ABU NIDAL: A GUN FOR HIRE -- THE SECRET LIFE OF THE WORLD'S MOST NOTORIOUS ARAB TERRORIST
Chapter 6: The Sponsors
For seventeen long years, from 1974 to 1991, Iraq, then Syria, and finally Libya gave Abu Nidal a home, logistical support, and that most precious gift of all -- security. Iraq's sponsorship lasted for over eight years, from 1974 to 1983; Syria's for six years, from 1981 to 1987; and Libya's continues (despite Colonel Qaddafi's denials) to this day.
There was a curious overlap in the early eighties, when Abu Nidal's organization, one of the most dangerous in the region, gradually transferred its operating base from Baghdad to Damascus, in effect evading the control of either sponsor. What made the situation still more strange was that except for some months in 1978-79, Iraq and Syria were deadly enemies, busily abusing and sabotaging each other, each claiming to be the fount of Ba'athist legitimacy and Arab nationalism.
But Abu Nidal has an outstanding talent for inserting himself into the narrow gap between contending parties. He thrives on Middle Eastern conflicts, not only between Israel and the Palestinians but between the Arab states and Fatah, between Iraq and Syria, between Libya and Egypt, between the Arabs and the West. He threatened the conservative states of the Gulf as well as European governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain, which often caved in to his blackmail to protect themselves from his terrorism. This was the shadowy, quarrelsome world he inhabited, the underbelly of politics. Because he was ubiquitous and violent, there were many attempts to penetrate his organization or simply to make contact with him, allowing him in return to extort what funds, facilities, or concessions he could get. He offered his sponsors valuable services but was never entirely their creature.
The Middle East is a place of almost perpetual conflict. Arabs and Israelis have waged great wars during just about every decade. Iraq and Iran engaged in a grinding eight-year struggle. The civil war in Lebanon lasted the best part of a generation and the war in the Sudan longer still. We are still living in the dark shadow of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War, which brought devastation to both Kuwait and Iraq. But another form of warfare, covert and subterranean, is as characteristic of the region. It is waged not by conventional armies but by secret services, by terrorists and irregulars. This conflict touches every state without exception, to the extent that Middle East politics is as much about this form of warfare as it is about the overt kind -- a fact that Abu Nidal has turned to his advantage, becoming a sort of nefarious spirit inhabiting the region's contradictions.
HIGH NOON IN IRAQ
Abu Nidal first flourished under the harsh reign of the Ba'ath party in Iraq. The Ba'ath had seized power in Baghdad in February 1963, when it distinguished itself, with discreet American help, by the wholesale slaughter of members of the Iraqi Communist party, then the strongest in the region. As Marion and Peter Sluglett suggest in Iraq Since 1958 (1987), the CIA may have supplied the Ba'athists with lists of their Communist enemies. "It is certain," they write, "that some of the Ba'th leaders were in touch with American intelligence networks." When the rough and reckless Ba'athists had finished liquidating their enemies, they started quarreling among themselves, which allowed a cabal of nationalist army officers to overthrow them, in turn, in November 1963.
The party then went back underground, where it remained for the five years from 1963 to 1968. During this time it was purged and rebuilt by a young man of ruthless talents, then still in his late twenties, called Saddam Hussein. In July 1968, the party climbed back to power in a coup staged by one of its military members, General Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, a well-known officer who had participated in the overthrow of the monarchy in 1968. Bakr had support in the officer corps, but his real underpinning came from Saddam's civilian wing of the Ba'ath.
For more than a decade, from 1968 to 1979, Bakr and Saddam Hussein, the soldier and the party apparatchik, ruled Iraq together, stamping out opposition, packing the army with their loyalists, controlling it with political commissars, and imposing Ba'athist rule in every corner of the country by means of a cruel and all-seeing security apparatus that was Saddam's own creation. From very early on, he was the regime's "strongman," with the title vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and with powers over everything and everyone.
Living in Iraq from 1970 onward, Abu Nidal had a ringside view of the growth of Ba'athist power and of the Iraqi state, funded by rising oil revenues after the 1972 nationalization of the Iraq Petroleum Company and the oil-price explosion the following year. Abu Nidal's support derived mainly from President Bakr rather than from Saddam Hussein. He was also close to Iraq's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, and to Sa'dun Shakir, Saddam's cousin, who was then director-general of intelligence. Bred in a new Iraqi tradition of ferocity, Shakir undoubtedly had a sinister influence over Abu Nidal. Saddam, however, tended to make light of Abu Nidal, perhaps recognizing in him a smooth operator like himself. Abu Nidal was extremely touchy and Saddam's slights were not forgotten, and the two men were not on easy terms.
The mid-to-late 1970s were the high noon of Abu Nidal's Iraqi period. At that time, Iraq was the Arab world's bully and mischief maker: It planted secret Ba'athist cells across the region to stir up revolution; cozied up to Moscow; and proclaimed the most extreme views on Arab socialism, Arab unity, and the Arab-Israeli dispute in an evident bid to claim the leadership of Arab radicalism from its principal rival, Syria. After the October War of 1973, Baghdad condemned Arafat's attempted moderation as treacherous and denounced Syria's 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel on the Golan Heights, together with Assad's intervention in Lebanon two years later. Abu Nidal was encouraged to unleash his terrorists against Syria and the PLO.
But in 1978-79, following a change in Iraq's political climate, Abu Nidal suddenly fell out of favor. The immediate occasion was the signing of the Camp David accords of September 1978, brokered by Jimmy Carter between Begin and Sadat. Saddam Hussein, who had not so far had a chance to cut much of a figure beyond Iraq's borders, seized on Sadat's "betrayal" to assert himself in Arab politics. He convened a summit in Baghdad that November to concert an Arab response to Egypt. He made it up with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, as well as with Syria, and sought to project a new image as an Arab and international statesman. A considerable obstacle to this program was his sponsorship of terrorism. Washington had long urged him to clean up his act. Thus, Abu Nidal's murderous outfit became an embarrassment to Saddam, and even on the purely Palestinian front, it was now more to his advantage to deal with Arafat, who was mainstream.
While the Baghdad summit was still in progress, Saddam called Arafat and Abu Iyad into his office in order to outline his new policy to them. Abu Iyad later gave me an account of what took place:
"What are our differences?" Saddam queried. "Are you still upset because we didn't intervene to help you in Jordan in 1970 [a reference to the inaction of Iraqi troops when the guerrillas were being slaughtered by King Hussein's army]? We've already criticized ourselves for that unfortunate episode," he said grandly, "and we consider it past history.
