Terrorist plot to assassinate PLO leader Arafat is uncovered
London — Less than a week after the death of Anwar Sadat, Austria has uncovered a plot to assassinate yet another prominent Arab leader: Palestinian guerrilla chief Yasser Arafat.
Details of this plot, said to have been masterminded by Syria, were revealed in Vienna by two Palestinian terrorists, accused of attacking a synagogue in the Austrian capital in August.
The planned attempt on Arafat's life emerged two months after Austrian security forces foiled an attempt on President Sadat's life during a scheduled visit to Austria. As a result of the foiled plot to kill Mr. Sadat, Austria declared the Vienna representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Ghazi Hussein, "persona non grata."
Hussein, a member of the Syrian-sponsored Palestinian guerrilla movement Al Saika, was accused of assisting an attempt to smuggle arms into Austria by Sabri Khalil Bannah (code name: Abu Nidal) -- a notorious Palestinian terrorist who has exchanged the protective mantle of Iraq's secret service for that of the Syrians.
In investigating the assassination plot against Arafat, Austrian officials saythey have evidence that Syria and Abu Nidal deliberately attempted to leave a trail that would implicate Iraq and possibly Jordan in the murder.
Middle East analysts believe that had the plot succeeded, Syria would have been able to:
* Wipe out pro-Iraqi forces in Lebanon.
* Exterminate the moderate wing of the PLO.
* Take effective control of the Palestinian resistance movement.
* Possibly undermine the regimes of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Jordanian King Hussein.
Said one ranking Arab diplomat: "Arafat's death would have made the effect of Sadat's death look like peanuts."
Sources privy to the interrogation of Hassan Mirwan and Husham Muhammad Rajih -- the two Palestinians who confessed to the Aug. 19 attack on the synagogue in which two worshippers were killed and more than 20 wounded -- say they claim to have been dispatched by Abu Nidal to kill "the Palestinian traitor Arafat."
In October 1980, Arafat tentatively accepted an invitation by Joseph Cap, the leader of the youth organization of the Austrian Socialist Party, to attend a June youth festival in Vienna.Following the March 1981 Palestine National Council meeting in Damascus, Vienna PLO representative Ghazi Hussein notified Mr. Cap that Arafat would accept the invitation, provided Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky would meet him.
Preparations for Arafat's assassination began almost immediately. Documents confirming that Hassan Mirwan, a Jordanian national, worked as a carpenter for a fictitious Iraqi firm -- The Bsatt Authority for Trading and Agricultural Materials -- were presented to the Austrian Embassy in Bagdhad. The "responsible director" of the Bsatt Authority, Abdul Majeed Bsatt, stated in a letter dated April 21, that Mirwan "shall be granted ordinary leave for a period of one month with full salary to stay abroad -- Austria -- with effect from 4/22 /81 - 5/22/81."
These documents, made available to the Monitor were accompanied by a letter of recomendation from the Jordanian Embassy in Bagdhad. In the letter dated April 27, the consular department of the Jordanian Embassy writes that it "has the honor to kindly request the [Austrian] Embassy to grant Mr. Mirwan Naif Hussein Ibrahim Hassan an entry visa for Austria for the period of one month."
Upon arrival in Vienna May 16 Mirwan was joined by Husham Muhammad Rajih -- a Palestinian physics student in Vienna who carries an Iraqi refugee passport. Rajih later confessed to the May 1 murder of a local Austrian official -- a murder believed by Austria to have been plotted by Abu Nidal and Syrian intelligence.
Both Mirwan and Rajih were introduced by Ghazi Hussein into the Vienna-based Israel Palestine Committee which seeks to promote a Palestinian-Israeli dialogue and to Paris-based Israeli peace activist Maxime Ghilan.
Coinciding with Mirwan's arrival in Vienna, Austrian Chancellor Kreisky consulted with close advisers and a ranking Palestinian official about Arafat's possible visit to youth festival. Mr. Kreisky decided to prevent Arafat's attendance. He felt it to be improper for Arafat to visit Vienna as a guest of Mr. Cap, particularly as the chancellor was preparing for a second state visit to Austria by Arafat in as many years.
Kreisky further feared that Arafat may be exposed to anti-Palestinian demonstrations during the youth festival. Kreisky, however, neglected to publicize the fact that Arafat would not attend the festival.
June 8, the day Arafat was originally scheduled to address the festival, a security official of Arafat's Fatahm -- the largest Palestinian guerrilla movement -- noticed at Damascus airport the departure of three Sudanese members of the Abu Nidal group for Vienna. The Fatahm official instructed Ghazi Hussein to inform the Austrian authorities. But both the Austrian Foreign Ministry and the Interior Ministry say they were never approached by Hussein on this issue.
Almost two months later Mirwan and Rajih attacked the Vienna synagogue as a "punishment for Kreisky." In a statement distributed in Paris and Beirut Aug. 30 , Abu Nidal congratulated "our heroic comrades" for attacking the synagogue in which "the zionists were holding a secret conference."
Abu Nidal also threatened the "treacherous Palestinian leadership which is walking the road of settlement" and accused Austria of "going out of its way to intervene in the affairs of the Palestinian Arab people, of supporting the treacherous Arafat leadership, and of initiating negotiations between the Sadat regime and the zionist enemy."
Abu Nidal's opposition to official PLO policy dates to 1974 when he attempted to kill prominent PLO officials and was sentenced by a Fatahm tribunal to death. Two years later, his commandos attacked the Damascus Seramis Hotel, thereby allowing the Syrians to prepare public opinion for the Syrian attack on Palestinian positions in Lebanon. In 1978 Abu Nidal's assassins paid fatal visits to the PLO representatives in London, Paris, and Kuwait. In June of this year Brussels PLO representative Naim Khader was gunned down in the streets of the Belgian capital.
In the past year, Abu Nidal shifted his operation from Baghdad to Damascus. Despite his defection to Iraq's arch-rival, Iraq is said to continue its annual Senior Arab diplomats claim that Abu Nidal has deposited documents damaging to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Western safety deposit boxes -- to be released should Abu Nidal meet a violent death.
Middle East analysts believe that Arafat's death would have left a power vacuum both in Lebanon and in the PLO. Filling this vacuum with Syrian proteges would have been facilitated by the attempts to implicate Iraq in the assassination. Said one ranking Arab diplomat: "The assassination of Arafat would have radically changed the political map of the Middle East."