Person of the Week: Abu Nidal

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Sabri al-Banna, also known as Abu Nidal, in Beirut in 1980

Exquisitely rare is the news item that can induce a satisfied smile in both Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat. But both men have reason to cheer the passing of Abu Nidal, the Palestinian terrorist mastermind who, depending on who you believe, either killed himself or was shot dead this week in Baghdad. That's because in a 20-year career that began in 1974, Nidal's organization killed or wounded some 900 people in 20 different countries, making enemies both Arab and Israeli. Most of his victims were Israeli and European civilians, killed in an encyclopedia of terroristic manners: massacred at airports and in restaurants, assassinated in their homes or blown apart in nightclubs and on airliners. Abu Nidal also made a habit of killing moderate Arab and Palestinian politicians, including a number of Yasser Arafat's top lieutenants.

The man died as he lived, in a blaze of violence and under a cloak of mystery. Reports of his demise, from a bullet wound (or wounds) in his Baghdad residence raised more questions than it answered. Did the 65-year-old Palestinian born Sabri al-Banna die by his own hand — as the Iraqis say — or was he killed, as his Fatah Revolutionary Council organization claims? For whom was he working while in Baghdad? (Abu Nidal may have proclaimed himself a champion of the Palestinian cause, but he spent most of his career freelancing for various Arab and even possibly some Eastern European intelligence agencies. Unlike, the Osama bin Laden generation of Islamist terrorists, Abu Nidal always needed the patronage of a state.)

The Iraqis allege he arrived in Baghdad from Iran, three years ago, and that he shot himself when security officials tried to arrest him as an agent of a foreign power. The Iranians were having none of it, insisting — along with the Israelis and others — that his presence in Baghdad for three years can only mean he was working for Saddam. And they're inclined to believe that he was eliminated by Iraqi security agents because he's become a liability to Baghdad — just the sort of link to the world of international terror that Washington hawks would cite as reason to eliminate Saddam's regime.

Answers to the mysteries of Abu Nidal's employer, job description and demise are unlikely to be forthcoming. His quarter-century of clandestine operations involved plenty of double-dealing and no paper trail. Verifying tales of Nidal's comings and goings is a fact-checker's nightmare, and this week's news was hardly the first time tales of Nidal's demise had filled headlines. Thirteen years ago he was reportedly at death's door, riddled with cancer in a Libyan hospital. Eight years later, he was still at death's door, this time reportedly in an Egyptian hospital, under police guard. Yet, he somehow managed to make his way from there to Baghdad, where he appears to have remained at Saddam's pleasure until his luck ran out this week. And as if to avoid any "Elvis" effect, the Iraqis showed pictures of his body and announced he would be buried by his Palestinian comrades.

Abu Nidal was a relic of a bygone era in which terrorists were wholly dependent on the sanctuary and succor of states — and therefore acted primarily as proxies of their patron at the time. Like the PFLP-trained Venezuelan Carlos the Jackal, the Japanese Red Army and Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang, Abu Nidal embarked on a career of mercenary mass murder in the early 1970s, eventually counting among his clients Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran and possibly others, and generally collecting between $1 million and $3 million per operation. And as the others fell by the wayside, he became, by the early 1980s, the prime suspect in any terror attack anywhere in the world.

But then the end of the Cold War and the subsequent political realignments changed Abu Nidal's prospects. Suddenly there was no more access to Eastern Europe, and over the next decade most of his former clients stopped hiring. Baghdad was probably the last place he was welcome, or at least tolerable. Reports in the Arab press in recent years suggest he'd gone there to die. Or finish dying. But others wonder whether Saddam was using Nidal's skill and experience for his own nasty purposes. The speculation will intensify in the weeks ahead. But the Palestinian mass-killer's untimely demise suggest the questions won't be answered any time soon — which may be exactly what Baghdad intended by sending its secret police to his home on the day he died.