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Saddam Hussein and Abu Nidal, Terrorist Allies By: Thomas Joscelyn
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 04, 2005

In a recent Frontpage Interview with Edwin Black, author of several books, interviewer Jamie Glazov correctly pointed out that “there is substantial evidence of [Saddam] Hussein's associations with world terrorism before we invaded Iraq. The Iraqi dictator aided, abetted, and provided sanctuary to Abu Nidal's terrorists, Abu Abbas, and all kinds of radical Islamic terrorist groups – Hizbollah and Hamas among them.” 
Saddam’s relationship with Abu Nidal (the nom de guerre of Palestinian terrorist Sabri al-Bana) deserves special scrutiny since, as many intelligence analysts and commentators have noted, he was “the bin Laden of the 1970s and 1980s.” That is, at that time he was the most lethal and feared terrorist in the world. 

In response, Mr. Black first commented, “Let's get the facts in focus. I followed the career of Abu Nidal …,” and then briefly recounted Abu Nidal’s career. In his brief synopsis of Nidal’s terrorist resume, which spanned several decades, Mr. Black downplayed the relationship between Abu Nidal’s terrorist organization (ANO) and Saddam’s regime in recent years. His retelling skipped over at least several pertinent facts.

Mr. Black’s version of events leaves the audience with the impression that between the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, when the Kuwaitis apparently purchased Nidal’s services, and 2002, when Nidal died of unnatural causes in Iraq, there was no relationship between Nidal and Saddam. Mr. Black summarized Nidal’s involvement with the Kuwaitis during the Gulf War when he said, “[T]he money-hungry Abu Nidal conspired with the Kuwaiti authorities against his former host in Kuwait's conflict with Saddam. He provided intelligence against Iraq to the Kuwaitis to be transmitted to the Americans during the first Gulf War.” The next stage in the relationship between Saddam’s regime and Nidal after their Gulf War schism, according to Mr. Black’s interview, comes in 2002, when “Abu Nidal was admitted into Iraq and either immediately murdered by Saddam's intelligence operatives, or somehow convinced to commit suicide by shooting his brains out.”

There are several problems with this brief review.

Notably absent from Mr. Black’s telling is any memory of the events of late 1998. With both parties under extreme duress – Nidal had lost his refuge in Egypt and Saddam faced mounting international pressure from the U.N. as well as a bombing campaign by the U.S. and U.K. in December – the two apparently reconciled. The State Department’s 1998 Patterns of Global Terrorism report described the renewed relationship: “[I]n December [1998] press reports indicated that Abu Nidal had relocated to Iraq and may be receiving medical treatment. Abu Nidal's move to Baghdad – if true – would increase the prospect that Saddam may call on the ANO to conduct anti-US attacks.” Thus, in response to renewed military intervention and diplomatic pressure from the West, Saddam sought to rekindle his relationship with an old terrorist ally. The State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism reports in the following years similarly cited Saddam’s cooperation with the ANO and his willingness to provide refuge for its members.

The press reports mentioned in the State Department’s 1998 Patterns of Global Terrorism actually continued into the New Year. For example, The New York Times reported on the renewed relationship on January 27, 1999. In a story aptly titled “A Much-Shunned Terrorist Is Said to Find Haven in Iraq,” The Times reported that Nidal had made his way to Baghdad about ten days prior to the U.S.-led bombing campaign on December 16, 1998. The Times further warned:

“Abu Nidal, one of the world's most infamous terrorists, moved to Baghdad late last year and obtained the protection of President Saddam Hussein, according to intelligence reports received by United States and Middle Eastern government officials. The reports have raised questions about whether Iraq is pushing to establish a terrorism network, American and Middle Eastern officials say. … Abu Nidal's move to Iraq, which he was forced to leave 15 years ago because of his ties to Syria, suggests that he may have renewed a relationship with President Hussein. ‘He could become a more significant threat again if he finds more effective state sponsorship,’ an American intelligence official said.”

The timing of Saddam’s renewed relationship with Nidal was conspicuous for at least several reasons. First, as mentioned above, Nidal relocated to Baghdad at the height of tensions between the U.S. and Saddam’s regime. Between the first and second Gulf Wars there was, arguably, no more stressful time in the ongoing feud between Iraq and the West than in December 1998. Did Saddam plan to enlist Nidal’s support in a new round of terrorist strikes against the West? Did Saddam plan to use terrorism in retaliation for the Operation Desert Fox bombing campaign and continued sanctions?

