Part of the secular, left-wing, Palestinian rejectionist front, so-called because they reject proposals for a peaceful settlement with Israel, the ANO was formed after a split in 1974 between Abu Nidal and Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Setting himself up as a freelance contractor, Abu Nidal is believed to have ordered attacks in 20 countries, killing or injuring over 900 people. The group's most notorious attacks were on the El Al ticket counters at Rome and Vienna airports in December 1985, when Arab gunmen doped on amphetamines opened fire on passengers in simultaneous shootings, killing 18 and wounding 120. Patrick Seale, Abu Nidal's biographer, wrote of the attacks that their "random cruelty marked them as typical Abu Nidal operations."
Abu Nidal died of between one and four gunshot wounds in Baghdad in August 2002, believed by Palestinian sources to have been killed on the orders of Saddam Hussein, but said by the Iraqi government to have committed suicide. The Guardian wrote on the news of his death: "He was the patriot turned psychopath. He served only ... the warped personal drives that pushed him into hideous crime. He was the ultimate mercenary."
Abu Nidal was born in May 1937 in the port of Jaffa, now part of Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean coast of what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. His father, Hajj Khalil al-Banna, was a wealthy merchant who made his money from the 6,000 acres (24 km²) of orange groves he owned, which extended from the south of Jaffa to Majdal, today Ashkelon in Israel. He raised his large family in luxury in a three-storey stone house with a large porch overlooking the beach, now used as an Israeli military court.
According to Abu Nidal's brother, Muhammad Khalil al-Banna, their father was the richest man in Palestine. He told journalist Yossi Melman:
[My father] marketed about ten percent of all the citrus crops sent from Palestine to Europe — especially to England and Germany. He owned a summer house in Marseilles, France, and another house in İskenderun, then in Syria and afterwards Turkey, and a number of houses in Palestine itself. Most of the time we lived in Jaffa. Our house had about twenty rooms, and we children would go down to swim in the sea. We also had stables with Arabian horses, and one of our homes in Ashkelon even had a large swimming pool. I think we must have been the only family in Palestine with a private swimming pool.
Al-Banna told Melman that the family also owned orchards in Majdal, Yavneh, Abu Kabir, and near the village of Tirah. The Ramat Hakovesh kibbutz contains a tract of land to this day called "the al-Banna orchard," he said. "Of course this used to belong to us. My brothers and I still preserve the documents showing our ownership of the property, even though we know full well that we and our children have no chance of getting it back.
Khalil's money meant he could afford to take several wives. According to Abu Nidal in a rare interview with Der Spiegel in 1985, his father had 13 wives, who gave birth to 16 sons and eight daughters. Abu Nidal's mother was the second wife, according to Abu Nidal's British biographer Patrick Seale, and the eighth, according to Melman. She had been one of the family's maids, a young Alawite girl just 16 years old when Khalil married her against the wishes of his family. She gave birth to Sabri, Khalil's 12th child. Because the family disapproved of the marriage, Abu Nidal was allegedly scorned from an early age by his older half-brothers and half-sisters.
Khalil sent him to Collège des Frères, a French Roman Catholic mission school in the Old Jaffa quarter, the records of which show he completed the first grade, according to the school keeper, although the school administration refuses to allow journalists to view them. However, when Khalil died in 1945, when Abu Nidal was seven years old, the family turned his mother out of the house. The older brothers, more devout Muslims than the father had been, took Abu Nidal out of the mission school and enrolled him in a Muslim school in Jerusalem, now known as al-Umaria, at the time one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. He attended the school for about two years.
Seale suggests that Abu Nidal's unhappy childhood, and the early loss of both his father and mother, explains his difficult personality, described by journalists as psychopathic and paranoid, and as "chaotic" by Abu Iyad, the late deputy chief of Fatah. Issam Sartawi, the late Palestinian heart surgeon, called him a psychopath whose mental world was one of plots and counterplots, which was later reflected in his tyrannical leadership of the ANO, trusting no one, and at one point suspecting even his own wife of working for the CIA.
On the outset of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Jaffa found itself under siege. Life became unbearable, according to Melman, and the disruption of the citrus fruit business hit the family's income. Booby-trapped cars were exploding in the center of Jaffa and there were food shortages. The al-Banna family had had good relations with the Jewish community. Abu Nidal's brother told Melman: "My father was a close friend of Avraham Shapira, one of the founders of Hashomer, the Jewish self-defense organization. He would visit [Shapira] in his home in Petah Tikva, or Shapira riding his horse would visit our home in Jaffa. I also remember how we visited Dr. Weizmann [who became the first president of Israel] in his home in Rehovot." It was war, however, and the relationships didn't help them.
The family fled Jaffa and moved into their house near Majdal, intending to be away from Jaffa for only a few days, but the Jewish militias arrived in Majdal too, and they had to flee again. This time they ended up in the al-Burj refugee camp in Gaza, then under the control of Egypt. There the family spent nine months living in tents, dependent on UNRWA for their weekly allowance of oil, rice, and potatoes. The experience had a powerful effect on Abu Nidal, who was used to wealth and servants, but who now found himself living in abject poverty.
The family's skill in commerce, and the small amount of money they had managed to take with them, meant they were able to set themselves up in business again as merchants, although the orange groves had gone, now part of the new State of Israel, which had declared its independence on May 14, 1948. They decided to move to Nablus in the West Bank, then ruled by Jordan, where Abu Nidal spent his teenage years. He completed elementary school and graduated from high school in 1955. Melman writes that he loved reading, particularly adventure stories, and was regarded as studious, although not particularly bright. Seale writes that his education was elementary and his childish handwriting a source of great embarrassment to him throughout his life. He applied to study engineering at Cairo University, but returned to Nablus after two years without a degree, although he would later describe himself as having one, part of his constant embellishment of his past, according to Melman.
He joined the Arab nationalist Ba'ath party when he was 18, but King Hussein of Jordan closed the party down in 1957. Abu Nidal made his way to Saudi Arabia, where in 1960 he set himself up as a painter and electrician in Riyadh, according to Seale, or Jedda, according to Melman, and later went on to work as a casual laborer for Aramco.
Abu Nidal remained very close to his mother and returned to Nablus from Saudi Arabia every year to visit her. During one of those visits in 1962, he met his future wife, Hiyam al-Bitar, whose family had also fled from Jaffa. They had a son, Nidal, and two daughters, Bisan and Na'ifa. Decades later, in the 1980s, he boasted that his daughter Bisan had no idea he was Abu Nidal.
He moved to Amman, Jordan, setting up a trading company called Impex, and joining the Fatah underground, where he was asked to choose a nom de guerre. He chose Abu Nidal, in part after his son, Nidal — it's a custom in the Arab world for men to call themselves "father of" (Abu), followed by their first son's name — but also because the name means "father of the struggle." He was described by those who knew him at the time as a tidy, well-organized leader, not a guerrilla; during skirmishes in Jordan between the fedayeen and King Hussein's troops, he stayed indoors, according to Seale, never leaving his office.
Impex soon became a front for Fatah activities, serving as a meeting place for members and as a conduit for funds with which to pay them. This was to become a hallmark of Abu Nidal's business career. Companies controlled by the ANO served to make him a rich man by engaging in legitimate business deals, while acting as cover for his political violence and his multi-million-dollar arms deals, mercenary activities, and protection rackets.
Seeing his talent for organization, Abu Iyad appointed him in 1968 as the Fatah representative in Khartoum, Sudan, then to the same position in Baghdad in July 1970, just two months before Black September, when King Hussein's army drove the fedayeen out of Jordan, with the loss of between 5,000 and 10,000 Palestinian lives in just ten days. Abu Nidal's absence from Jordan during this period, where it was clear that King Hussein was about to act against the Palestinians, raised the suspicion within the movement that he intended only to save his own skin.
Shortly after King Hussein expelled the fedayeen, Abu Nidal began broadcasting criticism of the PLO over Voice of Palestine, the PLO's own radio station in Iraq, accusing them of cowardice for having agreed to a ceasefire with Hussein, and during Fatah's Third Congress in Damascus in 1971, Abu Nidal emerged as the leader of a leftist alliance against Arafat. Together with Abu Daoud (one of Fatah's most ruthless commanders, who was later involved in the 1972 Black September kidnapping and killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Village in Munich) and Palestinian intellectual Naji Allush, Abu Nidal called for Arafat to be overthrown as an enemy of the Palestinian people, and demanded more democracy within Fatah, as well as violent revenge against King Hussein. Seale writes that it was the last Fatah congress Abu Nidal would attend, but he had made his mark.
