PARIS The death in Baghdad of the Abu Nidal, the Palestinian terrorist,
conveys a lesson generally neglected in today's American war against terrorism.
The lesson is that Middle Eastern terrorism has been around for a long time
and has been worse in the past than it is today. It has never been “defeated,”
nor have its motivations ever been simple. Americans did not notice, because they
were rarely the victims. Americans noticed Al Qaeda because Osama bin Laden made
them notice last Sept. 11, and because he declares the United States his enemy.
For Abu Nidal, there were two avowed enemies: Israel and the Palestinian leaders
who were prepared to consider a peaceful settlement with Israel. Whether these
were really his enemies, or whether he was a hired gun, of Israel among others,
is questioned, as Patrick Seale has written (IHT, Aug. 22). The current
violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories has been an appalling form
of war between two defined national entities, the Palestinians and the Israelis,
with the two sides using the weapons available to them, high-tech on the Israeli
side, the suicidal act of terrorism on the Palestinian. Abu Nidal's organization,
in contrast, practiced terror for personal power and profit. His followers killed
or wounded nearly a thousand people in 20 countries between 1973 and 1994. Had
he thought of crashing airplanes into office towers, and found the people to do
it, and had it been useful to him, he undoubtedly would have killed many more
than Al Qaeda has done. His seeming obsession was the destruction of Israel. But
his actions, overall, tended to suit Israel's tactical interests. Some in the
Arab world accused him of cynical secret collaboration with Israel, contributing
to the subversion of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and providing a pretext
for Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 - in an effort to destroy that organization,
which then had its headquarters there.
Israel's creation had ruined his father and family, before 1948 one of the
richest and most successful in the old British Mandated Palestine. His father
was said to have controlled l0 percent of pre-1948 Palestine's produce exports
to Europe. The family's agricultural properties were expropriated by Israel. He
joined Yasser Arafat's Fatah.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel had been shocked by its initial
defeats in simultaneous Egyptian and Syrian invasions, Yasser Arafat gave his
first indication of possible compromise with the Israelis. Abu Nidal broke with
him. He began killing those PLO officials who approached the Israelis about peace.
He was responsible for the murders of PLO representatives in London, Brussels,
and Rome. His people attacked Arafat deputies and associates in the organization's
exile headquarters in Tunis. Some credit Abu Nidal's attacks on PLO moderates
as having seriously if not fatally delayed Palestinian implementation of the peace
program launched in Oslo in 1993.
He also believed in the utility of indiscriminate terror. His organization
attacked passengers on a Greek tourist ship, worshippers at Sabbath services in
a Turkish synagogue and several airliners. In 1982, his militants bombed a well-known
Jewish restaurant in Paris. In 1985, on the same day and at the same hour, they
machine-gunned crowds at El Al counters in Rome and Vienna.
He was sentenced in absentia to death in Italy, and was wanted by courts or
investigators in the United States, Britain and France. The PLO condemned him
to death. His presence in Iraq has been one reason given by the United States
for calling that nation a "rogue state." The State Department once described
his group as "the most dangerous terrorist organization in existence."
Some in the Middle East concluded that he was a psychopath, a victim of paranoia
that caused him to murder some 150 of his own followers, suspected of dissidence.
Others, as Seale has written, thought him a mercenary traitor to his ostensible
cause. He has been quiet for the last 10 years, and now he is dead - according
to the Iraqis a traitor to their interests. Possibly he had been recruited, via
intermediaries in the Gulf, to the American cause, so as to spare the United States
a war to dispose of Saddam Hussein. Possibly even Mossad got back to him. Possibly
Saddam simply decided that he was an inconvenience. Only his enemies still remembered
him, until his death sent the newspaper obituary writers to their files this week.
But in his day he did a lot of harm, and was a big man - just as Osama bin Laden
is a big man today.
Copyright © 2002 the International Herald Tribune