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Nidal, Abu (Sabri al Banna)

Abu Nidal (Sabri al Banna)

May 1937

Jaffa, Palestine Mandate

August 18, 2002

Baghdad, Iraq

Founder of the Abu Nidal Organization

"In the entire world there are no solutions by peaceful means. If you read Arabic history you will see that no peaceful method has ever brought about a solution for our problems."

S abri al Banna, the man better known as Abu Nidal, was considered the most dangerous terrorist in the world during the 1970s, much as Osama bin Laden (c. 1957–; see entry) would be known thirty years later. He turned his guns and bombs against both Israeli and Palestinian targets. He was as concerned with making sure that Palestinian leaders did not sign a peace agreement with Israel as he was with fighting Israel directly.

Abu Nidal became known as a "gun for hire," working for a variety of governments. Eventually he became unwel-come in most Arab countries and faded from public view.

Born into wealth

Al Banna's life is such a mystery that his exact date of birth is unclear. He was one of two dozen children born to his father, Khalil al Banna, a wealthy businessman and farmer who owned 6,000 acres of land near the city of Jaffa, on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine (now Israel). He was born in a twenty-room house facing the Mediterranean Sea. His mother, a Syrian woman, was his father's eighth wife. According to some sources, al Banna's mother was a family maid at a summer house in Syria when his father married her. After his father died in 1945, when al Banna was eight years old, he and his mother were scorned by the rest of the family. His mother was eventually ordered to leave the house.

Al Banna was sent to private schools, but his education was soon interrupted by the conflict between Arabs and Jews. When al Banna was born, Jaffa was part of the territory called the Palestine Mandate. It had been part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for centuries, but after World War I (1914–18) Great Britain took over the area until its future could be sorted out. Arabs wanted to create a new country, Palestine. Jews, who had been immigrating to Palestine for several decades as part of a movement called Zionism, wanted to establish a Jewish state, Israel, on the lands that had been the Jewish homeland in biblical times. Violence between the two groups broke out from time to time during the 1930s.

Life disrupted

Two months after al Banna started the fourth grade, in 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to divide Palestine into two countries, a Jewish one and an Arab one. This decision sparked more intense fighting as the two sides struggled to gain control of territory, and it brought al Banna's education to an end. His family decided to leave their house until the fighting was over. But the fighting did not end until the state of Israel was founded in May 1948, and by then it was impossible for the al Bannas to return to Jaffa. By the time al Banna was eleven, his family had joined thousands of other Palestinian Arab refugees and were living in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, a piece of land governed by Egypt.

Words to Know

Leukemia:
an often fatal disease affecting the blood, which causes an abnormal increase in the number of white blood cells.
Zionism:
the movement to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Becoming a refugee came at a critical time in al Banna's life. Some writers have speculated that bitterness over the loss of his home lies at the heart of his later life as a terrorist. As an adult, however, al Banna did not openly discuss his personal life or motives.

Eventually, the al Banna family moved to the city of Nablus, on the West Bank of the Jordan River in Jordan, and went into business as merchants. As with so much of al Banna's life, details of the years from age twelve to eighteen are not clear. Some sources say that he graduated from high school in 1955 and studied engineering at Cairo University in Egypt for two years. Others say he never returned to school full-time after the fourth grade and spent his teenage years working at odd jobs or as an electrician's assistant.

According to most sources, while living in Nablus, al Banna joined the Baʾath Party in his late teens. The Baʾathists, who sought to unify all Arabs into one nation that did not respect the right of Israel to exist (see box on page 200), soon came into conflict with Jordan's King Hussein (1935–1999). Hussein used his army to arrest Baʾath leaders and close the party's newspaper. Al Banna left Jordan (some sources say he was arrested along with other Baʾathists) and moved to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, where he worked as an electrician's assistant.

Al Banna becomes Abu Nidal

While working in Riyadh, al Banna became active in the fight against Israel among Palestinian exiles. He founded his own small group—called the Palestinian Secret Organization—to fight for Palestinian independence. He also took a wife, a Palestinian from a leading family that, like his own, had been forced to leave their home after Israel was founded in 1948.

The year 1967, when al Banna turned thirty, was a major turning point for him. In June Israel launched the Six Day War, a lightning strike against Arab forces that extended its territory into Syria and Egypt, as well as the West Bank of the Jordan and the Gaza Strip. Al Banna's political activities came to the attention of the very conservative (traditional) Saudi Arabian government, which threw him out of the country. Unable to return to Nablus, which was now located in Israeli-occupied territory, al Banna moved to Amman, the capital of Jordan. He left the Baʾath Party and joined the largest and most successful Palestinian resistance group, al-Fatah, led by Yasir Arafat (1929–; see entry).