"Is it our support for Abu Nidal that angers you? I can tell you at once that we will sanction no further operations against you mounted from Baghdad. We will no longer take responsibility for his actions -- and we have told him so.
"But," he added with a dreadful smile, "don't expect me to hand him over to you!"
Once Saddam had edged out the ailing Bakr and assumed the presidency in 1979, Abu Nidal knew that his organization's days in Iraq were numbered. Not wishing to be the hostage of any one regime, he began making secret overtures to Syria and Libya. But just when he expected to be expelled from Baghdad, the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, in September 1980, gave him a reprieve. The war meant that Iraq needed international support more than ever, especially from the West and the rich Gulf states, and therefore ought to have gotten rid of Abu Nidal. But he was a valuable man for a regime at war to have in its service. The Iraqis needed weapons and intelligence. They needed an external arm, and Abu Nidal was ready to make himself useful. He offered to assassinate members of the Iraqi opposition abroad; he put himself forward as a covert channel of communication with Syria; internally, he kept an eye on potentially subversive enemies; and he involved himself as a middleman in the arms trade, from which he hoped to profit personally.
One of Abu Nidal's principal lieutenants at this time was Abd al-Rahman Isa, the defector I had hoped to interview in Algiers, but whose taped debriefing was made available to me by Abu Iyad. From these tapes I learned that Abu Nidal had in 1980 or 1981 promised the Iraqis that he could obtain T72 tanks from Poland, where he had good contacts: "Saddam Hussein considered this a tremendous service," Isa told Abu Iyad, "a service that in fact delayed our eviction from Baghdad by two to three years!" The Iraqis made a down payment of $11 million, which Abu Nidal placed in a private Swiss account. But then the Iraqis changed their minds. It was no longer tanks they wanted but artillery. Abu Nidal could not help there, but according to Isa, he never returned the money, which was another reason for his eventual departure from Baghdad.
THE LEBANESE IMBROGLIO
During this same period, the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Abu Nidal was struggling to hang on in Iraq, there arose a crisis inside his organization. He was to come out of it harsher, more secretive, and still more violent. The turmoil started in Lebanon in the wake of Operation Litani, Israel's invasion of March 1978.
Israel announced that its invasion of Lebanon was a response to a Palestinian attack that month on its Mediterranean coast, when a small force of guerrillas landed from two rubber dinghies and hijacked two civilian buses. In the shootout, nine guerrillas and thirty-seven Israelis were killed. But in scope and destructiveness, the Israeli invasion dwarfed the incident that had provoked it. Israel occupied the whole of South Lebanon up to the Litani River, sending a panic-stricken population fleeing northward toward Beirut. Some two thousand Lebanese and Palestinians were killed and an estimated two hundred thousand displaced from their homes.
Angry at Israel's disproportionate violence, President Jimmy Carter told Menachem Begin to pull his troops out and lent American backing to UN Security Council Resolution 425, which called for a cease-fire and put a UN buffer force, baptized UNIFIL, between Israel and the PLO. The Israelis left three months later, but only after creating a buffer zone of their own inside Lebanon under a local Christian proxy, Major Sa'd Haddad.
The decision to accept the cease-fire with Israel split Fatah's high command. Arafat agreed to it after discussions with the UN secretary-general, Kurt Waldheim. But more militant members of the movement, including Abu Iyad, were determined to harass Israel's invading army. Abu Dawud, an ever willing firebrand, was ordered to assemble some men and send raiding parties against Israeli positions on the southern bank of the Litani. Looking for men to swell his force, Abu Dawud contacted Abu Nidal in Iraq, who supplied travel documents, tickets, and money for a Baghdad contingent some 150 strong. From his own stores in Beirut, Abu Dawud drew uniforms and weapons for the newcomers and sent them south. The incident illustrated Abu Dawud's ideological ambivalence: He was a prominent Fatah militia commander, yet he was also on the fringe of Abu Nidal's underground.
When Arafat heard what had happened, he interpreted it as a huge conspiracy against himself. Not only was his authority being flouted over the cease-fire, but he faced, or so he believed, a mass penetration of Fatah's ranks by Abu Nidal. His military commander, Abu Jihad, was instructed to arrest the "infiltrators." At this crucial moment, Abu Dawud was taken ill with food poisoning and had to be hospitalized. In his absence, Fatah disarmed and interned Abu Nidal's men. It was not an entirely straightforward task. Skirmishing broke out at several camps and there were casualties on both sides. At one point Arafat's loyalists came to suspect, with good reason, that Abu Iyad was siding with Abu Dawud and very nearly turned their guns on his men in Beirut. An intra-Palestinian bloodbath was narrowly averted.
After a long and stormy confrontation, Arafat and Abu Iyad made it up, and Abu Iyad went to interrogate the arrested men one by one: Some he won over to Fatah, but a good number were jailed. When he heard the news, Abu Nidal in Baghdad went wild with rage. He had lent 150 of his best fighters to Abu Dawud and now held him responsible for what had happened to them. He declared that his "martyrs" had been punished for refusing to follow Arafat's path of surrender to Israel, and he vowed to avenge them.
Suspicious as ever, he smelled a plot. Why had Abu Dawud asked him to send men to Lebanon? Was it a trap? Was Abu Dawud two-timing him with Abu Iyad? To put him to the test, he proposed a characteristically byzantine plan: He would lend Abu Dawud one of his men as a bodyguard for a few weeks -- long enough for Abu Iyad, a frequent visitor at Abu Dawud's house, to get used to seeing him around. Then one day, on a prearranged signal, this man would kill Abu Iyad, and Abu Dawud would at once gun down the assassin and so destroy all evidence of the conspiracy. (It was, as has been seen, by a similarly devious scheme that Abu Iyad eventually met his death in January 1991.)
Abu Dawud indignantly rejected the plan. It was cowardly and immoral. But Abu Nidal took his refusal to cooperate as confirmation that Abu Dawud had deliberately led his men into a trap. In turn, when Abu Iyad heard of the proposed conspiracy against himself, it was enough to arouse his own doubts about Abu Dawud's ultimate loyalty. Of such tortuous stuff are Palestinian resistance relationships made!
As I learned, Abu Nidal and Abu Iyad then indulged in tit-for-tat assassination attempts against each other. In April 1980, a bomb was thrown at a car in which Abu Iyad was thought to be traveling in Belgrade. When that attempt failed, Abu Nidal sent three assassins to kill Abu Iyad in Beirut. Two of them, armed with rifles, waited on the roof of a building opposite his office for a signal from a third in the street below to open fire. This third man, a youth named Nabil, was spotted at his lookout post in a barber's shop near Abu Iyad's office: The barber was in Abu Iyad's pay. When arrested by Abu Iyad's security men, he was found to be carrying a pistol. He was brought before Abu Iyad, who dismissed his guards and sat down alone with him.
