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Abu Nidal Organization (ANO)

Abu Nidal Organization (ANO)

LEADER: Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal)

YEAR ESTABLISHED OR BECAME ACTIVE: 1973

USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Middle East (terror activities were carried out in in more than 20 countries throughout the region and Europe)

U.S. TERRORIST EXCLUSION LIST DESIGNEE: The U.S. Department of State declared the ANO a terrorist organization in 1997

OVERVIEW

The Abu Nidal Organization (also known as the Fatah Revolutionary Council; Black June; the Arab Revolutionary Brigades; the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Muslims) was a Palestinian terror organization that was responsible for up to 900 killings between 1973 and 1991.

HISTORY

The roots of the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) lie with the radicalization of Palestinian politics in the late 1960s, and further back to the 1948 settlement that led to the creation of the state of Israel. In every sense, however, they revolve around the life and times of its founder and defining influence, Sabri al-Banna (universally known as Abu Nidal, which translates from the Arabic as "father of the struggle"), and understanding his life and struggles offer an insight into the motivations of the cult that he built around him.

Al-Banna had been born to a prosperous family in the town of Jaffa in 1937, but his upbringing was scarred by rejection and fraternal prejudice. His father was a wealthy orange merchant with a large home and family. As an old man, he had taken a second wife, a 16-year-old Alawite maid, who bore a twelfth child, Sabri. Repulsed by her impoverished origins, the rest of the family rejected the youngest son, and when the father died in 1945, they turned his mother out of the house.

Three years later, the prosperous middle-class existence of the al-Bannas was also brought to an abrupt halt during the First Arab-Israeli war. Forced to flee their home, they ended up living in dire poverty in a Gaza refugee camp. Neglected and unloved as a child, forced to live as a hungry and impoverished refugee, the series of humiliations suffered by young Sabri al-Banna forged a vengeful and embittered personality, with, it would emerge, a psychotic, misogynistic streak.

As a teenager, he became attracted to Ba'athism and moved to Egypt where he studied engineering, but emigrated to the Gulf before completing his studies. In the Saudi capital, Riyadh, he enjoyed relative success in business, but like many of his contemporaries became increasingly politicized. He founded the Palestine Secret Organization and adopted the alias "Abu Nidal." Following the Six Day War in 1967, the Saudi authorities tortured then expelled Nidal, who moved to Jordan.

KEY EVENTS

1971:
Abu Nidal denounces Fatah leadership at Third Annual Congress.
1973:
Hostage-taking at Saudi embassy in Paris.
1976:
Launches Iraqi-sponsored guerilla raids on Syria.
1982:
Assassination attempt on Israeli London Ambassador Shlomo Argov precipitates Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
1983:
Saddam Hussein expels Abu Nidal Organization, which takes up residence in Syria.
1985:
Abu Nidal relocates to Libya and is hosted by Colonel el-Qaddaffi.
1985:
Gun attacks on Vienna and Rome airports.
1988:
Lockerbie bombing.
1991:
Assassination of Fatah deputy, Abu Ilyad.
2002:
Abu Nidal found shot dead in his Baghdad home.

It was in Amman that Nidal became more closely involved with the Palestinian cause, allying himself with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. He founded a trading company called Impex, which increasingly became a front for Fatah, with members meeting at its offices, and money laundered through its bank accounts. According to his biographer, Patrick Seale, Nidal never forged a reputation as a guerilla during this period of paramilitary foment, locking himself in his office during gun battles.

Nevertheless, he established a solid reputation within Fatah for his organizational aptitude and was appointed Fatah representative to Sudan in 1968, then to Iraq two years later. When King Hussein of Jordan purged his country of the increasingly disruptive Palestinian fedayeen (fighters), Palestinian politics in general and Nidal in particular became even more radicalized. The PLO split between comparative moderates (such as Arafat, who continued to tread a political-military line and broach the possibility of a "national authority" on a partial map of Palestine as a first step to a negotiated settlement) and outright extremists (such as George Habash and Fatah's Black September faction, that used hijackings and murders to make their rejectionist case).

Within Fatah, Nidal emerged as the leader of a leftist alliance against Arafat, aligning himself with Abu Dawud, a brutal commander who would mastermind the Black September Munich Olympic attacks in 1972. At Fatah's third congress in Damascus in December 1971, Nidal called for Arafat to be overthrown as an "enemy" of the Palestinian people and demanded brutal revenge against King Hussein.

