Chapter 2: Abu Iyad's Obsession
The UN ultimatum to Saddam Hussein expired at midnight on January 15, 1991, and within hours Desert Storm was to devastate Iraq with the ferocity of an act of nature. On the night before the deadline, at 7 P.M. on January 14, a deeply preoccupied Abu Iyad, chief of PLO intelligence, called for his bulletproof Mercedes and asked to be driven from his office in downtown Tunis to the house of Fatah's security chief, Hayil Abd al-Hamid (known as Abu al-Hol), who a day earlier had returned from Baghdad with Yasser Arafat.
The PLO was frantically trying to head off the war in the Gulf that Abu Iyad knew was imminent. All that day Arafat had held anxious consultations in Tunis with French, Italian, and Algerian envoys, and he was now already on his way back to Baghdad to beg Saddam Hussein to announce that he was ready to pull out of Kuwait. The PLO leaders had supported Saddam, but they knew that a war would destroy them all. To Arafat's horror, the Iraqi dictator was adamant. Pride or fatalism stupefied him in those last critical hours. In defiance of the vast armies ranged against him, he appeared to believe that the allies would not dare attack him and that even if they did, his forces could hold them off. Sick with worry, Abu Iyad wanted a firsthand report from Abu al-Hol about Saddam's alarmingly unrealistic mood. He also wanted to review the PLO's plans in the event of war.
Abu al-Hol's villa was in the outlying leafy suburb of Carthage, about half an hour's drive from Abu Iyad's office. Accompanied by a senior intelligence aide, Fakhri al-Umari, Abu Iyad was ushered indoors by Ahmad Sa'id, who that night was in charge of Abu al-Hol's personal security. Ten other guards were on duty: one at the front of the house, another at the back entrance, the others huddled together in a small room by the garden gate around a miniature television set that Abu Iyad's driver, Mahmud Mir'i, had brought out from the Mercedes he drove. It was a cold, rainy night. Inside the villa and in the guardroom everyone talked about the crisis in the Gulf. Abu Iyad and Abu al-Hol knew Saddam was gambling dangerously with their destinies, but the men in the guardroom were excited: An Arab champion had defied Israel and the West.THE KILLING OF ABU IYAD
Security around the house was slack, as was usual in PLO domestic arrangements. Kalashnikovs had been left in cars outside or stacked in a corner cupboard. Abu Iyad's chief bodyguard, Fu'ad al-Najjar, had not arrived with his master but came an hour or so later, as he had gone to settle some problem with his landlord. Then he drove off again to see a man about a BMW he had his eye on and once more left to fetch a take-out dinner for the other guards.
One of these guards, an agitated young man called Hamza Abu Zaid, sauntered out of the guardroom and started to pick a quarrel with Ali Qasim, the man posted at the front door of the villa. The two of them made so much noise that Ahmad Sa'id called out to them to shut up. On the pretext of wanting to take a tissue from a box inside the car, Hamza threw open the door of Abu Iyad's Mercedes. Ali Qasim tried to stop him. Hamza then bet him that the bullets from his Kalashnikov could penetrate the car's armor plating, and Ali Qasim dared him to try. They were soon jostling and butting each other and had to be separated. Hamza then claimed the light bulb over the front door of the house was flickering and wanted Ali Qasim to ring the bell to get someone to change it, but Ali Qasim pushed him away.
A moment later, when Ali Qasim had moved off, Hamza went to the front door and rang the bell himself. A maid opened and he went in. It was about 10:45 P.M. Ali Qasim expected Abu al-Hol to come out and scold Hamza for disturbing him, but instead he heard shots inside the building. He shouted for help. Looking for their weapons, the guards came scrambling out and dispersed to their stations, thinking the attack had come from outside. It took them a few moments to realize that the shooting was coming from inside the house.
Asleep in her bedroom, Abu al-Hol's wife was suddenly roused by a deafening burst of gunfire from the living room below. Hamza had shot Abu Iyad in the head and gunned down Fakhri al-Umari, who had tried to hide behind a sofa. She heard Hamza scream again and again: "Let Atif Abu Bakr help you now!" Then she heard her husband cry, "What have you done, Hamza? What have you done?" And then another burst of gunfire and another. Abu al-Hol had tried to reach the door but had been shot in the legs. He grappled with Hamza, who then shot him in the stomach at close range.
Abu al-Hol's wife ran to the adjoining room, where her seventeen-year-old daughter cowered in bed. She took her in her arms as she heard a man racing up the stairs. Hamza broke in, closed the door, and locked it. "The Israelis are here," he shouted. "They've shot Abu al-Hol."
Abu Jihad, the PLO's military chief, had been killed three years earlier by Israeli commandos, and the women must have believed Hamza.
Abu al-Hol's wife screamed, "Is he alive? Let me go to him."
"He's wounded. Don't ask me more than that."
The two women sat together on the floor in a corner, the daughter crying and her mother trying to comfort her, while Hamza roamed silently about the room, picking up small objects from the girl's dressing table, examining them and putting them down, and peering out of the window. There were sudden flashes of lightning and the sound of rainwater pouring down from the eaves. It was very dark outside.
"Is this your bed?" he suddenly asked the girl. When she did not answer, he bellowed out: "Is this your bed?" Her mother nudged her pleadingly to say yes.
"Why don't I have a bed like this or a desk or a room?" he shouted angrily. "Is it because I'm not the son of a Palestinian fat cat?" He poured out his bile against the PLO and its leaders: agents, traitors, lackeys, a cesspool of corruption. Abu al-Hol's wife heard him curse Atif Abu Bakr, a leading defector from Abu Nidal's organization, and vow to kill him. Then he took an envelope out of his pocket and reached in it for a tablet, which he swallowed. Then another and another over the five hours that he held them hostage.
They heard cars drive up to the house and much running back and forth. The Tunisian police had arrived. Abu Iyad and Umari were already dead. Abu al-Hol, who had lost much blood, died in the hospital on the operating table a little while later.