"You really want to kill me?" he asked.
"Yes," the youth replied.
"Because you are a traitor! You are part of the leadership that has betrayed us." Nabil spat out the familiar line with which Abu Nidal brainwashed his members.
Abu Iyad put his loaded pistol on the table in front of Nabil.
"If you're convinced I should die, then shoot me."
Nabil pushed the gun away and broke down. He was a confused young man whose certainties crumbled when he found himself face to face with his intended victim. After a while, he gave away his accomplices, who in turn revealed the addresses of Abu Nidal's safe houses in Beirut and the names of the men who ran them. The PLO seized the buildings and arrested the members. To Abu Nidal's fury, about $1 million worth of property fell into PLO hands.
Determined to have done with the threat from Abu Nidal, Abu Iyad then sent a twenty-five-man team to kill him in Baghdad. Machine guns, hand grenades, and wireless communication equipment were smuggled in. After monitoring Abu Nidal's movements for several weeks, the team decided to ambush his car on a bridge over the Tigris River, which he crossed almost daily. However, a few days before the planned attack, Iraqi intelligence spotted live members of the team behaving suspiciously on the bridge. They were followed to their lodgings and arrested. The others scattered and the operation was called off. The five were condemned to death, but sentence was never carried out. Some years later, Abu Iyad managed to have them freed. "Two of them are now my bodyguards," he said with a smile as he told me the story. "You might have seen them as you came in."
By this time, the once friendly relations between Abu Iyad and Abu Nidal had turned to pure hatred. For years thereafter, Abu Nidal ran a column in his magazine in which Abu Iyad was always referred to as "the son of the Jewess."
THE COUP D'ETAT OF NAJI ALLUSH
In mid-1979, at the height of his murderous feud with Abu Iyad, Abu Nidal was struck down by a heart attack and had to be rushed to Sweden for surgery. The Iraqis generously paid the bills. To this day, when seeking to win sympathy, Abu Nidal is liable to unbutton his shirt and display his scars.
While he was convalescing, he handed over command of his organization to Naji Allush, a shy, plumpish, sweet-toothed intellectual of Christian parentage, normally resident in Beirut, who had joined the organization some eighteen months earlier with the high-sounding but empty title of secretary-general. Allush was a radical member of Fatah and the head of the General Union of Palestinian Writers. In Arab circles, he was known as a left-wing thinker and publicist who preached that the Palestinians should model their struggle on the revolutionary experiences of Cuba and Vietnam. Sharing with his friend Abu Dawud a gut dislike for compromise and an enthusiasm for armed struggle, he had been attracted by Abu Nidal's criticism of Arafat.
However, Allush's real ambitions lay in Lebanon, where he dreamed of founding a press, a newspaper, even in time a political movement. Believing that he could do so with Abu Nidal's backing, he joined him. Abu Nidal, too, wanted to establish a clandestine presence in Lebanon and thought that Allush could provide him with the cover he needed. He may also have liked the thought of having an in-house ideologue in his employ. Like many self-taught people, he had an exaggerated respect for intellectuals. So Allush became the organization's figurehead. In practice he had no authority whatsoever -- no access to the organization's funds or to its weapons, still less to its ultrasecret Military Committee, which was responsible for foreign operations. All these remained firmly in Abu Nidal's hands.
When Abu Nidal fell ill, Allush moved from Beirut to Baghdad, expecting to take command. But this only sharpened the contradictions between him and the rest of the shadowy outfit. From his sickbed, Abu Nidal continued to issue a torrent of peremptory memos and instructions -- including one abruptly sacking two of his most dedicated followers, who were the bedrock of his movement, one a chemist called Imad Malhas (code-named Umar Fahmi), the other an accountant, Salah Isa (code-named Faraj). Suspecting them of disloyalty, Abu Nidal insisted they not only be dismissed from the organization but expelled from Iraq.
These orders appear to have greatly exasperated Allush. He disliked Abu Nidal's dictatorial ways, which left him no meaningful role to play. In spite of his title, he had never felt in charge. He shuddered at the organization's practices, its arrests, interrogations, and torture, which he now heard more about. Above all, he thought it wrong to murder Palestinians simply because one disagreed with them politically. His grievances had been building up for some time, but now came explosively to a head when he decided to mount a coup d'etat.
But being neither cunning nor assertive, Allush missed his chance. Instead of expelling Abu Nidal and boldly taking over the organization, a move that in the absence of the chief had a good chance of success, Allush decided instead to break away altogether. Taking a handful of top people with him, he founded a new organization, called the Popular Arab Movement. Within a year or two, it had withered into insignificance. He had in effect surrendered to Abu Nidal what was left of the organization. Most members further down the hierarchy were barely aware of the ructions at the top: Allush was a remote figure; Abu Nidal was the leader from whom they got daily instructions. They stayed put. A few of the more sophisticated cadres, including some student members in Europe, drifted to Allush's side, but where and when he could, Abu Nidal exacted revenge. His representative in Spain, Nabil Aranki, was killed on March 1, 1982, for having sided with Allush.
An internal negotiating committee tried at the start to patch things up between Allush and Abu Nidal, but the latter was unforgiving. He launched a blistering attack on Allush, accusing him of stealing arms, of embezzling $400,000, of being a Vatican spy -- for it was one of Abu Nidal's enduring obsessions that a dangerous papist conspiracy was at work in the region and in the Palestinian movement in particular.
Before this crisis, Abu Nidal had not been a wholly clandestine figure. In addition to being the boss of a secret outfit, he was also something of a diplomat and politician, receiving visitors at his house and dealing with people face-to-face. But after his heart attack and the Allush split, he became a recluse. When his doctors recommended that he take a glass of whiskey in the evenings, he started doubling the dose, and then doubling it again, until whiskey became an addiction, no doubt contributing to his suspicious and vengeful inclinations. He closed his door and tightened his security. His organization became more difficult to penetrate and his operations harder to monitor -- as Fatah and his other enemies, including Western intelligence agencies, discovered to their chagrin. As a result of these upsets, 1979 was a relatively inactive year for him.
Abu Nidal was shaken by Naji Allush's split, but he recovered quickly. After all, he still controlled the money and the arms. His Military Committee was watertight, its secrets safe. Having lost some old-guard radicals, he took the opportunity of replacing them with men he could wholly control, small fry with little political experience whom he turned into killers and fanatics. One way or another, he was able to contain the Allush upheaval and stabilize his organization.
