Wasiq Wasiq, an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society
The British government recently declared Hamas a terrorist organization. But there is another Palestinian organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which should be added to that list.
Who Are The PFLP?
The PFLP is the most prominent Leftist terrorist organization in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They are Marxist-Leninist and socialist in nature, and were founded by Dr. George Habash after the Six Day War in June 1967. Behind Fatah, the PFLP are the second faction that makes up the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the main umbrella organization of the Palestinian national movement. The PFLP considers Fatah and Hamas to be illegitimate political forces, not least since the last elections for the Palestinian National Authority took place in 2006. As a result, the PFLP boycotts participation in the PLO executive committee and the Palestinian National Council.
The PFLP opposes the more moderate position of Fatah and thus takes a more hardline approach to Palestinian national aspirations. For example, it does not recognize the state of Israel, and refuses and opposes any negotiations with the Israeli government. In this sense, the PFLP are less pragmatic than some of their Islamist counterparts, who would—on a balance of probabilities—support a two-state settlement in some form over a one-state “solution”. The PFLP also has a militant wing, the Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades, named after one of its former leaders.
The PFLP has long understood that gaining support from outside powers would bolster its support network and provide it with the resources to carry out its stated aims, to endure, and—in theory—to eventually become a legitimated political force ready to govern a region.
The PFLP has taken support from the former Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and Iran—ideologically diverse states, attesting to the group’s pragmatism in pursuing its extremist ends. The support from the former three states has dwindled in recent years, and to survive the PFLP has relied ever-more on the Islamic Republic of Iran. The PFLP is avowedly secularist in nature, but working with a Shia led theocracy has never been an issue: the PFLP will take training, financial support, and military assistance from Islamist counterparts when needed. To cement this alliance, the PFLP took a pro-Assad stand over Syria. Indeed, even at a time when Hamas showed signs of moving away from Iran, the PFLP only saw this as an opportunity to gain further support from a government with shared aims—that of the destruction of Israel.
Still, it has not gained the PFLP the recognition it sought. The group has continued to carry out terrorist attacks and its refusal to deal with legitimate states or their citizens has ensured they repaid it in kind. The PFLP views all Israelis and Jews as legitimate targets, everywhere, because they are in a state of “resistance”. This narrative, and its version of its own history, is rooted in a story of victimhood, which has proven to be one of its most successful recruiting pitches.
What Have They Done?
The official definition of terrorism adopted by the British Government, laid out in the Terrorism Act 2000, states: “Terrorism is defined in United Kingdom law as the use or threat of action, both in and outside of the United Kingdom, designed to influence any international government organization or to intimidate the public and for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.” The PFLP meets this definition.
During its early years, the PFLP carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks. Such attacks were not restricted simply to bombings; they advanced themselves and pioneered the technique of international airplane hijackings during the 1960s and 1970s.
To give some examples:
In 1968, on 23 July to be exact, the aircraft Boeing 707 was hijacked by three members of the PFLP. The plane was scheduled to fly from Rome to the main Israeli airport, Ben Gurion International Airport. However, the PFLP, having managed to get into the flight cabin, diverted the airplane to Algiers. All hostages were released, except for twelve Israeli passengers and ten crew members. The PFLP were clear about who they were interested in, and what political leverage they thought these hostages gave them, when planning this hijacking. As a result, through intense negotiations over a forty-day period between the Israeli and Algerian governments, the PFLP were able to gain concessions and have twelve convicted Arab prisoners released. What this demonstrates is that, if the PFLP has a chance, no matter how long it takes, they are committed to their cause. There is a history of this commitment, and it should be concerning that despite this hostage situation, the organization is not proscribed.
Two years later, the PFLP—learned from their first hijacking—raised their ambitions. They gained confidence and believed they were untouchable. In September 1970, the PFLP hijacked four passenger airliners that were bound for New York City. Three of the airliners were diverted and forced to land in Zarqa, Jordan. Dawson’s Field, a remote desert airstrip was their choice of destination, became their “Revolutionary Airport”. One flight, however, was foiled. One of the hijackers, the American citizen Patrick Arguello, was shot and killed, and his accomplice, the notorious Leila Khaled, was arrested and handed over to the British Government. Interestingly, the Vickers VC10, coming from Bahrain, was hijacked by a PFLP sympathizer, rather than a formal member, and taken to Dawson’s Field airstrip. The aim was to pressure the British Government into releasing Leila Khaled. Again, what this demonstrates is that, given the chance, the PFLP will do what it can towards its ultimate goal, always expanding it activities and drawing on support from non-members. This conduct and ideology is an ongoing radicalization threat to the West.
The Lod Airport Massacre is perhaps one of the most atrocious acts of terrorism to have been carried out by the PFLP. On 30 May 1972, the PFLP hired three members of the Japanese Red Army. This was a strategic move directed by North Korea: Israeli authorities were closely monitoring those that fit the profile of terrorists in the region; members of the Japanese Red Army fell outside the profile, and were thus able to go unnoticed. As a result, twenty-six innocent people were killed, seventeen Christian pilgrims from America and eight Israelis among them, and eighty people were injured. Terrorist groups need not have shared aims to work together, though in this case there seems to have been a broadly shared outlook—and a perception of a commonality in advantages and learning. The PFLP was able to tap into the “revolutionary” message of the era, which is how Okamoto, one of the perpetrators, justified doing what he did. “It was my duty as a soldier of the revolution”, he said.
