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The Two Deaths of Abu Nidal

He has died again. This time, Abu Nidal has killed himself. Ten years ago, he died of cancer. Before that, he was shot to death in Libya. Sabri al-Banna, among the most vicious criminals of the Middle East, seems to go on being reincarnated for the benefit of dying all over again. Now it’s by his own hand, of gunshot wounds in Baghdad.

All things to all men, I suppose it’s inevitable that he would have to die in every way. He worked for the Iraqi secret service and the Libyan secret service and, briefly it seems, for the Syrian secret service. Patrick Seale, the only writer to attempt a serious biography, claimed he also worked for Mossad, Israel’s equally incompetent intelligence service. Abu Nidal was the beast before the beast before Osama bin Laden.

Remember him? He was the face on the Newsweek magazine report that Colonel Oliver North flourished before the American inquiry into the Iran-Contra scandal.

We have a habit of dispatching our most hated enemies before their deaths. The Times sent Ayatollah Khomeini on his way five years before his death. We warned of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s imminent demise–from cancer, of course–even before we first announced Abu Nidal’s death. Yasser Arafat’s political death has been declared in 1978, 1982, 1983, 1990, 2001 and 2002. Saddam Hussein’s demise was predicted in 1980, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1991, 2001 and 2002. And yes, President Saddam often had cancer too. Just as Osama bin Laden now has kidney failure …

The fictional death should not obscure the fact that Abu Nidal is/was/used to be one of the nastiest criminals of the Middle East. He was a gun to hire, a man who ordered the killing of Jews in an Istanbul synagogue, of moderate Palestinians close to Mr Arafat (including Abu Iyad), of passengers at Rome and Vienna airports, the man who tried to kill the Israeli ambassador to London in 1982, the event that gave Israel the excuse to invade Lebanon with the claim–totally untrue–that Mr Arafat had ordered the murder.

He had staged attacks in 20 countries over more than three decades, had visited eastern Europe during the Warsaw Pact years, had even arranged the murder of one of the Palestinians’ first envoys to Britain. He drank–or drinks, for let us not be sure he is really dead yet–copious amounts of whiskey but disdains other vices, save murder, that is.

His Fatah Revolutionary Council regularly suffered internal revolutions that left its own members in their graves. In Lebanon, suspected collaborators were buried alive, fed juice through a tube into their mouths and then, when word came from Libya that they should be executed, a bullet would be fired down the tube.

Abu Nidal spent part of his youth in Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank but, presumably, we shall never know what he thought of the collapse of the Oslo “peace”–an event he would profoundly have wished to see.

At his movement’s office in Beirut yesterday, there was not a black flag or a wreath to be seen. In fact, it was totally empty–not unlike the group of ruthless and cruel gunmen who worked for him over more than a quarter of a century.

His “suicide” might come as a gift to an American administration longing to connect Saddam Hussein to “world terror”. As for his real death, I suspect it came long ago.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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