THE MOVE TO DAMASCUS
After his heart operation in 1979, Abu Nidal could no longer bear the fierce summer heat of Baghdad and took to spending several months a year in Poland, where he moved his family into a large villa some sixty kilometers outside Warsaw. He did not speak a word of Polish, or indeed of any other foreign language, but his children went to Polish schools and his daughter, Badia, acquired fluency in the language. He settled in Poland more or less permanently between 1981 and 1984, only rarely visiting the Arab world and communicating with his colleagues by courier. It was a period of convalescence and retrenchment.
Calling himself Dr. Sa'id, Abu Nidal posed as an international businessman, and for the first year of his stay the Polish authorities did not know who he was. His cover was a Warsaw-based company called SAS, which had branches in East Berlin and London and through which he traded with Polish state companies. One deal the company made was to purchase four thousand Scorpion submachine guns. Desperate for foreign exchange, the Poles chose not to inquire too closely about the destination of the weapons.
Abu Nidal's relationship with Poland dated back to contacts he had made with the Polish embassy in Baghdad in 1974. As his quarrel with Fatah deepened, so he used bribes and the arms trade to strengthen his ties with Eastern Europe. For a while, Faraj (the accountant he dismissed in 1979) was in charge of relations with Poland, distributing gifts and commissions to officials, some of them in cash on a monthly basis. In the late 1970s, Abu Nidal deposited $10 million in a Polish bank, greatly improving his status in that country.
He had settled in Poland in 1981 because he no longer felt safe in Iraq. The Iraqi authorities had signaled their changing attitude toward him in a number of unfriendly moves. They had informed him that from January 1, 1981, they would no longer issue Iraqi passports to his members, with the result that some 120 men whose passports had expired found themselves in difficulty. At the same time, Iraqi intelligence started monitoring conversations at Abu Nidal's Baghdad offices, forcing him and his colleagues to go to the Ramadi training camp, outside Baghdad, when they wished to escape this irksome surveillance. It was a considerable inconvenience.
It was very probably these developments that, early in 1981, caused Abu Nidal to instruct his close aide Abd al-Rahman Isa to sound out the Syrians about the possibility of a move to Damascus. Between January and May 1981, Isa went five times to Damascus at the head of a small delegation for discreet talks with General Ali Duba, head of military intelligence; General Muhammad al-Khuly, head of air force intelligence; and Foreign Minister Abd al-Halim Khaddam. The Syrians wanted a detailed explanation of Abu Nidal's anti-Syrian operations, including the attempt on Khaddam's life. Syria was holding half a dozen of his members in jail, on suspicion of having been involved in sabotage in Damascus in the 1970s. For his part, Abd al-Rahman Isa took the Syrians to task for their intervention against the Palestinians in Lebanon and for standing by while Maronite militias besieged the Palestinian camp of Tal al-Za'tar and then massacred many of its inhabitants. But finally it was agreed to let the future be a test of their good intentions toward each other. More immediate interests were involved.
Abu Nidal needed a new sponsor and hoped to develop with Syria the same intimate relationship he had once enjoyed with Iraq. He instructed Isa to ask permission to open offices in Damascus. Syria, for its part, had two main objectives in dealing with Abu Nidal: First, it saw him as a potential ally in the bitter war it was then waging against the Muslim Brotherhood -- a war of militant Islamic terror and Ba'athist counterterror that had developed into the gravest challenge Assad's regime had yet faced. Terrorists of the Muslim Brotherhood had started their campaign of bombings, assassinations, and attempted insurrection in Syria in 1977 and were to pursue it ruthlessly until 1982, when, in a gory finale, the regime rooted them out and crushed them, together with thousands of innocent civilians, in the central Syrian city of Hama, which the rebels had made their stronghold.
In early 1981, when Abd al-Rahman Isa made his approach to Syria, the regime's war against its internal Islamic enemies was at its peak, and Syria's relations with its neighbors Jordan and Iraq, which were known to be providing the Muslim Brotherhood with arms, funds, training, and sanctuary, were at an all-time low. Abu Nidal seemed well placed to supply intelligence about both the Muslim activists and their backers in Amman and Baghdad, as well as to strike at their leaders, some of whom were operating from Europe. Abu Nidal had learned a good deal about the Muslim Brotherhood in Baghdad and had even trained some of their men at his base at Hit, 300 kilometers north of Baghdad. All this information he was now proposing to trade with the Syrians.
Second, Syria saw Abu Nidal as a useful instrument with which to deter King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat from private dealings with Israel. Assad had for years been sparring with the two men on this issue. He feared that if Jordan and the PLO negotiated a separate peace with Israel, Syria would be isolated and militarily at Israel's mercy. Assad believed fervently that the only peace with Israel worth having was a comprehensive one, in which Israel withdrew from all the Arab territories it had seized in 1967, and that the only way to make Israel come to the negotiating table was for the Palestinians, Jordan, and Lebanon to fall in behind Syria and confront Israel as a united bloc. Assad felt that recruiting a notorious hit man like Abu Nidal was a way of putting pressure on both the PLO leader and the Jordanian monarch to accept Syrian leadership on these issues.
But the Syrians were far more cautious than the Iraqis in their dealings with Abu Nidal. Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr had embraced him, set him up in business, and given him access to Iraqi facilities, whereas Assad refused to meet him, and he insisted that the relationship be kept within strict intelligence bounds and be reviewed at intervals. In the meantime, Abu Nidal's organization was to be allowed no overt political activity and no training camp. The link with Abu Nidal was to be maintained by Muhammad al-Khuly's air force intelligence rather than by Ali Duba's military intelligence, which handled relations with all other Palestinian groups. Assad had not been impressed by ingratiating letters Abu Nidal had sent him, in which he reminded the Syrian leader that his own mother had been an Alawite, a member of Assad's own sect, and that he should therefore be considered not just an ally but a kinsman.
On his fourth visit to Damascus, Abd al-Rahman Isa presented the Syrians with a working paper of a page and a half, signed by Abu Nidal, which set out the main lines of their prospective understanding. The Syrians promised to respond. A month later, on Isa's fifth visit, in the spring of 1981, he and his delegation were summoned to General Khuly's office, where, as Isa later told Abu Iyad, they were warmly received. "Our leadership has decided that Syria should be your country, so welcome to it!" Khuly declared. "Move here as and when you please. But I would suggest that at the start, your presence should be kept secret. Let us hope that the relationship between us will go from strength to strength."
