It was soon clear that [Abu Iyad, PLO
Intelligence Chief] had something else on his mind. He wanted to talk
about terrorism -- and in particular
about Abu Nidal.
The Western world, he said with a frown, was not yet persuaded
that the PLO was the indispensable partner for Middle East
peace. It had underestimated the importance of the historic resolutions
passed by the Palestine National Council in November 1988
that, for the first time, never so much as mentioned "armed struggle"
and spelled out with absolute clarity the PLO's readiness to
negotiate a peaceful settlement with Israel.
But how to get the West to see this? To his mind, the great
obstacle was terrorism, an issue with which Israelis confronted
every mention of peaceful compromise. If there was one man responsible
for blackening the reputation of all Palestinian factions,
it was, Abu Iyad believed, the arch-terrorist Abu Nidal.
The Israelis, Abu Iyad continued, were masters at penetration
and deception. He had been sparring with the Mossad for a quarter
of a century, and since the early 1980s, he had begun to suspect that
the Israelis had infiltrated Abu Nidal's organization and were making
use of him. "Every Palestinian who works in intelligence," he
told me, "is convinced that Israel has a big hand in Abu Nidal's
affairs." His suspicions had now hardened into a conviction: Abu
Nidal was not just an extreme rejectionist who sold his services to
Arab regimes. Israel had gained control of him. That was the key
to his persistent sabotage of Palestinian interests.
In Abu Iyad's mind there was no great mystery about it: Israel
wanted to destroy the PLO and prevent negotiations that might
lead to a peaceful solution involving an autonomous Palestinian
state on the West Bank. Any genuine negotiations would necessarily
involve the surrender of territory, which is why Israel had gone
to such lengths to persuade the world that the Palestinians were
terrorists with whom no deal could be contemplated. Abu Nidal, he
believed, was Israel's prime instrument for this purpose, central to
its strategy. Until Abu Nidal was exposed and defeated, he said, the
PLO's credibility would continue to be questioned and the peace
process could get nowhere.
Leaning forward and talking very fast as was his habit, he told
me that there was no other plausible explanation for the evidence
that had accumulated over the years. Abu Nidal had killed the
PLO's most accomplished diplomats: Hammami, in London;
Qalaq, in Paris; Yassin, in Kuwait; he had slaughtered hundreds of
Palestinian fighters; he had debased the Palestinian national struggle
with his senseless and savage terrorism and succeeded in alienating
the Palestinians' best friends. He had made the word Palestinian
synonymous with terrorist. He was either deranged or he was a
traitor, and Abu Iyad did not think he was deranged. Abu Nidal,
he told me, was the greatest enemy of the Palestinian people.
"He is a man wholly without principle!" he exploded angrily.
"He would ally himself with the devil in order to stay alive and
drink a bottle of whiskey every night!
"Try to see Abu Nidal," he urged me. "Go to Libya. Ask him
to explain himself, and then make up your own mind."
He then made an extraordinary admission:
"I feel very guilty that I was responsible for not facing up sooner to
the threat from Abu Nidal. I should have killed him fifteen years ago. I
confess this now. I wanted to believe that he was a patriot who had
strayed from the path and that I could win him back. For far too long I
was reluctant to accept that he was a traitor."
Abu Iyad's diatribe rather took my breath away. Abu Nidal
an Israeli agent?
At about this time I was visited in
London by a former general in Aman, Israel's military intelligence
service, who was doing research on a quite different topic. After our
talk I asked him pointblank whether Israel penetrated and manipulated
Palestinian groups. He looked at me carefully. "Penetration, yes," he
said, "but manipulation, no." He paused, then added with a little smile,
"No one would admit to that."
A former CIA officer, who had served as
station head in several Arab countries and whose attitude toward the
Arab-Israeli conflict was detached and professional, was more explicit:
"It's as easy," he said, "to recruit the man at the top as it is someone
lower down the ladder. It's quite likely that Mossad picked up Abu Nidal
in the late 1960s, when it was putting a lot of effort into penetrating
the newly formed Palestinian guerrilla groups. My guess is that they
would have got him in the Sudan when he was there with Fatah in 1969.
