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Abu Nidal

Before anyone had ever heard of al Qaeda, there was Abu Nidal, a terrorist organization with an impressive body count whose effectiveness was forever destroyed when Oliver North used it as a ploy to divert attention away from his own crimes.

OK, maybe Oliver North didn't exactly destroy them, but they stopped killing people shortly after North trotted them out in a vain attempt to make himself look like Rambo.

You can decide for yourself whether you believe in coincidences, but the purpose of terror is to terrify, and it's hard to inspire terror when you've become the punchline du jour for late-night comedians.

Abu Nidal was an offshoot of the Palestine Liberation Organization, formed in 1974 by a militant named Abu Nidal, ironically enough. Nidal's real name was Sabri Al-Banna. Nidal was a Palestinian before the creation of Israel, displaced from his home during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. We all know how cranky that can make you.

Nidal was a member of the Palestinian branch of the Ba'ath Party, where he became radicalized (or "oppressed" depending on your point of view). Nidal was a top deputy for Yasir Arafat, back in the days when Arafat wasn't a politician.

When Arafat and the PLO first proposed a peace settlement that would create a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Nidal said "see ya," and set out to become the most feared terrorist in history. He managed to do an OK job of it, at least until he was made obsolete in the early 1990s.

Over the course of its nearly 20 years of active terrorism, the Abu Nidal group killed nearly 900 people in 20 countries. Abu Nidal employed all the usual tools of terrorism, including assassination, shooting sprees, bombings and hijackings.

Highlights included a 1982 attempt to assassinate an Israeli ambassador, which caused a retaliatory invasion of Lebanon by Israel. If your goal is to get rid of the Jewish state, embroiling in an unpopular war in the Middle East is a pretty good way to go about it.

Abu Nidal also sponsored the assassination of various pro-Israeli Arab leaders. That's pro-Israeli in the sense of "not strapping a machine gun on your back and stomping off to Israel right this minute," rather than being actually supportive of Israel in any measurable way. Synagogues were also favorite targets of the group, in shooting and bombing attacks which killed dozens at a time in the late 1970s and throughout the '80s.

All these attacks were in support of the Abu Nidal Group's complex intellectual political philosophy, which is best expressed in the phrase "kill the Jews." Anyone who didn't want to "kill the Jews" was pretty much a target.

Interestingly, the Abu Nidal Group was one of the few terrorist organizations known to have actually been supported by Saddam Hussein, unlike al Qaeda, despite one of the centerpiece claims made by George W Bush to justify his 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Despite a pretty good track record of killing people and wreaking havoc, Abu Nidal will be best remembered for allegedly ordering a hit on Iran-Contra felon Oliver North.

North was testifying before Congress when he was asked to explain why he accepted an illegal bribe in the form of a $14,000 home security system, provided by a business owned by former arms-for-hostages crony Richard Secord.

In a melodramatic tale worthy of G. Gordon Liddy, North sat there with a straight face and explained to the committee that the Abu Nidal organization had put a price on his head, and that he needed the security system for protection against this global terrorist threat. The presentation included visual aids, such as slides of newspaper stories about Abu Nidal's atrocities, including the murder of women and children abroad. (Abu Nidal is not known to have committed a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.)

In true "Dirty Harry" style, North offered to beat up the terrorist leader in a one-on-one meeting anywhere in the world, but he explained that accepted the security system to protect his wife and children. (He also claimed that Libyans were trying to kill him.)

Neither the congressional committee nor a jury of his peers were particularly moved by this story of true American grit, and North was convicted of taking the bribe.

The Abu Nidal organization had, by this time, begun its long slide into obscurity. Operations were slowing as the 1990s dawned, with the mass murders giving way to assassinations, and eventually to defunctitude. In 1998, the group moved its headquarters to Iraq, and in 1999, Arab governments in the Middle East essentially eviscerated the organization and choked off its financing.

Abu Nidal himself busied himself with dying repeatedly throughout the late '90s and early in the 21st century. He wasn't the healthiest terrorist ever; after a heart attack and surgery in 1992, various rumors of his demise recurred over and over again, including a claim he died of cancer which proved to be premature, and a second claim that he shot himself in Baghdad in 2002, which appears not to have been premature.

There's some small controversy over whether he shot himself to avoid capture by Iraqi authorities, or whether he was shot by said Iraqi authorities, and whether he had been working with said Iraqi authorities regardless of who actually shot him. The controversy is small not because the facts are clear, but because no one really cared about the man by the time he bought it.

Terrorism is all about fame. After all, you need to establish a rep if you want people to tremble with fear when you announce your name at cocktail parties. Therefore, it's probably the ultimate insult that Abu Nidal last made the news when an Internet hoax confused him with Osama bin Laden.

An email making the rounds of the gullible claimed that Ollie North had been targeted by bin Laden in the 1980s. Essentially, the email took out the name "Abu Nidal" and stuck in the name "Osama bin Laden." The point of this practical joke is unclear, but those stupid assholes who forward you every piece of crap that passes through their inboxes sent it around to enough people that it had to be debunked by the debunkers.

What an indignity! It's bad enough that Nidal's primary claim to fame in his twilight years was being Ollie North's lame excuse. But when you can't even get credit for THAT... Well, it's no wonder he shot himself...

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