• U.S.

Master of Mystery and Murder: Abu Nidal

6 minute read
George Russell

Sabry Khalil Bana, better known as Abu Nidal, may be the deadliest terrorist alive. He is rarely seen in public, and details of his life are obscure and sometimes contradictory: in 1984, rumors circulated that he had died of heart disease. A year later purported interviews with the Palestinian terrorist were published in France, Kuwait and West Germany. In one of them Abu Nidal, whose nom de guerre means Father of Struggle, bragged that “not even my eight-year-old son Bissam knows exactly who I am.”

His works speak for themselves. Over the past twelve years Abu Nidal has molded his organization, known as the Fatah Revolutionary Council, into a fanatical, amorphously structured terrorist band with between 200 and 500 adherents. They have been blamed for more than 100 terrorist attacks. In June 1982, members of Abu Nidal’s group shot and gravely wounded Israeli Ambassador to Britain Shlomo Argov, an assault that helped spark the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Last year members of the organization were held responsible for 33 assaults, ranging from the Sept. 16 bombing of Rome’s Café de Paris (40 injured) to the Nov. 23 hijacking of an EgyptAir jetliner (59 dead) to the atrocities two weeks ago in Rome and Vienna (19 dead, 112 injured). Those who may have the most reason to fear Abu Nidal, however, are his compatriots. Almost 70% of the attacks charged against his organization have been aimed at fellow Arabs, especially those willing to consider compromises with Israel that might lead to a negotiated Middle East peace settlement. To some antiterrorist experts, Abu Nidal and his group are less an independent terror organization than the murderous arm of various radical Arab states, first Iraq, then Syria and now Libya. Others say that Syria remains the organization’s chief patron, while still others insist that Abu Nidal is completely autonomous.

Abu Nidal began life as a privileged bourgeois scion of what was formerly Palestine. His father, Khalil, was a prominent landowner and agricultural merchant in Jaffa who at one time had close ties with Israel’s legendary first President, Chaim Weizmann. One of Abu Nidal’s elder brothers, Mohammed, is still a prosperous merchant in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Abu Nidal attended school in Jaffa and Jerusalem, but his family fled before the 1948 war that accompanied the foundation of Israel. Eventually the family settled in Beirut. By some accounts, Abu Nidal attended the American University there, where he trained as an engineer.

Sometime after the 1967 Six-Day War, Abu Nidal joined Yasser Arafat’s Fatah arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He rose quickly through the ranks and in 1970 opened a P.L.O. office in Khartoum. About a year later he was asked to leave by the Sudanese, largely because of his efforts to recruit local Palestinian students as guerrilla fighters.

In 1971, Abu Nidal was named the chief P.L.O. representative in Iraq. Over the next two years he started to set up his own organization, and by September 1973 it had begun to emerge as a proxy terrorist force for the Iraqis. A formal break with Arafat’s Fatah organization took place in 1974, and shortly thereafter his gunmen failed in a bid to murder Arafat himself. In reply, the P.L.O. sentenced Abu Nidal to death.

Since that time, Abu Nidal’s followers have killed P.L.O. representatives in Paris, London and Kuwait. They have also launched attacks on P.L.O. offices and personnel in Yugoslavia, Rumania and Poland. In 1982, Arafat accused Abu Nidal of being a hireling of MOSSAD, Israel’s elite intelligence agency. That did not put an end to the fratricide: in April 1983, members of the Abu Nidal organization killed moderate P.L.O. Spokesman Issam Sartawi at a meeting of the Socialist International in Albufeira, Portugal.

From about the time of his break with Arafat through 1981, the Abu Nidal organization seems to have operated mainly out of Baghdad under a variety of names. Among them: Black June, the Arab Revolutionary Brigades, the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Muslims and, recently. Black September. In the early years gunmen under Abu Nidal’s command are credited with having assaulted Syrian embassies and other targets, spurred on by Syria’s crackdown on Palestinian forces in Lebanon and tensions between Iraq and the Damascus government of President Hafez Assad. Three months after the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic 1977 visit to Israel, Abu Nidal hitmen murdered an Egyptian newspaper editor and hijacked a jetliner at Larnaca in Cyprus. In 1981, as Iraq courted the U.S. and Western Europe, the seat of Abu Nidal’s terrorist operations began to shift to the Syrian capital of Damascus.

In the period that followed, assassination bids against moderate PL.O. representatives increased sharply in Western Europe. The Abu Nidal organization began a series of assaults against Jordanian officials and diplomats and launched a spate of anti-Jewish rampages in European cities. In 1981 and 1982 they attacked synagogues in Vienna and Rome, and bombed Jo Goldenberg’s famed Paris restaurant and delicatessen.

Even though there is evidence that Abu Nidal’s headquarters is now in Libya and that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is picking up the estimated $14 million annual tab for Abu Nidal’s organization, some Western intelligence agencies note that the Fatah Revolutionary Council retains an office in Damascus as well as a training camp in Lebanon’s Syrian-dominated Bekaa Valley.

A major reason for the fog of uncertainty–and a mystique of invulnerability–that shrouds Abu Nidal is the unique structure of his terrorist group. He has continued to build upon a modus operandi that he began to develop years ago in the Sudan, where he attracted young, impassioned but inexperienced Palestinians to be the foot soldiers in his terrorist war. These days, youngsters such as Abdel Aziz Merzoughi and Ben Ahmed Chaoval, who survived the Vienna attack, are generally guided from behind the scenes by trained professional planners who handle strategy and logistics. No matter how many of the young gunmen are killed, the nucleus of Abu Nidal’s organization survives to strike again and again from the shadows. The grim challenge posed by terrorism’s renegade mastermind is that he will continue to break new and bloody ground, not only in his selection of victims but also in the use of innovative methods for managing his brutal enterprise. –By George Russell. Reported by David Halevy/Washing ton and Scott McLeod/Cairo

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com