Once-feared terrorist seen as 'has-been' Abu Nidal reportedly ailing, may be in Egypt

August 30, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAIRO, Egypt -- Long before Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden grabbed the world's attention as an internationally known terrorist, there was Sabri al-Banna.

His nom de guerre was Abu Nidal, Arabic for "father of the struggle."

As lethal to his friends as his enemies, he waged a war of terror that spanned two decades and three continents. Palestinian by birth, he was a renegade even among terrorists, a follower of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and then his most lethal adversary.

Attacks carried out in his name killed or injured 900 people in 20 countries between 1973 and 1989, the United States has charged.

Gone from the international limelight for the past 10 years, he is again making headlines. Only this time the news is focused on the state of his health and reports that he is in Egyptian custody -- the 61-year-old rebel no longer on the run.

The government in Cairo has emphatically denied the reports. "Abu Nidal is not in Egypt," Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said to reporters earlier this week.

The United States, which in 1989 branded Abu Nidal's group "the most dangerous terrorist organization in existence," publicly refers all questions to Egypt. But an official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there had been indications that Abu Nidal was in Egypt as a "guest."

Reports in the Arab press have said he was ill, possibly suffering from leukemia, and in protective custody. The New York Times quoted an Arab intelligence official as saying last week that the Egyptians picked up Abu Nidal two months ago as he entered from Libya, his last home.

The Egyptians hoped Abu Nidal could provide information about Islamic militants who are battling the government here, the report said.

"The man was expelled from the PLO. He was tried in absentia. We don't know where he is," said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian peace negotiator in the West Bank. "He murdered many Palestinian representatives in Europe and all those who want peace."

Regardless of his whereabouts, it's clear that Abu Nidal is not the man he once was, nor is his Fatah Revolutionary Council.

"Talking about him is like talking about Carlos," said a former Israeli intelligence officer, referring to the Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, who was known as Carlos the Jackal and is now in prison in France. "He's a has-been. The organization and the man they are not relevant."

But in his time, there was no one like him. Ruthless and elusive, he commanded an international terrorist network manned by young Palestinians recruited from various parts of the world.

He financed his operations by extorting money from Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states and others in exchange for not attacking them, according to Yossi Melman, an Israeli author of "The Master Terrorist," a biography of Abu Nidal.

"I am Abu Nidal -- the answer to all Arab suffering and misfortunes," he said in a 1985 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel. "I am the evil spirit of the secret services. I am the evil spirit which moves around at night causing nightmares."

Born to a wealthy Palestinian businessman in Jaffa in what is now Israel, Abu Nidal was one of 23 children. His father had 13 wives. He was being educated at a well-to-do Jerusalem school when the 1948 Arab-Israeli war broke out.

After Israel's independence, his family became refugees in Jordan, settling in Nablus, a town on the West Bank.

Breaks with Arafat

An engineer by training, he worked for a time in the Saudi oil industry. In 1973, while serving as the PLO's envoy in Baghdad, Iraq, Abu Nidal broke with Arafat over the PLO chief's move to moderate his stance on Israel. He accused Arafat of betraying the Palestinian cause. Abu Nidal saw only one way to reclaim Palestine from the Zionists -- armed struggle.

The man evolved into a movement. From late 1973 to 1989, his operatives attacked embassies and airports, synagogues and restaurants. They killed Jews and Arabs, PLO officials and diplomats, travelers and school children.

The group's attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to Britain, Shlomo Argov, in London on June 3, 1982, gave Israel the pretext to invade Lebanon and drive out the PLO.

The terrorist attacks were shocking because of their targets and indiscriminate use of force. A few samples:

On July 11, 1988, masked men, tossing grenades and firing submachine guns, commandeered a Greek cruise ship near Athens and killed nine people.

A suicide attack Sept. 6, 1986, at a synagogue in Istanbul killed 22 worshipers.

Twin assaults in the airports in Vienna and Rome left 17 dead and 116 wounded on Dec. 27, 1985. Abu Nidal's men simultaneously tossed grenades at El Al counters and then opened fire with assault rifles.

The bombing of a Pan Am airliner at Rome airport Dec. 17, 1973, in which 32 passengers burned to death. The attack occurred on the eve of a peace conference after the 1973 Arab Israeli war.

The victims included Mark Ghormley, a 16-year-old student from Chestertown, Md.

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