Terrorist Abu Nidal reportedly found dead

Exile's body discovered in Baghdad, paper says

August 20, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JERUSALEM - A Palestinian newspaper reported yesterday that Abu Nidal, a Palestinian radical whose small terrorist organization was blamed for killing or wounding nearly 1,000 people in 20 countries, had been found dead in his home in Baghdad, Iraq. He had several bullet wounds and was believed to have killed himself, the paper said.

Neither Israeli nor American intelligence sources were able to confirm the report in the newspaper, Al Ayyam, but they said that if the account of his death was true, it was probably not a suicide.

The Palestinian official charged with relations with Iraq, Azzad al-Ahmad, said he was checking the information with Baghdad.

But senior Palestinian officials said privately that the report of Abu Nidal's death appeared to be true.

His brother, Muhammad al-Banna, reached by Reuters in the West Bank, said he had not talked to Abu Nidal for more than 40 years and had heard about the death only from the news reports.

Al Ayyam, which is published in Ramallah, said Abu Nidal appeared to have died three days earlier, citing "informed sources." The newspaper gave his age as 65.

He is believed to have lived in Baghdad since 1998, and U.S. intelligence officials said he was believed to have been suffering from heart disease and diabetes and was a heavy drinker.

The officials said that his network had become largely moribund and that there was no evidence that he had conducted any terrorist actions since his move to Baghdad.

Born Sabri al-Banna to a prosperous Palestinian family from Jaffa, now an Israeli port town, Abu Nidal - the name means "father of the struggle" - broke with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in the early 1970s and became a sworn enemy of the Palestinian leader, whom he reportedly tried to assassinate in 1974.

He formed his own group, Fatah - Revolutionary Council, with Iraqi support, and rapidly established it as one of the world's most murderous terror organizations.

Among his most notorious crimes was an attack with guns and grenades on the check-in desks of Israeli and American airlines in Rome and Vienna in December 1985, in which 18 people were killed and 120 wounded.

Another attack, in which the Israeli ambassador to London, Shlomo Argov, was critically wounded, was the trigger for Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Though his primary targets were Israel and Jews, his group also focused its hatred on Arabs and Arab countries that moved toward moderation in their stance toward Israel, and on the United States, Britain and France as well.

One of his many Arab victims was Issam Sartawi, one of the first members of the Palestine Liberation Organization to make contact with Israeli leftists.

Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist who wrote a book about Abu Nidal, said he came to be "a sort of gun for hire," who did jobs for Iraq against Syria, and for Syria against Jordan.

David Kimchi, a former Israeli intelligence and Foreign Ministry official, told Israeli radio that Abu Nidal "was completely on his own."

"He had a very small group of fanatics who worked with him and they were very active, but he was never part of the group with Habash, Hawatme and all the rest," Kimchi said, naming leaders of other radical groups. "They all regarded him as a bit of an oddity, both because of the way he behaved and because of the way he regarded the rest of the Palestinian movements."

Israeli officials said that if the reports of Abu Nidal's death were true, there was every likelihood that he had been assassinated by Palestinians, especially since the first report of his death came from a Palestinian newspaper.

But they noted that there was no shortage of people who wanted him dead, including Arafat, who reportedly tried to assassinate Abu Nidal at one point.

But the Israeli officials also noted that this is not the first time that Abu Nidal has been reported dead. Kimchi said Abu Nidal had been reported dead at least three or four times, "so it's hard for me to know if he has really died now, or if he died several years ago."

"He was one of the bitterest and most contemptible of our enemies," Kimchi said.

According to Melman, Abu Nidal's family was driven from Jaffa at the creation of Israel in 1948 and became refugees in the West Bank city of Nablus.

Abu Nidal moved to Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a technician and an electrician, and where he joined Fatah.

After forming his own group, he had his bases first in Iraq, then in Syria, then in Libya. Though never numbering more than a few hundred, the group was well-financed and deadly.

The list of terror acts attributed to him begins in 1973 with an attack on a Pan Am jetliner in Rome, in which 32 people were killed.

The next year, a TWA jet flying from Israel to Greece was blown up over the Aegean Sea, killing 88. Over the next 20 years, the list included attacks on jetliners, a cruise ship and airports in Rome and Vienna.

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