Born in May 1937 (Jaffa, Palestine)
Died on August 16, 2002 (Baghdad, Iraq)
Long before Osama bin Laden (1957–; see entry) became the world's most feared terrorist, Palestinian Abu Nidal used bombings, shootings, and kidnappings to try to urge governments in the Middle East and around the world to accept his radical policies for promoting Palestinian independence. Ironically, his brutal actions tended to discredit the Palestinians' push for independence and derail their efforts to gain international sympathy. Abu Nidal was convinced that the only way to establish a home for Palestinians was to eliminate Israel. He built a terrorist organization dedicated to combating anyone who showed sympathy for Israel, a position that put him at odds with much of the world. He even committed terrorist acts against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the group recognized as representing the Palestinian people. Abu Nidal, whose adopted name means "father of the struggle," is estimated to have masterminded the murder or wounding of more than nine hundred people in twenty countries from the 1970s to the 1990s.
"I am Abu Nidal—the answer to all Arab suffering and misfortunes... . I am the evil spirit of the secret services. I am the evil spirit which moves around only at night causing them nightmares."
Despite the fact that the name Abu Nidal was known throughout the Middle East and was the target of intense manhunts undertaken by the security agencies of Israel, the United States, and other Western countries, relatively little is known about the man himself and few photos of him exist. Yossi Melman, who wrote a respected book about him, wrote that Abu Nidal was "cautious to the point of paranoia," never speaking on the phone, traveling frequently, and keeping few close friends or confidantes. A high-ranking PLO officer quoted by Melman once said, "Abu Nidal is so distrustful that he even suspects his wife of being an agent of the C.I.A. [the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency]." Abu Nidal was said to have boasted that even his own daughter did not know who he was.
Born to be a terrorist?
Despite his mysterious ways, some elements of the secretive terrorist's early life are known. He was born Sabri al-Banna in May 1937 in the town of Jaffa, then part of the British-administered region of Palestine. Al-Banna's father, Khalil al-Banna, had thirteen wives, and Sabri al-Banna was the youngest child of his eighth wife. Al-Banna once claimed that his father was the richest man in Palestine, and the family lived in a large, three-story house that overlooked the ocean. The young al-Banna briefly attended a French-run school in Jaffa before moving to a private Muslim elementary school in Jerusalem in second grade. Then, when he was in fourth grade, the peaceful life of his family was violently disrupted.
In November 1947, following a resolution by the United Nations General Assembly that called for the creation of two states—one Arab, one Jewish—in the region known as Palestine, Jews and Arabs began to fight over who would control which areas of land. People on both sides formed militias (armed groups of civilians), and the fighting became very intense in areas with mixed Arab and Jewish populations, such as Jaffa. The al-Banna family fled the fighting, and in April 1948 Jewish forces occupied their town. The entire al-Banna family, like so many Arabs living in Palestine, was forced to move into a refugee camp, a tent city created to house people evicted from their land.
Melman described the conditions that the al-Bannas and others faced in the refugee camps. "Instead of unlimited wealth, Sabri was suddenly forced into abject poverty. Rather than having large houses and rooms filled with toys, he had to adjust to nothing more than a tent. Instead of having servants at his beck and call, he saw how his mother and brothers had to make their way to the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency) office to receive their weekly food allowance—oil, rice, and potatoes." The stark contrast between his earlier life of comfort and safety to one of want and insecurity resulting from conflict with Jews played a pivotal role in his life. Al-Banna did not become a terrorist at age eleven, but he did embark on a path that would eventually lead to terrorist acts such as murder, kidnappings, and car bombings.
By 1949 the al-Banna family moved to Nablus, a town on the west bank of the Jordan River, in territory then controlled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan. The family was engaged in business, and young Sabri al-Banna attended public schools. He graduated from high school in 1955 and attended Cairo University in Egypt, where he studied engineering. Later he would claim to have an engineering degree, though records indicate that he did not graduate. In 1960 he joined his brother in Saudi Arabia, where he worked as an electrician's assistant in the oil industry. In 1962 he met and married a young woman from Nablus, and the pair eventually had three children, daughters Bisan and Na'ifa and son Nidal. It was during these years in the early 1960s that al-Banna became obsessed with the politics that would eventually lead him to become a terrorist.
