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Jewish World Review August 21, 2002 / 13 Elul, 5762

Michael Ledeen

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Consumer Reports

Life and death of Abu Nidal tells us a great deal about our enemies | The news that the infamous terrorist chieftain Abu Nidal was found shot to death in his home in Baghdad floated through the news Monday with little comment. This is doubly unfortunate, both because he was a major actor on the world stage — in many ways the most interesting of the terrorist leaders — and because his life and perhaps his death tell us a great deal about our enemies.

Abu Nidal is usually portrayed (falsely, as it turns out) as a nutty extremist who broke off from Yasser Arafat's PLO to create his own, more violent organization. He was the evil force behind some of the worst terror assaults of the mid-Eighties, including the bloodbaths at the Rome and Vienna airports, and the gunning down of disloyal Arabs in the Middle East and Western Europe. By the end of 1985, most students of terrorism considered him the most lethal terrorist, and he was the prime target of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center in those years.

This was a mighty challenge, because Abu Nidal himself was extremely paranoid, and his followers were subjected to endless security checks. Members of the organization spied on one another, and the slightest deviation from routine was punished, often by death. How to penetrate such an organization?

The CIA's Duane Clarridge wisely decided that penetration could not succeed, and he undertook to destroy it from the outside. Clarridge and his associates were able to assemble an amazingly complete picture of the Abu Nidal gang, and then waged psychological warfare against him. They repeatedly approached his agents and offered to pay them to work for the United States. They publicly exposed the names of his commercial intermediaries and bankers. All this took a terrible toll. As Clarridge later described it in his memoir, A Spy for All Seasons:

...Those who reported having been approached by us were not rewarded for their loyalty, because Abu Nidal never quite believed that anyone in his group had turned us down. Their loyalty was suspect thereafter, and the punishment for disloyalty was torture and death.

By 1987, a fearful Abu Nidal had turned his terror campaign inward...Accused followers were tortured to confess, then executed on the basis of that confession...Over three hundred hard-core operatives were murdered (in Lebanon) on Abu Nidal's order. On a single night in November 1987, approximately 170 were tied up and blindfolded, machine-gunned, and pushed into a trench prepared for the occasion. Another 160 or so were killed in Libya shortly thereafter...Abu Nidal's paranoia, fed by our crusade against him, caused him to destroy his organization.

Those gunned down got merciful deaths compared to those who were subjected to the ghastly tortures of Abu Nidal. Victims were routinely buried alive, fed through a tube lodged in their mouths, and finally executed by a single bullet fired through the feeding tube. Still others had their sexual organs placed in skillets full of boiling oil.

Even afterwards, Abu Nidal remained a force to be reckoned with — his organization reached as far as the United States. His American sleeper network was discovered by the CIA and put under round-the-clock surveillance by the FBI. It surfaced in one of the most spectacular events of the late Eighties. One of Nidal's agents was a Palestinian who had moved from the West Bank to St. Louis, Missouri, where he raised three daughters. Having grown up in the United States, the girls had the usual headstrong independence of young American women, and often rebelled against their severe father. One of them started dating a black man, which drove her father into a frenzy, and one night he stabbed her to death. The entire scene was recorded by FBI bugging devices, and the tape was presented to local prosecutors. This exposed (and thereby wrecked) the FBI operation and documented the presence of the Abu Nidal Organization in the United States.

In the Nineties, plagued by poor health and operationally weakened by his suicidal actions against his own organization, Abu Nidal became a secondary figure in the Olympus of international terror. But he remained a player nonetheless, and toward the end of the decade he settled down in Baghdad, where he had maintained close ties with the Iraqi intelligence service since the early 1970s. American intelligence analysts trying to fit together the pieces of the terror network, kept running into the Abu Nidal Organization at crucial linkage points, such as the notorious Palestinian camps in Lebanon, from the Nahr al-Barel camp in Tripoli, to Ein al-Hilweh in Sidon. These camps have long been used for training and planning meetings among the leading terrorist groups, from Islamic Jihad to Hezbollah and, more recently al Qaeda (after the debacle in Afghanistan, many al Qaeda terrorists and leaders relocated to Lebanon, thanks in part to Hezbollah).

It may well be that the Abu Nidal Organization still serves as a significant hub for the terrorist groups, and as a conduit between the terrorist groups and Saddam's intelligence apparatus in Baghdad. There is one suggestive link to the September 11 attacks, for one of the suicide terrorists — Ziyad Samir Al-Jarrah — lived for five years in Germany with a relative named Assem Al-Jarrah. Assem suddenly left Germany two months before September 11, and it seems that he had long served as a STASI agent, liaising with the Abu Nidal Organization. To date, Assem has not been found, despite international efforts to locate him.

The odds are that we will not know anything approaching the full role of Abu Nidal until after we have won the war against the terror masters, and even then some details will undoubtedly remain unknown. Even his death was typically mysterious. According to the Associated Press, Nidal's body was found in his Baghdad home with several bullet wounds.

