Whatever Happened to the 15 May Organisation?
Author: Rob Wood
Posted: March 20, 2003
The 15 May Organisation has been mentioned in official US government documents as late as 2001 as being supported by Saddam Hussein, despite the fact that many believe the group no longer exists. Indeed this organisation does not even make the current list of ‘Designated Terrorist Organisations,’ put out by the US DOS. The fact of the historical connection is beyond dispute. However, the lack of activity of 15 May over the last decade should not mean that we forget about them. A positive outcome of the current invasion of Iraq, might be the arrest of Abu Ibrahim, the leader of this group. Yet there is a very remote possibility that an outgoing Saddam Hussein may choose to arm this group with a WMD, thus making them an extreme menace.
Ideology: The 15 May Organisation was formed from the remnants of Wadi Haddad’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Many of its members abandoned the organisation after the withdrawal of overt Iraqi support in 1984 to join Colonel Hawari’s al Fatah. The organisation was named after the date on which Israel was declared a state and sought to destroy Israel and those who would tender a negotiated settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis. It would seem that its anti-Israeli agenda has been by far the dominant rhetorical justification that it has proffered for its violent history. 15 May is unusual among Palestinian movements as it was never a part of the PLO.
History: The 15 May Organisation is known for its use of sophisticated explosive devices in the form of suitcase bombs and plastic explosives which were used in many of its terrorist attacks during the 1980s. The group was most active in the early part of that decade There were attacks by 15 May at a London hotel in 1980 and the Israeli embassies in Athens and Vienna in 1981.Two El Al offices were also attacked in 1981 along with a Greek ship, Orion, at the Israeli port city of Haifa in December of that same year. In 1982 there was an attempted hijacking of a Pan Am flight in Rio de Janeiro and the onboard bombing of another Pan Am flight from Tokyo to Honolulu in August of that year. 15 May were also responsible for the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Sydney in 1982, which injured two people. The group was further responsible for attempting the bombing of three airliners in 1983, two of them headed to Israel and one to New York.
Key Personnel: While 15 May was ostensibly disbanded about 18 years ago, indications are that its leader, Muhammad al-Umari (aka: Abu Ibrahim) remains in Iraq. Al-Umari is known throughout the Middle East and within terrorist circles as the “bomb man,” which is reflective of the group’s trademark delivery of terror. He is supposedly an expert in demolitions, specialising in suitcase bombs.
Another of their personnel, Mohammed Rashid was put on trial in the US in 1997 after spending several years in a Greek prison before being released. . He was suspected of committing at least three terrorist attacks in the 80s including the bombings of two Pan Am airliners and a TWA airliner in Athens.
Link with Iraq: Iraq supported 15 May organisation from its formation in 1979, by allowing it to reside in Iraq with government funding and possibly even the provision of military training. Nevertheless, the need for US support by Iraq in the war against Iran during the 1980s meant that Hussein withdrew his overt support for the group. This led to the apparent disbanding of 15 May in the mid 1980s, whereby its members dispersed into other terrorist organisation such as al Fatah.
Nevertheless, there are some more recent indications of activity. As late as 1997, a 15 May training camp near Baghdad was cited as a potential bombing target for any allied bombing campaign in Iraq, despite the fact that such information was based on a newspaper report from 1991. There have been few indications that 15 May retains any such facilities today.
While 15 May has not been directly linked to any attacks since the mid 1980s, according to many sources it still maintains a presence in Baghdad. The standing of Abu Ibrahim amongst other Palestinian organisations could mean that his expertise may still be called upon by such groups. Indeed, Ibrahim was cited as a “potential asset” for the Hussein regime by a member of the US House of Representatives as long ago as 1990.
Saddam has shown a preference for using his own secret intelligence service for his own brand of terror, such as the failed assassination of George Bush Senior. in 1993, and the more recent attempt to attack a Radio Free Europe station in the Czech Republic in 1998. Yet with the current invasion, Saddam has been truly backed into a corner. Some analysts have predicted that he may choose to arm terrorist organisations with WMDs, having nothing left to lose. While there are other more likely terrorist recipients of a WMD from Saddam, it is the recent anonymity of 15 May, as well as their undisputed terror expertise that makes their position worth some consideration. After all, who would expect Saddam to bestow such a prize on a ‘defunct’ group?
The short of this is that it would be foolhardy to discount the current status of this group when so much is at stake. The reemergence of a WMD-armed 15 May, while a remote possibility, would not augur well for the West and especially Israel. There is little reason to believe that Abu Ibrahim has significantly changed his position on Israel or the use of terror and so he remains a danger. Let’s hope the current invasion of Iraq sees the final demise of this terrorist.