Abu Nidal

From Academic Kids

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Abu Nidal in the 70s, in one of only a handful of photographs of him that exist.

Abu Nidal (May 1937August 16, 2002), born Sabri Khalil al-Banna, also known as Amin al-Sirr and Sabri Khalil Abd Al Qadir, was a Palestinian political leader and founder of Fatah - the Revolutionary Council (Fatah al-Qiyadah al-Thawriyyah), also known as the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), Black June, the Arab Revolutionary Brigades, the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Muslims, and sometimes operating as Black September. Before the rise of Osama bin Laden, Abu Nidal, or "father of struggle," was widely regarded as the world's most ruthless terrorist.

Part of the largely secular, leftwing 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 or mercenary, Abu Nidal was based over the years in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and toward the end of his life once again in Iraq, and is believed to have been responsible for ordering attacks in 20 countries, killing or injuring over 900 people. [1] ( The group is not known to have been active since 1991, when an ANO gunman assassinated Abu Iyad, the deputy chief of the PLO.

The ANO's most notorious attacks were on the El Al ticket counters at Rome and Vienna airports on December 27, 1985, when Arab gunmen doped on amphetamines opened fire on passengers in simultaneous attacks, 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," (Seale 1992).

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. [2] ( When he died, The Guardian wrote: "He was the patriot turned psychopath. He served only ... the warped personal drives that pushed him into hideous crime. He was the ultimate mercenary." [3] (,3858,4484907-103684,00.html)


Early life

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Jaffa on the Mediterranean coast, where Abu Nidal was born.

Abu Nidal was born in May 1937 in the port of Jaffa on the Mediterranean coast of what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. His father Khalil was a wealthy merchant who had made his money from the 6,000 acres (24 km²) of orange groves he owned, and who raised his 11 children in comparative luxury in a large, three-storey, stone house near the beach.

Khalil fell in love with one of the family's maids, a young Alawite girl just sixteen years old, and against the wishes of the rest of his family, he took her as his new wife. She gave birth to Sabri Khalil al-Banna, Khalil's 12th child. Accounts vary as to whether the teenager was his second wife, which Patrick Seale indicates, or his eighth, as suggested by other researchers. [4] (

Seale suggests that Abu Nidal's unhappy childhood might explain his apparent psychopathic personality. He was scorned by his older half-brothers and half-sisters, and when his father died in 1945, when Samir was just seven years old, the family turned his mother out of the house, and he lost her too. Although allowed to live with his siblings, he was neglected and left with no education. Throughout his adult life, Seale writes, his childish handwriting was a source of great embarrassment to him. He grew to despise women, later forcing his own wife to live in isolation without friends, and forbidding ANO members from telling their wives of their activities or allowing the women to befriend one another.

When the Arabs rejected the November 1947 United Nations partition plan, war broke out between the Arabs and Jews, and Jaffa found itself under siege. The al-Banna family lost their orange groves, which were confiscated by the new Israeli government, and fled to the al-Burj refugee camp in Gaza, then under the control of Egypt, where they spent a year living in tents, before moving to Nablus in the West Bank, then ruled by Jordan.

Abu Nidal's teenage years were spent in Nablus, scraping a living for himself with odd jobs. He joined the radical, Arab-nationalist Ba'ath party in Jordan when he was 18, but King Hussein closed the party down in 1957. Nursing a lifelong hatred of King Hussein that would be fuelled by Hussein's expulsion in September 1970 of the Palestinian fedayeen, Abu Nidal made his way to Saudi Arabia, where he set himself up as a painter and electrician in Riyadh (Seale 1992), although other writers have said he began, though did not finish, an engineering degree at Cairo University (Dobson and Payne 1986), and later went on to work as a casual laborer for Aramco. [5] (

Political life

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Circa 1980

In Riyhad, he helped to found a small group of young Palestinians who called themselves the Palestine Secret Organization, and met his wife Hiyam al-Bitar, with whom he had a son, Nidal, and two daughters, Badia and Bissam. When Israel won the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, he was imprisoned and tortured by the Saudis, then expelled, regarded by the Saudi government as an unwelcome radical because of his vocal demonstrations against Israel. [6] ( He moved to Amman, Jordan, setting up a trading company called Impex, and joined Fatah, Yasser Arafat's faction within the PLO.

Impex soon became a front for Fatah activities, and this was to become a hallmark of Abu Nidal's career: trading companies controlled by the ANO served to make him a rich man by engaging in legitimate business deals — at one point in the 80s, he was the largest importer of chicken into Poland — while at the same time acting as a cover for his multi-million-dollar arms deals, mercenary activities, protection rackets, and political violence.