Whether in the classrooms of Cairo, the construction fields of Saudi Arabia, or the streets of Nablus, the hot topic of discussion among Arabs, especially among those Arabs who had fled lands now controlled by the nation of Israel, was how to reclaim Palestine for Arabs. Al-Banna was drawn to a radical political group known as Fatah, an Arabic acronym for Movement for the Liberation of Palestine. Fatah was led by Yasser Arafat (1929–2004; see entry), who called for attacks on Israel in support of Palestinian claims to land. During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured significant portions of Arab land, including the area known as the West Bank, which included Nablus. From that point on, al-Banna vowed to become more than just a member of Fatah. He decided to fight for the rights of Palestinians.
One of al-Banna's first acts upon becoming a Fatah fighter was the adoption of a nom de guerre (a false name used in war). He chose Abu Nidal, which translates as "father of the struggle." After adopting this name, al-Banna's actions become difficult to track. As an agent of Fatah, al-Banna was a target for attack by Israeli armed forces and intelligence operations. He moved frequently, spending time in Jordan (formerly Transjordan), and then leading Fatah operations in Sudan, where his recruiting efforts were so aggressive that he was asked to leave the country. He was eventually sent to Baghdad, Iraq, to act as the PLO's link to the Ba'athist government. (Fatah is a smaller group within the greater organization of the PLO. The Baath Party is a secular political movement calling for the unification of all Arab nations, also known as Pan-Arabism.)
In Iraq, al-Banna grew even more convinced that the only way for Palestinians to make gains against Israel was through violent action. At the same time, the PLO began to use negotiation and compromise along with armed struggle as tools to gain political advantage. Al-Banna attended military training camps operated in North Korea and China, where he learned how to use explosives. Against the orders of the PLO, he began to recruit Palestinians to strike against Israel, thus forming his own small terrorist group, or cell. He began to develop a sense of how he wanted to achieve his goals. In 1974 leaders of Fatah believed that Abu Nidal (both the man and his group) was behind the hijacking of an airplane in Iraq, which occurred against PLO wishes. In March of that year Fatah spread the word that al-Banna no longer acted as a representative of their group. But by then al-Banna was more than ready to operate on his own.
Abu Nidal's goals and targets
Also while in Iraq, al-Banna—now widely known as Abu Nidal—began to argue for a particularly strong version of Pan-Arabism and anti-Zionism (a movement against a Jewish homeland in the Middle East). In one interview, quoted by Melman, he stated some of the key elements of his program: "Total destruction of the Zionist entity [Israel]. Participation in Arab unity. The path of Pan-Arabism. Building a democratic people's regime in which Palestine is a homeland. In other words, our struggle is for the liberation of Palestine, in which we wish to establish a secular democratic state." These ideas became the basis for Abu Nidal's terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s.
Abu Nidal's goals helped define his enemies, the targets of the terrorist attacks for which he and his followers became known. His most natural target, of course, was Israel itself, which he saw as an oppressive force depriving Palestinians of their rights to self-determination (the right of a people within a territory to define their own political status). Abu Nidal could not attack within Israel itself because Israeli security was too tight. But he could attack representatives of the Israeli government, such as ambassadors or diplomats, while they were overseas. Abu Nidal and his followers executed numerous attacks against ambassadors over the years, including an unsuccessful but high-profile strike against the Israeli ambassador to Britain in 1982. Abu Nidal just as often attacked innocent Jews abroad, based on the belief that any strike against a Jew sent a message to Israel about the refusal of Palestinians to submit to Israeli oppression. For example, Abu Nidal operatives attacked Jewish children attending the Agudath Israel school in Belgium in 1980, and in 1985 opened fire on passengers waiting at the counter of the Israeli airline, El Al, at airports in Vienna, Austria, and Rome, Italy, killing eighteen and wounding more than one hundred.
Abu Nidal did not, however, limit his group's terrorist attacks to Jews. He also targeted any nation he saw as supporting Israeli policies. The attacks on El Al airline passengers in Rome and Vienna, for example, were not just targeting Jewish passengers; they were also meant to send a message to the governments of Austria and Italy that it was dangerous to be friendly to Israel. Other Abu Nidal attacks in 1985 included the bombing of a café in Paris, France, that left forty wounded.
