But Abu Nidal's legend relied as much on rumor as on his brazen acts of violence. His story is so riddled with reversals and lies, it is soap operatic, almost impossible to follow unless seen one installment at a time. Indeed, his various enemies are still arguing about whether his death, announced last week by Iraqi officials, was a murder or a suicide. The Iraqis claim that he shot himself in the head in his Baghdad quarters when they came to arrest him for spying for an undisclosed Arab nation. But Arab media reports and Abu Nidal's followers insist that he died of multiple gunshot wounds which would be a remarkable suicidal feat even for a man of Abu Nidal's ingenuity.
For now, the prevailing theory is that Iraqi officials killed Abu Nidal, 65, or encouraged one of his Palestinian lieutenants to do so. In ridding themselves of their former hired gun, a man who never could be trusted, the Iraqis could have been trying to undermine U.S. criticism by demonstrating a disdain for terrorism. "Abu Nidal joined the Iraqi early-retirement program," says Dan Schueftan, a lecturer at the Israeli Defense College.
Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal was his nom de guerre) was 11 when his affluent family was forced to flee the Arab city of Jaffa, now part of Israel, ahead of Jewish forces in the 1948 war. As a laborer in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s, he latched onto politics, joining Yasser Arafat's Fatah group, which would become the backbone of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Bouncing between Jordan, Sudan and Iraq, he rose through the ranks of the P.L.O.
But in 1974 Abu Nidal formally broke with Arafat, protesting his old comrade's decision to consider diplomacy over violence. That year, the newly formed Abu Nidal Organization (also known as Fatah Revolutionary Council) planted a bomb on a TWA plane flying from Athens to Rome, killing all 88 people on board. Abu Nidal went on to mastermind attacks on a Jewish school in Antwerp, synagogues in Vienna and Istanbul, and a Greek tourist ship. In December 1985 his group ambushed the El Al ticket counters at Rome and Vienna airports, killing 14 bystanders.
The great irony of his career was that he did more to destabilize and stigmatize the Palestinians than to cause permanent harm to Israel his declared enemy. In the mid-'70s, Abu Nidal was sentenced to death by the P.L.O. for plotting to kill Arafat. Between 1978 and 1983, he was responsible for the assassination of six of the P.L.O.'s most moderate diplomats. In 1982 the attempted assassination of Israel's ambassador to Britain was attributed to his group giving the Israelis a convenient pretext to invade Lebanon, in which Arafat had set up headquarters, and kick the P.L.O. out.
During the past decade, the Abu Nidal Organization, splintered by internal feuds, grew quiet. Abu Nidal was said to be seriously ill. In 1998, after proving too onerous a political burden to his host, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, he resurfaced in Egypt. The next year, he moved to Iraq, relying on his fragile alliance with Saddam Hussein.
Despite the questions about how Abu Nidal died, everyone seems glad to be having the debate. Rumors of his demise started circulating 18 years ago, when he was first reported to have died in Baghdad. Now that the end seems certain, "there is a collective sigh of relief everywhere that he no longer exists," says Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of the pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, based in London. Sometimes the enemy of my enemy is still the enemy.