Early accounts suggested he had committed suicide, but apparently the notion that he had missed several times, and just kept blasting away at his body until he hit a vital point was too fanciful even for the Middle East.

But we do know something else about Abu Nidal, which we will do well to remember as we grapple with prospects for a Middle East "peace." Although he was universally considered to be a mortal enemy of Yasser Arafat (Fatah passed a death sentence on him in the Seventies), there is good reason to believe that this was a monumental deception. According to Ion Mihai Pacepa, the former acting chief of the Romanian intelligence service during Ceausescu's dictatorship, the Abu Nidal Organization was actually created by Arafat with a double purpose. On the one hand, it enabled Arafat to pose as a moderate, compared to the violent acts carried out by Abu Nidal. On the other, it provided Arafat with a band of assassins that could eliminate any PLO leader that met with Arafat's disapproval. Pacepa has proved to be an extremely accurate source of information ever since he defected to the West in 1978, and he says that the information about Abu Nidal comes straight from Arafat himself during a conversation with Ceausescu.

The secret alliance between Arafat and Abu Nidal reminds us that there is no such thing as a "moderate" leader of a terrorist organization, and that we cannot expect to win the war against terror until the entire network — starting with the regimes of the terror states and finishing with the tens of thousands of trained killers — has been brought to justice.

Faster, please.

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JWR contributor Michael Ledeen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of, most recently, The War Against the Terror Masters. Comment by clicking here.


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08/06/02: Fantasy Reporting: The latest disinformation from the Washington Post
08/02/02: Propping Up the Terror Masters: Europe's Solana on tour
07/16/02: Bush vs. the Mullahs: Getting on the side of the Iranian freedom fighters
07/12/02: The State Department Goes Mute: It's official: State has no message
07/09/02: History being made, but the West appears clueless
06/05/02: Is George Tenet endangering peace in Israel?
06/03/02: Ridiculous, even for a journalist
05/20/02: So how come nobody's been fired yet?
05/14/02: Open doors for thugs
04/20/02: Iran on the Brink … and the U.S. does nothing
04/16/02: It’s the war, stupid … someone remind Colin Powell
04/08/02: Gulled: In the Middle East, Arafat doesn't matter
04/02/02: Faster, Please: The war falters
03/26/02: The Revolution Continues: What's brewing in Iran
03/18/02: Iran simmers still: Where's the press?
03/05/02: We can't lose any more ground in Iran
02/14/02: The Great Iranian Hoax
02/12/02: Unnoticed Bombshell: Key information in a new book
01/31/02: The truth behind the Powell play
01/29/02: My past with "Johnny Jihad's" lawyer
01/21/02: It's Munich, all over again
01/08/02: What's the Holdup?: It's time for the next battles in the war against terrorism
12/11/01: We must be imperious, ruthless, and relentless
12/06/01: Remembering my family friend, Walt Disney
11/28/01: The Barbara Olson Bomb: Understanding the war
11/13/01: How We're Doing: The Angleton Files, IV
11/06/01: A great revolutionary war is coming
10/25/01: How to talk to a terrorist
10/23/01: Creative Reporting: Learning to appreciate press briefings
10/19/01: Not the Emmys: A Beltway award presentation
10/15/01: Rediscovering American character
10/11/01: Somehow, I've missed Arafat's praise of the first stage of our war on terrorism
10/04/01: What do we not know?
09/28/01: Machiavelli On Our War: Some advice for our leaders
09/25/01: No Room for the U.N.: Keeping Annan & co. out of the picture
09/21/01: Creative destruction
09/14/01: Who Killed Barbara Olson?
08/22/01: How Israel will win this war
08/15/01: Bracing for war
08/09/01: More Dithering Democrats
08/02/01: Delirious Dems
07/31/01: Consulting a legendary counterspy about Chandra and Condit, cont'd
07/19/01: Be careful what you wish for
07/17/01: Consulting a legendary counterspy about Chandra and Condit
07/05/01: Let Slobo Go
05/30/01: Anybody out there afraid of the Republicans?
05/09/01: The bad guys to the rescue
05/07/01: Bye-bye, Blumenthal
04/20/01: Handling China
04/11/01: EXAM TIME!
04/05/01: Chinese over-water torture
03/27/01: Fighting AIDS in Africa is a losing proposition
03/14/01: Big Bird, Oscar, and other threats
03/09/01: Time for a good, old-fashioned purge
03/06/01: Powell’s great (mis)adventure
02/26/01: The Clinton Sopranos
02/20/01: Unity Schmoonity: Sharon is defying the will of the people
01/30/01: The Rest of the Rich Story
01/22/01: Ashcroft the Jew
01/11/01: A fitting close to the Clinton years
12/26/00: Continuing Clinton's shameful legacy
12/21/00: Clinton’s gift for Bush

© 2001, Michael Ledeen