Perhaps the most surprising and frequent targets of Abu Nidal's terror turned out to be his fellow Arabs, especially members of the PLO. After 1973, when Israel again defeated Arab forces in battle, the PLO and other Arab nations modified their earlier warlike positions and began, in various ways, to negotiate with Israel. Abu Nidal and other militants were strongly opposed to any compromise with Israel; they felt that the only way to make progress against this enemy was through warfare. Therefore, Abu Nidal began to target the PLO and other Arab representatives who indicated a willingness to resolve the conflict with Israel through other means. According to a 1986 Time magazine report, "Almost 70 percent of the attacks charged against [Abu Nidal] have been aimed at fellow Arabs, especially those willing to consider compromises with Israel that might lead to a negotiated Middle East peace settlement."
The attacks against fellow Arabs began in 1974 with an aborted attempt to assassinate PLO leader Yasser Arafat. After Arafat learned of the plans, the PLO sentenced Abu Nidal to death. Abu Nidal members initiated multiple strikes against the PLO, assassinating that group's representatives in Kuwait, London, Paris, and other cities in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and bombing the car of the PLO military chief in 1980. They have also struck at editors of Arab newspapers they considered too friendly to Israel, and at nations like Egypt and Jordan who were willing to negotiate separate peace treaties with Israel. In one of their most deadly attacks, Abu Nidal followers blew up a Gulf Air flight from the United Arab Emirates in mid-air, killing all 122 aboard the plane in 1983.
The Abu Nidal Organization
After being evicted from Fatah in 1974 and forming his own terrorist organization, initially called Fatah—Revolutionary Council, Abu Nidal largely disappeared from public view. Thereafter, all that was known of him were rumors and reported sightings, but intelligence officeres and investigative reporters have pieced together a picture of the organization he formed, known as the Abu Nidal Organization, or ANO.
It has been estimated that at any given time the ANO consisted of between two hundred and five hundred members, or operatives. These members were all Palestinians, and they were often recruited from among the brightest young students attending universities in the Middle East and abroad. ANO members were extremely secretive. They organized themselves into small groups, or cells, of between three and five members, and only the cell leader would ever be exposed to other members of the organization. Because individual members seldom knew each other, they could not inform or name other members if they were captured and interrogated. ANO cells were created in many countries, with operatives living normal lives as they awaited orders. At various times, the ANO had cells operating in Britain, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as other countries.
Another method the ANO used to protect itself was the creation of multiple names. In addition to the name Fatah—Revolutionary Council, the group also took credit for terrorist attacks under the names Palestine National Liberation Movement, Black September, Arab Revolutionary Brigades, Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Muslims, Al-Asifa ("The Storm"), Al-Iqab ("The Punishment"), and several other names. The many names made the group's members harder to track, as did the fact that the group often took credit for actions in which it had no involvement. Perhaps more importantly, Abu Nidal himself was always ready to kill any group member who showed the slightest sign of betraying the group. The ANO was notorious for its periodic purges of members, leading to the assassination of as many as 150 terrorists by fellow members.
The end of the terror
As early as 1984, rumors began to circulate that Abu Nidal, the master terrorist, was dead, after he reportedly had open heart surgery in East Germany. Over the years, such reports continued, only to be quashed when Abu Nidal granted a rare interview or took claim for an attack in ways that confirmed his identity. What can be certain is that after the mid-1980s his attacks became less frequent and, in many ways, less coherent. He became, in the words of biographer Patrick Seale, author of Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire, little more than a "highway robber," a hired killer. No longer did Abu Nidal align himself strictly with the Palestinian cause. He now initiated hits on targets identified by Iraq or Libya, which funded many of his activities. In fact, many observers and journalists have claimed that Abu Nidal was always willing to commit crimes for money.
The Abu Nidal Organization remained active through the 1980s. In 1984 Nidal or members of his group assassinated the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates in Paris, and in the late 1980s he killed several enemies of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. He was implicated in the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded in mid-air over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all on board. That same year his group killed nine and injured more than one hundred when they attacked the Greek cruise ship City of Poros as it was heading to Athens. By the 1990s, however, Abu Nidal had largely faded from view in the Middle East. Reports indicated that Abu Nidal was expelled from Iraq in the early 1990s and then from Libya in 1998. Perhaps as late as 2002 he returned to Baghdad, Iraq.
