The apparent death in Baghdad this weekend of Abu Nidal, described by Britain’s Daily Telegraph as “the world’s most ruthless Palestinian terrorist,” was met with a mixture of skepticism, relief, and even joy. A long obituary in the Guardian called him a “patriot turned psychopath … the ultimate mercenary” and said, “[H]is murderous terrorist career discredited his people and aided only Israel.”
Born Sabri al-Banna, the son of a wealthy Jaffa family forced from its property in 1948, he was one of Fatah’s first members, but in 1974 he split from the Palestine Liberation Organization, rejecting the group’s moves toward a negotiated settlement with Israel. Following the schism, moderate Arab regimes and Palestinians became his most frequent target. According to Israel’s Ha’aretz, “attacks on Fatah leaders far outnumbered his attacks on Israelis and Jews.”
The Jerusalem Post calculated that “[d]uring its 30-year history, the Abu Nidal organization was responsible for almost 1,000 deaths in 20 countries including the US, England, Israel, and various Arab states.” Spain’s El País claimed that during the 1970s and ‘80s, Nidal “along with Venezuelan Carlos [the Jackal] was the principal exponent of international terrorism.” Canada’s National Post said he eventually “abandoned the pretense of fighting Zionism and became a roving gun for hire, inserting himself among the petty intramural squabbles of Syria, Libya, Iran and Iraq.” Britain’s Independent added, “[M]uch of his career had less to do with politics than with extortion, revenge, and serving the interests of the intelligence services of the anti-Western Arab states … willing to give him house room.” In the end, he was a pariah even to hard-line regimes; the Daily Telegraph’s obituary said he “spent his last years a lonely, paranoid and sickly figure.”
This isn’t the first time Abu Nidal (the nom de guerre, adopted in the late ‘60s, means “father of the struggle”) has been reported dead, though it may be the first claim of suicide. The London Times counted at least five previous reports, and the Independent’s Robert Fisk noted that he was said to have died of cancer and shot to death in Libya: “[He] seems to go on being reincarnated for the benefit of dying all over again.” Fisk concluded, “His ‘suicide’ might come as a gift to an American administration longing to connect Saddam Hussein to ‘world terror.’ As for his real death, I suspect it came long ago.” On Thursday, the Times published photographs of what the Iraqi intelligence chief claimed was Abu Nidal’s blood-stained body, suggesting that whenever it happened, he is at least gone this time.