Abu Nidal ("father of struggle") formed the ANO in October 1974 after a split from Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Acting as a freelance contractor, Abu Nidal is believed to have ordered attacks in 20 countries, killing over 300 and injuring over 650. The group's operations included the Rome and Vienna airport attacks on 27 December 1985, when gunmen opened fire on passengers in simultaneous shootings at El Al ticket counters, killing 20. Patrick Seale, Abu Nidal's biographer, wrote of the shootings that their "random cruelty marked them as typical Abu Nidal operations."
Abu Nidal died after a shooting in his Baghdad apartment in August 2002. Palestinian sources believed he was killed on the orders of Saddam Hussein, while Iraqi officials insisted he had committed suicide during an interrogation. "He was the patriot turned psychopath," David Hirst wrote in the Guardian on the news of his death. "He served only himself, only the warped personal drives that pushed him into hideous crime. He was the ultimate mercenary."
Abu Nidal was born in May 1937 in Jaffa, on the Mediterranean coast of what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. His father, Hajj Khalil al-Banna, owned 6,000 acres (24 km2) of orange groves situated between Jaffa and Majdal, today Ashkelon in Israel. The family lived in luxury in a three-storey stone house near the beach, later used as an Israeli military court. Muhammad Khalil al-Banna, Abu Nidal's brother, told Yossi Melman:
Khalil al-Banna's wealth allowed him to take several wives. According to Abu Nidal in an interview with Der Spiegel, his father had 13 wives, 17 sons and eight daughters. Melman writes that Abu Nidal's mother was the eighth wife. She had been one of the family's maids, a 16-year-old Alawite girl. The family disapproved of the marriage, according to Patrick Seale, and as a result Abu Nidal, Khalil's 12th child, was apparently looked down on by his older siblings, although in later life the relationships were repaired.
In 1944 or 1945 his father sent him to Collège des Frères de Jaffa, a French mission school in Jaffa, which he attended for one year. The father died in 1945 when Abu Nidal was seven years old, and the family turned his mother out of the house. His brothers took him out of the mission school and enrolled him instead in a prestigious, private Muslim school in Jerusalem, now known as Umariya Elementary School. He attended for about two years.
On 29 November 1947, the United Nations resolved to partition Palestine into an Arab and Jewish state. Fighting broke out immediately, and the disruption of the citrus-fruit business hit the family's income. In Jaffa there were food shortages, truck bombs and an Irgun mortar bombardment. Melman writes that the al-Banna family had had good relations with the Jewish community, but it was war and the relationships did not help them. Abu Nidal's brother told Melman:
My father was a close friend of Avraham Shapira, one of the founders of Hashomer, the Jewish self-defense organization. He would visit [Shapira] in his home in Petah Tikva, or Shapira riding his horse would visit our home in Jaffa. I also remember how we visited Dr. Weizmann [later first president of Israel] in his home in Rehovot.
Just before Jaffa was conquered by Israeli troops in April 1948, the family fled to their house near Majdal, but the Jewish militias arrived there too, and they had to flee again. This time they went to the Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, then under Egyptian control. Melman writes that the family spent nine months living in tents, dependent on UNRWA for an allowance of oil, rice and potatoes. The experience had a powerful effect on Abu Nidal.
The al-Banna family's commercial experience, and the money they had managed to take with them, meant they could set themselves up in business again, Melman writes. Their orange groves, however, had gone, now part of the new state of Israel, which had declared its independence on 14 May 1948. The family moved to Nablus in the West Bank, then under Jordanian control. Abu Nidal graduated from high school there in 1955, and joined the Arab nationalist Ba'ath party. He began a degree course in engineering at Cairo University, but left without a degree after two years.
In 1960 he made his way to Saudi Arabia, where he set himself up as a painter and electrician, and worked as a casual laborer for Aramco. He remained close to his mother; his brother told Melman that Abu Nidal would return to Nablus from Saudi Arabia every year to visit her. It was during one of those visits in 1962 that he met his wife, whose family had also fled from Jaffa. The couple had a son and two daughters.