Upstairs, the telephone rang again and again. Finally, Hamza answered it. He seemed very calm, Abu al-Hol's wife remembered later, and utterly convinced he had done the right thing. She heard him say: "I've killed Abu Iyad and I'm holding Abu al-Hol's family hostage. I won't release them until you bring me Atif Abu Bakr." He added grimly: "I have a message for him."
The Tunisian police brought up floodlights and a loudspeaker. "Hamza!" they called to him, flooding the windows with light. "Hamza! Let the women go free. We want nothing else from you." This message was repeated every half hour, after which a deadly silence would fall. Hamza took more pills from his envelope.
In the early hours of the morning, the police called up to say that they wanted to negotiate with him. What did he want? A plane to fly him out, he told them. They said they had to get permission from a higher authority. When they returned, they said they needed some identification from him. When he proposed throwing his identity card out of the window, they said the rain would ruin it. But a dialogue had started and they soon talked him into coming downstairs and passing the card to them through the front door, which he opened a fraction. Abu al-Hol's wife then heard him close the door and come back up the stairs dragging his feet. Then she heard his Kalashnikov clattering to the ground. Running out onto the landing, she saw him slumped unconscious on the stairs. She later discovered that he had been knocked out by gas, which the police had sprayed into the hall from the outside. She ran down the stairs past him, opened the door, and let the police in.BIOGRAPHY OF A KILLER
Hamza Abu Zaid was just another young Palestinian with a troubled past, another Jorde. As recorded in a PLO file, his "permanent address" was:
Mustafa Salim's shop,
Behind the girls' school,
Wahdat refugee camp,
He was born in the Wahdat camp in 1963 and spent his first nineteen years there. His family had fled from Palestine in 1948, leaving their home village of Safiriya, near Jaffa, ahead of the conquering Israeli armies.
From two internal PLO memoranda given me by Abu Iyad's intelligence colleagues I was able to trace Hamza's feckless, itinerant life in the ten years before he killed Abu Iyad and his two colleagues in Tunis. It reveals as much about the workings of the PLO as it does about Hamza himself.
In July 1982, he crossed illegally from Jordan into Syria in order to enroll with Fatah, but the Syrians arrested him at the border. Finding nothing against him, they turned him over to Fatah, which put him on its payroll and posted him to the Salah al-Din camp, near Damascus.
In October 1982, he was sent to Yugoslavia on a ten-week course in weapons handling and security duties, returning to Damascus in December.
In February 1983, he was posted to Pakistan as a security guard in the office of the PLO representative.
In September 1984, he spent a two-week vacation at PLO headquarters in Tunis.
In October 1984, he was transferred to Bulgaria as a security guard in the office of the PLO representative. But he proved rowdy and undisciplined and in November he was sent back to Tunis, where Fatah sentenced him to a month's detention.
In 1985, he was sent to Cyprus as a security guard in the PLO office. Some Palestinian intelligence sources, sensitive, or perhaps oversensitive, to the risk of Israeli penetration, believe that it was here that an agent of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, disguised as a member of Abu Nidal's organization, approached him to persuade him to defect secretly to the organization. However, by the end of that same year, he was back in detention in Tunis for bad behavior.
On his release in early 1986, he was given a job as a security guard at PLO headquarters at Hammam al- Shatt, outside Tunis. But once again he proved quarrelsome and unreliable. It was decided to send him to Lebanon, but as no transport was immediately available, Abu al-Hol, head of Fatah security, took the extraordinary decision of appointing him as a bodyguard at his own home.
Three months later, Hamza ran away to Iraq with another security guard and managed to get himself taken on by the PLO representative in Baghdad. But the latter fell out with the Iraqi authorities. His office was closed in 1986, and his staff dispersed. Hamza and others soon found themselves in Hungary.
At this point in Hamza's career, the PLO lost track of him. They know that he spent some eighteen months, from mid-1986 to early 1988, bumming around Eastern Europe- -- n Budapest, Warsaw (where he spent twenty-one days in jail for petty theft), Prague, and Belgrade. It is in Belgrade, where Abu Nidal had a considerable base, rather than in Cyprus in 1985, that he was most probably recruited as a potential penetration agent by Abu Nidal's organization.
In July 1988, Hamza turned up in the Philippines. Traveling under a false name, he contacted the head of the Palestinian Students' Union in Manila. Hamza told him he had worked his way on a Greek ship and was trying to immigrate to Australia. He wanted an introduction to the PLO office. But his story failed to stand up. Suspecting that he worked for a hostile outfit, local PLO officials kept him away.
In Manila he moved in with some Palestinian students, borrowing small sums from them to keep alive. One of the boys had a pistol and another an MI6 rifle, which he had bought locally from a Filipino. One day, hearing a rumor that General Ariel Sharon, to them the devil incarnate, was due in town, they determined to assassinate him and set up a watch for this purpose at the Israeli embassy. One of them saw an embassy car with someone in the back who looked like Sharon, so they rented a car of their own, loaded their weapons, and spent a day and night driving between the Israeli embassy, the principal hotels, and the foreign ministry looking for Sharon -- needless to say, in vain.
In February 1989, Hamza left the Philippines very depressed, according to his roommates. There is no record of where he went next, until he surfaced in Libya in the spring of 1990, when he called several times at the PLO office in Tripoli asking to be taken back by Abu al-Hol.
In May 1990, Abu al-Hol went to Libya to attend a memorial service for Abu Jihad, the PLO military supremo killed in Tunis by Israeli commandos in April 1988. Hamza managed to see Abu al-Hol. Throwing himself at his feet, weeping, and lamenting his pathetic situation, he pleaded to be taken back. Abu al-Hol took pity on him and returned him to Tunis, where he put him to work again as a bodyguard at his house. At no time was Hamza properly interrogated about his activities during the years he had dropped out of sight.