Abu Nidal's first operation took place on September 5, 1973, when five gunmen, using the name Al-Iqab (The Punishment), seized the Saudi embassy in Paris, taking 11 hostages and threatening to blow up the building if Abu Dawud was not released from jail in Jordan, where he had been arrested in February 1973 for an attempt on King Hussein's life. In Algiers that same day, 56 heads of state had gathered for the 4th conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Patrick Seale writes that Iraq's president, Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, was jealous of Algeria for hosting it, and so Abu Nidal was commissioned to sabotage the proceedings with the distraction of a high-level hostage situation. Seale writes that one of the hostage-takers later admitted that his orders had been to fly the hostages back and forth until the NAM conference had ended. After a three-day siege and the intervention of the PLO, the gunmen surrendered, though not before the Kuwaiti government had agreed to pay King Hussein $12 million in exchange for Abu Dawud, according to an interview the latter gave to Seale. Although the media blamed the attack on Black September, a Fatah front, Melman writes that Abu Nidal had carried out the operation without the permission of Abu Iyad, Arafat's deputy, who acted as the liaison between Fatah and Black September. Far from having given it the go-ahead, Abu Iyad and Mahmoud Abbas — now president of the Palestinian National Authority — flew to Iraq to reason with Abu Nidal that operations such as these harmed the movement, Abu Iyad later condemning it as "illogical adventurism." According to Seale, the Iraqi government made it clear that the idea for the operation had been theirs. Abu Iyad told Seale that an Iraqi official at the meeting said: "Why are you attacking Abu Nidal? The operation was ours! We asked him to mount it for us." Abbas was so angry, writes Seale, that he stormed out of the meeting, followed by the other PLO delegates, and from that point on, the PLO regarded Abu Nidal as a mercenary.
Two months later, just after the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, during discussions about convening a peace conference in Geneva, the ANO hijacked a KLM airliner, using the name the Arab Nationalist Youth Organization. The operation was intended to send a signal to Fatah not to send representatives to any peace conference. In response, Arafat expelled Abu Nidal from Fatah in March 1974, and the rift between the two groups, and the two men, was complete.
By all accounts, the ANO reflected Abu Nidal's paranoid and possibly psychopathic personality, more of a mercenary group willing to act on behalf of diverse interests, than one guided by political principle. A variety of names were used as cover for different operations:
Abu Nidal originally chose the name Black June for the group, in order to mark his disapproval of the 1976 Syrian intervention in Lebanon in support of the Christians, but changed it to Fatah-Revolutionary Council when he switched bases from Iraq to Syria in 1981. The group is now most commonly referred to as the Abu Nidal Organization or Abu Nidal group.
As'ad Abu Khalil writes in the Encyclopedia of the Palestinians that the group was based on terror and intimidation, with members not being allowed to leave once recruited, and everyone living under suspicion of being a double agent. The ANO's official newspaper Filastin al-Thawra regularly carried stories announcing the execution of traitors within the movement. According to The Sunday Times, Abu Nidal even came to believe that his own wife worked for the CIA.
Each new recruit was given several days to write out his entire life story by hand, including names and addresses of family members, friends, and lovers, then was required to sign a paper saying he agreed to be executed if anything was found to be untrue. Every so often, the recruit would be asked to rewrite the whole thing; any discrepancies were taken as evidence that he was a spy, probably for Israel or Arafat, and he would be asked to write it out again, often after days of being beaten and nights spent forced to sleep standing up.
By 1987, Abu Nidal had turned the full force of his terror tactics inwards on the ANO itself. Members were tortured until they confessed to betrayal and disloyalty. According to recruits who were able to escape, victims were buried alive, fed through a tube forced into their mouths, then finally killed by a bullet fired down the tube. Some had their genitals placed in skillets of boiling-hot oil.
There were several mass purges. During one night in November 1987, 170 members were tied up, blindfolded, machine-gunned, and buried in a mass grave. Another 160 met the same fate in Libya shortly afterwards.