Abu Nidal was often in poor health, according to Seale, and tended to dress in zip-up jackets and old trousers, drinking whisky every night in his later years. He became, writes Seale, a "master of disguises and subterfuge, trusting no one, lonely and self-protective, [living] like a mole, hidden away from public view." Acquaintances said that he was capable of hard work and had a good financial brain. Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), the deputy chief of Fatah who was assassinated by the ANO in 1991, knew him well in the late 1960s when he took Abu Nidal under his wing. He told Seale:
He had been recommended to me as a man of energy and enthusiasm, but he seemed shy when we met. It was only on further acquaintance that I noticed other traits. He was extremely good company, with a sharp tongue and an inclination to dismiss most of humanity as spies and traitors. I rather liked that! I discovered he was very ambitious, perhaps more than his abilities warranted, and also very excitable. He sometimes worked himself up into such a state that he lost all powers of reasoning.
Seale suggests that Abu Nidal's childhood explained his personality, described as chaotic by Abu Iyad and as psychopathic by Issam Sartawi, the late Palestinian heart surgeon. His siblings' scorn, the loss of his father and his mother's removal from the family home when he was seven, then the loss of his home and status in the conflict with Israel, created a mental world of plots and counterplots, reflected in his tyrannical leadership of the ANO. Members' wives (it was an all-male group) were not allowed to befriend each another, and Abu Nidal's wife was expected to live in isolation without friends.
In Saudi Arabia Abu Nidal helped found a small group of young Palestinians who called themselves the Palestine Secret Organization. The activism cost him his job and home: Aramco fired him, and the Saudi government imprisoned then expelled him.
He returned to Nablus with his wife and family, and joined Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO. Working as an odd-job man, he was committed to Palestinian politics but not particularly active, until Israel won the 1967 Six-Day War, capturing the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Melman writes that "the entrance of the Israel Defense Forces tanks into Nablus was a traumatic experience for him. The conquest aroused him to action."
He moved to Amman, Jordan, setting up a trading company called Impex. Fatah asked him to choose a nom de guerre, and he chose Abu Nidal ("father of struggle") after his son, Nidal. (It is customary in the Arab world for men to call themselves "father of" (Abu), followed by their first son's name.) He was described by those who knew him at the time as a well-organized leader, not a guerrilla; during fighting between the Palestinian fedayeen and King Hussein's troops, he stayed in his office.
Impex acted as a front for Fatah, serving as a meeting place and conduit for funds. This became a hallmark of Abu Nidal's career. Companies controlled by the ANO made him a rich man by engaging in legitimate business deals, while acting as cover for arms deals and mercenary activities.
Abu Iyad appointed Abu Nidal in 1968 as the Fatah representative in Khartoum, Sudan, then (at Abu Nidal's insistence) to the same position in Baghdad in July 1970, two months before Black September, when over 10 days of fighting King Hussein's army drove the Palestinian fedayeen out of Jordan, with the loss of thousands of lives. Seale writes that Abu Nidal's absence from Jordan during this period, when it was clear that King Hussein was about to act against the Palestinians, raised suspicion within the movement that Abu Nidal was interested only in saving himself.
Shortly after Black September, Abu Nidal began accusing the PLO of cowardice over his Voice of Palestine radio station in Iraq for having agreed to a ceasefire with Hussein. During Fatah's Third Congress in Damascus in 1971, Abu Nidal joined Palestinian activist and writer Naji Allush and Abu Daoud (leader of the Black September Organization responsible for the 1972 Munich Massacre), calling for greater democracy within Fatah and revenge against King Hussein.
In February 1973 Abu Daoud was arrested in Jordan for an attempt on King Hussein's life. This led to Abu Nidal's first operation, using the name Al-Iqab ("the Punishment"); on 5 September 1973 five gunmen entered the Saudi embassy in Paris, took 15 hostages and threatened to blow up the building if Abu Daoud was not released. The gunmen flew two days later to Kuwait on a Syrian Airways flight, still holding five hostages, then to Riyadh, threatening to throw the hostages out of the aircraft. They surrendered and released the hostages on 8 September. Abu Daoud was released from prison two weeks later; Seale writes that the Kuwaiti government paid King Hussein $12 million for his release.
