Reviewed by Daniel Pipes
Americans may be more inundated with conspiracy theories today than at any time since the heyday of Joseph McCarthy forty years ago. Two presidents out of the last six (Johnson and Reagan) now stand accused of having reached office through the most foul plots. Survey data indicates that 60 percent of Blacks believe that the U.S. government deliberately spreads drugs in their community, while 29 percent believe the same in the case of AIDS. We hear that Mikhail Gorbachev helped plot the August 1991 coup against himself, and that the U.S. government set up Saddam Husayn’s invasion of Kuwait in order to destroy his military strength.
Now along comes Patrick Seale, a British journalist, offering yet another conspiracy theory for our delectation. He suggests that Abu Nidal, the hardest of the hard-line Palestinian leaders, is not at all the demented anti-Israel terrorist he appears to be. In fact, Seale speculates, he may well work for the Israeli secret service, Mossad.
To be sure, Mr. Seale peppers his text with conditions. It is «not inconceivable» that Abu Nidal was manipulated by Israel he has «possible» connections to Mossad, and the like. Mr. Seale also admits counter evidence (that Abu Nidal’s organization has repeatedly targeted Jews). But the central point remains: a respected journalist and a leading publishing house have teamed up to charge Israel with sponsoring one of the most murderous groups active in the world today.
Mr. Seale goes further. Even if the Israelis do not actually control Abu Nidal, they must still take responsibility for him. Why? Because way back in 1974, they refused to negotiate with Yasir Arafat. Had they done so, Arafat would have had the strength to suppress Abu Nidal. In short, Mr. Seale has a single main goal in his book: one way or another to tar Israel with the sins of the most brutal of Palestinian terrorists.
Mr. Seale’s peculiar effort needs to be put into its proper context, which is to say a Middle Eastern one. In what Richard Nixon once dubbed «the ultimate conspiratorialist notion,» Arabs and Iranians routinely blame Israeli authorities for the deaths of their own citizens. King Faysal of Saudi Arabia held that «Zionists were behind the Palestinian terrorists.» Faruq Kaddumi of the Palestine Liberation Organization informed the United Nations that Leon Klinghoffer was killed by his wife to make the PLO look bad. When a London court convicted Nizar al-Hindawi, a Syrian agent, of trying to blow up an El Al passenger plane, Damascus responded by accusing the Israeli authorities of planting the lethal device on their own airplane. Middle Eastern politics gives new meaning to the phrase «blame the victim.» When nine Israelis lost their lives in an assault on their bus in Egypt, a Jordanian paper accused Mossad «of planning and carrying out this operation.» According to Palestinians, Scuds falling on Tel Aviv last year were launched by the Israel Defense Forces to make Saddam Husayn look bad.
In this spirit, the PLO has long painted Abu Nidal as an Israeli agent. Now Patrick Seale brings this preposterous accusation to a Western audience. For this we have little to be thankful.
A second aspect of Abu Nidal bears mention. In contrast to Yossi Melman, whose 1986 study, The Master Terrorist: The True Story Behind Abu Nidal (Adama) has a tentative, modest quality, Mr. Seale claims to know nearly everything about Abu Nidal and his super-secret organization. Whereas Mr. Melman devoted an entire chapter just to figure out whether Abu Nidal was still alive, Mr. Seale provides many vivid anecdotes to establish the cowardice, sycophancy, and sadism of Abu Nidal’s character. The specificity in Mr. Seale’s book is astounding: he knows about safe houses, financial accounts, torture methods, pseudonyms, and organizational hierarchies. In one section, he outlines agreements the Belgian and French governments made with Abu Nidal. We even learn about Abu Nidal’s miserliness: how he tried to save money by buying underwear for his members’ wives in bulk; and how he derailed an important meeting by asking why someone at a training camp threw away a kilo of perfectly edible tomatoes.
If reliable, Mr. Seale’s account of the Abu Nidal gang amounts to an outstanding journalistic feat. But is it trustworthy? Few outside the Abu Nidal organization can tell, for Mr. Seale provides nary a footnote nor other means to substantiate his story. Either you trust him or you don’t. As with so many other investigative reports, the credibility of the text depends on the credibility of the author.
In this reviewer’s opinion, Mr. Seale fails the test. Holding Israel responsible for Abu Nidal’s homicidal career renders his judgment too suspect to accept his account on faith. There’s simply no telling what’s reliable and what’s not. Reading Mr. Seale’s book means getting caught up in an impossible task of separating fact from fiction. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, Abu Nidal is not an investigative report to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
Reviewed by Daniel Pipes