Provided shelter by the Iraqi government, that found a common cause with his rejectionism and with a group of loyal and impressionable followers, Nidal soon began launching terrorist attacks.

His first operation bore the hallmark of future missions, carried out as it was not against the declared "enemy" of Israel, but against rival Arabs. On September 5, 1973, five gunmen seized the Saudi embassy in Paris, taking 13 hostages and threatening to blow up the compound unless Abu Dawud, who had been arrested in Jordan that February for a plot to kill King Hussein, was released. Following PLO-brokered negotiations (and an alleged $12 million bribe to King Hussein from the Emir of Kuwait), Dawud was released and the crisis ended.

Possibly because he was so reliant on the patronage of sympathetic regimes, Abu Nidal emerged as a terrorist for hire. In June 1976, Syria's President Hafez al-Assad had sent his army into Lebanon, newly racked by civil war, to fight the Palestinian guerrillas operating from refugee camps across the country. This effectively put Syria in the Israeli camp and marked an act of Arab heresy akin to King Hussein's Black September purge five years earlier. Saddam Hussein, an ambitious general in the Iraqi army who was increasingly operating as de facto president of his country, thought he could boost his own prestige throughout the Arab world by bringing Assad down. On Saddam's behalf, and operating under the name "Black June," Abu Nidal sent raiders into Syria to carry out guerilla activities.

At the same time, Abu Nidal continued to follow his own path toward Palestinian redemption. Following the Saudi embassy hostage taking, senior PLO figures had flown to Iraq to reason with Nidal that such acts were damaging the Palestinian cause. Such appeals had little effect on Nidal, if anything hardening his resolve. He was not unique in his rejectionism: Arafat had many Palestinian and Arab enemies, though what set Nidal apart was not his opposition, but that he actually set about killing opponents. By the late 1970s, his attacks were directed almost exclusively against Arafat's "capitulationists." These included the PLO's London representative, Said Hammami, who had been engaged in high-level clandestine negotiations with Israeli "doves" and a moderate Egyptian newspaper editor. Although Abu Nidal was vigorously opposed to moderate Palestinian factions, his indiscriminate brutality served to indelibly frame the PLO as a terrorist organization.

Abu Nidal also launched intermittent attacks at Israeli and Jewish targets overseas. These included the murder of the Israeli commercial attaché in Brussels on July 25, 1980, and a hand grenade attack on a synagogue in Antwerp two days later, which killed a child and injured 20 others. What was most marked about the Abu Nidal Organization was its ability to emerge and carry out attacks almost anywhere. As well as in Belgium and England, the group would inflict its crimes on more than 20 countries during the 1980s. Not until al-Qaeda two decades later would the tentacles of a terrorist group spread so far.

In 1983, Saddam Hussein, now Iraqi President and seeking to portray himself as a regional strongman and protector of Western interests in the face of Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, dispensed of Abu Nidal in an attempt to show its most respectable face; the ANO took refuge in Syria. Damascus sponsored his organization to kill Jordanian diplomats as a way of derailing peace overtures to Israel, but showing a remarkable sense of provoking historically significant episodes of an epicedian brand, Nidal had already gone one step further.

On June 3, 1982, three Abu Nidal agents attempted to assassinate the Israeli Ambassador to London, Shlomo Argov, shooting him through the head, but not killing him. This was the Middle East's answer to Franz Ferdinand's assassination in Sarajevo, and triggered a cycle of events that would set any Arab-Israeli peace settlement back a decade. Wrongly claiming it was an act ordered by the PLO, Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee three days later, invading Lebanon to flush it out. In this sense, Nidal saw through his extremist convictions.

Abu Nidal took his freelance terrorist organization to Libya in 1985, a country that would serve, as one commentator noted wryly, as "his most congenial home" (Syria formally expelled him in 1987). He struck an instant personal rapport with Colonel el-Qaddaffi, who placed him in effective control of Libyan intelligence, and, like Syria and Iraq before him, sponsored his organization to carry out an array of attacks that surpassed even Abu Nidal's previous reputation for terror. These included the hijacking of an Egyptair flight in Malta in November 1985 (58 of the 91 passengers died after Egyptian commandoes stormed the plane) and machine gun attacks at Rome and Vienna Airports in December 1985 (which were apparently carried out as a reprisal for the Italian and Austrian governments' moves to recognize the PLO). Abu Nidal also paid its respects to its Libyan hosts by targeting Qaddaffi opponents in exile.

Following the U.S. bombing of Beirut in April 1986, el-Qaddafi gave Abu Nidal carteblanche to wage his extremist activities on Western targets. Among the attacks was a hijacking of a Pan Am jet in Karachi; a machine gun attack in an Istanbul synagogue; and an assault on the Greek cruise ship, the City of Poros, which killed nine and left 98 injured.

The apogee of Abu Nidal's activities came in December 1988 when Pan Am flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. The attack, for which a Libyan security official was convicted, was almost certainly orchestrated by the Palestinian. In 2002, a former Nidal colleague, Atef Abu Bakr, told al-Hayat newspaper that Nidal had confided: "I will tell you something very important and serious. The reports which link the Lockerbie act to others are false reports. We are behind what happened."

The zenith of Abu Nidal's terror also marked the start of its decline. Still with a paramilitary militia of around 1,500 and a personal wealth garnered through his business activities and extortion valued at $400 million, he continued to exert some influence, but this mostly manifested itself in brutal purges of his corps. In February 1991, after many attempts, he killed the Fatah second-in-command Abu Iyad in Tunis. This would be his last significant act.

Faced with the outrage of the West, el-Qaddaffi placed him under house arrest. From here the trail of hard facts goes cold. It seems as if el-Qaddaffi exiled Abu Nidal in the late 1990s, but the circumstances remain shrouded in mystery. Nidal turned up in Iraq: how, when, or why is unknown. Iraqi officials maintained he entered the country illegally; more likely, Nidal bought his way into a country crushed by an economic embargo.

Either way, the fact that Abu Nidal and his last remaining paramilitary corps were in Iraq remained unknown until August 2002 when his death at the age of 65 was announced. Iraqi officials said he committed suicide following a raid on his compound by intelligence agents. Subsequent accounts nevertheless stated that it is unclear whether he killed himself or was killed by someone else.

LEADERSHIP

SABRI AL-BANNA (ABU NIDAL)

Whether Abu Nidal's cruelty was rooted in his deeply unhappy childhood—first as an outcast in his own family, then as a poverty-stricken refugee—is often the starting point of assessments of his life and psyche. Certainly, his boyhood shared similar characteristics to those of other demagogues, such as Stalin and Saddam Hussein. However, too little is known about Abu Nidal, and his name attracts too much rumor to make a definitive judgment.

Nevertheless, torture and execution were certainly a peculiar penchant of Nidal's, particularly as his terrorist excesses saw him increasingly marginalized by his Libyan hosts in the late 1980s. Horrific accounts of victims being buried alive have emerged, likewise accounts of mass purges, notably in November 1987, when he ordered the execution of 170 members.

Part of the success of the ANO came because of the brutal allegiance demanded by Abu Nidal himself and the frequent purges he carried out. New recruits were required to spend several days writing out their life stories, including the names and addresses of family members, friends, and other associates. As a periodic test of loyalty, members would be required to rewrite this information, which was then compared to the original. Discrepancies were taken as evidence that the original had been an invention and that the member was a spy. Such an accusation would be met with torture and often execution.

One continued rumor and line of speculation that was explored by his biographer, Patrick Seale, is that Abu Nidal was a delinquent Mossad agent. Given Israel's proclivity towards such clandestine activity and Abu Nidal's habit of accepting the orders and dollars of his former enemies, such a scenario is not inconceivable; given his inveterate hatred of Israel and a lack of anything approaching hard evidence, it nevertheless remains unlikely.

PHILOSOPHY AND TACTICS

Because of its many guises, homes, and patrons, Abu Nidal has never propagated a continued struggle for any particular cause other than the pursuit of terror in a general sense. Abu Nidal originally broke away from the Fatah movement with his circle of followers in the early 1970s because they disliked the comparatively moderate line taken by its leadership towards King Hussein and the state of Israel. As they saw it, anything other than seeking the death of both was a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. However, this never emerged in a coherent philosophy or manifesto, nor did it tactically. Besides the assassination attempt on Shlomo Argov in 1982, Abu Nidal never committed a significant attack against an Israeli target. While its attacks on Western targets accounted for much of its notoriety, an estimated 70% of its outrages were carried out on fellow Arabs, either at the behest of sponsor governments or because of Abu Nidal's own personal grievances.

Instead, Abu Nidal Organization, partly because of the necessity of sating the demands of host regimes, partly because of the massive financial incentives, and arguably because of its founder's penchant for bloodletting, emerged as a kind of freelance terrorist group. It carried out assassinations, extortion, hijackings, and kidnappings, sometimes in pursuit of its own aims, but often on the instructions of others.