In this friendly climate, Abu Nidal paid his first visit to Syria on June 11, 1981, and, to his considerable satisfaction, was met by General Khuly on the Iraqi-Syrian border and escorted to Damascus for a five-day visit. Abu Nidal was now officially under Syrian auspices. Isa was left to search for suitable premises and appealed to Abu Nidal for the money to buy a five-story building in the Sha'ian district of Damascus. Isa moved into a small room on the top floor with his wife and children and for several months shared the rest of the building with the organization's members, until General Khuly found them an apartment.
Soon Isa was given permission to set up a radio link with headquarters in Baghdad, and the Syrians also helped him monitor Fatah's radio communications. Members of the organization were allowed to carry light weapons for purposes of self-defense. More buildings and vehicles were acquired and more cadres drafted in. There was a lot to do: internal administration; contacts with Arab and foreign embassies; spreading the word in the Palestinian camps; liaising with the organization's members in Lebanon and Jordan; and of course, starting up intelligence work. A branch office was opened in Der'a, on the Syrian-Jordanian frontier, from which to run agents and smuggle weapons into Jordan. A group of very young recruits, aged fifteen to seventeen, was sent to Iraq for training. In November 1981, the organization opened a real estate agency in Damascus, as a cover for acquiring suitable apartments and offices, and in December it bought two heavy trucks to work the Baghdad-Damascus road and a refrigerated vehicle to work the Amman-Damascus road, commercial investments that could, when needed, be put to other uses. By the end of 1981, Abu Nidal had some 120 full-time workers in Syria and Lebanon.
EXPULSION FROM IRAQ
Although the Iraqis did not like Abu Nidal's growing involvement with Syria, their own relationship with him dragged on until 1983. The last straw was the murderous operations he mounted for purposes of extortion and blackmail against both the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. The Emirates were one of Iraq's paymasters in the Iraq-Iran war, while Jordan's port of Aqaba had become its lifeline to the world. Iraq came under great pressure to have done with Abu Nidal once and for all.
On November 4,1983, Abu Nidal (then on a brief visit to Iraq from Poland) and two of his top officials were summoned at short notice to a meeting with Tariq Aziz, Iraq's foreign minister. Abd al-Rahman Isa, Abu Nidal's intelligence chief, witnessed the scene and related it later to Abu Iyad in his taped debriefing. Aziz was unusually brusque with them. "Our leadership," he declared, "has been discussing your presence here. President Saddam has come to the conclusion that you have become a dangerous burden to us. You have not kept to our agreements. At a time when we are engaged in a national battle, you have attacked our allies. Your organization has just one week from today to clear out." Then, turning to Abu Nidal and rudely jabbing a finger at him, he said: "As for you, you are to leave Iraq the minute you step out of this office!"
The humiliation of this dismissal enraged Abu Nidal. Given to fanatical prejudice, he worked himself up into a frenzy of hatred against Christian-born Tariq Aziz, whom thereafter in his publications he regularly accused of being in league with the pope to destroy the Arabs. Abu Nidal had actually been expecting the eviction for months, and he had deliberately stayed abroad for extended periods so as not to be in Baghdad when word of it came. But the Iraqis had cunningly waited for his return, to serve the notice on him in person. Apart from relishing his humiliation, they might perhaps also have feared that had he been absent from Baghdad at that time, he might have ordered his men to put up a fight before leaving. The Iraqis knew that he was perfectly capable of sacrificing his members so long as he himself was safe.
In the district around the Ramadi training camp, Abu Nidal's organization had made many Iraqi friends, largely by providing local services such as improving the water and electricity supply. On feast days, as many as twelve thousand people might attend celebrations at the camp. That is why the Iraqis feared that if it came to a confrontation, some of these could have been recruited and armed. While the war with Iran was raging, even a small internal uprising could have done the regime great harm.
The organization's departure was soon complete. Furniture from the various houses and offices was sold off. Half the weapons from the training camp were trucked to Syria for storage and the rest given to Iraq as a contribution to its war effort. The Iraqis allowed Abu Nidal to keep a small office, manned by two lowly cadres, to handle matters concerning members held prisoner in Iraq and families of men who had died there while in the organization's service.
On being thrown out, Abu Nidal was bold enough to complain that Iraq owed him $50 million in compensation for the properties he was giving up, although all of them had in fact been bought with Iraqi money. In numerous communiques, from 1983 to 1987, he kept up a steady volley of invective against Baghdad on account of the money he claimed it "owed" him. It was true that he had greatly improved a large tract of land at Hit, in the north, which the Iraqis had given him. "It was," one of his group's members remarked, "just about the best developed piece of land in that whole country!" It was unfortunate, however, that when the Iraqis recovered it, they found, as well as improvements, twenty-six corpses buried under the trees, the grisly remains of those members he had murdered.
CONSOLIDATION IN SYRIA
The expulsion from Iraq caused Abu Nidal's organization to focus its attention and its hopes on Syria. Members poured into Syria, some with the permission of air force intelligence, most of them incognito, posing as ordinary Arabs who wished to reside there. Members who, in the years of tension with Iraq, had dispersed to Eastern Europe now set up house with their families in Damascus.
At first, the Syrians decided that the organization could rent only a limited number of buildings, but such restrictions soon went by the wayside. Abu Nidal's tactic was to acquire apartments as private residences and then turn them into offices. It was all done secretively. No sign was put up or guard posted at the door. Eventually, he began to purchase houses and flats, often registering them in the names of his members' wives. Some forty offices and about a hundred apartments were secured in this way, as well as a number of outlying farms. Perhaps because of his upbringing as the son of a Jaffa orange grower, Abu Nidal preferred country properties. Though Syrian security had monitored some of these activities, it did not grasp their scale.
The organization's main headquarters, in the Sha'lan district of Damascus, was expanded to house a prison, a technical unit responsible for forging passports and other documents, and the offices of the Intelligence Directorate, where weapons were hidden away in cavities in the walls or under the floors. Closed-circuit television provided a permanent watch of the surrounding streets. In addition, a press was bought on which to print pamphlets and magazines; a travel agency, secretly owned, booked flights for members and issued air tickets; an estate agency looked after Abu Nidal's expanding real estate interests; and a news agency, called Dar Sabra, served as a front for intelligence gathering. But at this stage, the Syrians did not permit the organization to open a training camp, nor were they forthcoming with weapons and military stores. (This contrasted with their treatment of other Palestinian factions, notably Ahmad Jibril's PFLP-General Command, which was allowed to build up a considerable military establishment.) The Syrians did not provide Abu Nidal with funds, either. If anything it was really the other way around: To ease his entry into Syria, Abu Nidal arranged for well-placed Syrian officers and officials to be given gifts of cars and fancy guns and to be lavishly entertained at the best hotels. During the time Abu Nidal was living in Poland, this expansion into Syrian life was directed by Abd al-Rahman Isa, the organization's head of intelligence.
