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The Iraqi Regime’s Links to Terrorism

Reprinted with permission from Policywatch, Analysis of Near East Policy from the Scholars and Associates of the Washington Institute.
On August 28, 2002, a U.S. federal grand jury issued a new indictment against five terrorists from the Fatah Revolutionary Command, also known as the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), for the 1986 hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi, Pakistan. Based on “aggravating circumstances,” prosecutors are now seeking the death penalty for the attack, in which twenty-two people — including two Americans — were killed.

The leader of the ANO, the infamous Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal (Sabri al-Banna), died violently last week in Baghdad. But his death is not as extraordinary as the subsequent press conference given by Iraqi intelligence chief Taher Jalil Haboush. This press conference was the first time Haboush’s name has appeared in the international media since February 2001.

Iraqi Objectives

What could possibly have motivated the Iraqi regime to send one of its senior exponents to announce the suicide of Abu Nidal and to present crude photographs of his bloodied body four days (or eight days, according to some sources) after his death? It should be noted that the earliest information about Nidal’s death came from al-Ayyam, a Palestinian daily close to Abu Nidal’s bitterest enemy — the Palestinian Authority.At this sensitive moment in U.S.-Iraqi relations, Abu Nidal could have provided extraordinarily damaging testimony with regard to Saddam’s involvement in international terrorism, even beyond Iraqi support of ANO activities in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In publicizing Nidal’s death, the regime may have a number of motives, such as:

# An attempt to present itself as fighting terrorism, by announcing that Iraqi authorities were attempting to detain Abu Nidal for interrogation in the moments before his death. “As is known to both friends and enemies, Iraq’s record on the issue of terrorism and disrupting security, whether pan-Arab or foreign, is clean. Iraq is not involved with these practices,” claimed the Iraqi chief of intelligence, who also informed reporters that Abu Nidal was expelled from Baghdad in 1983 after the regime “learned that [he] was engaged in activities that harm the Iraqi national security and the Arab national security.” He omitted to mention that from 1974 to 1983 the ANO waged an intensive terrorist war against its perceived enemies from its headquarters in Baghdad. These enemies included Syria (Abu Nidal twice attempted to assassinate Abdul Halim Khaddam, the Syrian foreign minister at the time; Fatah, several of whose representatives in Europe were murdered; Jewish interests, such as synagogues in Vienna, Rome, and Brussels, a Jewish school in Antwerp, and a Jewish restaurant in Paris; Jordan several of whose diplomats were killed; and Israel. Abu Nidal’s attempt on the life of the Israeli ambassador in London, whom ANO assassins wounded was the event that triggered the war in Lebanon. And this is only a partial list. (see below for some of ANO’s attacks.)

* The desire to send a signal to internal elements who might be tempted to cooperate with the United States and the Gulf kingdoms in a war against Iraq. The implied message is that Abu Nidal’s fate was sealed because of his alleged contacts with an unnamed foreign country against Iraqi interests (possibly Saudi or Kuwaiti intelligence agents).

* An attempt to convince the world that Abu Nidal had not been given shelter and safe haven in Iraq since 1999, but rather had entered the country illegally. Iraqi security forces were apparently “unable to trace him,” although some Arab states had informed Iraqi authorities of his presence at the time.

Iraqi Support for Terrorism

Abu Nidal was known to be living in Iraq in 2001, when Jordan’s state security court sentenced him to death by hanging, along with four of his followers, for his role in the January 1994 assassination of a Jordanian diplomat in Beirut (the last known terrorist attack by the ANO. Iraqi authorities refused to extradite him to Jordan. Nor has Iraq made any attempt to punish Abu Nidal for the numerous Americans, British and French citizens, and other nationals injured or killed in ANO attacks over the years.

In an interesting side note, Abu Nidal’s former spokesman, Atef Abu Baker, has claimed in an interview with al-Hayat that Abu Nidal was responsible for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Abu Baker claims that Abu Nidal himself informed ANO leaders of his responsibility for the bombing (Nidal was living in Libya at the time). This statement contradicts verdict reached in the Lockerbie trial and has received some publicity in Europe. Nevertheless, it appears to be merely a cheap attempt to dismiss Libyan involvement in the bombing.

