When is a terrorist not a terrorist?
By Adel Darwish
The question was raised by many observers in the wake of the American missile strike against alleged terror bases in Afghanistan and Sudan.
The mysterious Saudi millionaire Osama Bin Laden, once a CIA backed war hero in Afghanistan has become the world number one terror master. Meanwhile the former school teacher, Sabri el-Bana, better known by his nom de geurre as Abu Nidhal, who is wanted in 20 countries and his 24 year long terror career has claimed over 900 lives, is now said to be receiving treatment in Egypt. Cairo officially denied the reports. The United States and several western countries - Egypt's allies in the war against international terrorism- as well as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - all , want Abu Nidhal put on trial.
The reign of terror perpetrated by Mr Abu Nidhal dates back at least to 1973, when a Pan Am jet was bombed on the ground in Rome. Other atrocities include attacking Israeli airline ticket counters at Rome and Vienna airports in 1985 and blew up a TWA airliner over the Aegean in 1986. At least seven Britons have been victims of Abu Nidhal's terror. In 1984, British diplomat Ken Whitty was shot dead in Athens, and his colleague, Percy Norris, gunned down in Bombay. In 1986 after US military jets launched bombing raids against Libya from air bases in Britain. Abu Nidhal who had a base in Libya, went into action against Britain. Two British teachers working in Beirut - Philip Padfield and Leigh Douglas - were shot dead, and Alex Collett, a 64-year-old journalist working for the United Nations, was hanged from a makeshift gallows. A video of Collett's body was distributed to foreign news agencies in Beirut. British officials are consequently taking a keen interest in events in Egypt, with diplomats backing Washington's stand that Cairo should take Abu Nidhal into custody.
Reports from Cairo suggest that Mr Abu Nidhal, like Mr Bin Laden was in the 1980s', has become useful to the Egyptian intelligence in past few months.
This lead to an embarrassing diplomatic stand-off between Washington and Cairo underlining the difficulties that the US faces in prosecuting its war against terrorism.
Both the Egyptians and Americans insistent that their conflicting versions of events are correct. US security officials say they have reliable intelligence that the man once declared "America's Public Enemy No 1" by Colonel Oliver North is currently being treated for cancer at an Egyptian hospital. Washington desperately needs Egypt's cooperation in its war against the man to whom Abu Nidhal lost the title of `` America's public enemy no one''; Mr Bin Laden.
The Americans appear to have known about Bu Nidhal's presence in Egypt for several weeks - As Colonel Gaddafi ordered Abu Nidhal out in preparation for the deal with US and Britain to try the two Lockerbie bomb suspects in the Netherlands. But the Americans preferred not to press their Egyptian allies for while. The word from the CIA, according to Cairo based diplomats, was that Egyptian intelligence- Mukhabarat- had its own way of dealing with Abu Nidhal, as part of a long term strategy, the outcome of which would help routing several terror organisations.
Some how, the lines got cross in the State Department as US officials in Cairo deliberately leaked details of Abu Nidhal's hospitalisation just a few days after the US missile strike against alleged terror bases. The Americans had hoped to provoke the Egyptians into action. Like most recent American actions, the tactic backfired. Egyptian officials issued an outright denial that one of the world's most wanted men had found a safe haven on their soil. They said that it was all a case of mistaken identity. The Egyptians took advantage of many past reports of the terror master's demise, which have turned out to be premature. His death has been reported on at least five occasions - the last time three years ago when he was reported to have been killed in a shoot-out with Yasser Arafat's Fatah guerrillas. Mr Arafat's Fateh Council has tried Abu Nidhal and sentenced him to death in absentia in 1974.
The wrangling over Abu Nidhal comes at a sensitive time for both nations.
'' It is plausible that intelligence gathering operations by Egyptian Mukhabart, which helped US plans its anti terror strategy, has involved contacts arranged by Abu Nidhal,'' said one Cairo based western diplomat.
At the time Abu Nidhal was wanted by every one, Mr Bin Laden was the West's war hero against the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan. After now replacing Abu Nidhal as the most wanted man, capturing Mr Bin Laden has become a problem for the Americans. Mr Bin Laden is armed, by the CIA, with deadly anti aircraft weapons like the stinger missile in the late 1988. American military experts had to abandon plans for a covert operation to capture him last spring, according to US officials. The Plan was shelved by the Director of CIA, George Tenet, and other senior officials because of the high risks involved. Those included the potential for many casualties among Americans and innocent Afghans, thanks to American supplied stinger missiles which would render helicopters unusable. No such operation like this could succeed without helicopter use.
As more evidence were pointing at Mr Bin Laden and his men - the former CIA backed Mujahedine- as the guilty party in bombing the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, some action was needed.
In the absence of a coherent practical plan on the style of 'raid on Entebee`, President Bill Clinton opted for a solution inspired by the film 'primary colours' and launched cruise missile attacks against both Mr Bin Laden's camps and financial interests- namely his investment in pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.
As the cruise missiles were on their way, President Clinton was on the telephone canvassing support world wide. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was among the first leaders to be informed by the president. The Egyptians were delighted at heart by the American move, but confined their public statements to condemning terrorism and calling for international efforts to combat it. The president, in his speech, mentioned Egypt three times as a target for Islamists' terror campaign and the attempt on president Mubarak's - as well as the pope's- life, as justifications for the missile strike. Egyptian officials in private hinted that Cairo has been nudging Washington to take some action against Sudan.'' This proves what we have been saying al along, that Sudan has become a base for arming, and targeting terrorist to send them across the borders,''on official told the MIDDLE EAST.
The official also confirmed reports that it was both the Egyptian intelligence, Mukhabarat, and its Israeli counterpart the Mossad that supplied the CIA with much of the information which lead to two arrests within days of the embassies' explosion. '' The Mukhabarat, which gave the CIA valuable assistance is mapping out the targets, argue that their useful work is too sensitive to arrest and charge Abu Nidhal just yet,'' said one Middle Eastern intelligence officer.
The officer also said Egyptian Mukhabart has been using Abu Nidhal's world wide sleepers - who are among the most ruthlessly efficient killers in the world- to liquidated terrorist from the Gama't Islamyat - the Islamic group which killed 58 tourists and Egyptians in Luxor last November. According to the same source, they killed one of the leaders in Yemen in June, two members in Libya in May and provided the Egyptians with information about financiers and supporters of Islamic terror groups in Europe. Some Palestinian official, who too monitor Abu Nidhal's activities, confirmed the reports.
There are, however, another account by one of the Arab intelligence officers who spoke to New York Times' veteran reporter Youssef Ibrahim in London.
The official said that Abu Nidhal was arrested two months ago in Egypt after he had actually been there for nine months. Adu Nidhal, according to the same official, had been cooperating with Egyptian Mukhabart agents who wanted to use his information to target terrorist groups planning bombings and assassinations in Egypt. The arrangement collapsed, the official said, when Egyptian agents infiltrated the Abu Nidhal group and started using his own op- eratives against Egypt's militant fundamentalist enemies. When Abu Nidhal realised this, the official said, he stopped cooperating and was subsequently arrested.
Whatever the truth is, all accounts, it seems, point to some ironic similarities between two men , whose job - no matter what side of the fence you are on - is killing, bombing and kidnapping. Any one of them is some times, in the words of Oliver North '' public enemy number one,'' but could also become, or has been, depending on which direction history moves, a war hero, or a leader of Mujahedine, or just, in the words of Jeffrey Kemp the former Near and Middle East policy in the State Depart `` our S.O.B.''