In October 1990, on the pretext of wanting to see a long-lost sister, Hamza got leave from Abu al-Hol to go to Libya for two weeks. It was then, he later told his interrogators, that a man called Ghalib in Abu Nidal's organization gave him the mission to kill Abu Iyad. He said that he did not at first want to do it, but he was told that Abu Iyad was the source of all corruption in the Palestinian movement, the traitor who had used the defector Atif Abu Bakr to split the organization. Abu Iyad had to die for the Palestinian revolution to live. As for Abu Bakr, about whom we shall hear much more later on, he was a major defector from Abu Nidal's ranks and an important source for this book.
After the murders at Abu al-Hol's villa on the night of January 14, 1991, Hamza Abu Zaid was arrested by the Tunisians and taken away for interrogation. PLO officers were not allowed to take part in the questioning, nor were they given a transcript of what Hamza said. The Tunisian authorities feared the killings might be the prelude to an Israeli raid or might trigger popular disturbances, as the Tunisians were overwhelmingly on Iraq's side in the Gulf crisis. They had had a taste of Israeli aggression in October 1985, when Israeli aircraft invaded their airspace and bombed Arafat's Tunis headquarters, and again in April 1988, when an Israeli seaborne team murdered Abu Jihad at his house. They were now anxious to play down the affair as much as possible.
But Arafat would have none of this. He took the matter up with Tunisia's president, Ben Ali, who, in February 1991, handed Hamza over to the PLO for trial. The deal was that he would be removed from the country, sparing Tunisia a controversial trial in a Tunisian court. A PLO doctor who examined Hamza pronounced him a drug addict and gave him five times the normal dose of sedatives before he was flown by private plane to San'a, capital of Yemen, where he was interrogated and tried by the PLO and sentenced to death. The idea was that the wives of Abu Iyad and Abu al-Hol should witness the execution. But Colonel Qaddafi and Abu Nidal are said to have put pressure on Yemen's president, Ali Abdallah Salih, not to allow a public execution.
In June 1991, Hamza was found dead in his cell. The PLO let it be known that he had committed suicide.ABU IYAD'S CONFESSION
In the early summer of 1990, nine months before his murder, Abu Iyad sent word to me in London. If I happened to be coming to Tunis, he would like to see me. I was intrigued. What could he want? I had not yet made any holiday plans, so on impulse, I decided to take my wife and children to a hotel I knew outside Tunis. Its chalets, smothered in bougainvillea, were set in green lawns that stretched down to the Mediterranean. Whatever Abu Iyad had to tell me, I determined that it would not be a wasted trip.
I know the Middle East pretty well. I grew up there and, as an author and foreign correspondent (mainly for the London Observer), I have traveled in the region and written about it for thirty years, my main contribution to the subject being two books on Syria, The Struggle for Syria, first published in 1965, and, more recently, a biography of the Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, which aroused a good deal of controversy. The Syrians banned the book -- in fact (although I like to think it was avidly read), it was not allowed on public sale in any Arab country; the Israelis, too, thought I had been harsh on them; Americans objected to my criticism of U.S. Middle East policy; Lebanese Christians thought I had sold them out to the Syrians; Arafat and other Palestinians felt that in describing their tussles with Assad, I had not done justice to their cause; and the thought crossed my mind that this might be what Abu Iyad wanted to have out with me.
When researching my Assad biography in Damascus, I met and married the daughter of a retired Syrian diplomat, his country's ambassador to Washington for many years. Despite this Arab connection, I trust most readers consider me an independent observer with no ax to grind, no allegiance to one side rather than another, no hidden agenda save to pursue that elusive -- and, in the Middle East, ever-fleeting -- quarry, historical truth.
Abu Iyad I had met a number of times, but without really getting to know him. Involved with intelligence for much of his career, he was a shadowy figure and a good deal less accessible than other Palestinian leaders. I knew him, of course, as one of Fatah's chefs historiques, one of the four men who had founded the mainstream Palestinian resistance movement in 1959, the other three being Arafat; Muhammad Yusif Najjar, killed by the Israelis at his home in central Beirut in 1973; and Khalil al-Wazir (better known as Abu Jihad), the PLO's military supremo, the one killed by the Israelis at his home in Tunis in 1988 -- two commando operations in which Israel's current chief of staff, Ehud Barak, was intimately involved.
I had had my first long talk with Abu Iyad in Algiers in 1983, at a session of the Palestine National Council that I covered for The Observer, and was struck then by his realism, by the way his conversation came in rapid bursts of astonishing candor, by the absence of posturing. He seemed more worldly-wise and better informed than the other Palestinian leaders, perhaps the result of his extensive dealings over the years with intelligence agencies in many different countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Unlike some of the others, who affected a rough guerrilla appearance, he was immaculately turned out in a neatly pressed safari suit, such as African politicians wear, and smelled faintly of eau de cologne.
Held every few years, these meetings of the PNC, the Palestinians' "parliament-in-exile," were good occasions for observing Palestinian leaders doing their turn in the conference hall, for seeing Arafat's gift for political theater, and for informal meetings with the bosses of the various factions in the lobbies and corridors.
I will always remember the remarkable sight of George Habash at the rostrum. The extremist leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine thundered away, with blazing eyes, against a negotiated settlement with Israel. He had had a stroke and could not raise his arm to turn the pages of his prepared speech. The mere effort to speak and to stand upright brought sweat pouring down his face. At his side his disciple, Bassam Abu Sharif, himself scarred and partially blinded by an Israeli letter bomb, mopped his master's brow with a large white handkerchief and turned the pages for him, as one might for a musician. Some while later, Bassam Abu Sharif gave up Habash's extreme rejectionism to become the most ardent dove in Arafat's moderate camp, the frontrunner of the process that led the PLO formally to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel at the 1988 session of the Palestine National Council.
