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