On the day of the attack, 56 heads of state were meeting in Algiers for the 4th conference of the Non-Aligned Movement. According to Seale, the Saudi Embassy operation had been commissioned by Iraq's president, Ahmed Hasan al-Bakr, as a distraction because he was jealous that Algeria was hosting the conference. Seale writes one of the hostage-takers admitted that he had been told to fly the hostages around until the conference was over.
Abu Nidal had carried out the operation without the permission of Fatah. Abu Iyad (Arafat's deputy) and Mahmoud Abbas (later President of the Palestinian Authority), flew to Iraq to reason with Abu Nidal that hostage-taking harmed the movement. Abu Iyad told Seale that an Iraqi official at the meeting said: "Why are you attacking Abu Nidal? The operation was ours! We asked him to mount it for us." Abbas was furious and left the meeting with the other PLO delegates. From that point on, Seale writes, the PLO regarded Abu Nidal as under the control of the Iraqi government.
Two months later, in November 1973 (just after the Yom Kippur War in October), the ANO hijacked KLM Flight 861, this time using the name Arab Nationalist Youth Organization. Fatah had been discussing convening a peace conference in Geneva; the hijacking was intended to warn them not to go ahead with it. In response, in March or July 1974, Arafat expelled Abu Nidal from Fatah.
In October 1974 Abu Nidal formed the ANO, calling it Fatah: The Revolutionary Council. In November that year a Fatah court sentenced him to death in absentia for the attempted assassination of Mahmoud Abbas. Seale writes that it is unlikely that Abu Nidal had intended to kill Abbas, and just as unlikely that Fatah wanted to kill Abu Nidal. He was invited to Beirut to discuss the death sentence, and was allowed to leave again, but it was clear that he had become persona non grata. As a result, the Iraqis gave him Fatah's assets in Iraq, including a training camp, farm, newspaper, radio station, passports, overseas scholarships and $15 million worth of Chinese weapons. He also received Iraq's regular aid to the PLO: around $150,000 a month and a lump sum of $3–5 million.
In addition to Fatah: The Revolutionary Council, the ANO called itself the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, Black June (for actions against Syria), Black September (for actions against Jordan), the Revolutionary Arab Brigades, the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Muslims, the Egyptian Revolution, Revolutionary Egypt, Al-Asifa ("the Storm," a name also used by Fatah), Al-Iqab ("the Punishment"), and the Arab Nationalist Youth Organization.
The group had up to 500 members, chosen from young men in the Palestinian refugee camps and in Lebanon, who were promised good pay and help looking after their families. They would be sent to training camps in whichever country was hosting the ANO at the time (Syria, Iraq or Libya), then organized into small cells. Once in, As`ad AbuKhalil and Michael Fischbach write, they were not allowed to leave again. The group assumed complete control over the membership. One member who spoke to Patrick Seale was told before being sent overseas: "If we say, 'Drink alcohol'", do so. If we say, 'Get married,' find a woman and marry her. If we say, 'Don't have children,' you must obey. If we say, 'Go and kill King Hussein,' you must be ready to sacrifice yourself!"
Seale writes that recruits were asked to write out their life stories, including names and addresses of family and friends, then sign a paper saying they agreed to execution if discovered to have intelligence connections. If suspected, they would be asked to rewrite the whole story, without discrepancies. The ANO's newspaper Filastin al-Thawra regularly announced the execution of traitors. Abu Nidal believed that the group had been penetrated by Israeli agents, and there was a sense that Israel may have used the ANO to undermine more moderate Palestinian groups. Terrorism experts regard the view that Abu Nidal himself was such agent as "far-fetched".