At the Algiers conference I also met Nayif Hawatmeh, leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, his permanently tortured expression seeming to suggest his efforts to squeeze the contradictions of Palestinian politics into the strict confines of his Marxist dialectic, and Ahmad Jibril, leader of the PFLP-General Command, a burly figure in a shiny black leather jacket, surrounded by a phalanx of crew-cut acolytes, who preached armed struggle and still more armed struggle. As a simple soldier, he held the windy theoreticians of the Palestinian movement in the greatest contempt. Sitting by himself in a discreet corner, overflowing out of his armchair in all directions, I found Abu Dawud, a giant of a man with a lopsided jaw where a bullet had got him. He was one of Fatah's most notorious guerrilla commanders and a wanted man -- wanted, that is, by the Israelis. It was rumored that he had had a hand in the attack on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. In conversation he was mild, self-deprecating, exuding a sort of despair that his obvious energies could not be better directed.
Abu Iyad impressed me more than these others. Calm, soft-spoken, and very steady, he was the sort of man to whom authority came naturally. As we talked, runners came up to whisper something in his ear or give him bits of paper, which he glanced at before tucking them away in his pocket. Although Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman and head of Fatah, was "Mr. Palestine," the public symbol of Palestinian aspirations, his closest colleagues, Abu Iyad, the intelligence chief, and the military chief, Abu Jihad, ran their own autonomous outfits with their own loyalists, much as barons might do under a medieval king. Abu Jihad, boss of the PLO's military wing, was rumpled and unimpressive to look at, with nothing soldierly in his bearing, but he was considered the best manager in the Palestinian movement, with a special grip over West Bank affairs (which is, no doubt, why the Israelis killed him). Abu Iyad, in contrast, had a sharp political brain and a fluent, seductive manner: He was the fixer, the man for confidential foreign missions, the keeper of PLO secrets. He was remarkable on several counts. Known as a committed nationalist on the left of Fatah, he was also one of the very first to recommend, in an interview with Le Monde back in 1972, a negotiated settlement with Israel based on a two-state solution, one in which a Palestinian statelet would live alongside and in harmony with its powerful Israeli neighbor -- a compromise that most Palestinians were at that time not yet ready to accept.
Abu Iyad's mother was Jewish,* and he had grown up chattering in Hebrew to Jewish boys of his own age as they played together on the beach at Tel Aviv.
This was the man I went to see in Tunis in the early summer of 1990. A Tunisian policeman stood in a sentry box outside the garden gate, while just inside the gate was a gaggle of half a dozen gun-toting Palestinian guards, including one ugly, loose-mouthed fellow as large as a sumo wrestler. I took the path across the garden, bright with geraniums, rang the front doorbell, and was ushered in by a woman secretary (who, I noticed, doubled as a telephonist: She had a seat by a switchboard in a corner of the hall) into an almost feminine drawing room, crowded with sofas and gilt armchairs and little tables on top of which sat vases of flowers. A moment later Abu Iyad hurried in and affably embraced me in the Arab manner, giving me his clean-shaven cheek.
For a while we chatted about my biography of Assad. As I expected, there were things about it he didn't like. He thought I had seen events too much from Syria's standpoint. If ever I were to publish a new edition, there were some factual corrections he would like me to make. But it was soon clear that he had something else on his mind. He wanted to talk about terrorism -- and in particular about Abu Nidal.
The Western world, he said with a frown, was not yet persuaded that the PLO was the indispensable partner for Middle East peace. It had underestimated the importance of the historic resolutions passed by the Palestine National Council in November 1988 that, for the first time, never so much as mentioned "armed struggle" and spelled out with absolute clarity the PLO's readiness to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Israel.
But how to get the West to see this? To his mind, the great obstacle was terrorism, an issue with which Israelis confronted every mention of peaceful compromise. If there was one man responsible for blackening the reputation of all Palestinian factions, it was, Abu Iyad believed, the arch-terrorist Abu Nidal.
The Israelis, Abu Iyad continued, were masters at penetration and deception. He had been sparring with the Mossad for a quarter of a century, and since the early 1980s, he had begun to suspect that the Israelis had infiltrated Abu Nidal's organization and were making use of him. "Every Palestinian who works in intelligence," he told me, "is convinced that Israel has a big hand in Abu Nidal's affairs." His suspicions had now hardened into a conviction: Abu Nidal was not just an extreme rejectionist who sold his services to Arab regimes. Israel had gained control of him. That was the key to his persistent sabotage of Palestinian interests.
In Abu Iyad's mind there was no great mystery about it: Israel wanted to destroy the PLO and prevent negotiations that might lead to a peaceful solution involving an autonomous Palestinian state on the West Bank. Any genuine negotiations would necessarily involve the surrender of territory, which is why Israel had gone to such lengths to persuade the world that the Palestinians were terrorists with whom no deal could be contemplated. Abu Nidal, he believed, was Israel's prime instrument for this purpose, central to its strategy. Until Abu Nidal was exposed and defeated, he said, the PLO's credibility would continue to be questioned and the peace process could get nowhere.
Leaning forward and talking very fast as was his habit, he told me that there was no other plausible explanation for the evidence that had accumulated over the years. Abu Nidal had killed the PLO's most accomplished diplomats: Hammami, in London; Qalaq, in Paris; Yassin, in Kuwait; he had slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian fighters; he had debased the Palestinian national struggle with his senseless and savage terrorism and succeeded in alienating the Palestinians' best friends. He had made the word Palestinian synonymous with terrorist. He was either deranged or he was a traitor, and Abu Iyad did not think he was deranged. Abu Nidal, he told me, was the greatest enemy of the Palestinian people.
"He is a man wholly without principle!" he exploded angrily. "He would ally himself with the devil in order to stay alive and drink a bottle of whiskey every night!
"Try to see Abu Nidal," he urged me. "Go to Libya. Ask him to explain himself, and then make up your own mind."
He then made an extraordinary admission: "I feel very guilty that I was responsible for not facing up sooner to the threat from Abu Nidal. I should have killed him fifteen years ago. I confess this now. I wanted to believe that he was a patriot who had strayed from the path and that I could win him back. For far too long I was reluctant to accept that he was a traitor."