The Baʾath Party

In his late teens, Sabri al Banna became involved with the Baʾath movement, an Arab social and political movement that eventually took power in Syria and Iraq (although in different forms). The Baʾath movement was an important part of al Banna's life. It helps explain why he carried out terrorist attacks for several different Arab governments.

The Baʾath movement was founded in Damascus, Syria, in the 1940s. It wanted a "rebirth" (the word "ba'ath" means "resurrection" or "rebirth" in Arabic) of a united Arab nation. Its economic philosophy was socialism, meaning state control of the economy. The socialism of the Baʾath Party was similar to the "socialism" of German National Socialism (the official name for the Nazis, who controlled Germany during World War II [1939–45]). It was based on the concept of the unity of the Arab people. Communism, by contrast, focuses on the unity of working people of all nationalities. A central belief of the Baʾath movement has always been recreating the Arab nation and driving out foreign influences and control. Officially, the party also has stood for unifying the separate Arab states, many of which were established by Britain and France after World War I (1914–18).

Believers in Baʾath's philosophy seized control of the Syrian government in 1958. But quarrels among the Baʾathists sent some (including the Syrian founders of the movement) into exile in Baghdad, Iraq, in the mid-1960s, setting up a long rivalry between the Baʾath parties in these two countries.

Despite their differences, the Baʾathists agreed on the concept of a single Arab "nation" that did not accept the existence of a Jewish state—Israel. An important position of the Baʾathists was the rejection of any peace treaties that recognized Israel's right to exist.

In order to support their interests in the region without starting an actual war, Baʾathists in Syria founded an organization called al-Sa'iqa in 1968. Most of its members were Palestinian, but it was almost completely dependent on Syria for money and support. It used terrorist tactics to fight not only for Palestinian interests but also to found a single, unified Arab state. The rival Baʾathists in Iraq set up their own terrorist force, called the Arab Liberation Front, in 1969.

The idea of a single Arab nation helps explain how al Banna was able to serve both Syria and Iraqi interests during the years when his own group (the Abu Nidal Organization) was active.

Fatah was actively involved in launching guerrilla raids (or terrorist attacks, from the Israeli viewpoint) against Israel. Its members frequently took new names. Al Banna chose "Abu Nidal," which means "father of the struggle" in Arabic. It was the name under which he would become famous.

The leaders of Fatah were often well educated, but despite his lack of formal education, Abu Nidal rose quickly through the ranks. He may have succeeded because he came from a leading and once-wealthy Palestinian family, because he joined Fatah as the founder of his own organization, or simply because of his hard work and loyalty to the cause.

The Abu Nidal Organization

In 1969 Abu Nidal became Fatah's representative in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan in east Africa. Two years later, Arafat appointed Abu Nidal to represent the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Baghdad, Iraq, where a faction of the Baʾathists, Abu Nidal's old party, was in control.

Abu Nidal quickly developed a close working relationship with Iraqi intelligence, using his position as the PLO's representative to build up his own organization. Abu Nidal agreed with the Iraqi position of rejecting any negotiations with Israel, which might imply that Israel had a right to exist.

The Deadly Record of Abu Nidal

Abu Nidal has been blamed for more than ninety terrorist attacks and nine hundred deaths since he left Fatah in 1974. At least half of his attacks were aimed at other Palestinian organizations or their Arab allies. A list of his most infamous attacks includes:

  • October 1974: Tried to assassinate Abu Mazim, an official of Fatah. Fatah sentenced Abu Nidal to death as a result.
  • September-October 1976: Attacked the Semiramis Hotel in Damascus, Syria, and Syrian embassies in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Rome, Italy. Syria was Iraq's political rival at the time.
  • December 1976: Tried to murder Syria's foreign minister, but the attack failed. The following October, made another attempt, this time in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates; the attack resulted instead in the death of the foreign affairs minister of the United Arab Emirates.
  • August 1978: Attacked Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) offices in Pakistan.
  • July 1980: Attacked children in a Jewish school in Antwerp, Belgium, and claimed responsibility for murdering an Israeli diplomat in Brussels, Belgium.
  • August 1981: Machine-gun attack on a synagogue (a Jewish house of worship) in Vienna, Austria, killed two and wounded seventeen.
  • June 1982: Tried to kill Israel's ambassador to Britain.
  • August-September 1982: Tried to kill a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates in Bombay, India, and a Kuwaiti diplomat in Madrid, Spain.
  • October 1982: Attacked a synagogue in Rome, killing one child and injuring ten other people.
  • April 1983: Killed a PLO official in Lisbon, Portugal.
  • November 1984: Assassinated the British high commissioner in India.
  • December 1984: Killed a leading Palestinian supporter of Yasir Arafat in Rome.
  • March-April 1985: Attacked the offices of Royal Jordanian Airlines in Rome, injuring three people. The next month, fired a rocket at a Jordanian airliner leaving Athens, Greece. The rocket did not explode but left a hole in the plane's fuselage.
  • September 1985: Wounded thirty-eight people in a grenade attack at the Café de Paris in Rome. Hijacked an Egyptian plane to Malta, where sixty people died in a botched rescue attempt by Egyptian forces.
  • December 1985: Attacks on airport passenger terminals in Rome and Vienna killed sixteen and wounded many more.
  • September 1986: Tried to hijack an American plane, Pan American Flight 73, from Karachi, Pakistan. Less than twenty-four hours later attacked a synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey, killing twenty-two people.
  • July 1988: Seized the tourist excursion boat City of Poros, killing nine passengers and wounding ninety-eight, from the port of Athens.
  • January 1991: Assassinated two PLO officials in Tunis, Tunisia, including Arafat's second-in-command, Abu Iyad.

