Imagine it is the year 2030, and you are talking to some young adults.  To your horror, you find that they have never heard the name Osama bin Laden.  As you begin to rant about the ignorance of the young, you find to your still greater astonishment that none of your older friends have any recollection of the name, even those who lived through September 11.  How is this kind of amnesia possible?  Are memories really so short?

This is very much the situation in which anyone who recalls the 1970’s and 80’s finds himself when he mentions the name Abu Nidal.  For two decades, Abu Nidal was the most notorious name in terrorism worldwide, the most dreaded international villain, who made regular appearances in popular fiction and thrillers.  The pioneer of megaterror, he was the man most closely identified with acts of mass violence against Western civilians, and as the villain (it was thought) most likely to seek weapons of mass destruction.  Today, though, his name is all but forgotten.

At the simplest level, this story shows how fragile public memory is, and how susceptible to media manipulation.  More important, though, it forces us to rethink the history of terrorism, and to challenge any easy solutions to that problem.  As studies of terrorism have poured forth over the past decade, they have focused overwhelmingly on the ideology of radical Islam, personified by Bin Laden and his Qaeda disciples.  What we forget is just how late that movement came onto the terrorist stage.  Far from inventing the tactics of modern irregular warfare, they were late arrivals and late learners.  The prehistory of modern terror features a cast of characters completely different from the familiar demonology, and an utterly different ideological context.  Abu Nidal himself was not an Islamist, but a revolutionary socialist and secular nationalist, whose ideas were closer to Che Guevara than to Osama—to Havana and Beijing than to Riyadh.  And if modern terrorism was not Islamist in its origins, then even the annihilation of Al Qaeda would not eradicate the phenomenon, which could easily be deployed by other anti-Western movements.  A false historical memory lays the foundation for a thoroughly flawed antiterrorist policy.

Although Abu Nidal was an Arab, he was in no sense a “Muslim terrorist,” and Islamic fundamentalists were his deadliest enemies.  He emerged in the Palestinian terrorist world of the late 1960’s, which was dominated by Christian Arab militants like George Habash.  Habash pioneered the modern methods of global terrorism, including the hijacking of airliners and the use of violent spectaculars to grab world media attention.  These tactics were adopted by other Middle Eastern movements, but they failed to match the zeal and ruthlessness of Abu Nidal.

In the decade after 1976, Abu Nidal entered his era of greatest notoriety, as he developed his signature tactics.  These included the targeting of airliners, either in hijacking or midair bombing, and also the use of “twofers,” double simultaneous attacks, carried out in widely separated parts of the world to ensure maximum publicity.  His followers slaughtered civilians in Rome and Vienna airports; they massacred worshipers at an Istanbul synagogue; they set off car bombs and blew up airliners.

So after all these outrages, just what happened to Abu Nidal?  Here we encounter a mystery.  His last major spectaculars occurred in the late 1980’s, just as Al Qaeda was rising to the fore, and as the emphasis in international terrorism shifted from the secular socialists to the Sunni Islamists.  But those upstart Islamists followed Abu Nidal’s methods faithfully, as they built on his idea of twofers and simultaneous attacks, especially involving airliners.  By 1995, Al Qaeda had drafted what became the September 11 plot, a scheme that shows most of the Abu Nidal signatures.  They were scrupulously following his playbook.  Unfortunately, Abu Nidal’s murder—in Baghdad in 2002—prevented any further investigation of possible linkages to the emerging Qaeda.

Why, then, has such a critical figure been forgotten?  We might speculate on some official conspiracy of silence, but governments are never really that efficient at controlling media.  What actually happened was more straightforward, and perhaps more depressing for what it suggests about the making of historical memory.  From the late 1990’s, fascination with Al Qaeda dominated public discourse, and writers and journalists assumed, as they commonly do, that something like the present situation has always existed.  If terrorism now meant Al Qaeda, then it must always have been so, and any story that failed to fit this picture was unconsciously airbrushed out.

The past was thus reshaped to fit the present.  Or as George Orwell shrewdly observed, whoever controls the present controls the past; whoever controls the past controls the future.