Abu Iyad's diatribe rather took my breath away. Abu Nidal an Israeli agent? The extravagance of the charge made me think that I had stumbled on yet another Palestinian feud. It is characteristic of the hothouse of Palestinian politics, and, I suppose, of revolutionary politics generally, that every man's hand is raised against his brother. One has to spend only a little time with the guerrilla factions to be amazed at the wild stories they tell about one another. I had recently spent ten hours talking to Ahmad Jibril at his military camp outside Damascus, trying to probe into his possible connection with the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, only to find that it was almost impossible to get him off the subject of his bitter enemy Yasser Arafat. At great length, and with complicated excursions into Arafat's obscure genealogy, he had tried to persuade me that the PLO chairman was a Jew of Moroccan origin. Heaving himself out of his chair, Jibril threw his arms in the air and exclaimed: "The leader of the Palestine revolution, and we don't even know who he is!"
Was Abu Iyad playing the same game? I had heard rumors that when Abu Nidal was a young man in Fatah, Abu Iyad had been his friend and protector. Clearly, love had now turned to hate. This would explain Abu Iyad's injured tone. But his allegations were a different matter. It was of course well known that Israel's Mossad, like other intelligence agencies, tried to penetrate terrorist groups, but to suggest that Abu Nidal had been "turned" and his organization taken over seemed to me a very tall story indeed.
I tried to question Abu Iyad. Where was the evidence? Disarmingly, he said it wasn't foolproof. When you didn't have your own country and couldn't control airports, ports, borders, hotels, and taxi drivers, gathering the evidence was difficult. Effective counterespionage depended on 100 percent control of the environment -- something that the PLO had never managed to achieve. In Iraq and Syria, he said, the PLO could not monitor Abu Nidal's movements properly, and in Libya it was still more difficult. Even in Lebanon and Tunisia, which he claimed were both swarming with Israeli agents, the PLO had never been allowed the facilities it needed. He added, "We know for certain that Mossad came here to Tunis when we did in 1982, with its own safe houses, weapons, and communications."
Abu Iyad was no half-baked Palestinian youngster talking to me but the PLO's veteran intelligence chief. Skeptical as I was, I took careful notes. "Why don't you write something about it?" he said. Would he tell me what he knew? Would he open his archives? Would he help me find defectors from Abu Nidal's organization who were said to be hiding in Tunis and elsewhere under PLO protection? Two men, in particular, I was anxious to interview because they had broken with Abu Nidal in a blaze of publicity in November 1989 and then gone to ground. One was Atif Abu Bakr, whose name Hamza kept shouting the night he killed Abu Iyad. Bakr had been the head of Abu Nidal's Political Directorate and was well known in Palestinian circles as a thinker, diplomat, and poet; the other was a very different character: Abd al-Rahman Isa had been Abu Nidal's hatchet man and chief of intelligence for twenty years. If anyone knew Abu Nidal's secrets, these two men did. I asked Abu Iyad if he could arrange for me to see them. Anytime I wanted, he replied.
I returned to London to think hard about what I was getting myself into. I didn't buy Abu Iyad's story. I thought it was preposterous. But I was tempted to know him better, learn how his mind worked, see the complicated world of the Palestinians from the inside. Obviously, he wanted to use me to expose Abu Nidal, a man he now hated. The same would be true for the defectors. Obviously, information they gave me would be slanted. After quarrels and splits, revolutionaries notoriously hurl anathemas and invent stories. But I felt I was an old enough hand in Arab politics to pick my way through the maze. Could I see enough people to enable me to check and countercheck my material? Would I be able to test what I learned with intelligence specialists outside the Palestinian movement? In any event, the subject was important enough that whatever happened, I felt I had to get to the bottom of Abu Iyad's allegations if I could. I certainly didn't know what to expect. I had no idea where the trail would lead me, but I felt that if nothing else came of it, I would have the chance to learn something about one of the great mysteries of Arab politics: Who was Abu Nidal, and what was he all about? I let Abu Iyad know that I would return to Tunis later that summer.
Before leaving London, I did some preliminary research. Checking for references to Abu Nidal in a couple of data banks, I turned up grisly accounts of his attacks on synagogues in Istanbul and elsewhere and on El Al ticket counters at the Rome and Vienna airports, hardly the work of an Israeli agent. However, I remembered that Abu Iyad had made much of Abu Nidal's killing of prominent Palestinians. He had used a phrase that stuck in my head: "We were often not sure whether Mossad or Abu Nidal was the killer. I admit it confused us." What could he have meant?
Ransacking my files, I made a list of Palestinians who had been attacked or killed either by Israel or Abu Nidal, a list based on public sources available to anyone, except in one or two cases in which I had special knowledge. Although Abu Nidal surfaced for the first time in 1974, I chose 1971-72 as my starting point because this was when the Black September terrorist movement emerged after the Palestinians' bloody showdown with Jordan's King Hussein in 1970. The Palestinians had then fought a running battle with the Mossad across Europe -- the so-called War of the Spooks -- and Abu Iyad had been up to his neck in it. Israel's embassies, envoys, airlines, and overseas companies had all become vulnerable to attack. Determined to defeat the terrorists, Golda Meir, Israel's prime minister at the time, had instructed her intelligence chiefs to go out and kill. I pinned the list on my wall and started to think about it. This is how it read:
May 8, 1972 -- Four Black September hijackers seize a Sabena jet on a flight from Vienna to Tel Aviv and, on landing at Lod, threaten to blow up the plane unless Israel releases one hundred Palestinian prisoners. Paratroopers disguised as mechanics storm the aircraft, killing two gunmen and releasing ninety passengers.
May 31, 1972 -- In retaliation, three Japanese terrorists, allies of George Habash's PFLP, launch an indiscriminate gun and grenade attack at Lod Airport in Israel, killing twenty-four people.
July 9, 1972 -- Israel hits back with a car bomb in Beirut, which kills the PFLP spokesman Ghassan Kanafani and his seventeen-year-old niece.
July 11, 1972 -- To avenge Kanafani, a terrorist throws a grenade at Tel Aviv's bus terminal, wounding eleven people.
July 19, 1972 -- An Israeli letter bomb injures Dr. Anis al-Sayigh, director of the Beirut Center for Palestinian Affairs.