There were reports of purges throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Around 600 ANO members were killed in Lebanon and Libya, including 171 in one night in November 1987, when they were lined up, shot and thrown into a mass grave. Dozens were kidnapped in Syria and killed in the Badawi refugee camp. Most of the decisions to kill, Abu Daoud told Seale, were taken by Abu Nidal "in the middle of the night, after he [had] knocked back a whole bottle of whiskey." The purges led to the defection from the ANO in 1989 of Atif Abu Bakr, head of the ANO's political directorate, who returned to Fatah.
Members were routinely tortured by the "Committee for Revolutionary Justice" until they confessed to disloyalty. Seale writes that reports of torture included hanging a man naked, whipping him until he was unconscious, reviving him with cold water, then rubbing salt or chili powder into his wounds. A naked prisoner would be forced into a car tyre with his legs and backside in the air, then whipped, wounded, salted and revived with cold water. A member's testicles might be fried in oil, or melted plastic dripped onto his skin. Between interrogations, prisoners would be tied up in tiny cells. If the cells were full, Seale writes, they might be buried with a pipe in their mouths for air and water; if Abu Nidal wanted them dead, a bullet would be fired down the pipe instead.
The Intelligence Directorate was formed in 1985 to oversee special operations. It had four subcommittees: the Committee for Special Missions, the Foreign Intelligence Committee, the Counterespionage Committee and the Lebanon Committee. Led by Abd al-Rahman Isa, the longest-serving member of the ANO—Seale writes that Isa was unshaven and shabby, but charming and persuasive—the directorate maintained 30–40 people overseas who looked after the ANO's arms caches in various countries. It trained staff, arranged passports and visas, and reviewed security at airports and seaports. Members were not allowed to visit each other at home, and no one outside the directorate was supposed to know who was a member.
Isa was demoted in 1987, because Abu Nidal believed he had become too close to other figures within the ANO. Always keen to punish members by humiliating them, Abu Nidal insisted he remain in the Intelligence Directorate, forcing him to work for his previous subordinates, who according to Seale were told to treat him with contempt.
The job of the Committee for Special Missions was to choose targets. It had started life as the Military Committee, headed by Naji Abu al-Fawaris, who had led the attack on Heinz Nittel, head of the Israel-Austria Friendship League, who was shot and killed in 1981. In 1982 the committee changed its name to the Committee for Special Missions, headed by Dr. Ghassan al-Ali, who had been born in the West Bank and educated in England, where he obtained a BA and MA in chemistry and married a British woman (later divorced). A former ANO member told Seale that Ali favoured "the most extreme and reckless operations."
On 3 June 1982, ANO operative Hussein Ghassan Said shot Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador to Britain, once in the head as he left the Dorchester Hotel in London. Said was accompanied by Nawaf al-Rosan, an Iraqi intelligence officer, and Marwan al-Banna, Abu Nidal's cousin. Argov survived, but spent three months in a coma and the rest of his life disabled, until his death in February 2003. The PLO quickly denied responsibility for the attack.
Ariel Sharon, then Israel's defence minister, responded three days later by invading Lebanon, where the PLO was based, a reaction that Seale argues Abu Nidal had intended. The Israeli government had been preparing to invade and Abu Nidal provided a pretext. Der Spiegel put it to him in October 1985 that the assassination of Argov, when he knew Israel wanted to attack the PLO in Lebanon, made him appear to be working for the Israelis, in the view of Yasser Arafat. He replied:
What Arafat says about me doesn't bother me. Not only he, but also a whole list of Arab and world politicians claim that I am an agent of the Zionists or the CIA. Others state that I am a mercenary of the French secret service and of the Soviet KGB. The latest rumor is that I am an agent of Khomeini. During a certain period they said we were spies for the Iraqi regime. Now they say that we are Syrian agents. ... Many psychologists and sociologists in the Soviet bloc tried to investigate this man Abu Nidal. They wanted to find a weak point in his character. The result was zero.
