The Terror King is Dead – Long Live the King!

Last Wednesday evening in Baghdad, Sabri al-Bana put a Smith & Wesson into his mouth and blew off the back of his head. Then, just to be sure, he put another three bullets into his brain.

Al-Bana was nothing, if not thorough.

According to local Iraqi authorities, al-Bana, known to the world as Abu Nidal, notorious terrorist, had been on the lam for at least three years after he illegally entered Iraq using a fake Yemeni passport. Apparently he crossed the Iran-Iraq border in 1999 at the al-Munziriya station under an assumed name, and then disappeared into the rabbit warrens of old Baghdad where he lived and functioned for three years before the authorities accidentally stumbled upon his lair.

In the ensuing gun battle, according to Iraqi authorities, several of his supporters (read bodyguards) were killed before al-Bana took his own life.

So, who was this guy, the terrorist who founded the Fatah-Revolutionary Council and captured the attention of a significant part of Iraq’s intelligence service?

According to Atef Abu Bakr, who was a senior member of the Fatah-Revolutionary Council, al-Bana masterminded the destruction of New York-bound Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, killing 259 passengers and crew and 11 residents of the Scottish village.

Bakr quoted al-Bana speaking to an inner-circle meeting of the leadership of the Fatah-Revolutionary Council: “I will tell you something very important and serious, the reports which link the Lockerbie act to others are false reports. We are behind what happened.” And then he promised that if anybody leaked what he had said, “I will kill him, even if he is in the arms of his wife.”

Al-Bana was one of 13 children, born in 1937 to a wealthy citrus planter. He grew up in Nablus on the West Bank, and joined Arafat’s Fatah movement in 1960. Al-Bana was a rising star in the PLO, and became its Khartoum and later Baghdad representative. Somewhere along the way he assumed the nom de guerre Abu Nidal, which means ‘father of the struggle.’ Eventually, Nidal split with Arafat and set up his rival group: the Fatah-Revolutionary Council.

Nidal unleashed a reign of terror across the region against anyone, Arab, Jew or otherwise, who disagreed with him. His Black June operation killed PLO representatives in London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Brussels and Kuwait, and bombed the Islamabad PLO office.

In 1982, he attempted to assassinate Israel’s ambassador to England. The aftermath of this bumbled operation was Israel’s invasion of Lebanon to root out Palestinian guerrilla groups, and Nidal moved to Iraq. He launched a rocket attack against a Jordanian airliner in 1984 while it was taking off from Athens. Nidal assassinated the British cultural attaché in Athens, the British deputy high commissioner in Bombay, and a Jordanian diplomat in Ankara.

In 1983, Iraq expelled Nidal to curry U.S. support for its war against Iran. He moved to Damascus and cozied up Syrian intelligence.

In 1985, Nidal attacked Israeli airline check-in desks at Rome and Vienna, killing 19 people. In September 1986, he attempted to hijack a Pan Am jumbo jet at Karachi, killing 22 and wounding 100. Later, he slaughtered 22 Jews at an Istanbul synagogue. In July 1988, he killed nine more Jews on a Greek ferry.

Nidal financed his operations as an international arms dealer, and from his lucrative international extortion schemes. For additional pay, he and his people performed the dirty work for his Arab backers and even Iraqi intelligence.

By the early 1990s, Nidal developed heart disease and cancer. His last attack was in 1994, the assassination of Jordanian diplomat Naeb Imran Maaytah, first secretary at the Jordanian Embassy in Beirut.

Nidal and the Fatah-Revolutionary Council were no longer welcome in the region. He became the target of the CIA, Jordanian secret services, and Mossad, often working in concert.

Former CIA agent Duane ‘Dewey’ Clarridge writes in his memoirs that the CIA tried to turn his operatives by offering them large rewards. The CIA never penetrated the Fatah-Revolutionary Council, but those who told Nidal of the operation were tortured and killed, with some buried alive.

Seymour Hersh, veteran intelligence writer, reports that Jordanian agents seized the mothers and brothers of Fatah-Revolutionary Council members, and used them to force the terrorists into the open.

A Jordanian military court sentenced Abu Nidal and four other defendants to death for masterminding the 1994 assassination of Maaytah.

Nidal’s closest associates say that he never would have committed suicide, and – as President Bush noted – four bullets in the head is rather difficult to do without help. In his final days, Nidal appears to have been cooperating with anti-Iraqi forces in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Tahhir Jalil Haboush, the head of Iraqi Intelligence, told reporters on Aug. 21 that Nidal was found with documents of a planned U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The truth is elusive. There is no doubt that Nidal (ne al-Bana) is dead, but the who, how, and why probably never will be resolved. One less terrorist murderer, however, is still good news.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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