July 25, 1972 -- Another Israeli letter bomb delivered to a PFLP address in Beirut maims Bassam Abu Sharif, chief assistant to George Habash.
August 5, 1972 -- Black September terrorists, led by Ali Hasan Salameh, bomb an American-owned oil storage tank at Trieste, Italy.
September 5, 1972 -- Eight Palestinian terrorists break into the quarters of the Israeli team at the Munich Olympic village, killing two Israelis and taking nine others hostage. They name their operation Ikrit and Biram, after two Arab villages in northern Galilee razed by Israel, and demand the release of 250 Palestinians and Lebanese abducted in Lebanon by Israeli forces. In a gun battle with West German police, nine Israeli athletes and five Palestinians are killed.
September 11, I972 -- Zadok Ophir, a Mossad clerk at the Israeli embassy in Brussels, is shot and badly wounded by a Palestinian.
September 19, 1972 -- Dr. Ami Shachori, agricultural attache at the Israeli embassy in London, is killed by an Arab letter bomb.
October 17, 1972 -- Wa'il Zu'aiter, Fatah's representative in Rome, is killed by Israeli agents.
December 8, 1972 -- Mahmud al-Hamshari, PLO representative in Paris, is badly wounded by an Israeli bomb. He dies a month later.
December 28, 1972 -- Black September gunmen seize the Israeli embassy in Bangkok and take six Israeli hostages. They demand the release of thirty-six Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. The hostages are eventually released unharmed.
January 24, 1973 -- Hussein Abu al-Khair, Fatah representative in Cyprus, is killed by an Israeli bomb at a Nicosia hotel.
January 26, 1973 -- Baruch Cohen, a Mossad agent directing operations against Palestinians in Europe, is killed in Madrid by a Fatah agent.
February 22, 1973 -- Israeli fighters shoot down a Libyan Airlines Boeing that had strayed ninety kilometers off course over Sinai, killing 104 passengers and crew.
March 6, 1973 -- Black September gunmen raid the Saudi embassy in Khartoum during a diplomatic reception and demand the release of the Palestinian guerrilla commander Abu Dawud, then in jail in Jordan. They murder the American ambassador, Cleo Noel, the departing American charge d'affaires, George Moore, and a Belgian diplomat, Guy Eid.
March 12, 1973 -- Simha Gilzer, a Mossad agent, is killed in a Nicosia hotel by Palestinian gunmen.
April 4, 1973 -- Dr. Basil al-Qubaisi, a prominent PFLP official, is killed by Israeli agents in Paris.
April 10, 1973 -- An Israeli assassination squad kills three prominent Fatah leaders -- Muhammad Yusif Najjar, Kamal Udwan, and Kamal Nasser -- in their homes in central Beirut, which is a devastating blow to the Palestinians and brings down the Lebanese government.
April 27, 1973 -- An Israeli employee of El Al is killed in Rome by a Palestinian gunman.
June 27, 1973 -- Muhammad Boudia, an Algerian member of Fatah, is killed in Paris by an Israeli bomb.
July 2, 1973 -- Col. Yosef Alon, an Israeli defense attache, is shot outside his home in Washington.
July 21, 1973 -- Israeli agents looking for Ali Hasan Salameh, a Black September commander, kill a Moroccan waiter by mistake in the Norwegian town of Lillehammer. Six Israeli agents are captured and put on trial, exposing Israel's counterterrorist network in Europe.
October 1974 -- Abu Nidal agents try to kill Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazin), a close colleague of Yasser Arafat.
January 3, 1977 -- Mahmud Salih, a PLO representative in Paris and manager of an Arabic bookshop, is killed by Israeli agents.
January 4, 1978 -- Sa'id Hammami, PLO representative in London and a well-known dove, is killed by an Abu Nidal gunman.
June 15, 1978 -- Ali Yassin, PLO representative in Kuwait, is killed by an Abu Nidal gunman.
August 3, 1978 -- Izz al-Din Qalaq, PLO representative in Paris and, like Hammami, a prominent dove, is killed by an Abu Nidal gunman.
August 5, I978 -- Yusif Abu Hantash, PLO representative in Pakistan, escapes an assassination attempt by Abu Nidal gunmen. Four other people are killed.
January 22, 1979 -- Ali Hassan Salameh, head of Arafat's security unit, Force 17, is killed by an Israeli car bomb in Beirut.
April 22, 1980 -- Abu Iyad (or, to give him his real name, Salah Khalaf) escapes an assassination attempt in Belgrade by Abu Nidal agents. They attack a car in which they think he is traveling.
June 1, 1981 -- Na'im Khudr, PLO representative in Brussels and another well-known dove, is killed by an Abu Nidal gunman.
July 27, 1981 -- Abu Dawud (or, by his real name, Muhammad Awda), the Fatah guerrilla commander, narrowly survives an attack on his life in Warsaw by an Abu Nidal gunman.
October 8, 1981 -- Abu Tariq (or, by his real name, Sulaiman al-Shurafa), Fatah representative in Libya, escapes an attack on his life in Malta by an Abu Nidal gunman, who kills another man by mistake.
October 9, 1981 -- Majid Abu Sharar, a prominent Fatah leader, is killed by an Israeli bomb in Rome.
April 10, 1983 -- Dr. Isam Sartawi, a close associate of Arafat and the most prominent dove in the Palestinian movement, is killed by an Abu Nidal gunman in Lisbon, Portugal.
April 16, 1988 -- Abu Jihad (or, by his real name, Khalil al-Wazir), the PLO's military supremo, is killed at his home in Tunis by a seaborne Israeli assassination squad.
I looked at the list long and hard. It fell into two halves, with an obvious break after 1973. Up to 1973, Israel had been killing Palestinian terrorists and guerrilla leaders. After 1977 Abu Nidal began killing Palestinian moderates -- "doves" who wanted to negotiate with Israel, not to bomb it out of existence. My list wasn't all that neat, but there seemed to be a general pattern. Was there some sort of link between the two halves of the list? And why the gap in the mid-1970s?
