RAMALLAH, West Bank – Abu Nidal, the Palestinian radical whose name was synonymous with terrorism during the 1980s, has been found dead, according to a Palestinian newspaper.
The Al-Ayyam newspaper reported Monday that Abu Nidal, 65, died last week after being found with gunshot wounds in his Baghdad home, reportedly by Iraqi authorities who had come to arrest him. It was not clear whether his death was a result of murder or suicide.
Reuters reported sources within Abu Nidal's own Fatah-Revolutionary Council group -- it uses a variety of names -- as saying he had shot himself because he was suffering from cancer and addicted to painkillers.
Two anonymous Palestinian officials would only say Abu Nidal died under "mysterious conditions." Other Palestinian sources confirmed his death, but said there was more than one bullet wound.
The U.S. State Department once branded Abu Nidal the world's most dangerous terrorist -- and his presence in Baghdad, possibly since 1998, was one factor in Washington's branding of Iraq as a state supporting terrorism.
On Monday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Phil Reeker could not confirm Abu Nidal's death, but clearly welcomed the news.
"Abu Nidal is a craven and despicable terrorist, and the world would certainly be a better place without people like Abu Nidal," Reeker said.
In Baghdad, the deputy Palestinian ambassador, Nejah Abdul-Rahman, said he had no information regarding what he described as rumors of Abu Nidal's death.
Abu Nidal spokesman Ghanem Saleh, speaking in Lebanon, said he had only heard the report from news media and had no immediate comment.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry refused comment on the reported death, saying it was an internal Palestinian matter.
Yossi Melman, a well-known Israeli terrorism expert, told Israel army radio that Abu Nidal had been suffering from leukemia for a number of years and could have taken his own life out of desperation.
But Abu Nidal could also have been assassinated, perhaps in an internal feud or by one of his numerous enemies, who included the United States, Israel and the PLO -- or even by the Iraqi government, who may have seen the ailing terrorist's presence as a liability.
Abu Nidal -- "Father of the Struggle" -- was the United States' most wanted man during the second half of the 1980s as speculation ran high that he was planning a chemical or nuclear attack on American soil.
"In the 1970s and 1980s, Abu Nidal was considered something of a bin Laden," Melman said.
Col. Oliver North, in testimony before a Congressional panel investigating the Iran-Contra affair in 1987, justified using Iranian money to install a security system at his Washington-area home by explaining that Abu Nidal's organization had targeted him and his family.
Abu Nidal's group had been dormant for the past decade, following a state-support shell game in which it was protected by in turn by Iraq, Syria and Libya before finally returning to Iraq.
"In the last few years [as Abu Nidal] lived in Baghdad with his men, it could possibly have been a one-man show," said Ephraim Inbar, an Israeli expert on terrorism at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, Abu Nidal's brother said Monday he had no information to indicate his brother had died in Baghdad -- but added he had not heard from him in 38 years and that it was not the first time such rumors had circulated.
Abu Nidal's group carried terror attacks in 20 countries over two decades, killing upwards of 300 people.
Americans and Jews were frequent targets, but the Abu Nidal organization spent even more time attacking other Arabs, specifically PLO and Jordanian officials it considered too soft on Israel.
Born Sabri al-Bana in Jaffa to wealthy parents during the British Mandate, the future Abu Nidal fled to the Gaza Strip, and later the West Bank, with his family as the state of Israel was born in 1948.
At the age of 20 he joined Yasser Arafat's Fatah group, which in 1967 seized control of the Palestine Liberation Organization from the Arab states that had just lost the Six-Day War.
Abu Nidal was with the PLO during its most active and tumultuous period, as the guerrilla organization tried and failed to take over the Jordanian state in 1970, then launched a wave of airline hijackings, assassinations and hostage-takings across the Middle East and Europe, including the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre.
Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, another disaster for the Arab states, Arafat attempted some conciliation with Israel, and more importantly, with the PLO's arch-enemy, King Hussein's Jordan, which had stayed out of the latest Mideast war.
Enraged at Arafat's moderation, Abu Nidal led a breakaway faction out of the PLO in 1974, calling his new organization Fatah-Revolutionary Council and receiving support from the Ba'ath radicals ruling Iraq.
Abu Nidal was sentenced to death in absentia by a Fatah military court in late 1974, as his group began assassinating PLO representatives across Europe.
The group blew up a PLO office in Islamabad, Pakistan, killing four people, and also assassinated a Jordanian diplomat in Turkey and British diplomats in Greece and India and fired a rocket at a Jordanian jetliner taking off from the Athens airport.
The Abu Nidal organization was thought to be behind the 1974 destruction of a TWA plane flying from Tel Aviv to Athens, which exploded over the Aegean Sea with 88 people aboard.
Attacks on Jews in Europe began in the early 1980s, with the machine-gunning of synagogues in Vienna and Rome and a café in Paris' Jewish neighborhood.
Abu Nidal's group was tossed out of Baghdad in 1983 as Saddam Hussein moved closer to the U.S. during his war with Iran.
The organization relocated to Syria, Iraq's enemy and Iran's ally, from which it attacked the El Al ticket counters at the Rome and Vienna airports, hijacked a Pan Am plane in Pakistan, and attacked a synagogue in Istanbul, killing a total of 62 people.
Between 1983 and 1985, the Abu Nidal organization also attacked Egyptian, Saudi, Kuwaiti and United Arab Emirates targets. A Gulf Air plane was blown up, killing all aboard, and an Egypt Air plane was hijacked to Malta, resulting in the deaths of 59 during a botched rescue attempt.
In 1986, Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad's attempts at moderation forced the Abu Nidal organization to move again, this time to Libya. More than a decade later, as Moammar Gadhafi sought to make peace with the West, Abu Nidal returned to Baghdad and the protection of the now-friendless Saddam Hussein.
While the U.S. government insists Abu Nidal had been in Baghdad since 1998, other sources say he was secretly in Egypt receiving cancer treatment at that time and only went back to Iraq in early 2001.
Iraqi-affairs expert Khairallah Khairallah told Reuters in Beirut that Iraq's support after his return was reluctant, especially since Abu Nidal had reportedly sided with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and refused to do Baghdad's bidding by attacking U.S. interests.
Abu Nidal's last major action took place in 1991, when his group assassinated Abu Iyad, Arafat's second-in-command and the mastermind behind the Munich Olympics attack.
The Abu Nidal organization's attempted killing of the Israeli ambassador to London in 1982 gave then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin a pretext to send Gen. Ariel Sharon's tanks into Lebanon to root out Palestinian guerrilla groups.
Abu Nidal must have appreciated the irony when, as a result of his actions, the Israelis besieged Beirut and forced his mortal enemy Arafat and the PLO leadership to move again, this time to far-off Tunisia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.