arab nationalist regime like Syria's should turn its guns on Palestinians. The outcry against Assad was heard from one end of the Arab world to the other. Sadat broke off relations, while Iraq's Saddam Hussein sent troops to the Syrian border, calling Assad a madman whose ambition had immersed him in a bloodbath. (Just before Syrian troops marched in, Abu Dawud got Abu Nidal's men out; he knew the Syrians would give them no quarter.)
On Iraq's prompting, Abu Nidal then mounted a terrorist campaign against Syria code-named Black June -- the month in which Syrian forces entered Lebanon. In July 1976, he had bombs set off at the offices of Syrian Airlines in Kuwait and Rome, and two months later, on September 26, four Abu Nidal gunmen burst into the Semiramis Hotel in central Damascus and took ninety people hostage. Traveling on Iraqi passports, the team had smuggled its weapons into Syria from Europe, via Turkey. Syrian forces stormed the hotel, killing one gunman and four hostages and wounding thirty-four others. The next day, the three remaining gunmen were hanged in public.
In October, Abu Nidal mounted attacks on Syrian embassies in Islamabad and Rome, and in December on the Syrian embassy in Ankara and the Syrian legation in Istanbul. A weapon used in several of these incidents was the small Polish-made WZ-63 submachine gun, whose folding butt and large magazine made it a terrorist's favorite. Bombs placed in public trash cans in Damascus caused alarm and resulted in ugly casualties. One of Abu Nidal's men, Ali Zaidan, who had taken part in the two Rome operations of July and October, was arrested by the Italian police and would spend five years in an Italian jail. He is now a member of Abu Nidal's Revolutionary Council and one of his main killers.
Less than a year later, on October 25, 1977, Syria's then foreign minister, Abd al-Halim Khaddam, narrowly escaped death at the Abu Dhabi airport when a gunman opened fire on him. The bullet missed him but killed Saif al-Ghubash, the United Arab Emirates minister of state for foreign affairs, who was standing at his side. The planner of this operation, and of the attack on the Semiramis Hotel, in central Damascus, was Fu'ad al-Suffarini (code-named Umar Hamdi), a long- serving director of Abu Nidal's office in Baghdad and a member of his Military Committee. (An earlier attempt to kill Khaddam in Syria in December 1976, widely attributed to Abu Nidal, was in fact the work of the Muslim Brotherhood, then beginning a campaign to overthrow Assad's regime.)
With these anti-Syrian operations, Abu Nidal was cutting his teeth and making himself useful to the Iraqis. But he had yet to develop his own distinctive style. So far he had been busy building up his organization and acquiring weapons and funds. He claimed he wanted to wage war on "Zionism" and "imperialism," but his only targets so far had been Arab -- and were soon to be more specifically Palestinian.
Yet as he sank deeper into an underworld of violence, he told a friend of the damage to himself and to his family of the course he had chosen:
"In the 1970s, when we lived in Iraq," Abu Nidal said, "I enrolled my son Nidal at a school in Baghdad under a false name. One day he misbehaved in class, and the headmaster asked to see his father. He said the boy wouldn't be allowed back to school until the father had been to see him.
"Nidal didn't dare tell me about it. He knew I could not appear in public. So he asked the father of a friend of his to stand in for me. But it didn't work. The headmaster insisted on seeing me.
"One day Nidal came to me and said he wanted to give up school altogether! I soon learned why, and telephoned the headmaster to ask him to pay me a visit. I had to tell him who I was and confess that my son was registered under a false name.
"I'd caused shame and discomfort to my own son!"