I didn't have to look far into the historical record. While the War of the Spooks was raging in the early 1970s, Egypt's President Sadat was pleading with the Americans to bring Israel to the negotiating table. But Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, ignored him. By 1973 Arafat was trying to disassociate himself and the PLO from terror and counterterror. He was largely successful, though there were groups within the PLO, like that of Abu'l Abbas for example, that he could not control. Nevertheless, Arafat, who had lost some of his best men, was now ready to steer his fractious movement away from violence and toward a negotiated peace. Immediately after the Israeli fiasco at Lillehammer, Arafat sent four messages to Kissinger, between July and October 1973, calling for a dialogue with the United States. But Kissinger sent General Vernon Walters, then deputy director of the CIA, to tell an Arafat aide in Morocco that "the United States has no proposals to make."
In October 1973, Egypt and Syria went to war to break the stalemate, recover part, at least, of the occupied territories, and force Israel to negotiate. Much as Desert Storm did in 1991, the October War revived hopes of a general Arab-Israeli settlement brokered by the United States, with Kissinger then in charge of American diplomacy. Again Arafat appealed to Kissinger to let him join the process, and Sadat urged Kissinger to meet the PLO chairman. But Kissinger shied brusquely away. For him, as for many Israelis, the PLO was not the advocate of a legitimate national claim but a "terrorist group," "unacceptable as a negotiating partner." A PLO-run state, Kissinger believed, was bound, with Soviet help, to develop into a radical fortress like Libya or South Yemen, from which operations against Israel would inevitably be mounted.
Accordingly, Kissinger dropped the West Bank from his agenda and agreed with Israel to exclude the PLO from any post- war settlement. As his "step-by-step" diplomacy unfolded, it gradually became clear that his prime aim -- and that of Israel as well -- was to take Egypt, the most powerful of the Arab states, out of the Arab lineup and push the Palestine question over the horizon. Kissinger agreed with Israel that the Palestinians were a security problem to be dealt with by tough physical means rather than a political problem to be solved by negotiation and compromise.
After that, much that Arafat did was irrelevant. In October 1974, he persuaded Arab leaders to recognize the PLO as "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." In November 1974, he told the United Nations, "I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand," signaling his readiness to negotiate with Israel. He coaxed his followers into accepting the notion of a mini-state alongside Israel rather than the maximalist demand of destroying Israel entirely. But Israel and Kissinger said no.
In 1975, the Lebanese civil war broke out, fueled by the Palestinians' frustrated hopes for peace and the fears of the Christians that if the Palestinians were not to get a state of their own, Lebanon would never be rid of them. The war sucked in several outside parties, notably Syria, and distracted the region for the next couple of years.
Then in May 1977, Menachem Begin, the former Irgun terrorist and zealous champion of a "greater Israel," came to power. It had been his lifelong ambition to absorb the West Bank into the state of Israel by establishing Jewish settlers on West Bank territory and crushing Palestinian nationalism. For Begin, Arafat was obviously a major problem. The PLO leader wanted to negotiate. But for Israel negotiation could mean losing the West Bank. Thus, Israeli strategy aimed to destroy the PLO by all possible means -- by promoting a worldwide political and diplomatic campaign to isolate and undermine it, by demonizing it as a "terrorist organization," by stifling any dialogue the PLO might try to conduct with the West and particularly with the United States.
In January 1978, some months after Begin took office, the list I made showed that Abu Nidal began killing prominent PLO moderates -- precisely the men who were trying to influence Western opinion by preaching negotiation and reconciliation with Israel.
More than any previous Israeli leader, Begin was determined to cast Arafat and his colleagues as terrorists with whom it was impossible to talk, a view that fitted the Reagan administration's obsession with "international terrorism." Not surprisingly, terrorism preoccupied the Reagan administration from the start, in 1981. The long incarceration of Americans in the American embassy in Tehran had done much to destroy Jimmy Carter and ensure Reagan's election. Reagan, his secretary of state Alexander Haig, and CIA director William Casey all gave credence to the comic-strip reports by the American journalist Claire Sterling in her book The Terror Network (1981) of tens of thousands of terrorists, sponsored directly or indirectly by Moscow, being trained in guerrilla camps across the world as "elite battalions in a worldwide army of Communist Combat." The Cubans, she wrote, had a big hand in it, but so did the Palestinians -- the "second great magnetic pole for apprentice terrorists." Intelligence professionals knew that Sterling was talking nonsense, but Begin was happy to encourage the White House and the State Department to see terrorism as the main scourge of the modern world and Syria, Libya, and the PLO as its practitioners.
Claire Sterling nee Neikind (October 21, 1919 - June 17, 1995) was an American author and journalist for the CIA.
Sterling received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York, where she was also born. Earlier she received a degree in economics from Brooklyn College, worked as a union organizer, and was briefly member of the Young Communist League. She joined The Reporter in 1949, writing for the magazine until it folded in 1968, became an author and freelance journalist thereafter, writing for various newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Washington Post and Reader's Digest. She married her husband Thomas Sterling, a novelist, in 1950, and they went to live in Italy, where they passed their honeymoon. She died of cancer at age 75, in a hospital in Arezzo, Italy.
Sterling's first book revisited the 1948 death of Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovakian foreign minister who died under suspicious circumstances. More controversial were her books The Terror Network (1981) and The Time of the Assassins (1984). In the former book, which was translated into 22 languages, she claimed that Soviet Union was a major source of backing behind terrorist groupings around the world. The latter book dealt with the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John II, in which she blamed the Bulgarian secret service for ordering the attack; the discredited "Bulgarian Connection."
-- Claire Sterling, by Wikipedia
Reflecting on all this, I wondered whether this was what Abu Iyad had in mind. He had told me that Abu Nidal's murdering Palestinian moderates was connected with Begin's determination never to negotiate with Palestinians for fear of losing the West Bank. For Begin, the moderates, who wanted to negotiate, were the real danger and had to be eliminated. If the Israelis had in fact infiltrated Abu Nidal's organization, perhaps some spymaster in Jerusalem had said, "We've got someone who can do the job for us." There was very little evidence to go on, but I was beginning to grasp Abu Iyad's logic or, at any rate, the stimulus to his paranoia.
