DEBKAfile Exclusive Report
Terror As a Thriving Business

20 August 2002

Abu Nidal - once Yasser Arafat’s best friend; later turned fierce foe - was shot dead early Friday, August 16 by gunmen who burst into his home in Baghdad. DEBKAfile’s intelligence and counter-terror experts have no doubt that the ailing 65-year old terrorist was murdered by Iraqi military intelligence.

Sabri al Banna, who went under the nom de guerre of Abu Nidal – Father of the Struggle, self-appointed secretary-general of the “Fatah Revolutionary Council” – was the leading evil genius of the terrorist world in the last quarter of the 20th century. From 1974, this exceptionally ruthless murderer accounted for hundreds of deaths in 20 countries. In recent years, incapacitated by leukemia and a heart condition, Nidal lived in virtual retirement on a select estate situated on the banks of the Tigris reserved for senior terrorists and pensioned-off assassins, whether Egyptian, Syrian, Saudi and Yemeni, or Iraqi intelligence agents who once handled terrorists in the line of duty. The gates of the walled estate are guarded by Iraqi military intelligence agents in plain clothes.
His murder raises some intriguing questions:

1. Why would Iraq want to dispose of a sick, clapped out terrorist who once performed services for Saddam Hussein?
2. Does his liquidation have any bearing on the approaching American military attack on Iraq?
3. Is it related to the intricate trade-off relations between Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat? Iraqi military intelligence and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades? Or the networks currently engaged in preparing a mega attack in Israel?

Some of the answers will be found in Abu Nidal’s singular modus operandi as defined here by DEBKAfile’s terror experts:

A. Sabri al Banna was above all a mercenary, hiring out for a fee. His clientele spanned Yasser Arafat in the early seventies – before they fell out over their conflicting orientations; Libya’s Muammar Qaddafii in the late seventies, early eighties, for whom he carried out strikes in West Europe; Iranian intelligence, which used him as its surrogate overseas liquidator and, most of all, Saddam Hussein. Abu Nidal’s fee per operation ranged from $1 million to $3 million.

B. A sharp businessman, Abu Nidal may have been the only international terrorist to diversify openly into commerce, selling arms and trafficking in fellow terrorists’ secrets from a business base he set up in Soviet East Europe in the mid-1970s. The chain of companies he established there collaborated with his hosts’ intelligence services.

The Fatah Council’s Warsaw firm sold and leased weapons and ammunition to terrorist networks and paramilitary militias, such as the Irish Republican Army, the Japanese Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Unbeknown to these purchasers, Abu Nidal retained clerks to note down the serial numbers of the sold or rented war materials, enabling him to track their disposition and sell the information to the highest bidder.

C. The dreaded Abu Nidal did not execute all the attacks credited to him. He may have claimed some to build up his reputation and raise his fee; sometimes, rival terror groups borrowed his name. But most of all, he found that, on top of his pursuits as terrorist, gun for hire, gunrunner and super-grass, he could turn a pretty penny by renting out the name of his organization. For a fee therefore, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, might claim a terrorist operation in order to cover up the real perpetrators.
Our terror experts reveal for instance that, contrary to general belief, Abu Nidal did not carry out the attempted murder of the Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov in London in June 1982, which prompted Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and led to the destruction of Arafat’s military infrastructure in south Lebanon and his own expulsion. This operation was carried out by a seven-agent Iraqi military intelligence team. Saddam paid Abu Nidal a quarter of a million dollars to attach his name to the crime.
Nine years later, Iraq paid him handsomely to say his men had murdered two of Arafat’s top aides, Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) and Hayel Abdel-Hamid, two days before the Gulf War began in 1991. Both men opposed Arafat’s alliance with Saddam.

In his capacity as super terrorist, he staged the simultaneous attacks on El Al ticket desks at Rome and Vienna airports on December 27, 1988, killing 18 and wounding 120. However, the slaying of 22 Jewish Shabbat worshippers in Istanbul’s Neveh Shalom Synagogue in September 1986 was the work of Imad Mughniyeh, as was the bomb explosion aboard the TWA Boeing as it approached Athens airport on December 27, 1985.

In both cases, Abu Nidal’s name was borrowed or bought.

Al Banna moved to Libya in 1986 when the Soviet bloc started crumbling, along with the intelligence services who employed and protected him - especially the Russian KGB, the Polish military intelligence and East German Stasi. With an international warrant out for his arrest, Abu Nidal sheltered for 12 years under Gaddafi’s aegis. Not much is known about that period except that he set up as a consultant on terrorist tactics, conducted a brisk trade in covert information and had his hands full coping with factions in his group who fought for control of the organization and its wealth.

