by | Aug 24, 2016 | Gayle Lynds, The Writer's Life | 10 comments

BY GAYLE LYNDS:  How do you beat an unbeatable villain?  As an author, it’s a question I grapple with a lot.  For inspiration, let’s take a look at one of history’s most notorious and elusive mass contract killers. . . .

“He almost never emerged from the turbid underworld of international crime, and he had no consistent belief system,” according to Time magazine, September 2, 2002.  “He switched allegiances with ease.  Governments actually paid him just to leave their people alone.  Even so, beginning in 1974, he was responsible for 900 murders in 20 nations, according to the U.S. State Department.” 

Perhaps you remember news coverage of this master terrorist of the Cold War — Abu Nidal of the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO).  But do you remember how he was brought down?

With today’s blog, I’m beginning the next series of Rogue Women posts, this time about the fascinating topic of Great Villains. To be sure to receive each blog, just sign up here

Abu Nidal, 1970s

An Impossible Situation

How difficult was it to stop Abu Nidal?  Imagine the situation:  It’s 1986, and the ANO is highly active, dangerous, and state-sponsored, with the resources of entire nation-states backing it.  Americans are among its favorite targets.  It goes out of its way to kill innocents, even children.  Counterterrorist organizations around the world consider the ANO invincible. “Long before 9/11, the title of most dangerous terrorist in the world belonged to Abu Nidal,” Time magazine proclaimed. 

One prime reason was Abu Nidal himself.  His tradecraft was sophisticated, and his operations and operatives compartmentalized.  He demanded complete loyalty and obedience from his followers.  New recruits were required to commit a crime before joining — a bank robbery, an assault, a murder — which also gave him a way
to control them. 

Since the CIA didn’t allow anyone under its direction to commit such crimes, it was almost impossible to infiltrate the group.  Still, the CIA managed it while also turning one of Nidal’s people into an informer.  All of this was done under the auspices of a brand-new organization — the CIA Counterterrorist Center (CTC), founded by legendary spymaster Dewey Clarridge in 1986.  Never before had personnel been merged from the Directorates of Operations, Intelligence, and Science & Technology.

Clarridge’s creation would soon pay off in a big way.

Putting the Pieces Together

The CTC analyzed the information from its agent and informant and added other pieces: Abu Nidal had a financing channel through the London branch of the infamous Bank of Credit & Commerce International, which led to the revelation of ANO activists in France, England, and Germany.  More intel showed an extensive commercial network in Eastern Europe, Greece, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, and even Western Europe.  Those businesses provided cover and help with ANO terrorist attacks while also giving occasional cover to Communist spy agencies.

For the first time, the picture of one of the world’s most secretive and violent terrorist groups was being fleshed out.

“After reviewing this astonishing network of terrorist support, I arrived at the conclusion that the best way to attack Abu Nidal was to publicly expose his financial empire and his network of collaborators,” Clarridge wrote in his memoir, A Spy for All Seasons.  The result was the CTC’s Abu Nidal Handbook, which detailed the inner workings of the ANO, including an organizational chart, its crimes, its members and accomplices, and home addresses, some of which were within countries friendly to the United States.

According to Clarridge, “The publication had the desired effect.  Governments in Europe squirmed, but they terminated their dealings with Abu Nidal.  Like many in his line of work, Abu Nidal was paranoid.  The CTC fueled his hysteria over plots against him — feeding fear to a paranoid is something we know how to do.  Not surprisingly, Abu Nidal panicked.  Those who reported having been approached by us were not rewarded for their loyalty, because Abu Nidal never quite believed that anyone in his group had turned us down.  Their loyalty was suspect thereafter, and the punishment for disloyalty was torture and death.”

The Bigger They Are

By 1987, the ANO was drowning in its own blood.  Abu Nidal had turned his terror campaign back against his own people.  When he grew suspicious of the ANO in southern Lebanon, he ordered more than 300 hard-core operatives murdered.  Soon his surviving lieutenants began to believe he was insane. 

“Abu Nidal’s paranoia, fed by our crusade against him, caused him to destroy his own organization,” Clarridge concluded.

And there you have it — an ingenious, calibrated, well-researched CTC operation that caused one of the world’s greatest villains to take down his own organization. 

Although he lived 15 more years, Abu Nidal never again commanded a world-class group.  In 2002 in Baghdad, he was shot to death — there are conflicting reports about whether he committed suicide or was murdered.  He was 65 years old.  His real name was Sabri Khalil al-Banna.

The Cold War’s stories of assassins such as Abu Nidal inspired my most recent international suspense novel, The Assassins.  Each of the six men of the title came out of the Cold War and, in the book, are still working today.  I faced the question of how to beat the unbeatable.  Do you have any answers?

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Chris Goff

    So, Gayle, when you write about real life villains and assassins that are still living today, do you ever feel afraid that one of them might come after you? Absolutely fascinating! I love the way he was manipulated. It's classic.

  2. Karna Bodman

    Great historical review of a most devious and venal villain brought down by the efforts of a brilliant and devious (in a "good way") counter-terrorism operative. Having served in The White House during those times – I remember Dewey and his exploits quite well. He was involved in many "plots" — and even after leaving government service (after some 30 years) — while in the private sector, he continued to be called on for advice and strategy — including being recruited to try and free a New York Times reporter being held by the Taliban. We certainly could use more like him today as we battle ISIS villains all over the world. Thanks so much, Gayle, for posting this great piece!

  3. Gayle Lynds

    Thanks, Chris and Karna. I was concerned only once, and that was when I was writing The Coil, which included a lot of research on the Bilderberger Group. In those days it was little known and had a reputation for stone-walling and perhaps rougher tactics anyone who tried to out them. My publisher and agent asked me to give them a fake name, which I did. I still regret doing that. What the hell, right?

    And Karna … while I was writing this blog I was thinking about you and guessing you had a lot of first-hand experience while this was going on. The mid 1980s in particular were so very deadly because of terrorism acts, and since you were in the White House doing national security then you lived it. I never got to meet Dewey Clarridge. I admired him a great deal. It would've been a real pleasure to shake his hand and thank him.

    Thanks for reading my blog!

  4. S. Lee Manning

    Fabulous details on Abu Nidal. I knew the name, of course, but not the history in this depth. This is what makes your books, and books in this genre, not just good reads but important reads.

  5. Francine Mathews

    Enjoyed this thoroughly, Gayle. I worked in the CTC in 1990, and valued the experience more than any other rotation during my years at the CIA. It was possible to feel, there, that the people around you fought the good fight daily.

  6. Francine Mathews

    I would also recommend David Ignatius' novel, THE BANK OF FEAR, for anyone interested in the financial background to this stuff.

  7. Jamie Freveletti

    Follow the money! Works every time. I knew nothing about this-had never heard of it actually until this post. So interesting!

  8. KJ Howe

    Wow, Gayle, what a fantastic blog. Love the details. Kind of proves that trust is definitely stranger than fiction.

  9. Sonja Stone

    How to beat the unbeatable? What a great question. As my sisters mentioned, follow the money. Aside from that, it's difficult to fight an enemy who has no regard for human life–especially if you (or your organization) adhere to sticky moral principles such as "don't kill people."