Second, we know that at the time of Nidal’s relocation to Baghdad Saddam’s regime was planning at least one terrorist strike against an American target. In December 1998 the Iraqi consul in Prague, Jabir Salim, defected and revealed to British intelligence that he had been charged with hiring terrorists to blow up America’s Radio Free Europe building in Prague. The bombing was most likely intended as retaliation for President Clinton’s signing of the Iraqi Liberation Act, which authorized the creation of Radio Free Iraq. Radio Free Iraq began broadcasting anti-regime messages from the Radio Free Europe building in Prague into Iraq late in 1998. (Edward Jay Epstein has reported on this bomb plot. See, for example,

Third, and most importantly, in December 1998 countless media outlets around the world began to report Saddam’s outreach to another arch-terrorist, Osama bin Laden. Saddam sent one of his top intelligence operatives, Faruq Hijazi, to visit bin Laden and his cohorts in Afghanistan on December 21 (just two days after Operation Desert Fox ended). Reports of this meeting set off a flurry of media reports throughout the world. The first account in Milan’s Corriere Della Sera (December 28) was followed by reports in the Paris-based Al-Watan Al-Arabi, Newsweek, ABC News, the New York Post, the London Guardian, several Arab newspapers and even Radio Free Iraq. (Side note: The 9/11 Commission was either unaware or ignored all of these reports, as they are not even mentioned in the Commission’s much-heralded report.)

There remains a distinct possiblity that Saddam’s contacts with Nidal and bin Laden were part of his grand strategy to launch a series of terrorist strikes against the U.S. For instance, the New York Post’s account at the time (Niles Lathem, “Saddam’s New Weapon: Terror; Courting Bin Laden & Nidal: U.S.,” February 1, 1999) explicity warned:

“Saddam Hussein – battered, humiliated and increasingly isolated – plans to resort to terrorism in revenge for U.S. airstrikes against his country, the Clinton administration believes. … U.S. officials say the CIA has received ‘credible and reliable’ intelligence reports that Saddam is forging alliances with some of the Middle East's most bloodthirsty terrorists – including Osama Bin Laden and Abu Nidal – as part of an apparently new campaign to strike American targets and possibly destabilize Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.”

Was Saddam planning a new terrorist offensive againt the U.S.? Much of the evidence indicates that he was. However, much of the story – including the details of Nidal’s renewed relationship with Saddam – remains a mystery. For example, did Nidal stay in Iraq from December 1998 till his death in 2002? If so, what did Saddam expect him to do? (Nidal certainly was not invited to stay in Iraq without a quid pro quo.)

Perhaps the most interesting mystery surrounds Nidal’s death. In his interview with FrontPageMag.com, Mr. Black said of Nidal’s death, “In August 2002, Abu Nidal was admitted into Iraq and either immediately murdered by Saddam's intelligence operatives, or somehow convinced to commit suicide by shooting his brains out.” But, as discussed above, Nidal was readmitted into Iraq in December 1998 and some reports say he was shot in the head several times, which would make the possibility of suicide highly unlikely.

The real question surrounding Nidal’s death is why he was killed. The reasons offered by Palestinian and other sources vary. Some say he committed suicide to escape his suffering from leukemia (unlikely, for the reason given above) while others say that he was assassinated by Saddam’s regime for attempting to plan a coup at the behest of one of the Gulf states (which is possible but, again, unlikely).  A more probable reason for Nidal’s assassination is that he knew too much about Saddam’s terrorist ties and, with the possibility of an approaching war, that was a liability Saddam could not afford.

While many uncertainties surrounding Saddam’s terrorist aspirations remain, it is clear that Saddam was a vital sponsor of various terrorist groups and had ties to some of the most lethal terrorists in history. It is also clear that the justifications for the war go far beyond Mr. Black’s assertion that “Iraq came to the top of the list because of our strategic interest. That strategic interest is oil.”

Thomas Joscelyn is a terrorism researcher, writer, and economist living in New York. He is the author, most recently, of Iran's Proxy War Against America (Claremont Institute).

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