Gaza City December 2001

All You Need Is Love

How the terrorists stopped terrorism

"Do you want to know how to eliminate terrorism? I'll tell you. In fact, I'll tell you about something that no one else knows. Something that has never been written about. You will be amazed, but it is true. Listen."

The speaker knew what he was talking about. Just a few years before, he had been a terrorist—a senior commander of al-Fatah, the largest constituent element of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the group that was founded, in 1959, and has been led ever since by Yasir Arafat, the chairman of the PLO. The speaker was now a brigadier general in one of the Palestine Authority's myriad security and intelligence services. He was an Arafat loyalist: his fidelity as much as his competence led to his appointment to this critically important post. We spoke when an uneasy peace still reigned between Israel and the Palestinians, and in fact there was a degree of cooperation between the Israeli intelligence and security agencies and their Palestinian counterparts, which was superintended by the CIA.

Ironically, the general's job was hunting down and rooting out terrorists. He was the archetypal poacher turned gamekeeper. His nemeses were neither the Jews nor their Zionist benefactors but his brother Palestinians: men who, unlike him, had refused to swear allegiance to al Rais ("the head," as Arafat is often known among Palestinians) and the governing Palestine Authority. These men, moreover, were imbued with religious fervor and the unswerving belief that armed struggle was decreed by Allah and justified by the Koran. They belonged to a new generation of Palestinians, who had joined more-recently established terrorist groups such as Hamas (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement) and the Palestine Islamic Jihad, and whose struggles were directed as much against what they saw as the corrupt and reprobate Palestine Authority as against their most reviled enemy, Israel.

We had been sitting in the general's office, above a sweltering prison in Gaza City, talking and drinking sweet coffee. The general was in mufti. He wore a blue suit, a light-blue shirt, and a blue-and-gold necktie. He looked like a middle-class businessman or an avuncular pharmacist. His office was sparsely decorated. On the wall behind his desk was a photograph of Arafat with his familiar stubble, attired in green military fatigues and wearing his trademark black-and-white kuffiyeh (Arab head scarf). On the desk was a picture of the general himself, standing beside Arafat and looking very serious. Along the wall, on a side table, were framed photographs of each of the general's children, greeting or being hugged by Arafat, who appeared the kindly, elderly patron paying a surprise visit to commemorate a birthday or celebrate some other noteworthy family event.

"Arafat and the PLO," the general said, "had a big problem in the 1970s. We had a group called the Black September Organization. It was the most elite unit we had. The members were suicidal—not in the sense of religious terrorists who surrender their lives to ascend to heaven but in the sense that we could send them anywhere to do anything and they were prepared to lay down their lives to do it. No question. No hesitation. They were absolutely dedicated and absolutely ruthless."

Black September was at the time among the most feared terrorist organizations in the world. It had been formed as a deniable and completely covert special-operations unit of al-Fatah by Arafat and his closest lieutenants following the brutal expulsion of the Palestinians from Jordan in September of 1970—the event from which the group's name was derived. Black September's mission, however, was not simply to exact retribution on Jordan but to catapult the Palestinians and their cause onto the world's agenda.

Black September's first operation was the assassination, in November of 1971, of Jordan's Prime Minister Wasfi al-Tal, who was gunned down as he entered the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Cairo. While Tal lay dying, one of the assassins knelt and lapped with his tongue the blood flowing across the marble floor. That grisly scene, reported in The Times of London and other major newspapers, created an image of uncompromising violence and determination that was exactly what Arafat both wanted and needed.

He doubtless succeeded beyond his expectations in September of 1972, when Black September perpetrated one of the most audacious acts of terrorism in history: the seizure of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. That incident is widely credited as the premier example of terrorism's power to rocket a cause from obscurity to renown. The operation's purpose was to capture the world's attention by striking at a target of inestimable value (in this case a country's star athletes) in a setting calculated to provide the terrorists with unparalleled exposure and publicity. According to Abu Iyad, the PLO's intelligence and security chief, a longtime Arafat confidant, and a co-founder of al-Fatah, the Black September terrorists "didn't bring about the liberation of any of their comrades imprisoned in Israel as they had hoped, but they did attain the operation's other two objectives: World opinion was forced to take note of the Palestinian drama, and the Palestinian people imposed their presence on an international gathering that had sought to exclude them." Just over two years later Arafat was invited to address the UN General Assembly, and shortly afterward the PLO was granted special observer status in that international body.

The problem, however, was that Black September had served its purpose. The PLO and its chairman had the recognition and acceptance they craved. Indeed, any continuation of these terrorist activities, ironically, now threatened to undermine all that had been achieved. In short, Black September was, suddenly, not a deniable asset but a potential liability. Thus, according to my host, Arafat ordered Abu Iyad "to turn Black September off." My host, who was one of Abu Iyad's most trusted deputies, was charged with devising a solution. For months both men thought of various ways to solve the Black September problem, discussing and debating what they could possibly do, short of killing all these young men, to stop them from committing further acts of terror.

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