Once they had set him up, funded, and directed him, he would have had
nowhere else to turn. If he had tried to quit, he would have been a dead
In 1987, during a meeting between Abu Iyad and Abu Nidal
in Algiers, Abu Iyad would bring up Fatah's main grievance: the
long list of PLO men murdered by Abu Nidal -- or, as he believed,
by some secret hand inside his organization. Abu Iyad later told me
what he and Abu Nidal had said:
"'Why did you kill Isam Sartawi?' I asked him. 'He was your
lifelong friend!' I told him I believed this was an operation in which
the Israelis had pulled the strings. The whole affair stank of
and manipulation -- the way the weapons had been smuggled
in, the escape of the killer, the arrest of a young accomplice
traveling on a false passport whom the Moroccans could not charge
with the murder. 'I know Israel is playing games with you,' I told
Abu Iyad told Abu Nidal that he began to suspect Israeli
penetration when a Moroccan intelligence officer had given him a
list of Abu Nidal's members in Spain -- nineteen names in all -- and
said his source was the Mossad. Abu Iyad then checked out the list
himself and found it accurate: Seventeen of the men on it, most of
them students, were still living in Spain; two had graduated and
Abu Iyad told me: "I was amazed by Abu Nidal's answer.
'Yes,' he had responded calmly. 'You are right. Israel has penetrated
us in the past. I discovered this from my Tunisian and
Moroccan members. Israel used to plant them on me. But let me tell
you that I send my own North African members -- the ones I really
trust -- to France to turn and recruit Israel's North African agents!
The flow of intelligence is sometimes to my advantage. These people
have supplied me with truly astonishing information.'
"'Take for example the Sartawi case. They gave me all the
detailed information I needed for the operation!'"
As he recollected their conversation, Abu Iyad could still
hardly believe what he had heard: "Israeli agents were present in his
organization. They had fed him information. He admitted it! His
matter-of-fact tone astounded me. He added that he was trying to
liquidate the Israeli agents one by one. That is what he said!"
Though the admissions implied no more than penetration, Abu
Iyad was convinced they also indicated collaboration between the
Mossad and Abu Nidal.
Abu Iyad told me that he had thought about Israel's manipulation
of Abu Nidal with North African agents. He knew for a fact
that Khudr had been killed by a Tunisian member of Abu Nidal's
organization. So had Hammami and Qalaq.
"We stopped terrorism in 1974," he insisted, "but the Israelis
did not, although they convinced the world of the contrary. They
continued to attack us. Sometimes they did so quite blatantly, as
when they killed Abu Jihad in Tunis in 1988. More often they
mounted operations that could be read in different ways. I must
admit it confused us. On several occasions we weren't sure whether
Abu Nidal or Mossad was responsible."
The Mossad agents that Abu Iyad had in mind were probably
trained in Morocco, where the Moroccan government and the CIA
run an unusual intelligence school that specializes in Palestinian
affairs. I learned about this school from several intelligence sources,
both Arab and Western. They told me that the CIA, which works
closely with Israel on Palestinian matters, had brought the Mossad
into the arrangement as well. The students are mostly young North
Africans who are recruited in Europe and brought back to the
Moroccan school to be trained as spies. They are put through
courses on the various Palestinian factions, studying their leading
personalities, their structure, ideology, and operations -- so that by
the end of the course, they are able to use the arcane jargon of these
organizations. All the principal groups -- Fatah, the PFLP, the
Democratic Front, the PFLP-General Command, the Arab Liberation
Front, and Abu Nidal's organization -- are studied.
Once their course is completed, the youths are taken back to
Europe and instructed to hang about in cafes, meet other Arabs,
and speak to them in the language they have been taught. The hope
is that they will eventually get taken on by the groups they have
learned to mimic, so that the Moroccans, the CIA, or the Mossad
can use them. Some of the graduates of the school become informers,
some plan operations, and some are even schooled to become
ideologues for the groups on which they are planted. Some are
-- "Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire," by