Abu Nidal's most infamous operation was the 1985 attack on the Rome and Vienna airports. On 27 December, at 08:15 GMT, four gunmen opened fire on the El Al ticket counter at the Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport in Rome, killing 16 and wounding 99. In Vienna International Airport a few minutes later, three men threw hand grenades at passengers waiting to check into a flight to Tel Aviv, killing four and wounding 39. According to Seale, the gunmen had been told the people in civilian clothes at the check-in counter were Israeli pilots returning from a training mission.
Austria and Italy had both been involved in trying to arrange peace talks. Sources close to Abu Nidal told Seale that Libyan intelligence had supplied the weapons. The damage to the PLO was enormous, according to Abu Iyad, Arafat's deputy. Most people in the West and even many Arabs could not distinguish between the ANO and Fatah, he said. "When such horrible things take place, ordinary people are left thinking that all Palestinians are criminals."
On 15 April 1986, the US launched bombing raids from British bases against Tripoli and Benghazi, killing around 100, in retaliation for the bombing of a Berlin nightclub used by US service personnel. The dead were reported to include Hanna Gaddafi, the adoptive daughter of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi; two of his other children were injured.
British journalist Alec Collett, who had been kidnapped in Beirut in March, was hanged after the airstrikes, reportedly by ANO operatives; his remains were found in the Beqaa Valley in November 2009. The bodies of two British teachers, Leigh Douglas and Philip Padfield, and an American, Peter Kilburn, were found in a village near Beirut on 17 April 1986; the Arab Fedayeen Cells, a name linked to Abu Nidal, claimed responsibility. British journalist John McCarthy was kidnapped the same day.
On 17 April 1986—the day the bodies of the teachers were found and McCarthy was kidnapped—Ann Marie Murphy, a pregnant Irish chambermaid, was discovered in Heathrow airport with a Semtex bomb in the false bottom of one of her bags. She had been about to board an El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv via London. The bag had been packed by her Jordanian fiancé Nizar Hindawi, who had said he would join her in Israel where they were to be married.
According to Melman, Abu Nidal had recommended Hindawi to Syrian intelligence. Seale writes that the bomb had been manufactured by Abu Nidal's technical committee, who had delivered it to Syrian air force intelligence. It was sent to London in a diplomatic bag and given to Hindawi. According to Seale, it was widely believed that the attack was in response to Israel having forced down a jet, two months earlier, carrying Syrian officials to Damascus, which Israel had supposed was carrying senior Palestinians.
On 5 September 1986, four ANO gunmen hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 at Karachi Airport on its way from Mumbai to New York, holding 389 passengers and crew for 16 hours in the plane on the tarmac before detonating grenades inside the cabin. Neerja Bhanot, the flight's senior purser, was able to open an emergency door, and most passengers escaped; 20 died, including Bhanot, and 120 were wounded. The London Times reported in March 2004 that Libya had been behind the hijacking.
Abu Nidal began to move his organization out of Syria to Libya in the summer of 1986, arriving there in March 1987. In June that year the Syrian government expelled him, in part because of the Hindawi affair and Pan Am Flight 73 hijacking.
He repeatedly took credit during this period for operations in which he had no involvement, including the 1984 Brighton hotel bombing, 1985 Bradford City stadium fire, and 1986 assassination of Zafer al-Masri, the mayor of Nablus (killed by the PFLP, according to Seale). He also implied that he had been behind the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster by publishing a congratulatory note in the ANO magazine, writes Seale.
Abu Nidal and Libya's leader, Muammar Gaddafi, allegedly became great friends, each holding what Marie Colvin and Sonya Murad called a "dangerous combination of an inferiority complex mixed with the belief that he was a man of great destiny." The relationship gave Abu Nidal a sponsor and Gaddafi a mercenary. Seale reports that Libya brought out the worst in Abu Nidal. He would not allow even the most senior ANO members to socialize with each other; all meetings had to be reported to him. All passports had to be handed over. No one was allowed to travel without his permission. Ordinary members were not allowed to have telephones; senior members were allowed to make local calls only. His members knew nothing about his daily life, including where he lived. If he wanted to entertain, Seale writes, he would take over the home of another member.
