Has Syria’s Al-Qaeda Affiliate Killed a Veteran Palestinian Terrorist?

By Patrick Goodenough | August 26, 2014 | 5:08 AM EDT

PFLP-GC leader Ahmed Jibril, right, was a close ally of the Assad regime and Iran. This photo, which shows Jibril, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian Islamic Jihad head Ramadan Shallah during a Feb. 2010 meeting with Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, features as the header photo on Khamenei’s Twitter account. (Photo: Khamenei/Twitter)

(CNSNews.com) – Ahmed Jibril, a veteran Palestinian terrorist of the generation that included Yasser Arafat, George Habash and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, reportedly has been killed in Damascus, where his unwavering support for the Assad regime put him at odds with many Palestinians in the latter years of his life.

According to unverified reports posted online Tuesday, including some by individuals claiming to be involved in the conflict in Syria, Jibril died of injuries sustained from an IED, planted by the al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusrah. He was aged around 75.

If reports of Jibril’s death are true, he would be the last of a generation of leading Palestinian terrorists born in the years before World War II. Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat died of still-contested causes in 2004, Hamas spiritual leader Yassin died in an Israeli air strike in 2004, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) founder Habash died of a heart attack in 2008.

Daniel Nisman, president of Levantine Group, a Tel Aviv-based geopolitical risk consultancy, said early Tuesday he had seen the messages overnight on Jibril’s possible death.

He described the PFLP-GC as a “very weakened group – not the organization they used to be,” but said that Jibril’s death, if confirmed, would nonetheless be a symbolic loss of “an icon.”

“He could be the oldest surviving Palestinian militant leader in existence.”

Jibril split from the PFLP – a Marxist-leaning faction within the PLO – in 1968, forming his own group called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

Based in Damascus, Jibril aligned himself closely to the regime of Syrian President Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father; to Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution; and to the Iranian-backed Shi’ite terrorist group in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

The U.S. designated the PFLP-GC a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.

The outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011 divided Palestinian loyalties. Hamas, whose leader Khaled Meshaal was also based in Damascus, found itself caught between its allegiance to the regime that sponsored it and its affinity for the opposition which includes the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ own mother organization.

After Meshaal and Hamas’ “political bureau” departed Damascus for Qatar in January 2012, Jibril’s PFLP-GC was the most prominent Palestinian group left in the Syrian capital, where a large Palestinian refugee community – more than 150,000 when the civil war began – was located in the suburb of Yarmouk.

The PLO ordered Palestinians not to get involved in Syria’s internal affairs, but in the summer of that year PFLP-GC fighters in Yarmouk clashed with Palestinians supportive of the anti-Assad rebellion. As fighting worsened towards the end of the year thousands of Palestinians fled the area and rebels, reportedly including members of Al-Nusrah, captured part of Yarmouk.

Amid a regime-enforced siege of Yarmouk that led to the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians, some of whom starved to death, the PFLP-GC splintered, with some members defecting because they objected to supporting the regime against the rebels.

In mid-December, the Al-Arabiya television network reported that Jibril himself had fled Yarmouk, and two days later Palestinian media reported that the PLO was considering expelling him for involving Palestinians in the Syrian conflict.

The threat did not appear to deter Jibril, who in 2013 issued statements reiterating support for Assad, Iran and Hezbollah, according to the State Department.

PFLP-GC fighters filtered back into Yarmouk, and in July 2013 the group was involved again, together with Assad regime forces, in a battle in the area, during which more civilians were killed.

Two months later Jibril’s son, Khalid Jibril – a member of the PFLP-GC’s leadership council – survived an assassination attempt in Yarmouk, Iranian state media reported at the time.

(Jibril’s eldest son, Jihad Jibril, was killed in a car bombing in Beirut in 2002. He was being groomed to succeed his father as head of the PFLP-GC.)

Lockerbie claim

Nisman said the PFLP-GC had been largely “defanged.”

“It’s been most active in the intra-Palestinian fighting in Yarmouk, between the Palestinians that are opposed to and supporting Assad, but this is not an organization that’s capable of waging any kind of conflict on its own. There was a time they used to carry out very creative attacks, but they don’t do that anymore.”

The PFLP-GC carried out numerous terrorist attacks against Israel, targeting school children among others, in the 1970s and 1980s.  In its best-known attack, two terrorists used hang-gliders in 1987 to cross the border into northern Israel, attacked an army barracks and killed six soldiers.

After Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s – an agreement bitterly opposed by Jibril – the group’s profile diminished.

In 2000, however, lawyers acting for two Libyans on trial in the Netherlands accused of blowing up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 put forward in their defense the claim that the actual perpetrator of the bombing was the PLFP-GC.

(An early theory explored by investigators held that the PFLP-GC had been contracted to carry out the bombing by Iran, which wanted to avenge the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf five months earlier. Claims to that effect were also made by two former Iranian senior intelligence officials who defected from Tehran, Abolghasem Mesbahi in 1997 and Ahmad Behbahani in 2000.)

Nonetheless the marathon Lockerbie trial ended in 2011 with one of the two Libyans, former intelligence agent Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, becoming the first and only person convicted in the bombing.

Claims of an PFLP-GC/Iran link to Lockerbie made a reappearance in an al-Jazeera television documentary aired last March.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow