Yossi Melman, The Master Terrorist: The True Story Behind Abu Nidal (New York: Adama Books, 1986).

Yossi Melman has pieced together “an interim report” that provides, within limits, a substantial sketch of Abu Nidal and his Palestinian fringe group, most widely known as the Abu Nidal group, or the Fatah Revolutionary Council. As the correspondent of the Israeli daily Haaretz, Melman covered the trial of Abu Nidal group members whose assassination attempt upon the Israeli ambassador in London served as Israel’s pretext for its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Melman uses that trial as both the primary source and the framework for The Master Terrorist.

Melman offers glimpses into the organization’s origins; human resources, recruitment and training methods; infrastructure; targets; ideology (Baathist), aims (international provocations and the eventual liberation of Palestine via the armed struggle, followed by the establishment of “a secular democratic state” that “will be an integral part of Syria”), and policy-making body (the Revolutionary Council). Melman also considers the faction’s turning points and some past and present members, as well as its relationship to Arab intelligence organizations and possible links to West European urban guerrillas.

Behind the organization and the nom de guerre (Abu Nidal means “father of the struggle”) is Sabri al-Banna, who was born in Jaffa in 1937 into a wealthy family whose land Israel confiscated after they fled in 1948. Al-Banna was an engineering student, teacher and electrician’s assistant until the 1967 war turned his political involvement into commitment. By 1970 he was the PLO representative in Baghdad. But when Fatah’s leadership explored the diplomatic option, Abu Nidal secretly began to set in place an autonomous underground organization, modeled along the lines of early Fatah. In November 1973, his men seized a KLM airliner without PLO authorization, ostensibly as a warning to Fatah to boycott the upcoming Geneva peace conference. That incident precipitated al-Banna’s expulsion from Fatah.

Unfortunately, this volume suffers from a scattering of factual mistakes, Melman’s unquestioning high regard for the public conclusions of the Israeli intelligence services, and his incomplete knowledge of recent intra-Palestinian events. For instance, he lumps both the Fatah Revolutionary Council and Nayef Hawatmeh’s Democratic Front into the Palestinian National Salvation Front.

Adding to the confusion is Melman’s own inconsistency. Citing Menachem Begin’s generalization that “they are all PLO,” Melman vows in his foreword to clarify the distinctions between the various Palestinian groups, but deep into the work he declares that “most of the Palestinian organizations, including Fatah, have reverted to…indiscriminate attacks against Israel, its institutions outside the country, and Jews throughout the world” (p. 168). Apparently the Achille Lauro atmosphere of Tel Aviv, to which he returned to complete the manuscript, was a factor.

How to cite this article:

Roger Gaess "Melman, The Master Terrorist," Middle East Report 147 (July/August 1987).

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