According to Abu Bakr, speaking to Al Hayatt in 2002, Abu Nidal said he was behind the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on 21 December 1988; a former head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines was later convicted. Abu Nidal reportedly said of Lockerbie, according to Seale: "We do have some involvement in this matter, but if anyone so much as mentions it, I will kill him with my own hands!" Seale writes that the ANO appeared to have no connection to it; one of Abu Nidal's associates told him, "If an American soldier tripped in some corner of the globe, Abu Nidal would instantly claim it as his own work."
In the late 1980s British intelligence learned that the ANO held accounts with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) in London. BCCI was closed in July 1991 by banking regulators in six countries after evidence emerged of widespread fraud. Abu Nidal himself was said to have visited London using the name Shakar Farhan; a BCCI branch manager, who passed information about the ANO accounts to MI5, reportedly drove him around several stores in London without realizing who he was. Abu Nidal was using a company called SAS International Trading and Investments in Warsaw as cover for arms deals. The company's transactions included the purchase of riot guns, ostensibly for Syria, then when the British refused an export licence to Syria, for an African state; in fact half the shipment went to the police in East Germany and half to Abu Nidal.
On 14 January 1991 in Tunis, the night before U.S. forces moved into Kuwait, the ANO assassinated Abu Iyad, head of PLO intelligence, along with Abu al-Hol, Fatah's chief of security, and Fakhri al-Umari, another Fatah aide; all three men were shot in Abu Iyad's home. The killer, Hamza Abu Zaid, confessed that an ANO operative had hired him. When he shot Abu Iyad, he reportedly shouted, "Let Atif Abu Bakr help you now!", a reference to the senior ANO member who had left the group in 1989, and whom Abu Nidal believed had been planted within the ANO by Abu Iyad as a spy. Abu Iyad had known that Abu Nidal nursed a hatred of him, in part because he had kept Abu Nidal out of the PLO. But the real reason for the hatred, Abu Iyad told Seale, was that he had protected Abu Nidal in his early years within the movement. Given his personality, Abu Nidal could not acknowledge that debt. Seale writes that the murder "must therefore be seen as a final settlement of old scores."
After Libyan intelligence operatives were charged with the Lockerbie bombing, Gaddafi tried to distance himself from terrorism. Abu Nidal was expelled from Libya in 1999, and in 2002 he returned to Iraq. The Iraqi government later said he had entered the country using a fake Yemeni passport and false name.
On 19 August 2002, the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam reported that Abu Nidal had died three days earlier of multiple gunshot wounds at his home in Baghdad, a house the newspaper said was owned by the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret service. Two days later Iraq's chief of intelligence, Taher Jalil Habbush, handed out photographs of Abu Nidal's body to journalists, along with a medical report that said he had died after a bullet entered his mouth and exited through his skull. Habbush said Iraqi officials had arrived at Abu Nidal's home to arrest him on suspicion of conspiring with foreign governments. After saying he needed a change of clothes, he went into his bedroom and shot himself in the mouth, according to Habbush. He died eight hours later in hospital.
Jane's reported in 2002 that Iraqi intelligence had found classified documents in his home about a U.S. attack on Iraq. When they raided the house, fighting broke out between Abu Nidal's men and Iraqi intelligence. In the midst of this, Abu Nidal rushed into his bedroom and was killed; Palestinian sources told Jane's that he had been shot several times. Jane's suggested Saddam Hussein had him killed because he feared Abu Nidal would act against him in the event of an American invasion.
In 2008 Robert Fisk obtained a report written in September 2002, for Saddam Hussein's "presidency intelligence office," by Iraq's "Special Intelligence Unit M4." The report said that the Iraqis had been interrogating Abu Nidal in his home as a suspected spy for Kuwait and Egypt, and indirectly for the United States. It said he had been asked by the Kuwaitis to find links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. Just before being moved to a more secure location, Abu Nidal asked to be allowed to change his clothing, went into his bedroom and shot himself, the report said. He was buried on 29 August 2002 in al-Karakh's Islamic cemetery in Baghdad, in a grave marked M7.