In early September 2002, reports emerged from Baghdad's official news agency that Abu Nidal had killed himself with a bullet to the head. Other reports soon contradicted this information, noting that his body had multiple gunshot wounds, hardly the mark of a suicide. Some reports suggested that he had been assassinated by Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad. Britain's News Telegraph reported that he had been killed by operatives of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (1937–; see entry), either because Abu Nidal had plotted to kill Hussein or because he refused Hussein's requests to reactivate his terrorist network. Whatever the cause, newspapers throughout the world applauded word of his death. According to Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of the newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi: "There is a collective sigh of relief everywhere that he no longer exists," as quoted in Time. The passing of Abu Nidal, however, did not bring about the disappearance of terrorism in the Middle East. Many groups, including Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda, which was responsible for the largest terrorist attack on the U.S. soil on September 11, 2001, continue to justify their actions as supporting the Palestinians and condemning Israel.
Abu Nidal's Most Notorious Attacks
Abu Nidal organized or carried out more than one hundred terrorist attacks over twenty-five years. These attacks, conducted in twenty countries, killed more than three hundred and wounded another six hundred people. He is best known, however, for two attacks, one that started a war and another that shocked the world.
In 1982 Israel and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) forces stationed in Lebanon, just north of the Israeli border, stood poised on the brink of war, a fragile ceasefire barely keeping the peace. Hoping to push the two sides into war, Abu Nidal ordered the assassination of Israel's ambassador to Britain, Shlomo Argov. In London, Abu Nidal's supporters shot Argov as he left a dinner, and although they did not kill Argov, Israel was outraged and blamed the Palestinians. The PLO insisted that Abu Nidal was not in their control, but Israeli leader Ariel Sharon (1928–; see entry) was skeptical. Declaring "They are all PLO," Sharon ordered Israel to invade Lebanon, where the PLO was based, launching one of the bloodiest episodes in the long conflict and much criticism from other nations. Abu Nidal had thus used a terrorist act to push Israel into a war that subsequently damaged its reputation around the world.
On December 27, 1985, passengers waiting at the El Al airline counter in Rome, Italy, were stunned when several well-dressed Arab men tossed hand grenades toward a snack bar, then pulled AK-47 rifles from beneath their jackets and began firing into the crowd. Within minutes fifteen people were dead, including three of the terrorists. Almost simultaneously three men opened fire on travelers waiting in Vienna, Austria's airport, to board an El Al flight to Tel Aviv, Israel. Three were killed, including one terrorist. In both locations, dozens more were wounded. The terrorists left a note, written in Arabic and directed toward Israel. It read, according to Time, "As you have violated our land, our honor, our people, we in exchange will violate everything, even your children, to make you feel the sadness of our children. The tears we have shed will be exchanged for blood. The war started from this moment." The Abu Nidal Organization soon came forward to claim credit for the attacks.
For More Information
Melman, Yossi. The Master Terrorist: The True Story of Abu Nidal. New York: Adama Books, 1986.
Searle, Patrick. Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire. New York: Random House, 1992.
Magnuson, Ed. "Ten Minutes of Horror: In Well-Timed Attacks, Gunmen Bring Carnage to Rome and Vienna Airports." Time (January 6, 1986): p. 74.
Moubayed, Sami. "The Death of Abu Nidal: 'Nationalist Turned Psychopath."' Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (November 2002): p. 48.
Ripley, Amanda. "Assisted Suicide? In Baghdad, Notorious Extremist Abu Nidal Meets a Violent, Mysterious End—One Worthy of His Life." Time (September 2, 2002): p. 35.
Russell, George. "Master of Mystery and Murder: For the Shadowy Abu Nidal, Terror Is a Way of Life." Time (January 13, 1986): p. 31.
"Abu Nidal Organization." Terrorism: Questions & Answers.http://www.cfrterrorism.org/groups/abunidal.html (accessed on July 7, 2005).
Coughlin, Con. "Saddam Killed Abu Nidal over al-Qa'eda Row." Telegraph.co.uk.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2002/08/25/wnidal25.xml (accessed on July 7, 2005).