The PFLP have been resolute, not unlike the Islamic State (ISIS), in their stated mission to free captured militants from prisons. This was the aim of their operation on 27 June 1976, when Air France Airbus A300—carrying 248 passengers—was hijacked by two members of the PFLP, precipitating one of the most infamous terrorist incidents not just by the PFLP but in all history. The flight’s destination had been Paris; the plane was diverted to the main airport in Uganda, Entebbe. It was greeted and welcomed by the Ugandan government, with then-ruler Idi Amin personally welcoming them. This was less than a year after Amin had been one of the lead voices in pushing through the Soviet-sponsored “Zionism is Racism” resolution at the United Nations. Israelis and non-Israeli Jews were separated out from the rest of the passengers at Entebbe. Once again, the PFLP demonstrated the antisemitism at the core of their stated aims—to destroy Israel by targeting Jews. The non-Jewish passengers were released. It was at this point that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), acting on intelligence from Israel’s Mossad, carried out Operation Thunderbolt. Taking place at night, 100 commandoes were taken to Uganda in an operation that would last ninety minutes. Of the 106 remaining hostages, three were killed, as was one Israeli commando, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the elder brother of the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (The operation has been colloquially renamed Operation Jonathon in his memory.) Crucially, the concern here is that within less than a decade, the PFLP not only managed to gain support from the Japanese Red Army, but also governments. Their revolutionary cause had gained momentum, and their strategic vision and abilities had evolved—yet the group remains undesignated as a terrorist organization in the United Kingdom.
Terrorism’s primary goal is to influence political change through the use of intimidation, violence, and murder. The PFLP has acted in exactly this way for a long time. A key example took place a month after 9/11, when a squad of Palestinians, acting on behalf of the PFLP, assassinated Israel’s tourism minister, Rehavam Ze’evi, in stated revenge for the killing Abu Ali Mustafa, the former leader of the PFLP. Ze’evi was the first Israeli minister assassinated since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. It was discovered six months later that the killers had been, rather than placed under arrest, allowed to hide in Ramallah at the Mukataa compound, under the auspices of PLO leader Yasser Arafat. British and American guards supported the transfer of the assassins to another Palestinian prison in Jericho. Showing that the ideological divide was no barrier to collaboration in either direction, Hamas made clear in the run-up to the 2006 Palestinian elections that it intended to release the assassins if it gained power. What both organizations share is their desire for the destruction of Israel. Fortunately, the IDF was able to capture the assassins, try them, and give them long prison sentences. Even as Israel applied the rule of law and due diligence in this most trying case, the same cannot be said for organizations hell-bent on destroying Israel and its citizens. The PFLP’s criminality was revealed in 2005 to have expanded yet again: the PFLP and its leader Ahmed Jibril were mentioned in a United Nations report as conspirators in the Syria-Iran-led assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The shift from hijacking to direct murder in the case of Ze’evi proved to be a permanent change in strategy, as shown by the 2003 Christmas suicide bombing. Also known as the Geha Interchange bus bombing, just outside of Tel Aviv, four people were killed and sixteen injured after Saed Hanani, an 18-year-old from the village of Beit Furik on the West Bank, blew himself up. The PFLP boastfully took responsibility for the attack. It is no coincidence that this attack came shortly after Israeli Helicopters killed a Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander and four other Palestinians in Gaza. The PFLP, the pioneers and masters of airplane hijacking, learned quickly from their Islamist rivals and expanded their activities to include suicide bombings.
Why Proscribing the PFLP Matters
Proscribing the PFLP is not, and should not be seen, as an encroachment on civil liberties. Those that support such an organization must not be given “the oxygen of publicity on which they depend”, as one prominent near-victim of terrorism once said. Proscribing the PFLP is not a matter of free speech. Rather, it is a symbolic and material step to strengthen the protection of Israeli, Jewish, and ultimately all its citizens against a very real threat.
Outlawing the PFLP has numerous strategic dividends for the British government in its fight against terrorism. While proscribing a terrorist organization does not necessarily mean those supporting the group will be any less sympathetic to them or their cause, it prevents these sympathies—or allows the government to prevent these sympathies—being translated into a threat to the social contract that binds and protects all people in the United Kingdom.
It is also an opportunity for the government to take leadership with regard to a narrative that appears to go unchallenged. The longer the PFLP remain an undesignated terrorist organization, the more they will gain legitimacy—and with it recruits, money, and the ability to support other groups with a shared cause. It is in all our interests to ensure this kind of messaging is not allowed to grow.
The government has got it right by proscribing Hamas and Islamic Jihad as terrorist organizations; the same security and legal logic applies to the PFLP. This is why I urge the Home Secretary and her Parliamentarians to take this matter seriously and to proscribe the PFLP as a terrorist organization as soon as practicable.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.