Impex served as a meeting place for Fatah members and a conduit for funds to pay them with. Abu Nidal 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. Abu Iyad, seeing al-Banna's talent for organization, appointed him in 1968-9 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 finally 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 Hussein might be about to act against the Palestinians, raised the suspicion within the movement that his requests for posts to Sudan and Iraq had been intended only to save his own skin.

The split from the PLO

Just before the PLO expulsion from Jordan, and during the three years that followed it, several radical Palestinian and other Arab factions split from the PLO and began to launch their own military or terrorist attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets, as well as civilian targets overseas. These included George Habash's PFLP, DFLP, Arab Liberation Front, al-Sa'iqa, Palestine Liberation Front, at that time headed by Ahmed Jibril who went on to set up the radical PFLP-GC, and Black September, a group of radical fedayeen associated with Arafat's Fatah, who carried out operations using Black September as a cover.

Shortly after King Hussein expelled the PLO, 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. During Fatah's Third Congress in Damascus in 1971, Abu Nidal emerged as the leader of a leftist alliance against Arafat. Together with Abu Dawud, one of Fatah's most ruthless commanders, who was later allegedly involved in the 1972 Black September kidnap 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.

First operation

Abu Nidal's first operation took place on September 5, 1973, when five gunmen seized the Saudi embassy in Paris, taking 13 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 the King's life. 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 Patrick Seale (Seale 1992).

Abu Iyad, Arafat's deputy, and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen, now president of the Palestinian National Authority) flew to Iraq to reason with Abu Nidal that operations such as these harmed the movement. However, according to Seale, the Iraqi government made it clear that the idea for the operation had been theirs, not Abu Nidal's, and that he was simply following orders. Abbas was so angry, writes Seale, that he stormed out of the meeting, followed by the other PLO delegates. From that point on, the PLO regarded Abu Nidal as a mercenary: as Seale puts it, a "gun for hire."

Nature of the organization

By all accounts, the ANO reflected Abu Nidal's paranoid and possibly psychopathic personality, more of a mercenary group than one guided by political principle, and ready and willing to act on behalf of diverse interests, (Dobson and Payne 1986).

Abu Nidal orginally 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.

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. [7] ( According to The Sunday Times, Abu Nidal even came to believe that his own wife worked for the CIA. [8] (,,2089-393455_1,00.html)

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 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, (Clarridge 1997).

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.


In the late 80s, Britain intelligence services MI5 and MI6 discovered that the ANO held several accounts with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which was closed by the Bank of England in July 1991, mostly because of massive fraud, but also because of its willingness to open accounts for dubious customers.

According to Ghassan Qassem, the Syrian-born manager of the Sloane Street branch of BCCI, Abu Nidal himself first visited London several times, using the name Shakir Farhan. Qassem was expected to drive him around London's most expensive stores, including Selfridges, some exclusive tailors, and a cigar store on Jermyn Street (Adams and Frantz 1991). When the bank closed and Quassem talked to the media, his story led to one of the London Evening Standard's most memorable front-page headlines: "I took Abu Nidal shopping."

When Lord Bingham completed his 1992 inquiry into the closure of BCCI, he wrote a secret Appendix 8 based on intelligence reports that showed that MI5 and MI6 had recruited Quassem in July 1987 (The Observer, 18 January 2004). Though Qassem did not know at the time that he was dealing with Abu Nidal, MI5 learned through documents he passed to them that, since 1980, Abu Nidal had used a company called SAS Trade and Investment in Warsaw, with the company director, Samir Najmeddin, in Baghdad, as a cover for ANO business deals. All these 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 documents showed arms transactions with many Middle Eastern countries as well as East Germany, and no shortage of European and American clients willing to sell equipment, including British companies, one of which sold 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 (Adams and Frantz 1991).

From 1987 until the bank closed in 1991, British intelligence and the CIA monitored these transactions, rather than freezing them and arresting the signatories and the suppliers. Qassem later told reporters, and swore in an affidavit for investigators, that Najmeddin was often accompanied by an American, whom Qassem identified as Marc Rich, a close friend of President Bill Clinton.

Pan Am Flight 103

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PA 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988, with the loss of 270 lives, when 450 grams of plastic explosive was detonated inside a Toshiba radio cassette recorder hidden in a Samsonite suitcase and smuggled on board as unaccompanied interline baggage. Two Libyan intelligence officers were tried for murder in a Scottish court in the Netherlands; one was acquitted and the other convicted.

After Abu Nidal's death, a former senior member of the Abu Nidal Organization, Atef Abu Bakr told journalists that Abu Nidal had orchestrated the bombing on behalf of Colonel Gadaffi.

After moving from Damascus in 1985 and settling in Tripoli, Abu Nidal and Gadaffi allegedly became great friends, Gadaffi 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." [9] (,,2089-393455_1,00.html)

On 15 April-16, 1986, U.S. warplanes launched a series of military strikes from British bases [10] ( [11] ( — the first U.S. military strikes from Britain since World War II — against Tripoli and Benghazi, killing Hanna Gaddafi, a baby girl Gadaffi and his wife had adopted, in retaliation for the bombing 10 days earlier of a Berlin nightclub used by U.S. soldiers, killing three and injuring 230. [12] ( (Gadaffi had, in turn, ordered the Berlin bombing in revenge for the sinking of two Libyan boats by the United States in the Gulf of Sirte at the end of March.)

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According to Atef Abu Bakr, Gadaffi asked Abu Nidal to coordinate a revenge attack on the U.S. with the head of Libyan intelligence, Abdullah al-Senussi. Abu Nidal first arranged for two Britons and an American to be kidnapped in Lebanon; the hostages were later killed. He then allegedly suggested to Senussi that an aircraft be hijacked and blown up. On September 5, 1986, an ANO team hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi, killing 22 passengers and wounding dozens of others. In August 1987, Abu Nidal tried again, 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.

Apparently annoyed by the failure, Senussi told Abu Nidal to supply the bomb and Libyan intelligence would arrange for it to be placed on a flight. In January 2001, a Scottish court convicted Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the former head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, of murder after hearing that he had placed the suitcase containing the bomb on a flight out of Malta, labeling it so that it would be interlined via Frankfurt onto Pan Am 103 in London. [13] (,,2089-393455_1,00.html) The allegations of an Abu Nidal link to the bombing had not been made by the time of the trial and remain unconfirmed. Al-Meghrahi continues to protest his innocence from Greenock prison in Scotland, where he is serving a life sentence.


Abu Nidal is known to have entered Iraq in 1999 after being expelled from Libya by Muammar Gadaffi, who was distancing himself from terrorism in an effort to re-establish diplomatic relations with the U.S. and UK after the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which Gadaffi is believed to have commissioned. The Iraqi government later said Abu Nidal had entered the country using a fake Yemeni passport and was not there with their knowledge, but by 2001, at the latest, he was living there openly, in defiance of the Jordanian government, whose state-security court sentenced him in absentia in 2001 to death by hanging for his role in the 1994 assassination of a Jordanian diplomat in Beirut.

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. [14] (,,2089-393455_1,00.html)

Iraq's chief of intelligence, Taher Jalil Habbush, held a press conference on August 21, 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. [15] ( He is known to have been suffering from leukemia, though this has not been cited as a contributory factor in his alleged suicide.

Palestinian sources, however, told journalists that Abu Nidal had died of multiple gunshot wounds. 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 16 August, according to Jane's), fighting broke out between the ANO and Iraqi intelligence. In the midst of this, Abu Nidal rushed into his bedroom and died, though Jane's writes that it remains unclear whether he killed himself in there or was killed by someone else. Jane's sources insist that his body bore several gunshot wounds. Jane's further suggests that Saddam may have ordered him arrested and killed because Abu Nidal was a mercenary who would have acted against Saddam in the event of an American invasion, had the money been right. [16] (

Marie Colvin and Sonya Murad writing in The Sunday Times say that Abu Nidal was assassinated by a hit squad of 30 men from Office 8, the Iraqi Mukhabarat assassination unit. [17] (,,2089-393455_1,00.html)

Some ANO operations

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El Al check-in counter at Vienna after ANO gunmen opened fire on passengers

Over 100 operations have been attributed to the ANO in 20 countries leaving over 900 people dead or injured. The attacks included:


Further reading

  • Miller, Aaron David. "Sabri Khalil al-Banna" in Bernard Reich, ed., Political Leaders of the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990
  • Steinberg, Matti. "The Radical Worldview of the Abu Nidal Faction." Jerusalem Quarterly 48 (Fall 1988): 88–104de:Abu Nidal

es:Abu Nidal nl:Aboe Nidal pl:Abu Nidal


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