PRIMARY SOURCE
Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) a.k.a. Fatah Revolutionary Council, Arab Revolutionary Brigades, Black September, Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Muslims

DESCRIPTION

The ANO international terrorist organization was founded by Sabri al-Banna (a.k.a. Abu Nidal) after splitting from the PLO in 1974. The group's previous known structure consisted of various functional committees, including political, military, and financial. In November 2002 Abu Nidal died in Baghdad; the new leadership of the organization remains unclear.

ACTIVITIES

The ANO has carried out terrorist attacks in 20 countries, killing or injuring almost 900 persons. Targets include the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, moderate Palestinians, the PLO, and various Arab countries. Major attacks included the Rome and Vienna airports in 1985, the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul, the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi in 1986, and the City of Poros day-excursion ship attack in Greece in 1988. The ANO is suspected of assassinating PLO deputy chief Abu Iyad and PLO security chief Abu Hul in Tunis in 1991. The ANO assassinated a Jordanian diplomat in Lebanon in 1994 and has been linked to the killing of the PLO representative there. The group has not staged a major attack against Western targets since the late 1980s.

STRENGTH

Few hundred plus limited overseas support structure.

LOCATION/AREA OF OPERATION

Al-Banna relocated to Iraq in December 1998 where the group maintained a presence until Operation Iraqi Freedom, but its current status in country is unknown. Known members have an operational presence in Lebanon, including in several Palestinian refugee camps. Authorities shut down the ANO's operations in Libya and Egypt in 1999. The group has demonstrated the ability to operate over a wide area, including the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. However, financial problems and internal disorganization have greatly reduced the group's activities and its ability to maintain cohesive terrorist capability.

EXTERNAL AID

The ANO received considerable support, including safe haven, training, logistical assistance, and financial aid from Iraq, Libya, and Syria (until 1987), in addition to close support for selected operations.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

OTHER PERSPECTIVES

David Hirst, who reported from the Middle East for the Guardian between 1963 and 2001, saw the full spectrum of Abu Nidal's notorious life and times: "All Palestinian resistance leaders took a nom de guerre," he wrote after Abu Nidal's death from an apparent suicide in 2002. "Like Yasser Arafat's Abu Ammar, most were just names. Others embodied an idea. But the man who, at the outset of his career, so grandly styled himself Abu Nidal, or 'father of struggle,' came, by the end of it, to be regarded by most of his compatriots as the antithesis of all the name stood for, the begetter of all that was most treacherous and destructive of the cause he had seemingly espoused more passionately than anyone else…. His genius lay in his ability to secure one patron after another—even two, possibly three, mutually hostile ones at once—for the gruesome favours he performed in that underworld of middle eastern conflict of which, in his heyday, he was the undisputed, monstrous king. The patrons were Arab—Iraq, Syria, Libya—but, almost incredibly, they may well have been Israeli too.

"[I]t was Israel's policy to destroy the PLO, to fix it indelibly in the international mind as the terrorist organisation it had never wholly been (and was so less and less). No one helped this strategy like Abu Nidal. Even though the PLO was his victim, that made little difference to international opinion unschooled in the niceties of intra-Palestinian politics; it seemed only to bear out what Israel said about the essentially murderous nature of the whole gang…. Whether he was literally Israel's man or not, one thing is sure: no terrorist … rendered Israel greater services," concluded Hirst.

Time magazine pondered whether the final act of Abu Nidal's murderous existence was a renewed employment under his old boss, Saddam Hussein: "Exquisitely rare is the news item that can induce a satisfied smile in both Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat," remarked Tony Karon. "But both men have reason to cheer the passing of Abu Nidal, the Palestinian terrorist mastermind who, depending on who you believe, either killed himself or was shot dead this week in Baghdad. That's because in a 20-year career that began in 1974, Nidal's organization killed or wounded some 900 people in 20 different countries, making enemies both Arab and Israeli."

SUMMARY

Abu Nidal's death in 2002 apparently marked the end for one of the most infamous criminal gangs in modern history. Whether the ANO has an apostle willing to take up the freelance terrorism of its founder and defining influence remains to be seen.

SOURCES

Books

Savigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949–1993. Oxford: OUP, 1999.

Seale, Patrick. Assad of Syria: The Struggle For the Middle East. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.

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

Periodicals

Hirst, David. "Abu Nidal". Guardian August 20, 2002.

Karon, Tony. "Person of the Week: Abu Nidal". Time August 23, 2002.

SEE ALSO

Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)

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