In September 1973 Abu Nidal organized his first terrorist operation, seizing the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Paris, France, and demanding the release of a Fatah terrorist, Abu Dawud, who was being held prisoner in Jordan. Although Abu Nidal was still Fatah's representative, Fatah had not approved the Paris operation and threw Abu Nidal out of the group the following year.

In response, Abu Nidal founded his own group, which he called the Fatah Revolutionary Council, with financial help from the Iraqi government. He began a long career as one of the deadliest terrorists in the Middle East conflict.

Over the course of nearly twenty years, Abu Nidal operated with a core group of about two hundred agents. Conditions of membership were strict: once a man joined, he was not allowed to quit the group. At first Abu Nidal remained in Baghdad, and his choice of targets sometimes reflected the needs and policies of the Iraqi government.

Abu Nidal's welcome in Iraq wore thin, however, during Iraq's war against Iran (1980–88). Iraq needed supplies and support from the West, and in 1983 Iraq drove out Abu Nidal in order to distance itself from terrorism. The Abu Nidal Organization moved to Syria, which was ruled by a rival faction of the Baʾath Party.

Abu Nidal stayed in Syria for three years (1983–86), during which time one of his main tasks was to oppose any peace negotiations between the PLO and Israel. In September 1986, Syria came under pressure from Western governments for supporting terrorism. As a result, the Syrian government closed Abu Nidal's training camps, and he left for Libya, whose leader, Muʾammar Qaddafi (1942–; see entry), supported a widespread Arab revolt.

Abu Nidal fades from the spotlight

In 1989 the chief spokesman for Abu Nidal's movement publicly left the organization, along with a large number of other fighters. They accused Abu Nidal of murdering more than one hundred members of the group. The next year, Abu Nidal tried to gain control over Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon from Arafat, but failed to do so. These two developments, plus reports that Abu Nidal had left Libya suffering from leukemia (an often fatal disease affecting the blood, which causes an abnormal increase in the number of white blood cells), greatly reduced his effectiveness.

But by then, another radical seeking to unify the Arab world had taken center stage: Osama bin Laden.

Abu Nidal was reported to have returned to Baghdad, Iraq, for medical treatment, but by the 1990s, his involvement in active terrorism appeared to have ended. As the twenty-first century began, his location, and even whether he was dead or alive, was unknown.

In August 2002, however, news reports said that Abu Nidal had been found dead in Baghdad. Initial reports noted he had several gunshot wounds. The same reports also said he had apparently committed suicide.

In the course of his terrorist career, Abu Nidal had two targets: Israel, and Arab states and organizations that proposed negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Abu Nidal was a leading supporter of the "rejectionist front," those Arabs totally committed to the destruction of Israel and opposed to any proposal that would recognize Israel's right to exist.

Abu Nidal's unbending position toward Israel earned him many enemies in the Arab world, as well as in Western Europe and the United States. Although it waged a long and bloody fight, by the early 1990s the Abu Nidal Organization had achieved few results (besides a reputation as dangerous) for its efforts. Arafat was then on the verge of winning the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a peace settlement with Israel. Abu Nidal himself had been forced to move from one Arab country to the next as governments found it in their best interest to oppose terrorism.

For More Information

Books

Melman, Yossi. The Master Terrorist: The True Story of Abu Nidal. New York: Adama Books, 1986.

Nasr, Kameel B. Arab and Israeli Terrorism: The Causes and Effects of Political Violence, 1936–1993. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishers, 1996.

Seale, Patrick. Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire. New York: Random House, 1992.

Periodicals

Norland, Rod. "The 'Evil Spirit'; for Sheer Viciousness, Abu Nidal Has Few Rivals in the Underworld of Terrorism." Newsweek, January 13, 1986, p. 23.

Russell, George. "Master of Mystery and Murder; for the Shadowy Abu Nidal, Terror Is a Way of Life." Time, January 13, 1986, p. 31.

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