Skip links

Abu Nidal – The Sooner the Better

Recent reports concerning the reappearance in an Egyptian hospital of Sabri el-Bana–better known by his trade name, “Abu-Nidal”–has once more brought into the spotlight the matter of the many terrorist leaders still walking around free. It would seem that this time Abu Nidal may not succeed in eluding his pursuers.

With all the international media attention being focused on Osama bin Ladin, these days, it should be remembered that Abu Nidal attracted the same kind of attention ten years ago for his murderous terror activity.

Abu Nidal was for many years the symbol of international terrorism. His organization, built in his own image, operated under his sole control and authority. It carreid out indiscriminate attacks against targets of opportunity, as dictated by political or economic gain, or by order of Abu Nidal’s patrons of the moment.

The organization’s first activities as an independent entity began in 1973 with its split from Arafat’s Fatah organization, on the background of personal and ideological disagreements. Sabri al-Bana opposed any deviation from the way of military struggle against Israel. True to his doctrine of violence his “Fatah Revolutionary Council” under various assumed names, perpetrated a long series of spectacular terror attacks. Ironically, for an organization whose aim is the destruction of Israel, the great majority of his activity–over fifty percent–was directed against Arab and Palestinian rivals. His hit list of PLO officials included its representatives in various western capitals in UK, Italy, Belgium, Greece, France and against some prominent “pragmatic” figures such as Issam Sirtawi, Saaid Hamami and above all el Bana’s Bitter opponent, Abu Iyad, Arafat’s second in command.

The official representatives of Arab countries suffered his long murderous attentions as well. At the top of the list were Jordanians. Between 1983 and 1985, the ANO operated against Jordanian representatives (mainly diplomats) in India, Turkey, Romania, Greece and Italy. The Gulf States, mainly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and The United Arab Emirates were attacked because they were late in paying him protection money–funds exacted in return for the promise of the ANO to refrain from terrorist activity on their soil or against their interests abroad. One of these countries paid a heavy price for defying this demand when ANO blew up a “Gulf Air” airplane, killing all passengers and crewmembers.

Several times during his career, Abu Nidal switched patron states. Initially he enjoyed the support Iraq, under whose direction, he carried out terror attacks against the rival Syrian Baath regime. When Iraq, came under American pressure during the Iran-Iraq war to end its support of the ANO, Sabri el Bana evacuated his headquarters and offices and moved to Damascus, whose officials had only recently been among his victims.

Under the auspices of Syria (from 1983-86) the ANO worked to disrupt the initial attempts at rapprochement between Israel and some of the Arab countries, particularly Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinians.

The ANO reached its peak in the Mid-Eighties, when his people carried out several dozen terrorist attacks. Some of these were uniquely lethal, e.g. the hijacking of “Egypt Air” hijacking to Malta in which 59 people were killed.

Following the exposure of Syria’s direct involvement in international terrorism due to the “Hindawi case” (a plan to blow up El AL plane in Heathrow airport by an unwitting Irish woman under Syrian direction), the ANO had to pay the price of the Syrian “atonement.” Abu Nidal removed to Libya in 1987. As one of the predominant state sponsors of international terrorism, Libya welcomed the ANO with open arms, and quickly found a use for Abu Nidal’s special skills.

When we filter out attacks against Israeli interests from the list of the totally of the ANO’s attacks, we find the list to be quite short. Surprisingly, ANO started to operate against Israeli targets relatively late. Abu Nidal’s first attacks against Israeli interests were directed at less protected Jewish targets in Spain, Belgium and Austria (1980-81). His most conspicuous operation was aimed at the Israeli ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov. The ambassador was seriously wounded in the attack, which served as the pretext for the “Peace for Galilee Operation.” Later, the ANO continued and increased its attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets, such as the attacks at the Rome & Vienna airports (1985), the attack on the Istanbul “Neve Shalom” synagogue (September 1986) which resulted in 22 dead and the failed attack against the Israeli embassy in Cyprus (May 1988).

The sanctions imposed on Libya by the UN Security Council in 1992, as a result of the Pan Am flight 103 investigation forced Libya to act to prevent any international activity from being launched by the terrorist organizations under its auspices–primarily the ANO. This, together with the outbreak of internal conflicts within the organization–conflicts that resulted in an estimated couple of hundred casualties–and the desertion of the same number of members from the organization crippled its ability to operate as freely as in the past. In recent years the ANO has all but vanished from the terrorist scene. Abu Nidal’s last operations included the assassination of a Jordanian diplomat in Lebanon in 1994, the elimination of two of his own members in Lebanon for embezzlement (1997) and the alleged assassination of the Egyptian fundamentalist, Sheik Moutaleb in Yemen in July of this year. The ANO also made a number of public threats against the Arab participants of an international economic convention in Abu Dabi attended by an official Israeli delegation. The ANO was particularly critical of King Hussein’s role in the rapprochement with Israel.

The ANO’s sharp decrease is more striking against the backdrop of the sharp rise of the Sunni fundamentalist terrorist organizations on the current international scene.

However the apprehension of Abu Nidal in Egypt would be an outstanding achievement in the fight against international terrorism, and must end with him being tried publicly for the many atrocities for which he was responsible. This would be a notable addition to other successes in bringing to trial notorious “fossil terrorists” in recent years. Thus, France brought Carlos to trial at the end of 1997 for his terrorist activity against its citizens in 1975. In 1998 the United States succeeded in bringing to trial Mohammed Rashid, a Palestinian terrorist who planted a bomb on a Pan Am flight in 1982. In Lebanon several “Japanese Red Army” terrorists were sentenced in 1997.

There is a lesson in all of this, despite this positive trend. Evidently the ease of capture of these veteran Arch-terrorists was a direct result of the indifference of the sponsoring states to the fate of their former charges. Today the states that sponsor terrorism have adopted other, more fashionable terror organizations and leaders (such as Bin Ladin and his associates). It’s all a matter of the changing interests on the part of the sponsoring states.

If the Western world–under the leadership of the United States–is to effectively combat international terrorism, it must unite in an international coalition and act in cooperation to force the sponsoring states to withdraw their active support of terrorists. Among the possible steps that can be taken are concrete actions such as the arrest and expulsion of terrorists from their “safe heavens” and their extradition to their home countries or to states where they carried out their attacks. The Western countries must if necessary threaten to impose international sanctions on those states that defy such steps–as was done in the case of Libya after the investigation into the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster implicated its agents in the incident.

After 30 years of international terrorist activity, it is quite clear that only concerted international effort against terrorists–and particularly against their sponsoring states–can bring about a significant decline of international terrorism. It is necessary to arrest the contemporary terrorist leaders, such as Osama bin Laden and Imad Moughania, now, while they are in their prime, and not wait until they have become “fossils.” If this is not done many lives will be lost over the next decade or two before these men are finally tracked down and brought to trial.