Abu Nidal started his move from Syria to Libya in the summer of 1986. He was persona non grata in Syria as a result of his operations, which brought embarrassment and danger to the Syrian government. His own operations apart, Abu Nidal was taking credit for operations he had nothing to do with, adding to Syria's unease. Seale writes that Abu Nidal claimed responsibility for the Provisional IRA's attempted assassination of Margaret Thatcher and much of the cabinet of the United Kingdoms' government in the Brighton hotel bombing in November 1984. He did the same in March 1986 when the PFLP assassinated Zafir al-Masri, the mayor of Nablus. When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, he published a congratulatory note in his magazine and ordered sweets to be distributed to the ANO membership, leading the new recruits to think he had a hand in the disaster.
His move to Libya was completed by March 1987. Settling in Tripoli, Abu Nidal and Libya's leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, allegedly became great friends, Gaddafi sharing what The Sunday Times called "Abu Nidal's dangerous combination of an inferiority complex mixed with the belief that he was a man of great destiny." It was a relationship that Gaddafi and Abu Nidal both made good use of. Abu Nidal had a steady sponsor, while Gaddafi had a mercenary in place for any operations Libyan intelligence could not carry out directly.
Seale reports that Libya brought out the worst in Abu Nidal; whereas before he had been dictatorial, in Libya, he became a tyrant. He would not allow members to socialize with each other; all meetings between members had to be reported to him, the prohibition applying to even the most senior members. An unreported meeting could mean death. He ordered all passports to be handed over to him. No one was allowed to travel without his permission. Ordinary members were not allowed to have a telephone; the leadership were allowed to make local calls only. Anyone traveling overseas had to stay away from duty-free stores; even the purchase of a bar of chocolate at an airport could lead to trouble. Seale writes that the pettiness was Abu Nidal's way of consolidating his power through humiliation. His members did not know where he lived, knew nothing about his daily life. If he wanted to entertain a guest, he would commandeer the home of another member, whose wife was expected to cook and serve the meal at short notice.
It was with the help of Libyan intelligence, while still living in Syria, that Abu Nidal carried out his most spectacular operation, and the one most damaging to the PLO. The Syrian government allegedly had no knowledge of the operation. At 08:15 GMT on December 27, 1985, four gunmen approached Israel's El Al ticket counter at the Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport in Rome, and opened fire, killing 16 people and wounding 99 others. A few minutes later, in Vienna International Airport, three men threw hand grenades at passengers waiting to check-in to a flight to Tel Aviv, killing two and wounding 39. Austria and Italy were the two European countries with the closest ties to the PLO, and both governments were actively involved at the time of the attacks in trying to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together for peace talks. The PLO believed that the object of the attacks was to force Austria and Italy to sever ties with the Palestinians.
Seale writes that the gunmen were "Palestinian youngsters, the bitter products of refugee camps, who had been brainwashed into throwing away their lives ..." The gunmen had been told to throw their grenades and open fire blindly at the check-in counter and that the people they saw there in civilian clothes would be Israeli pilots returning from a training mission. A former close aide of Abu Nidal told Seale that originally Frankfurt had been part of the operation too. The man who organized the attacks was the ANO's head of the Intelligence Directorate's Committee for Special Missions, Dr. Ghassan al-Ali. Sources close to Abu Nidal said that Libyan intelligence had supplied the weapons. The Libyan news agency hailed the attacks as "heroic operations carried out by the sons of the martyrs of Sabra and Shatila."
The damage to the PLO was enormous, according to Abu Iyad, Arafat's deputy. Most people in the West and even many Arabs could not distinguish between the ANO and Fatah, he said. "In their minds, all Palestinians are guilty."
Abu Nidal then allegedly suggested to Senussi that an aircraft be hijacked or blown up. On September 5, 1986, an ANO team hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 at Karachi Airport on its way from Bombay to New York. The gunmen held the hostages, 389 passengers and crew, for 16 hours in the plane on the tarmac before shooting and detonating grenades inside the dark cabin. Someone was able to open an emergency door, and passengers covered in blood tumbled down the vinyl chute; 16 died and over 100 were wounded. British media reported in March 2004 (days after Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Tripoli) that Libya was behind the hijacking. Pakistani media, as reported by South Asia Tribune, said that one of the hijackers in Adiala jail, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim al-Fahid, had confirmed the Sunday Times story (via his counsel). Al-Fahid said that the Libyan leader Gaddafi "masterminded the attack" and "he had taken the responsibility of executing the hijacking at the behest of Colonel Gaddafi."
In August 1987, Abu Nidal tried again to hijack a plane, this time using an unwitting bomb mule to carry a bomb on board a flight from Belgrade, airline unknown, but the bomb failed to explode.
