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The Story of a Man Who Likes Explosives

The Story of a Man Who Likes Explosives

Monday, 12 July, 2021 - 07:15
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

It was a once in a lifetime trip. The plane took off from Damascus airport. That was on May 20, 1985. I looked behind me and saw the captured Israeli soldier surveying the place, most likely dreaming of regaining his freedom, but obviously fearing the surprises of the last hours.

The actual manager of the trip was Fadel Shrourou, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command. He was the closest member to the Front’s Secretary-General, Ahmad Jibril. The trip was fraught with dangers. Three planes, each carrying an Israeli prisoner, were supposed to land at Geneva airport, with Israel releasing 1,150 detainees in return.

Despite Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ approval of the swap deal, there were those who feared that the Israeli security would take military action to recover the prisoners without paying this unprecedented price in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.

I knew Shrourou and he had previously invited me to visit one of the tunnels that Jibril had built in southern Lebanon - copying the Vietnamese experience - to avoid enemy air strikes. During the trip, I felt a cardboard box under the seat behind me and I found it to be very heavy. Shrourou joked about it, saying it was just luggage and advised me to change my seat if I was uncomfortable, but I didn’t. The man was always staring out the window and smiling back, as if trying to comfort himself and others.

As we approached Geneva airport, he seemed more and more worried about a surprise, which fortunately did not happen. The exchange deal was carried out according to the plan that the Austrian mediation helped shape. As scheduled, the plane, carrying some of the prisoners, took off in the direction of the Libyan capital, where Jibril was waiting for the liberated prisoners.

After the exchange was over, Shrourou said: “We must apologize to you and everyone in the trip. Abu Jihad (Jibril)’s orders were clear and stipulated that the planes would not succumb to any hijacking attempt, even if they had to explode in the air, and that the prisoners should be killed if faced by the danger of falling into the hands of the attackers.”

When I asked him if there were explosives on board the planes coming from Damascus to detonate and kill the prisoners, he only said: “You know Abu Jihad.”

Shrourou said that negotiations for this deal began more than two years ago and were halted several times, despite the efforts by Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky.

It was clear that Jibril wanted to set a precedent, proud that he succeeded in forcing Israel to release several times the number of prisoners it freed on the day it retrieved six captured soldiers, who were held by the Fatah movement.

Shrourou explained that the deal nearly collapsed just days before, when Israel tried to avoid the release of Kozo Okamoto, a member of the Japanese Red Army.

It was Okamoto who led the attack at Lod Airport in 1972 while working with the “external sphere” led by Dr. Wadih Haddad. The exchange took place and Okamoto was released, as did the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who will be arrested again before Israel is forced to release him after the failure of its attempt to assassinate Khaled Meshaal in Amman.

Years after the swap deal, I spent in Damascus exciting hours as Jibril told me his story, and the flow of memories was interrupted only by a brief lunch.

Jibril, who was born near Jaffa, was ten years old when his parents sought refuge in Syria. He worked for a short period as an officer in the Syrian army after graduating from the Egyptian Military College.

He studied explosives preparation and excelled in it, and he will apply his knowledge not only within the occupied territories, but also in Jordan, Lebanon and finally in Syria.

Jibril considered that the alliance with Syria was a condition for maintaining the armed action for Palestine. Thus, he committed to the Syrian security establishment and was considered among its arms, especially when he fought against Yasser Arafat, who returned to Tripoli in northern Lebanon in 1983.

During the marathon session, Jibril made explosive remarks. Some of his phrases sounded like explosives. He said that Arafat insisted on fighting inside the town of Karama in 1968 and said that he wanted to turn it into another Stalingrad.

He said that Arafat fled at the start of the fighting, which prompted the Palestinian leader to say harshly: “Jibril is a small soldier in Assad’s intelligence” and “I could not come to terms with Assad because I cannot be Ahmed Jibril.”

Jibril did not deny that he used huge amounts of explosives in the “hotel war”, which was a bloody chapter of the “two-year war” in Lebanon. He did not hesitate to say: “I am the real leader of the Mountain War in Lebanon in 1983 because I led the Battle of Bhamdoun, in which the artillery of the Syrian army played a major role.”

You ask him about the explosion of the Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, and he does not deny that his organization has a workshop capable of producing this type of explosive. He was keen to recall the operation that was carried out by elements from the Front in 1974, which he said was the “first martyrdom and immersion operation.”

Jibril was the first Palestinian in Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. The first Palestinian in Moammar al-Gadhafi’s Libya.

In recent decades, he was closely linked to Khomeini’s Iran, without ever occupying the first Palestinian position there. His involvement in the fighting that Syria witnessed in the past years increased the division over his path and image.

He does not resemble Arafat, nor does he look like Habash. He is not similar to Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal). Jibril is Jibril. An explosives maker and an explosives lover.

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