The death of Abu Nidal, and its announcement by the Iraqi intelligence chief appear to be part of another disinformation campaign by Iraqi intelligence. The most recent skirmish of that campaign was in May of this year, when Iraqi authorities granted permission for CBS reporter Lesley Stahl to interview the only participant in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing not in prison. Abdul Rahman Yasin was indicted for the bombing, but later escaped to Iraq. Stahl also interviewed Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, who claimed that Yasin had been in prison in Iraq since 1994. Aziz asserted that Iraq had offered to hand Yasin over to the United States in 1994 and later in October 2001, in order to prove that Iraq was not involved in the 1993 bombing. The Americans refused, Aziz stated. A U.S. intelligence official was quoted by CBS as saying that the Iraqis failed in their attempt to have the Americans sign a document confirming Yasin’s whereabouts since 1993; apparently, U.S. officials did not agree with the Iraqi version of the facts.

Another example of Iraq’s providing safe haven to a known terrorist leader is the case of Abu al-Abbas (Mahmoud Abbas), secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF). Abbas was responsible for the October 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, and the killing of elderly disabled passenger Leon Klinghoffer, an American citizen. In 1998, within the framework of the Oslo agreements, Israel permitted Abbas to return to the Gaza Strip. Fearing an extradition request by the United States, he chose the confines of Baghdad instead.

In October 2000, with the outbreak of the current Palestinian intifada, Abbas announced on Iraqi television that the PLF would resume confrontations with Israel; this, following the “call made by President Saddam Hussein to open the door for volunteering [which] is an order to fight for us.” Iraq recruited and trained PLF activists in Iraqi camps and equipped them with weapons, which they then used to carry out terrorist attacks in Haifa (April 2001) and the West Bank (July 2001). In July 2001, Mohammed Kandil, a Palestinian from the West Bank, was arrested upon the discovery that he was recruited by Iraqi intelligence in order to build a terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank. Apparently, his operational plans included infiltrating Ben Gurion International Airport with a car bomb.

Lately, Iraq has also revived its proxy organization, the Arab Liberation Front (ALF), with the specific mission of encouraging suicide operations against Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. One of ALF’s leaders, al-Hajj Rateb al-Amleh, is responsible for providing material support to the families of Palestinian suicide terrorists. This support has included public events at which the presentation of $25,000 Iraqi checks payable to the families of “martyrs” is used to glorify Saddam Hussein and encourage solidarity between the Iraqi regime and the Palestinian people against their common “Zionist” and “imperialist” enemies.


It is ironic to read news articles with titles such as “Saddam Cuts Off Terror Links Following Abu Nidal’s Death.” The crude lies that the Iraqi chief of intelligence has proffered to the media constitute yet another attempt of the Saddam regime to hide its past — and possibly present — involvement in international terrorism. It took the United States five years to unearth juridical evidence connecting Iranian intelligence agents and the Lebanese Hizballah with the Khobar Towers bombing, even though the information had been available in 1996 at the beginning of the investigation. Notwithstanding this evidence, no political or military action followed. Hopefully, the terrorist nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime and its belligerent ambitions will beaddressed more seriously and swiftly.

Partial list of Western victims of ANO attacks:

* Two terrorists machine-gunned the Jewish “Goldenberg” restaurant in the heart of Paris, killing two Americans (Grace Cutler, 66 and Ann Van Zanten, 31) and 4 French and wounding another 22 people;

* March 28, 1984, Kenneth Whitty, British Embassy cultural attaché was assassinated by a lone gunman in Athens;

* November 26, 1984 a lone gunman shot Percy Norris, Britain’s deputy high commissioner in India;

* July 1985, bombing of the building housing the offices of TWA and British Airways in Madrid (an American and two British Airways employees were injured);

* September 1985, grenade attack on a poolside recreation area at Hotel Glifadha, in an Athens suburb (18 deaf British tourists injured);

* September 1985, bombing of the British Airways office in Rome (one British Airways employee killed);

* November 1985, hijacking of Egyptair flight from Athens to Malta (the passengers included 30 Egyptians, 21 Filipinois, 17 Greeks, three Americans, three Canadians, two Israelis, two French, two Australians, two Mexicans, two Moroccans, one Ghanaian, one Spaniard, one Belgian, and one Tunisian. Six passengers, including an Israeli woman and two Americans, Jackie Nick and Scarlett Rogenkams were executed before an Egyptian commando stormed the plane. 61 people were killed in this event);

* December 1985, four ANO terrorists attacked the El-Al check-in counter at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport (of the 13 people killed in the attack, five were Americans: Donald Maland, 30, Natasha Sophie Simpson, 11, John Buonocore, 20, Frederick K. Gage, 29, and Elena Tommarello, 67. Seventy-three people were wounded, including 12 Americans};

* July 11, 1988, machinegun and grenade attack on the “City of Poros,” a Greek ferryboat carrying 471 tourists in the Aegean Sea, killing eight (four French citizens, a Greek officer, a Danish tourist; a Swedish woman, an Hungarian) and injuring 98.