A trial of an alleged associate of Abu Nidal in Paris in 2021 is set to turn the spotlight on the wave of violence waged against European capitals by the Palestinian terrorist leader during the 1970s and 1980s.
Walid Abdulrahman Abu Zayed, 62, also from Palestine, was extradited from Norway, his home since 1991, and returned to France in November, when he was remanded to stand trial on charges relating to an attack on a kosher restaurant in the French capital in August 1982.
Six people were killed and 22 injured in the attack in the Marais district during which up to five men opened fire on and threw grenades into the restaurant.
The French authorities have blamed the Abu Nidal Organisation for the attack, and say Mr Abu Zayed was a participant. Mr Abu Zayed strongly denies any involvement and says he was in Monte Carlo at the time.
The decision by the French authorities to press charges against Mr Abu Zayed nevertheless raises haunting images of the ruthless campaign of violence that Abu Nidal and his militant Palestinian followers waged throughout Europe during the 1970s and 1980s.
Among some of Abu Nidal's more notorious exploits during this period were the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972 and the attacks on airports in Rome and Vienna in 1985.
Abu Nidal was also held responsible for the 1984 assassination of Khalifa Ahmed Abdel Aziz Al Mubarak, the UAE’s ambassador to France. At the time the killing was attributed to a group calling itself the Arab Revolutionary Brigades which claimed responsibility for attacking the diplomat, who died aged 36 soon after being shot outside his home. But western intelligence officials later concluded the assassination was the work of Abu Nidal’s organisation.
At the time of the killing of the Emirati diplomat, who in 2014 had a street named in his honour in Abu Dhabi behind the Crown Prince’s Court in Al Bateen, Abu Nidal was widely regarded as the most lethal exponent of his deadly art.
For this reason he found himself in great demand in several Arab countries with regimes keen to hire the Palestinian militant to do their dirty work on their behalf. In a career spanning several decades, Abu Nidal based himself in capitals including Baghdad, Damascus and Tripoli.
In an age when Islamist-inspired extremists have been held responsible for carrying out many attacks on the streets of Europe, it is hard to recall a time when militants tended to be of a more secular outlook, with the the primary aim of establishing an independent homeland for the Palestinian people.
That was certainly the case with Abu Nidal, whose real name was Sabri Al Banna and who was born in the Palestinian port of Jaffa in 1937 during the British mandate to a family of prosperous, middle-class plantation owners.
Like many Palestinians of his generation, Al Banna was forced into exile as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, with the result that he emerged as one of the most committed Palestinian militants of his generation, eventually adopting the nom de guerre Abu Nidal (“Father of the Struggle”) in the late 1960s.
From an early age in his career he formed links with a series of Arab intelligence agencies, starting with Iraq in the 1970s, where he supported the Ba’ath party’s revolutionary, and decidedly anti-western, agenda. It was during his time in Baghdad that Abu Nidal linked up with Black September, the uncompromising Palestinian organisation responsible for the attack on the Munich Olympics. Abu Nidal’s enthusiasm for armed operations was reinforced by four months spent on a course in guerrilla tactics in North Korea and China.
In Baghdad, he established a pattern of ties with Arab states and, at a time when Iraq’s relations with Syria were at a low ebb, was responsible for launching a series of attacks in Damascus, including two attempts to assassinate the Syrian foreign minister.
By 1980, however, Iraq, which by then was at war with Iran and seeking to improve relations with the West, was beginning to tire of Abu Nidal’s activities, with the result that he was able to patch up his differences with the Assad regime and relocate his activities to Damascus, from where he was involved in a number of high-profile attacks.
At this stage in his career Abu Nidal had fallen out with Yasser Arafat, the head of the mainstream Palestine Liberation Organisation, over the PLO leader’s attempts to establish a peace dialogue with Israel. Consequently, for much of Abu Nidal’s sojourn in Damascus he planned attacks on PLO and Jordanian targets at Syria’s behest.
This was a period with the Assad regime was sponsoring a rebellion within the PLO against Yasser Arafat and expelling Palestinian fighters from Lebanon; at the same time it sought to put a stop to moves towards Jordanian-Palestinian co-operation in seeking a settlement with Israel, which would have excluded Syria.
Abu Nidal’s men played an important role in disrupting these moves with attacks, including the assassination in 1984 of a Jordanian diplomat in Bucharest, the bombing in 1985 of the British Airways offices in Madrid and Rome, and the murder in April 1985 of an exiled Palestinian mayor in Rome.
Perhaps Abu Nidal’s most controversial assignment during this period was the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to London in 1982, an act that was subsequently used by the Israeli government to justify its 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
This tumultuous event, which resulted in the infamous massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, was a particularly traumatic time for the Palestinian cause as the Israeli military sought to destroy the PLO’s power base in the country.
By the mid-1980s, though, even the Assad regime began to find its close association with one of the world’s most infamous terrorists an embarrassment. Abu Nidal was obliged to relocate his operations yet again, this time basing himself in Tripoli under the protection of Libya’s erratic dictator Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.
This was the period when the Reagan administration had designated Qaddafi “public enemy number one”, and had launched air strikes against Tripoli in the spring of 1986. From his new Tripoli base, Abu Nidal was heavily involved in orchestrating Qaddafi’s response to the air strikes, including the murder of several western hostages in Lebanon. More recently it has been claimed that Abu Nidal was also involved in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988, in which 259 people died, making it the worst terrorist attack on British soil.
Abu Nidal’s notorious career eventually came to an end in the late 1980s when his group was destroyed by factional in-fighting after he had masterminded the murder of the PLO’s security chief, Abu Iyad, with the result he spent the rest of his days in anonymous exile in various Arab countries until his death was announced in Baghdad in the summer of 2002.
Even then his demise was shrouded in mystery, with conflicting reports that he had been murdered by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen, while sources close to his organisation, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, said he had taken his own life because he was “dying of cancer and addicted to painkillers”.
Nevertheless, by the time of his passing Abu Nidal had cemented his reputation as the most ruthless Palestinian militant of his generation, being responsible for carrying out more than 90 attacks spanning three continents, including kidnappings, murders, bombings and hijackings.