As we have seen, Syria was mainly interested in using Abu Nidal internally against the Muslim Brotherhood and externally against King Hussein and Yasser Arafat, whose initiatives on the so-called peace front made Assad nervous. But by the spring of 1982 the Muslim Brotherhood had been defeated and Abu Nidal's services against it were no longer required. Jordan's King Hussein had become the main target.
With Syrian encouragement, Abu Nidal was to wage a terrorist war against Jordan for nearly two years, from October 1983 to the summer of 1985. It was to be the only substantial service he rendered the Syrians.
THE SYRIAN-JORDANIAN WAR
There were several strands to the quarrel between President Assad and King Hussein, but two deserve special mention. Assad had been angered by the support -- in the shape of funds, training facilities, and safe haven -- that Jordan had given terrorists of the Muslim Brotherhood in their war against Damascus from 1977 to 1982. However, by 1983-85, his main subject of disagreement with Hussein was over strategy vis-a-vis Israel, and in particular a dispute over how to recover the Arab territories Israel had conquered in 1967. King Hussein thought that he could win at least some of them back through negotiations with Israel, in which he would represent the Palestinians as well as himself. Assad's view was that only a solid Arab front, which included Syria, could have any chance of making Israel yield. If Hussein ventured alone into negotiations, Jordan would be gobbled up and the whole Arab camp considerably weakened.
This particular argument had a long history. Assad had fought the 1973 October War together with Sadat in the hope of loosening Israel's hold over the occupied territories and forcing it to the conference table. But Israel had gained the upper hand, defeating Egypt so decisively that it was Sadat who was forced to conclude a separate peace, leaving Syria and its neighbors Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians exposed to Israeli power. From then on, Syria's concern was to prevent Israel from picking off the lesser players and bringing them into its orbit. If Syria could expand its own influence on the players, so much the better, Assad felt.
For years, Hussein had come under sustained Israeli pressure to "solve" the Palestine problem in direct negotiations. Israel sought to offer Hussein the job of policing the Palestinians in the occupied territories while retaining sovereignty for itself, together with control over land, water, and security. Hussein's counterstrategy was to press for a Jordanian-Palestinian federation, which, he felt, would give Israel the security it needed while providing the necessary outlet for restless Palestinian aspirations.
In 1983, Hussein set about trying to convince Arafat to let him talk to Israel on behalf of both of them. To prepare the ground, the king freed Palestinians from his jails, held frequent meetings with Arafat, promoted his plan in London and Washington, and restored diplomatic relations with Egypt, broken off at the time of Camp David.
Assad's worst fears thus aroused, it was then that Abu Nidal unleashed his hit men against Jordan. The Syrians were careful to stay in the background, not wishing to be obviously implicated in terrorism. They did not agree to joint planning with Abu Nidal, nor did they give him explicit directives to hit specific targets. They merely let fall suggestions, leaving the rest up to him. After all, it was his job to sniff out whom the Syrians hated most at any given moment. For this reason, Abu Nidal mounted his operations under different aliases. Then he waited to see: If the Syrian reaction was favorable, he would acknowledge the operation as his own; if the reaction was negative, he could just as easily disown it.
The results of his efforts were soon to appear in a frightening display of pyrotechnics that brought into play his wide network of arms caches, sleepers, residents, and killers. In October 1983, the Jordanian ambassador to New Delhi was assassinated and his colleague in Rome wounded, in separate gun attacks; in November, a Jordanian official was killed and another seriously wounded in Athens, and three explosive devices were found and defused in Amman; in December, a Jordanian consular official was killed and another wounded in Madrid. In March 1984, a bomb exploded outside the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman, and in November of that year the Jordanian charge d'affaires in Athens narrowly escaped being shot when his attacker's gun jammed. In December, the Jordanian counselor in Bucharest was shot dead. In April 1985, there was an attack on the Jordanian embassy in Rome and on a Jordanian aircraft at Athens airport. In July, the Madrid office of Alia, the Jordanian airline, was machine-gunned, and in Ankara, the first secretary of the Jordanian embassy was shot dead.
This last operation was particularly costly for Abu Nidal. The Turks and the Jordanians got together, pooled their intelligence, and smashed his networks in both countries. Sixteen Palestinians, most of them members of his organization, were expelled from Turkey.
Syria in turn did not escape retaliation, almost certainly by Jordanian intelligence. In December 1984, a Syrian attache in Athens was attacked but drove off his assailant. In April 1985, the Rome office of Syrian Arab Airlines was bombed and three employees wounded; an attempt was also made to kill a Syrian diplomat in Geneva. In May, his colleague in Rabat was shot, while in June a bomb was defused outside the Syrian embassy in London. In July, large car bombs exploded in Damascus outside the offices of the Syrian Arab News Agency and the ministry of the interior, causing dozens of casualties. Of course, neither Assad nor Hussein would admit that they were waging a terrorist war against each other, but as their differences were well aired, it was public knowledge.
By mid-1985, Hussein decided the time had come for a truce. To Assad's satisfaction, Hussein publicly admitted the help he had given the Muslim Brotherhood and renounced all plans for direct negotiations with Israel toward a partial or separate settlement. Hussein even called on Assad in December 1985, his first visit to Syria since 1979. In keeping with this brotherly reconciliation, the Syrians made it clear to Abu Nidal that Jordanian targets were now off limits. A red line was put in place.
Like Iraq before it, Syria warned Abu Nidal that he was on no account to mount operations against Saudi Arabia. Damascus could not afford to offend one of its main benefactors: During the whole of the organization's stay in Syria, no attacks were made on Saudi targets.
But, as Abd al-Rahman Isa revealed to Abu Iyad in his taped debriefing, the Syrians did manage to get Abu Nidal to play a trick on the Saudis. As Isa recounted: "On one occasion the Syrians asked the organization to smuggle a quantity of arms and explosives into Saudi Arabia, to bury them in a suitable spot, and then give the Syrians the maps. Once the arms were in place, and making much of their concern for Saudi security, the Syrians told Riyadh that their intelligence had just uncovered a plot by a group of radicals to carry out sabotage operations in the kingdom. And here were the maps showing the exact location of the weapons! Lo and behold, the Saudis dug them up -- and handsomely rewarded the Syrians for the tip-off."
MILKING THE RICH
While working for Syria, Abu Nidal also worked on his own account in order to replenish his coffers. Syria was no rich sponsor about to put millions of dollars his way: The Syrian view was that giving him a home was reward enough. So by means of violence or mere threats of violence, Abu Nidal took to extorting money from the oil sheikhdoms of the Gulf. There was no pursuit of Palestinian interests in this blackmail. The superpatriot had become a highway robber.
Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan, ruler of Abu Dhabi since 1966 and first president of the United Arab Emirates (the federal state of the lower Gulf created in 1971), was well known for his generous donations to all manner of causes, the Palestinian cause among them. However, for Abu Nidal it was a source of constant frustration that he had not benefited from the sheikh's munificence. This was no oversight on Zayid's part, since one of Abu Nidal's gunmen had killed the Emirates' secretary of state, Saif al-Ghubash, at the Abu Dhabi airport in October 1977. The intended target, it is true, had been Syria's foreign minister, Abd al-Halim Khaddam, who was standing at Ghubash's side, but this hardly tempered Sheikh Zayid's indignation. Abu Nidal made repeated attempts to intimidate the sheikh into buying him off, but to no avail. Sheikh Zayid refused to be cowed.
Abu Nidal's approach was blunt. His habit was to send Gulf rulers threatening messages recorded on tape in his own voice. At first, the messages might be almost civil, on the lines of: "We are a revolutionary movement dedicated to the fight against Zionism and imperialism. We understand that you give money to the traitors of the PLO. We demand that you give us our own money or at the least a share of theirs! If you do not comply within six months, we will consider you our enemy and take action accordingly." If there was no response, the tone would soon become harsher and the message plainer: "I will kill you! I will kidnap your children and your princes! I will blow you up!"
When Sheikh Zayid still would not yield, Abu Nidal resorted to terror. On September 23, 1983, a Gulf Air Boeing 737 bound from Karachi to Dubai crashed in a mountainous region fifty kilometers from the Abu Dhabi airport, killing all 111 passengers and crew. A few days later, a news agency in Paris received a call on behalf of the "Arab Revolutionary Brigades," claiming responsibility. A defector from Abu Nidal's organization confirmed to me that the organization had put a bomb on board the aircraft and that the Brigades were a fiction Abu Nidal had invented for the occasion.
On February 8, 1984, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Paris, Khalifa Ahmad Abd al-Aziz, by all accounts a good man and a patriot, was shot dead by a lone gunman outside his flat near the Eiffel Tower. Once again the fictional Arab Revolutionary Brigades claimed responsibility. And they struck again on October 25, 1984, when the UAE deputy charge d'affaires in Rome, Muhammad al-Suwaidi, came under fire at the wheel of his car. He was critically wounded and his Iranian girlfriend, sitting by his side, was killed.
For the Emirates, this was the breaking point. Abu Iyad, whose business it was to keep abreast of such matters, later told me that under great pressure from such criminal attacks, Sheikh Zayid finally agreed to pay Abu Nidal $17 million, in three installments -- 10 million; $5 million, and $2 million.
Abu Nidal considered Kuwait one of his most important "stations." Not only was there a large Palestinian population there, but in the 1980s, he also began to transfer large sums of money to Kuwaiti banks, when he feared that Western governments might try to seize his assets in Europe. To protect his interests in Kuwait, Abu Nidal resorted to his usual method of putting physical pressure on the Kuwaiti authorities. In May 1982, two of his members were arrested for bringing in large quantities of explosives from Iraq and were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. On June 4, the first secretary at the Kuwaiti embassy in New Delhi was killed; this was followed on September 16 by the assassination of the first secretary at the Madrid embassy, and on the same day an unsuccessful attempt was made to kill the Kuwaiti consul- general in Karachi.
To spare themselves such headaches, the Kuwaitis started a secret dialogue with Abu Nidal and agreed to pay him a monthly stipend. He was even allowed to keep a clandestine representative in Kuwait to oversee his deposits and carry out intelligence tasks. According to my sources, the last person known to hold the post, in the late 1980s, was a certain Nabil Uthman (code-named Hamza Ibrahim).
Whenever the Kuwaitis attempted to harden their position and arrest or expel his members, Abu Nidal would remind them just what he was capable of. On April 23, 1985, Ahmad al-Jarallah, editor-in-chief of two Kuwaiti dailies, al-Siyassa and the Arab Times, narrowly escaped death when a gunman opened fire on him outside his offices. Once more the elusive Arab Revolutionary Brigades claimed responsibility. Less than three months later, on July 11, the same Brigades bombed two seaside cafes in Kuwait City, patronized almost exclusively by Kuwaiti families rather than by Palestinians. Nine people were killed and eighty-nine were wounded. This was another example of terror for purposes of extortion. It was certainly not calculated to improve Kuwaiti-Palestinian relations.
THE MUTINY IN FATAH
Early in 1982, Abu Nidal's intelligence chief, Abd al-Rahman Isa was joined in Damascus by another senior cadre who had distinguished himself on the military side of the organization. His name was Mustafa Murad (code name Abu Nizar), a tall, bald man with a round face, fair skin, and a polite, cheerful manner, who was soon to be promoted to become Abu Nidal's deputy. His orders from Abu Nidal were to start infiltrating men from Syria into Lebanon to set up an independent base there.
At first, this had to be done in small numbers and with very great care. Lebanon was a Fatah stronghold. If any of Abu Nidal's men were discovered there, they risked being put to death. For this reason, the early infiltrations were made under the wing of a small Lebanese political faction that Abu Nidal had befriended. Called the Party of Socialist Action, it was an armed Marxist offshoot of the PFLP, one of the many fighting groups that had emerged in the ideological free-for-all of Lebanon. (Its leader, Hashim Ali Muhsin, was to die in a Bulgarian hospital in 1988.) It agreed to lend its name to Abu Nidal's men and gave them the run of its camp in the Bekaa Valley.
Israel's second invasion of Lebanon, of June 1982, was a great boulder thrown into the Palestinian pond, a far greater disturbance than the more limited 1978 incursion. Fatah's control over Lebanon was broken. Its forces were expelled or dispersed. By 1983, thousands of men found themselves adrift in the Bekaa Valley or in and around the northern refugee camps. All over the country, Palestinian families buried their dead and struggled to rebuild shantytowns ravaged by Israeli bombardment. The Israeli invasion also posed a great threat to Syria, stretching its resources and its attention to the limit. Syria was in desperate need of allies and proxies to stem the Israeli advance, and it was not fussy about who they were. Here was Abu Nidal's opportunity. His men could now begin to trickle into Lebanon from Syria more confidently and in greater numbers and set up their own camps under their own name. Emerging from the clandestine cocoon in which it had wrapped itself in Iraq, the organization started to make itself known.