Allegedly angered by this failure, according to Abu Bakr, Senussi told Abu Nidal to supply a bomb and Libyan intelligence would arrange for it to be placed on a flight. Abu Bakr told Al Hayatt that the flight that was chosen, was Pan Am Flight 103, the scheduled Pan Am evening service between Frankfurt and New York via London. On December 21, 1988, it exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, when a bomb was detonated in its forward cargo hold, killing all 259 passengers and crew, and 11 people in the town. On January 31, 2001, a Scottish court convicted Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the former head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, for his role in the attack. The allegations of an Abu Nidal link had not been made by the time of the trial and remain unconfirmed. In June 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission granted Megrahi leave to appeal against his conviction on the grounds that he may have been a victim of a miscarriage of justice. The appeal is expected to be heard in 2008 by the Court of Criminal Appeal.
The Sandstorm report showed that the manager of the Sloane Street branch of BCCI, near Harrods, had passed information about the Abu Nidal accounts to MI5, and had told them Abu Nidal himself had visited London using the name Shakir Farhan; the manager did not realize who he was dealing with until he later saw a photograph of Abu Nidal. The manager reportedly drove Abu Nidal round London's most expensive stores, including Selfridges, a tailor's on Oxford Street, and a cigar store on Jermyn Street.
When Lord Justice Bingham completed his 1992 public inquiry into the closure of BCCI, he wrote a secret 30-page appendix, called Appendix 8, about the role of the intelligence services. The appendix shows that MI5 had learned in 1987 that Abu Nidal had been using a company called SAS Trade and Investment in Warsaw as a cover for ANO business deals, with the company director, Samir Najmeddin based in Baghdad. All SAS's deals went through BCCI in Sloane Street, and consisted largely of selling guns, night-vision goggles, and armored Mercedes-Benz cars with concealed grenade launchers, each deal often worth tens of millions of dollars, the finance consisting of misleading letters of credit arranged by the Sloane Street branch of BCCI.
Bank records showed ANO arms transactions with many Middle Eastern countries as well as with East Germany. There was no shortage of European and American clients willing to sell equipment, including British companies, one of which unwittingly sold the ANO riot guns it believed were intended for an African state, though documents show half the shipment went to East Germany and half was kept by Abu Nidal. From 1987 until the bank was closed in 1991, British intelligence and the CIA monitored these transactions, rather than freezing them and arresting the ANO operatives and the suppliers.
On August 19, 2002, al-Ayyam, the official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority, reported that Abu Nidal had died three days earlier of multiple gunshot wounds in his home in the wealthy al-Masbah neighborhood of al-Jadriyah, Baghdad, where the villa he lived in was owned by the Mukhabarat, or Iraqi secret service.
Iraq's chief of intelligence, Taher Jalil Habbush, held a press conference on August 21, 2002, at which he handed out photographs of Abu Nidal's bloodied body, along with a medical report purportedly showing he had died after a single bullet had entered his mouth and exited his skull. Habbush said that Iraq's internal security force had arrived at Abu Nidal's house to arrest him on suspicion of conspiring with the Kuwaiti and Saudi governments to bring down Saddam Hussein. Saying he needed a change of clothes, Abu Nidal went into his bedroom and shot himself in the mouth, Habbush said. He died eight hours later in intensive care. He is known to have been suffering from leukemia.
Other sources disagree about the cause of death. Palestinian sources told journalists that Abu Nidal had in fact died of multiple gunshot wounds. Marie Colvin and Sonya Murad, writing in The Sunday Times, say that he was assassinated by a hit squad of 30 men from Office 8, the Iraqi Mukhabarat assassination unit. Jane's reported that Iraqi intelligence had been following him for several months and had found classified documents in his home about a U.S. attack on Iraq. When they arrived to raid his house on August 14 (not August 16, according to Jane's), fighting broke out between Abu Nidal's men and Iraqi intelligence. In the midst of this, Abu Nidal rushed into his bedroom and was killed, though Jane's writes it remains unclear whether he killed himself or was killed by someone else. Jane's sources insist that his body bore several gunshot wounds.
Jane's suggests that Saddam Hussein may have ordered him arrested and killed because he regarded Abu Nidal as a mercenary who would have acted against him in the event of an American invasion, if the money had been right.