After 12 years of obscurity in Libya, Abu Nidal surfaced in late 1997, taking up residence in Cairo with a small band of trusted partisans. What was Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak thinking of when he opened the door to this notorious purveyor of death? Thereby hangs an extraordinary tale, which DEBKAfile reveals here for the first time.

Faced with virulent threats from extremist Islamic terror groups, Egyptian political and security leaders persuaded their opposite numbers in Washington that groups like Osama Bin Laden’s al Qaeda and Dr. Ayman al Zuwahri’s Egyptian Jihad Islami could only be penetrated and fought by terrorists of the same ilk. Therefore, they proposed hiring arch terrorist Abu Nidal to extinguish the two rising fundamentalist menaces. DEBKAfile’sWashington sources recall that the Clinton administration agreed to go along with the project - albeit passively...

For two years, Egyptian intelligence employed Abu Nidal and his organization to track down, penetrate and destroy al Qaeda and Jihad Islami cells in Yemen, Sudan, Albania, Kosovo and Egypt. Washington asserted control from afar.

Our sources report that in 1998, Abu Nidal’s men were among the American and Egyptian special forces purging bases in Tirana and other Albanian towns of al Qaeda units, to prepare the ground for NATO landings in Kosovo. There were also unconfirmed claims in Middle East circles that his men had turned up also in Chechnya.

The Americans and Egyptians put a stop to the Abu Nidal project in mid-2000 after picking up signs that he was at his old tricks of peddling information on his own client to the opposition, grassing to al Qaeda on American and Egyptian secret tactics in their efforts to combat the Islamic extremists. Before he could be nabbed, the terrorist had slipped out of Cairo – heading first for Tehran, then Baghdad.

Clinton called off the investigation against him before the CIA had a chance to establish exactly what secrets Abu Nidal had sold to Osama Bin Laden. This omission is viewed in retrospect by many counter-terror experts as an error that left the Bin Laden-Zuwahri duo free to go ahead with their plan to launch the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The Iranians wanted [nothing to do] with the runaway, having acquired their own master terrorist, the Lebanese Imad Mughniyeh.

Saddam Hussein welcomed him with open arms, eager to exploit this source of information to find out exactly how much the Americans and Egyptians knew - or didn’t know - about al Qaeda. The Iraqi leader needed this information before deciding how far he could prudently play ball with Bin Laden’s network without laying himself open to American retaliation. Abu Nidal must have given Saddam what he wanted, because not long after he reached Baghdad, in July or August 2001, al Qaeda fighters began arriving in the pro-Iraqi fundamentalist Kurdish towns of Biyar and Tawil in the Shoman district of northern Iraq. Iraqi military instructors trained them there in the use of bombs and devices containing chemical and biological agents and possibly also in the handling of nuclear devices. DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources say that at the end of their courses, the al Qaeda trainees left Iraq via Syria and Lebanon. Some made for Afghanistan and Pakistan, others for countries in East and Central Europe, or even the United States. Those camps have been taking in fresh intakes ever since.

This week, American ABC and CNN TV stations reported the discovery of a chemical weapons program run by al Qaeda members in northern Iraq, plus the fact that Washington had been planning a covert operation against it, which the President called off late last week.

According to DEBKAfile's intelligence and counter-terror sources, those facilities have been there since summer 2001and between 150 and 250 al Qaeda trainees have passed through them. This joint Iraq-al Qaeda WMD training project was first exposed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly Issue No. 54 on March 22, 2002.

The Bush administration held off acting on the information partly to wait for its verification beyond doubt, but mostly for fear of letting the cat out of the bag on Abu Nidal’s role in the Bin Laden-Baghdad connection and how Saddam Hussein used that role to dig out Washington’s hapless involvement.

But this constraint may have been superseded, providing the Iraqi ruler, who is perfectly aware of the approaching US threat to his regime, with a pressing need shut Abu Nidal’s mouth. He saw the US president under mounting pressure from critics of the coming offensive against Iraq to come up with proof of a direct link between Saddam and terrorists as justification for the offensive. Under this pressure, he feared Bush would jump in one of two ways: He could have sent a covert American force to secret northern Iraqi training bases to snatch al Qaeda trainees with their Iraqi WMD instructors red-handed. Alternatively, American special forces might have abducted Abu Nidal and brought him to America with his damning testimony against Saddam.

Both options boded grave danger to the Iraqi ruler, but neither is any longer available to Washington.

Tipped off to their potential as President Bush’s cassus belli against Baghdad, the al Qaeda and Iraqi birds have flown Biyar and Tawil, while Abu Nidal’s mouth was permanently shut five days ago by four bullets.

By disposing of one terrorist, Saddam Hussein issued a graphic warning to another – Yasser Arafat – as to the fate awaiting collaborators with Washington - whether Abu Iyad in 1991 or Abu Nidal in 2002.