TUNIS -- Palestinian extremist Abu Nidal, who repeatedly has been written off in recent years as dead or dying, reportedly is struggling to rebuild his badly shaken organization, once widely regarded as the most ruthless and efficient operation in Middle Eastern terrorism.
Abu Nidal's small, radical group, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, has been linked with the killing or wounding of 900 people in 20 countries since 1974. Last year, the Defense Department called it "the most dangerous terrorist organization in existence." But the faction recently has been deserted by senior lieutenants and weakened by bloody purges.
In the last two months, however, Abu Nidal has attacked rebels from his group, some of whom had established a rival leadership and were encouraging guerrillas within the organization to desert, Palestinian and Western intelligence sources said. The sources said gunmen loyal to Abu Nidal assassinated one key dissident officer, Abed Shaban, in Damascus last month and seriously wounded another, Abderahman Issa, in an attempted kidnapping near Algiers in April.
Palestinian sources said Issa and another former officer of Abu Nidal, Atef Abu Bakr, had defected to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was encouraging desertions from Abu Nidal's ranks. Documents distributed by dissidents who established a "temporary leadership command" showed that the rival leadership had rallied few rank-and-file guerrillas to its banner during a year of infighting that has left as many as 400 guerrillas dead.
Palestinian and Western intelligence specialists said the attacks were politically costly for Abu Nidal. They strained his ties with Syria, his protector from 1983 to 1987, and with Algeria, which has a policy of maintaining good relations with all Middle East extremists.
Abu Nidal publicly threatened reprisals against Algeria unless it released three men arrested after the attack on Issa -- a declaration that raised particular resentment among Algerian officials, sources said. Such threats have been a standard Abu Nidal technique, known to have persuaded many Arab and West European governments to free his captured operatives.
PLO sources said Abu Nidal still is showing an ability to rally loyalists within his fractured organization. A senior PLO analyst credited Abu Nidal's staying power to his "undoubted personal charisma," a fortune estimated somewhere between $20 million and $200 million and his ability to find refuge in one Arab country after another.
Abu Nidal was born in 1937 as Sabri Banna, the youngest of seven children of a prosperous citrus grower in Jaffa, in British-ruled Palestine. Banna joined the PLO, took the nom de guerre Abu Nidal (meaning "father of struggle") and rose to become the PLO representative in Sudan and Iraq.
In 1974, Abu Nidal broke with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat over Arafat's tactical decision to begin to limit his organization's role in international terrorism and look to the diplomatic front in the struggle against Israel. The PLO accused Abu Nidal of plotting to kill Arafat and sentenced him, in absentia, to death. But Abu Nidal and his Fatah Revolutionary Council found protection and sponsorship successively with Iraq, Syria and, since 1987, Libya.
In the past year, there have been reports of fighting within the council, notably around its headquarters in Libya, and council dissidents charged that 156 council militants had been murdered in Tripoli during 1988 and 1989. Last fall, as Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was apparently working to improve his image abroad, he appeared to have put Abu Nidal under house arrest, diplomats reported.
Abu Nidal is still in Libya, according to intelligence reports. Analysts said Gadhafi has brandished Abu Nidal as a threat to foreign governments in the past and suggested that he could do so again -- a theory they said was supported by Israeli accusations that Libya organized the abortive seaborne raid May 30 on Israel's coast by a radical PLO faction, the Palestine Liberation Front.
Handwritten documents turned over to the PLO by the defectors from Abu Nidal's organization have provided a wealth of details about his recruiting techniques, Swiss and Austrian bank accounts, multimillion-dollar arms deals, safe houses and a network of cells -- active and dormant -- in Eastern and Western Europe, the Arab world, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, sources said.
The documents, distributed by the PLO and considered authentic by Western intelligence analysts, also have confirmed Abu Nidal's responsibility in a string of terrorist operations, ranging from the assassinations of Arab diplomats and 11 top PLO officials to the 1986 attack on an Istanbul synagogue in which 21 worshippers died, and the 1985 shooting attacks at the Vienna and Rome airports that claimed 16 lives.
The documents also confirmed Abu Nidal's responsibility for the 1982 attempt to kill Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador to London, an attack that Israel invoked to justify its invasion of Lebanon. At the time, Abu Nidal was working for Iraq, which hoped that its archrival, Syria, would be drawn into the Lebanon war.
The most recent major incidents listed as Abu Nidal operations, in 1988, were the botched operation against the Greek cruise ship City of Poros in which nine passengers died and attacks in Khartoum against a hotel and club frequented by Westerners.
The dissidents said such attacks were unconnected to the Palestinian cause and led to their defection.
The dissidents described Abu Nidal as a "living example of paranoia," which analysts said was a result of his decision in the mid-1980s to abandon his reliance on careful planning and tight secrecy. He recruited more than 1,000 guerrillas in Lebanon, launched operations in Israel's self-described "security zone" in southern Lebanon and formed branches for women and youth. In the process, Abu Nidal sacrificed the total control over his group that had been his hallmark.