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Tuesday, 20 August, 2002, 21:10 GMT 22:10 UK
Abu Nidal: Ruthless maverick
Abu Nidal
Abu Nidal: Linked to a series of terrorist attacks
Iraq has confirmed reports that the veteran Palestinian militant, Abu Nidal, has committed suicide in Baghdad. Middle East analyst Gerald Butt assesses the life and legacy of one of the world's most wanted terrorist figures.

For decades Abu Nidal was regarded as a terrorist and a wanted man - inside the mainstream Palestinian community as much as in the world at large.

He was a constant thorn in the side of Yasser Arafat and was sentenced to death in absentia by a Palestinian court.

But as the years passed, fewer and fewer states were prepared to give refuge to Abu Nidal and his small group of dedicated followers. Iraq was their last haven.


Abu Nidal was ultimately a man driven more by vengeance than ideology.

Sabri Banna - Abu Nidal's real name - was born in Jaffa in British-mandate Palestine in 1937 where he received his early education.

His father was a wealthy citrus plantation owner. After the creation of Israel in 1948, the family fled to the Gaza Strip.

As a young man Sabri Banna became involved in Arab nationalist politics, becoming a member of the Ba'ath party in Jordan.

He was later expelled after a failed plot to kill King Hussein. In Saudi Arabia he joined a secret cell of Fatah, the main Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) group.

Active PLO member

Abu Nidal, as he now called himself, was later expelled from the kingdom and set up a business back in Jordan.

By this time he was an active member of the PLO, later becoming its representative in Sudan and then Iraq.

Abu Nidal
Abu Nidal was an outspoken critic of the PLO
During his stay in Iraq in the 1970s, Abu Nidal began to drift away from mainstream PLO thinking becoming, in effect, an agent of the Baghdad authorities.

In 1974 he publicly criticised a decision of the Palestinians' parliament in exile to set up a "national authority" on any part of liberated land, arguing that this represented an unacceptable compromise and a betrayal of principles.

His outburst led to his expulsion from Fatah and marked the start of his campaign to undermine the PLO leadership.

Shortly after his expulsion he was found guilty by a PLO court in Beirut of plotting to murder a Fatah leader, Abu Mazin, and sentenced to death.

Exile

Having set up a rival Palestinian group known as Fatah Revolutionary Council, funded and supported by Iraq, Abu Nidal based himself in Baghdad. But his stay there was brief.

Iraq expelled the dissident Palestinian leader to bolster its case for receiving aid from the United States during the Iraq-Iran war. Abu Nidal's next base was the Syrian capital, Damascus.


Many Palestinians shared his view that the PLO was making too many concessions ... but few backed either his ruthless style of operating

From there he and his supporters, representing Syrian interests at the time, sought to undermine PLO and Jordanian moves towards some sort of accommodation with Israel by carrying out a series of bloody terrorist attacks - on El Al counters at Vienna and Rome airports.

The group also hijacked aircraft and murdered Palestinian diplomats and other Arabs who had had contact with Israelis.

In 1982, an Abu Nidal gunman shot and wounded the Israeli ambassador in London, a development that became a pretext for Israel's invasion of Lebanon.

In the mid-1980s, Syria - trying to improve relations with the West - expelled Abu Nidal who found refuge for a time in Libya before settling again in Baghdad.

In 1991, Abu Nidal supporters were accused of murdering a senior PLO official in Tunis, Salah Khalaf (aka Abu Iyad).

Driven by vengeance

Abu Nidal was ultimately a man driven more by vengeance than ideology.

Many Palestinians shared his view that the PLO leadership was making too many concessions and abandoning too many principles in its search for peace with Israel.

But few backed either his ruthless style of operating or his willingness to be an opportunistic lackey of Arab regimes.

In the end, there will be few tears shed on account of the death of one of the most notorious figures in the Arab world, who did more harm than good to the Palestinian cause.


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19 Aug 02 | Middle East
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