There was, of course, a perfectly sensible alternative explanation. Abu Nidal might simply be what he said he was, an out- and-out rejectionist who considered Arafat a traitor for even contemplating a settlement with Israel and who was prepared to murder any doves, like Hammami in London, who dared to speak out in favor of peace. In the shadowy world of killers and secret agents, who knew what to believe?
At about this time I was visited in London by a former general in Aman, Israel's military intelligence service, who was doing research on a quite different topic. After our talk I asked him pointblank whether Israel penetrated and manipulated Palestinian groups. He looked at me carefully. "Penetration, yes," he said, "but manipulation, no." He paused, then added with a little smile, "No one would admit to that."IN PURSUIT OF ABU NIDAL
I returned to Tunis a number of times that summer and autumn, and Abu Iyad was as good as his word. In great secrecy, he arranged for me to interview Atif Abu Bakr, the most prominent defector from Abu Nidal's organization. Abu Bakr was then in hiding, fearing Abu Nidal's revenge. He proved an invaluable source. Before joining Abu Nidal in 1985, Abu Bakr had represented the PLO in Belgrade (1974-76), Prague (1976-83), and Budapest (1983-84). He was highly articulate, one of the cleverest men I had met in the Palestinian movement. Abu Bakr in turn introduced me to members of his Emergency Leadership -- an anti-Abu Nidal splinter group -- including its military commander, "Basil," who had worked with Abu Nidal since the 1970s. From there, one source led to another.
I tried to persuade another prominent defector, Abd al-Rahman Isa, Abu Nidal's former intelligence chief, to cooperate and telephoned him in Algiers, hoping to visit him there. But he said that he would only talk in exchange for a very large sum of money. When I reported this to Abu Iyad, he laughed and gave me the unedited tapes of a long conversation he had had with Isa, over several hours, after he broke with Abu Nidal in 1989. Isa had not been aware of the hidden microphones and did not know his "debriefing" was being recorded. So, although I never interviewed Isa myself, I had access to the account of his career he had given to Abu Iyad.
Abu Iyad also put me in touch with several of his intelligence officers and with his archivist, a plump man with an encyclopedic memory and a sallow complexion the color of his buff files. Outside Abu Iyad's intelligence orbit, I was of course able to talk at length with a great many other Palestinians who had once had dealings with Abu Nidal or who knew about him indirectly. The most valuable of these was the guerrilla commander Abu Dawud, whose career had meshed with Abu Nidal's over the years.
Jorde, I met in a seaside town on the Mediterranean. After his adventures in Thailand, he had wandered about southern Europe for a few months, getting by as best he could. He was tempted, he told me, to slip back into a life of petty crime, but his main fear was that Abu Nidal's people, present under cover in several European cities, would catch up with him and take him forcibly back to Libya. Penniless and vulnerable, he needed protection. It was therefore pretty well inevitable that he should gravitate to the PLO, the only organization he could think of that had a strong interest in learning more about Abu Nidal.
But after Jorde had told his story to PLO intelligence, Abu Iyad no longer trusted him and suspected that he was a plant. Jorde was so glib, so skillful at spinning a yarn, that Abu Iyad thought it prudent to keep him on ice for a few months, probing into his background and testing his story against that of other defectors from Abu Nidal's outfit.
It was about this time that I met him. He was anxious to please and yet was edgy, like a man on probation, suspended between the organization he had fled from, which he feared was pursuing him, and the organization he hoped to join, which was wary of him. Perhaps Abu Iyad thought that an independent "debriefing" by me would tease the truth out of Jorde -- or would at least provide one version of the truth, which PLO intelligence could then compare with the one Jorde had given them. I don't know the answer to that puzzle, and Abu Iyad is beyond questioning.
Most of the defectors I met lived in fear. Our meetings took place over several months in PLO safe houses in Tunis and its suburbs, reached after long car journeys, usually at night. Invariably, the men I interviewed had guns within easy reach (on the table next to my tape recorder, or tucked casually into the cushions of a chair) and were accompanied by young bodyguards, men much like Jorde, armed with submachine guns. When they were not in the kitchen making coffee, to see us through the long sessions, they lolled in the corridor or on the balcony, where they could keep an eye on the approach roads.
In 1990-91, my research took me to small hotels in Cyprus and Malta, to Paris and Marseilles, to Italy, Austria, and Greece, and to the offices and apartments of a number of men and women in Western capitals concerned with counterterrorism. To all of these I am grateful, although I cannot name them.
My aim in the narrative that follows is to paint as accurate a portrait as possible of Abu Nidal and of the clandestine outfit he has headed for the past seventeen years. No organization, even a legitimate one, likes to be investigated by outsiders. And this one, which is anything but legitimate, is no exception. Its very nature is covert. If they talk, its members and ex- members risk death. But splits and defections have opened a small window, allowing one a glimpse of what goes on inside.
Of all the men of violence in the contemporary Middle East, Abu Nidal poses the most intriguing riddles. Why does he kill? On whose orders? To what effect? How has he managed to survive for so long with half the world's secret services at his heels? Why has Israel never attacked him, as it has other Palestinian factions? No career in recent years throws more light on the Middle East's secret wars, in which dirty tricks abound and in which things are rarely what they seem.
This is not a pretty tale. It is a journey into a violent and distasteful underworld where principles and common pity are unknown and where death waits at every corner.
* In the mid-1970s Eric Rouleau, Le Monde's outstanding Middle East expert (now French ambassador to Turkey), helped Abu Iyad write an autobiography, which appeared in 1978 under the French title Abou iyad, palestinien sans patrie. In it Abu Iyad referred elliptically to his mother when he wrote that "my grandfather, a man of religion in Gaza, had brought up his children in a spirit of tolerance. One of his sons had married a Jewish woman." Abu Iyad was describing his own father.