By Con Coughlin
Abu Nidal, the Palestinian terrorist, was murdered on the orders of Saddam Hussein after refusing to train al-Qa’eda fighters based in Iraq, The Telegraph can reveal.
Despite claims by Iraqi officials that Abu Nidal committed suicide after being implicated in a plot to overthrow Saddam, Western diplomats now believe that he was killed for refusing to reactivate his international terrorist network.
The head of Iraqi intelligence holds photographs purporting to prove Abu Nidal’s ‘suicide’
According to reports received from Iraqi opposition groups, Abu Nidal had been in Baghdad for months as Saddam’s personal guest, and was being treated for a mild form of skin cancer.
While in Baghdad, Abu Nidal, whose real name was Sabri al-Banna, came under pressure from Saddam to help train groups of al-Qa’eda fighters who moved to northern Iraq after fleeing Afghanistan. Saddam also wanted Abu Nidal to carry out attacks against the US and its allies.
When Abu Nidal refused, Saddam ordered his intelligence chiefs to assassinate him. He was shot dead last weekend when Iraqi security forces burst into his apartment in central Baghdad. The body was taken to the hospital where he had had cancer treatment.
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The Iraqi authorities later claimed that Abu Nidal had killed himself when confronted with evidence that he was involved in a plot to overthrow Saddam.
«There is no doubt that Abu Nidal was murdered on Saddam’s orders,» said a US official who has studied the reports. «He paid the price for not co-operating with Saddam’s wishes.»
Last week, American intelligence officials revealed that several high-ranking al-Qa’eda members had moved to northern Iraq where they had linked up with Iraqi intelligence officials.
It now transpires that Saddam was hoping to take advantage of Abu Nidal’s presence in Baghdad to persuade him to use his considerable expertise in terrorist techniques to train al-Qa’eda fighters.
Abu Nidal worked closely with Saddam during the late 1970s and early 1980s to carry out a number of terrorist outrages in the Middle East and Europe, including the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to London in 1982.
In recent years, Abu Nidal, who has been ill for many years, had scaled down his terror operations.
With the prospect increasing of the US launching a military campaign to overthrow Saddam, however, the Iraqi dictator was keen to combine Abu Nidal’s expertise with the enthusiasm of al-Qa’eda’s fanatical fighters to launch a fresh wave of terror attacks. In this way, Saddam hoped to disrupt Washington’s plans to overthrow him.
The presence of al-Qa’eda fighters in Iraq has become a source of great concern in Washington.
US Defence Department officials said that a number of very senior al-Qa’eda members was now based in northern Iraq close to the Iranian border at Halabja.
Although Iraqi officials have denied any knowledge of the al-Qa’eda fighters’ presence, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, said last week that it was highly unlikely that they could have entered Iraq without Saddam’s knowledge.
«There are al-Qa’eda in a number of locations in Iraq,» he said. «In a vicious, repressive dictatorship that exercises near total control over its population, it’s very hard to imagine that the government is not aware of what is taking place in the country.»
By Con Coughlin