An event then took place that was also hugely to Abu Nidal's advantage. A group of Fatah officers, based in Lebanon and Syria, rose in rebellion against Arafat in the spring of 1983. Three Fatah colonels -- Abu Musa, Abu Salih, and Abu Khalid al-Amli -- had been outraged by Arafat's decision to evacuate Beirut in September 1982 rather than carry on the fight against Israel, and they resented the protection he had given to a number of cowardly officers who had failed the test of battle. Such a one was Colonel Isma'il, the commander of Fatah's forces in South Lebanon, who, when Israel marched in, had gotten into his car and driven off to the Bekaa without even bothering to inform his troops. Instead of court-martialing him, Arafat had actually promoted him.
Beyond these specific issues was the old quarrel that had divided Fatah since 1974: armed struggle versus diplomacy. The mutineers were suspicious of Arafat's flirtation with "peace plans" and of his talks with King Hussein to establish a common negotiating stance. They wanted Arafat to sack the cowardly officers; to share power with them in a "collective leadership"; to smuggle back into Lebanon the Palestinian fighters who had been dispersed abroad; and to opt unequivocally for armed struggle rather than political compromise.
When, in May-June 1983, the rebels attacked Fatah's arms depots in the eastern Bekaa and seized supply lines from Syria, Arafat hurried to rally his supporters. But Syria's President Assad, who had no love for him and no confidence in the plans he was cooking up with King Hussein, threw his weight behind the rebels. Screaming foul, Arafat accused Syria of taking sides, whereupon he was unceremoniously expelled from Syria on June 24, 1983 -- a move that dramatized the Assad-Arafat breach, underlining Assad's ambition to wrest the key to a solution of the Palestine problem from an independent PLO.
Abu Nidal had by this time built up a sizable enough force in the Bekaa to fight alongside the Fatah rebels against Arafat's loyalists. Calling in more guerrillas from Syria, he also took part in Arafat's dramatic finale at the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli in December 1983, when, under heavy shelling from the Fatah mutineers and their allies, the PLO leader was forced out of Lebanon altogether. To reward Abu Nidal for helping defeat Arafat, the grateful Syrians now allowed his organization to set up an official presence and operate in the Bekaa and in northern Lebanon.
In Damascus, Abu Nidal's organization's prestige was high. It was given all sorts of facilities, with air force intelligence remaining the main conduit for Syria's favors. Inside the organization, the link with this intelligence service was described as the "central relationship" and was given very special attention. Abu Nidal appointed one of his nephews, Abd al-Karim al-Banna (code name Husam Mustafa), a graduate of the Baghdad College of Law and Politics, to take charge of it.
Soon Abu Nidal's members were allowed to fly in and out of Damascus airport simply on the strength of a telex from air force intelligence, a very special privilege, since other Palestinian groups needed the permission of al-dabita al-fida'iyya, a department of military intelligence renowned for its strict handling of guerrilla affairs. For road travel between Syria and Lebanon, air force intelligence gave the organization a dozen cars with official number plates, which allowed its members to sail across the border with no other formality than giving their code names. Members of other Palestinian groups had to produce genuine identity cards with their photographs on them.
Such an easygoing system was open to abuse -- and Abu Nidal was quick to abuse it. The cars provided by air force intelligence proved a dangerous loophole. They were used to transport to Lebanon, against their will and without the Syrians' knowledge, dozens of people arrested or kidnapped by the organization in Damascus. The victims would usually be told they were being sent on a training course, only to be murdered in the Bekaa. If their families or the Syrians made inquiries, the organization would tell them that they had been sent abroad on a mission. If someone refused to go quietly, he would be drugged and carried to Lebanon in the trunk of a car. On occasion the organization killed its victims in Syria and buried them on one of its farms. Cars returning from Lebanon were used to smuggle weapons back into Syria in secret compartments. Routine checks by the Syrians at the border revealed nothing.
Members of the organization who were selected to take part in foreign operations were taken to Lebanon for training in an air force intelligence car, then brought back and sent on their mission from the Damascus airport. If they were arrested abroad, a Syrian stamp would be found in their passports, showing that Damascus had been their point of departure. Under interrogation, they would confess to having been trained in the Bekaa, thus suggesting that they had been under Syrian control. In each case, Syria would be blamed. Abu Nidal's strategy was to leech on to the host country he was in -- offer it his services so as to seem indispensable and then implicate it in his violence so as to render it vulnerable to future blackmail by him. "Betray me," he was saying in effect, "and I reveal all."
Abu Nidal benefited from the Fatah mutiny and benefited again from the mutiny's collapse. The rebel colonels started squabbling among themselves almost immediately after their coup. Months before the mutiny, in 1982, Abu Nidal had secretly met Colonel Abu Khalid al-Amli in Prague, given him half a million dollars, and discussed with him plans to oust Arafat. They agreed to form a joint command in which Abu Nidal would figure prominently. But Colonel Abu Musa knew nothing about these arrangements and, anyway, did not want to be associated with what was considered a terrorist outfit. Tiring of these quarrels, Abu Salih, himself a candidate for the leadership, went to Beirut, quit politics, and withdrew from the fray.
Meanwhile, as the colonels quarreled, their common enemy, Arafat, was far from finished. He had been expelled from Beirut by the Israelis, from Damascus by the Syrians, and from North Lebanon by the Fatah rebels. He had nevertheless managed to preserve his freedom of maneuver by strengthening his links with Egypt and Jordan. In the occupied territories, he was still the supreme symbol of Palestinian nationalism. The more the mutiny came to look like a Syrian plot to down him, the less popular support it got. In due course, the anti-Arafat rebellion collapsed in acrimonious exchanges. Short of money, of organization and coherent leadership, it would fail to become an effective Palestinian rallying point.
Here was Abu Nidal's opportunity to fill the vacuum. He had arms; he had money -- he could even pay in dollars; and he had Syrian air force intelligence facilities, which gave him great freedom of movement. Men who had defected from Arafat's ranks in 1982-83 to join the Fatah rebels defected again to Abu Nidal's group, including several hundred of Abu Salih's best fighters.
Most of these changes took place more or less spontaneously, under the pressure of events, while Abu Nidal was away in Poland. He did not view the changes with much enthusiasm. His instinct was not to come aboveground and into the open. Moreover, some of the new men who joined at this time had no sympathy for his terrorist methods or his ties with Arab intelligence services. Now that they were within gunshot range of Israel, they could see no point in his terrorist operations in Europe and further afield.
To keep an eye on things, Abu Nidal visited Syria from Poland a number of times in 1984 -- unbeknownst to the Syrians. He simply entered under a false name, with a Libyan passport. Because of the good relations between Syria and Libya at the time, Libyan passport holders could enter Syria with no questions asked. Or perhaps the Syrians simply preferred not to know.