Abu Abbas, head of the Palestine Liberation Front, was captured in Iraq shortly after the fall of Baghdad and died of natural causes in U.S. custody the following year. Notorious for the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro, Abbas’s most deadly terrorist attack actually occurred in 1974, when a PLF assault in northern Israel killed 36 people. Abbas was also behind a foiled attack on a Tel Aviv beach in May 1990, when the U.S. was first trying to establish a dialogue with the PLO. Abbas’s assault interfered with those efforts, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait two months later halted them. Yet they were vigorously renewed after the war with Iraq, leading to the 1993 Oslo accords and eight years in which the diplomacy known as the “peace process” became the central U.S. preoccupation in the Middle East
A newly released Iraqi document, translated here, details Abbas’s links to the regime of Saddam Hussein and provides some indication of just why that diplomacy was so wrong-headed. Many Americans now think of Islamic extremists as the only terrorists in the Middle East, yet Yassir Arafat and his “secular” cronies never gave up terrorism, and Iraq was part of that axis. Since September 2000, when Arafat launched the second Palestinian uprising, over 1,000 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks — more than in the previous three decades combined.
The Abu Abbas Document
The Iraqi document, consisting of a series of memos written between December 1991 and February 1992, starts with a note from the Revolutionary Command Council, written by Abdul Rahman Mahmoud, director of the Palestine Branch in the RCC’s Office of Arab Liberation Movements. Mahmoud writes that the United States is managing to sustain support in the U.N. Security Council for maintaining sanctions on Iraq by using various issues: chemical and nuclear weapons, democracy, and the Kurds. He observes that although the United States has not yet done so, Washington might use “the backing of Iraq for terrorism, as they call it, and its harboring of terrorist elements and the relationship that was renewed with some groups during the Mother of Battles’ [i.e., the 1991 Gulf War]”
Mahmoud singles out Abu Abbas as a particular vulnerability and suggests that Abbas leave Iraq for a tour of several Arab states — Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, and Sudan. When Abbas returns to Iraq — which would have to be through Jordan, given the siege on Iraq — he should use another passport and pose as an Iraqi to create the impression that he had left Baghdad for good. Abbas would then live in a safehouse maintained by the Iraqi Intelligence Service, without the knowledge of his family or his group, as Jordanian intelligence had penetrated the PLF.
The proposal was approved and discussed with Abbas. He was agreeable (he could scarcely afford to be otherwise), although he asked for time to prepare his journey, and it was decided to get Saddam’s agreement to the move. Saddam, however, determined that it was unnecessary even to go through the motions of pretending Iraq no longer harbored Abbas. “Delayed: no pressing necessity seen” was the final decision, issued on February 19, 1992, ending this series of memos.
Terrorism and the “Peace Process”
It is very hard now to recall the euphoria surrounding the Arab-Israeli “peace process.” Following the Oslo accord, many believed Israel was about to conclude a comprehensive peace with the Arabs; this included not only Americans, but Israelis, Labor as well as Likud. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the Arabs no choice but to come to terms with Israel, since it had the support of the sole remaining superpower, or so it was claimed. All rational figures, essentially, those who were “secular,” including Arafat and Syrian president Hafiz al-Assad, recognized this reality; the exception was religious zealots.
Thus, Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin divided the Middle East into the “partners for peace,” and the “enemies of peace,” the Islamic extremists. As Rabin affirmed,
Even Syria and Lebanon, the governments there with which we negotiate are those who support peace….The enemies of peace are the members of the movements and the organizations that belong to the wave of extremism, fundamentalist terrorist Islamic movements….They are the enemies of peace and in their lead is Iran.
Yet even as Rabin spoke, Syria maintained close ties with Iran, supported Hizbollah in Lebanon, as well as the Palestinian Islamic organizations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — just as it does today. The sharp division that Rabin attributed to the “partners for peace” and “the enemies of peace” did not exist, nor did any sharp division exist between “secular” entities in the region and Islamic ones.
In the context of the “peace process,” Abu Abbas became an acceptable figure. In 1996, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres allowed Abbas to visit Gaza to attend a meeting of the Palestine National Council. The U.S. Senate voted 99 to 0 that Abbas should be extradited to stand trial here, although it lacked authority to enforce its vote. In 1998, when Benjamin Netanyahu was Prime Minister, Abbas was actually allowed to open an office in Gaza, even as he maintained a residence in Baghdad. Some outraged Israelis sought to have Abbas extradited to Israel, but were rebuffed by Israel’s High Court of Justice.
After Arafat launched the second uprising in 2000, Abbas, in Baghdad, promised to carry out “big suicide operations.” The Iraqi regime announced it would open training camps for volunteers to support the intifadah and began paying $10,000 to the families of suicide bombers (this sum was later raised to $25,000).
In April 2003, U.S. Marines captured a terrorist training camp, run jointly by the PLF and the Iraqi regime. Chemicals and bomb-making facilities were found at the 20-building complex east of Baghdad. Also discovered were questionnaires in which recruits were asked to choose their assignments. “Suicide mission” was the choice of many, a Marine spokesman explained.