Abu Nidal is a terrorist organization widely known for deadly attacks in the 1980s on Western, Palestinian, and Israeli targets. They were attempting to derail diplomatic relations between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the West, while advocating for the destruction of Israel. The organization was named for a former member of the PLO who split off in a dispute over establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. Abu Nidal has been on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations for more than twenty years but is largely considered to be inactive, according to the 2008 State Department Country Reports on Terrorism.
What is the Abu Nidal Organization?
The Abu Nidal Organization—named for its leader Sabri al-Banna, a veteran Palestinian terrorist known by the nom de guerre Abu Nidal—is a secular international terrorist group that has been sponsored by Syria, Libya, and Iraq, and has attacked a wide range of Western, Israeli, and Arab targets. Over the years, the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) mounted terrorist operations in twenty countries, killing about three hundred people and wounding hundreds more. In the mid-1980s, the group was seen as the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization, but some experts say the group is inactive and no longer poses much of a threat. The ANO—also called the Fatah Revolutionary Council, the Arab Revolutionary Brigades, or the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Muslims—remains on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Who is Abu Nidal?
Abu Nidal, which means “father of the struggle” in Arabic, is the alias of Sabri al-Banna, who was born in 1937 into a landowning family in British-ruled Palestine. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Banna’s family fled, ending up in the West Bank. In the 1950s, he joined the Arab nationalist Baath Party, and in 1967 he got involved with the PLO. Abu Nidal represented al-Fatah—the dominant faction of the PLO, led by Yasir Arafat—in Sudan and later Iraq. He split with the PLO in 1974 after it proposed the creation of a national authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a step toward Palestinian statehood. Abu Nidal, who continued to advocate Israel’s destruction, accused the PLO of selling out by pursuing diplomatic relations with the state of Israel and set up his own organization, the Fatah Revolutionary Council—signifying that he saw his group as the true heir to Arafat’s Fatah movement.
Abu Nidal was sentenced to death in absentia by the PLO in 1974 for attacks against fellow Palestinians and again in 2001 by Jordan for the 1994 assassination of a Jordanian diplomat in Beirut. In August 2002, Abu Nidal was reported dead in Iraq.
What terrorist activities has the Abu Nidal Organization undertaken?
Many of the group's targets have been Israelis, PLO officials, and representatives of Arab governments it dislikes. Westerners were also targeted until the late 1980s. Among the group's best-known attacks are:
- the 1994 assassination of the senior Jordanian diplomat Naeb Imran Maaytah in Beirut;
- the January 1991 assassination of Abu Iyad, the PLO's second-in-command after Arafat, and another PLO official in Tunis;
- a September 1986 shooting at the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey, that killed twenty-two;
- the December 1985 attempted hijacking of a Pan Am flight in Karachi, Pakistan, in which twenty-two people died;
- the December 1985 simultaneous attacks on U.S. and Israeli airport counters in Rome and Vienna, which killed eighteen people and injured 111;
- the June 1982 attempt to assassinate Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov in London, which helped trigger Israel's invasion of Lebanon.
Although no major attack has been attributed to the group since Abu Nidal's reported death, Jordanian officials reported the apprehension of an ANO member suspected of planning attacks in Jordan in 2008.
What are the Abu Nidal Organization’s goals?
The group wants the state of Israel to be eliminated, preferably through an international Arab revolution, and therefore supports “armed struggle” against Israel. It bitterly opposes Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, as well as the United States, the PLO, and moderate Arab regimes in Jordan, Egypt, and the Persian Gulf states. It has also served as a mercenary terrorist force for radical Arab regimes.
Has the Abu Nidal Organization received state support?
Yes. Iraq, Syria, and Libya have all harbored the group and given it training, logistical support, and funding, often using the ANO as guns for hire. Abu Nidal began working with Iraqi intelligence while representing Fatah in Baghdad, experts say. He formed his organization with Iraq’s help and began by attacking Syria and the PLO. In 1983, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein expelled Abu Nidal and his group in an attempt to win U.S. military support for Iraq’s 1980s war with neighboring Iran. Once the war ended, Iraq resumed its support of Abu Nidal.
After being expelled from Iraq, the organization moved to Syria, where it worked to undermine peace plans involving Jordan, Israel, and the PLO. In turn, Syria expelled the Abu Nidal Organization in 1987, probably under U.S. pressure to distance itself from terrorists, at which point Libya took it in. In 1999, in an attempt to rid itself of international sanctions, Libya kicked out the Abu Nidal Organization. The group's current access to resources are unclear; however, the decline of state support is thought to have severely curtailed operations and capabilities.
Where does the group now operate?
The organization is largely considered inactive. In 1999, Egypt and Libya closed down ANO offices in their countries. Current and former leaders and associates are now thought to be in Iraq, with cells in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.