Iraq on Tuesday confirmed the death of Abu Nidal, the guerrilla mastermind of decades of Palestinian militancy, saying that he had committed suicide. His body was found riddled with bullets in his home in Iraq, Palestinian sources said Monday. Abu Nidal, whose name became a byword for international terrorism, was accused of plotting dozens of bombings, hijackings and assassinations as the leader of a terror group that carried out attacks against Western targets as well as moderate Palestinians.
IN BAGHDAD’S first official confirmation of his death, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told reporters that Abu Nidal had killed himself.
“Yes, I confirm his suicide, and an official will give you full details on Wednesday,” Aziz said.
According to the Palestinian sources, Abu Nidal’s body was found three days ago in his apartment in Baghdad, where he had lived since 1998, mostly alone and suffering from advanced stages of leukemia. A report in the Palestinian daily Al Ayyam said it appeared that Abu Nidal had committed suicide, although sources quoted in the article failed to explain how that was possible when more than one bullet struck his body.
With the number of enemies the 65-year-old Palestinian — as infamous as Osama bin Laden in his day — had collected around the world, murder has not been ruled out.
Indeed, it was Abu Nidal’s very rivals who first reported his death.
‘FATHER OF THE STRUGGLE’ Sabri al-Bana was 11 years old in 1948 when, at the height of Israel’s war of independence, he and his wealthy family were driven from their home in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, by Israeli troops and artillery. Through his life of exile and revolution, al-Bana, who came to be known notoriously as Abu Nidal — or the “father of the struggle” — never forgot the moment his family was forced to flee. And his hatred of Israel never abated.
“We have an ideology,” he once said, referring to his radical Palestinian organization, the Fatah-Revolutionary Council, which, over the years changed names at least four times. “We are not mercenaries.”
It was an ideology that never wavered: There must be an Arab nation of Palestine that extends from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. It must have a fundamentalist but secular government. And it must destroy any vestige of Israel or Zionism. Founded in the 1960s, his group split from Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization, because Abu Nidal believed the PLO betrayed the Palestinian cause in 1974 by accepting a Palestine state that would exist only within the territories conquered by Israel in 1967, and not the original 1948 borders.
DOZENS OF ATTACKS
A generation before Islamic militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad bore a similar anti-Israel standard, Abu Nidal launched more than 90 — often successful — terrorist bombings, hijackings and assassinations in more than 20 countries, including the United States, Great Britain, France and Israel.
Major attacks included the Rome and Vienna airports in December 1985, the Pan Am Flight 73 hijacking in Karachi, Pakistan, in September 1986 and the suspected dual assassinations of PLO deputy chief Abu Iyad and PLO security chief Abu Hull in Tunis, then the seat of the PLO’s government-in-exile, in January 1991.
Perhaps the most publicized attack by Abu Nidal’s group was the attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador to Great Britain, Shlomo Argov, in June 1982. Argov survived, but the attack triggered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon led by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Three months later, Israeli forces pushed Arafat’s PLO headquarters and his soldiers out of Beirut.
YEARS ON THE RUN
Abu Nidal himself, with his mysterious band of guerrillas that never numbered more than several hundred, escaped the Israeli onslaught, as well as constant tailing by Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad. Later, Abu Nidal was tried in absentia by the PLO’s military court and condemned to death. He was charged with the murder of no fewer than 16 of Arafat’s men.
In recent years, the Fatah-Revolutionary Council seemed to turn away from dramatic terrorist attacks and focused more on staying solvent and avoiding capture.
Over the years, a number of hard-core Arab benefactor nations took Abu Nidal in — and threw him out when politically expedient, including Libya, Syria and Sudan.
NBC’s Jim Maceda is on assignment in the Middle East. The Associated Press contributed to this report.