Sabry Khalil Bana, better known as Abu Nidal, may be the deadliest terrorist alive. He is rarely seen in public, and details of his life are obscure and sometimes contradictory: in 1984, rumors circulated that he had died of heart disease. A year later purported interviews with the Palestinian terrorist were published in France, Kuwait and West Germany. In one of them Abu Nidal, whose nom de guerre means Father of Struggle, bragged that "not even my eight-year-old son Bissam knows exactly who I am."
His works speak for themselves. Over the past twelve years Abu Nidal has molded his organization, known as the Fatah Revolutionary Council, into a fanatical, amorphously structured terrorist band with between 200 and 500 adherents. They have been blamed for more than 100 terrorist attacks. In June 1982, members of Abu Nidal's group shot and gravely wounded Israeli Ambassador to Britain Shlomo Argov, an assault that helped spark the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Last year members of the organization were held responsible for 33 assaults, ranging from the Sept. 16 bombing of Rome's Café de Paris (40 injured) to the Nov. 23 hijacking of an EgyptAir jetliner (59 dead) to the atrocities two weeks ago in Rome and Vienna (19 dead, 112 injured). Those who may have the most reason to fear Abu Nidal, however, are his compatriots. Almost 70% of the attacks charged against his organization have been aimed at fellow Arabs, especially those willing to consider compromises with Israel that might lead to a negotiated Middle East peace settlement. To some antiterrorist experts, Abu Nidal and his group are less an independent terror organization than the murderous arm of various radical Arab states, first Iraq, then Syria and now Libya. Others say that Syria remains the organization's chief patron, while still others insist that Abu Nidal is completely autonomous.
Abu Nidal began life as a privileged bourgeois scion of what was formerly Palestine. His father, Khalil, was a prominent landowner and agricultural merchant in Jaffa who at one time had close ties with Israel's legendary first President, Chaim Weizmann. One of Abu Nidal's elder brothers, Mohammed, is still a prosperous merchant in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Abu Nidal attended school in Jaffa and Jerusalem, but his family fled before the 1948 war that accompanied the foundation of Israel. Eventually the family settled in Beirut. By some accounts, Abu Nidal attended the American University there, where he trained as an engineer.
Sometime after the 1967 Six-Day War, Abu Nidal joined Yasser Arafat's Fatah arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He rose quickly through the ranks and in 1970 opened a P.L.O. office in Khartoum. About a year later he was asked to leave by the Sudanese, largely because of his efforts to recruit local Palestinian students as guerrilla fighters.
In 1971, Abu Nidal was named the chief P.L.O. representative in Iraq. Over the next two years he started to set up his own organization, and by September 1973 it had begun to emerge as a proxy terrorist force for the Iraqis. A formal break with Arafat's Fatah organization took place in 1974, and shortly thereafter his gunmen failed in a bid to murder Arafat himself. In reply, the P.L.O. sentenced Abu Nidal to death.