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Austrian Court Unfreezes Funds For Abu Nidal Group Print E-mail

By Yossi Melman
September 11, 2008


Austria's justice ministry, security services and Jewish community are furious over a Vienna Court decision to unfreeze a bank account of the Palestinian Abu Nidal terrorist group.

At the end of the 1990s the Austria Bank froze the $10 million account of Iraqi citizen Halima al-Mughrabi, on the order of Austria's intelligence services, as part of the international campaign to intensify the sanctions on Saddam Hussein's regime.

On January 13, 2000, al-Mughrabi went to her bank branch in Vienna and asked to transfer some $2 million from her account to her account in the Arab Bank in Jordan. The bank clerks held her up and called the police. She was charged with being active in the Abu Nidal organization (ANO) and managing its bank account. She was also said to be the wife of ANO's treasurer.

The judge remanded her to custody, but some time later her attorney convinced the court to release her on a $40,000 bail. The attorney, Farid Rifat, promised that al-Mughrabi would attend her trial and the court consented to return her passport to her. Al-Mugrabi fled from Austria. Rifat said she lives in Libya, and since her passport had been confiscated by the Libyan authorities she could not attend the trial.

From Libya, al-Mughrabi demanded that Austria Bank unfreeze her account and release the money. Jewish organizations and families of victims killed by ANO terrorists asked the court to have the money used to compensate terror victims. The PLO also approached Austria unofficially, claiming that the money belonged to it.

Austrian secret service officials, a former German intelligence service (BND) agent and author-journalist Willi Dittel testified at the trial about the nature of the ANO. From their testimonies and a story published recently by journalist Florian Klenk in the Austrian weekly Falter, it emerged that al-Mughrabi, whom the Austrian media dubbed "the soft lady," claimed that she was a housewife married to a successful cattle and poultry farmer.

Austrian intelligence officials disputed her version and said her husband, Mustafa Najim, was ANO's treasurer and managed eastern European companies for the organization.

Dittel testified that Najim's company in East Berlin was sponsored by the Stasi, East Germany's notorious secret police. He said Najim had purchased in Britain 170 riot control guns, among other things, ostensibly intended for Yemen, and gave 70 of them to Stasi. In Poland, Najim's company dealt in real estate, and he deposited the profits in his wife's account in the Bank of Austria.

Swiss prosecutor Carla del Ponte said Najim was in regular contact with Abu Nidal himself and transferred $5 million to Abu Nidal's wife's and daughter's bank accounts during the 1980s.

The court however was not convinced by the prosecution's evidence and arguments that the money belonged to a terror organization, and decided to unfreeze the account, stating that the ANO no longer existed, therefore there was no risk that the money would be used for terror.

The Austrian prosecution, surprised by the court's decision, appealed immediately to Austria's Supreme Court, whose decision is pending.

Abu Nidal, "father of the struggle" in Arabic, is the alias of Sabri al-Bana, who was born in 1937 in Jaffa to a wealthy family in British-ruled Palestine. The family fled during the War of Independence to the West Bank. In the 1950s he joined the Arab nationalist Baath Party, and in 1967 he joined Fatah and assumed the underground alias of Abu Nidal. He trained in North Korea and China, and represented the Fatah and PLO in Iraq. At the beginning of the 1970s he denounced PLO leader Yassir Arafat as a traitor to the Palestinian revolution, when the latter proposed creating a national authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a step toward Palestinian statehood. He formed an independent faction, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, and continued advocating Israel's destruction.

In the next 30 years Abu Nidal assassinated Fatah and PLO representatives (including murdering Isam Sirtawi and attempting to murder Mahmoud Abbas), then became a "hired gun," putting his organization at Saddam Husein's service against Syria, and at Syria's service against Jordanian targets. His men served as mercenaries for Gaddafi's Libya. In between, he extorted money from Gulf emirates and Saudi Arabia after hitting their embassies and airlines. He also attacked Israeli and Jewish targets in Europe.

In the 1980s Abu Nidal was seen as the world's most dangerous terrorist. At that time he began developing signs of paranoia and imposed a terror regime on his own members. In the 1990s he ordered a massacre in his activists' camp in Libya, and hundreds of his men were butchered. From that moment, ANO's decline began. Abu Nidal was sentenced to death in absentia by the PLO in 1974 for attacks on fellow Palestinians, and again in 2001 by Jordan for the 1994 assassination of a Jordanian diplomat in Beirut.

Abu Nidal returned to Iraq, and in August 2001 Saddam Hussein's government reported that he had committed suicide when policemen came to arrest him on suspicion of conspiracy, sponsored by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, against Hussein.

During the 1980s Austria was one of ANO's preferred targets. Abu Nidal's men slew Vienna city councilman and chairman of the Austria-Israel Friendship Society Heinz Nittel, and three months later murdered two and injured 30 in a Vienna synagogue. His organization is believed to be behind a December 1985 attack on El Al desks in Vienna and Rome airports, in which 18 people were killed and dozens injured.

The Abu Nidal group has been on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations for more than 20 years, but is currently thought to be inactive, according to the 2006 State Department Country Reports on Terrorism. In August 2002, Abu Nidal was reported dead in Iraq.


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