Force 17 was an elite Palestinian group formed in the 1970s and tasked with protecting Yasser Arafat and other top members of the Fatah movement and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). From its creation until it was disbanded in 2007, Force 17 also assisted with intelligence gathering and carrying out terrorist attacks.
Although the group achieved a certain level of infamy, many U.S. news outlets failed to note that Force 17——like other branches of the Palestinian Security Services——was a recipient of international and U.S. aid and support. Several Force 17 operatives have since been appointed to top posts in the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) referred to Force 17 as the “best trained of the dozen or so overlapping security organizations operating under the Palestinian Authority’s control (“Who are Force 17?” Dec. 4, 2001).” Arafat regarded them as some of his most trusted security personnel, according to a profile by Fiona Symon, then a BBC Middle East analyst.
Origins and Ideology
Force 17 was created after the Palestine Liberation Organization was expelled from Jordan in 1970 (Aaron Mannes, Profile in Terror: The Guide to Middle East Terror Organizations, Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs Press, 2004).
There are several theories as to where the group got its name. One theory is that the group got its name from its supposed 1970s headquarters, located at 17 Faqahani Street in Beirut (“Force 17: The Renewal of Old Competition Motivates Violence,” Reuven Paz, Washington Institute for Near East Policy Brief, April 5, 2001). Another theory holds that Force 17 was named after the death of seventeen Palestinian fighters during the March 21 1968 fight at Karameh between Jordanian and Palestinian forces and the IDF (Daniel Byman, A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism, Oxford University Press, 2011). Others have claimed that Force 17 derives its name from the group’s telephone extension used at the PLO’s Beirut headquarters (Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, Every Spy a Prince, Houghton Mifflin, 1990).
Force 17’s official name was al-Amn al-Ri’asah, which means Presidential Security (Mannes, 2004).
Aaron Mannes, a Middle East analyst and former Director of Research at the Middle East Media Research Institute, has noted that Force 17’s “distinguishing characteristic was its absolute loyalty to Yasser Arafat.” The group “did not espouse a particular ideology, distinct from the PLO.” As part of its mission, Force 17 was tasked with acting as a personal intelligence agency for Arafat, often acting against internal rivals and other Palestinian factions (Arlene Kushner, Disclosed: Insider the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, Pavillon Press, 2004).
Force 17 was initially commanded by Ali Hassan Salameh (a.k.a Abu Hassan a.k.a The Red Prince). Salameh was assassinated by Israel in 1979. After his death, Force 17 was led by Colonel Mahmoud al-Natour (a.k.a Abu Tayeb a.k.a Colonel Hawari), who was previously Arafat’s personal bodyguard.
In his 2011 book Palestine Liberation Organization: Terrorism and Prospects for Peace in the Holy Land (Praeger Press) Daniel Baracskay, a professor at Valdosta State University, pointed out:
“Within Force 17, the Hawari Apparatus was created as a secret operational wing to conduct the unit’s expanding presence in Europe. It functioned directly under Arafat’s command.”
In April 2005, The New York Times reported that that Hawari was being considered by Mahmoud Abbas for the position of head of security for either the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) or the Gaza Strip. Ultimately, Hawari was not appointed (“Abbas moves to control West Bank Security Forces,” April 3, 2005). In their dispatch, The Times referred only to Force 17’s role as Arafat’s bodyguard unit——omitting the group’s history of terrorist attacks, some of which may have occurred on U.S. soil.
Following the return of Arafat and the PLO to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1994, Force 17 was led by Faisal Abu Sharah (Kushner, 2004).
According to Arlene Kushner, an investigative journalist and author:
“When Arafat came to Gaza after the signing of the Declaration of Principles [part of the Oslo process], Force 17 was supposed to have been disbanded. Under the Palestinian Authority [newly created under Oslo] one single new security force——General Security Service——was to have been established and given responsibility for police and intelligence work. In fact, however, Arafat brought Force 17 men with him from Tunis and established a separate unit——Presidential Security Unit——under his direct command. For all intents and purposes this is Force 17, so great a preponderance of its members and officers is from the original group. In this sense it is markedly different from other PA security groups and Fatah militia groups that have connections in the West Bank and Gaza, and a history of involvement in the first Intifada.”
The decision to maintain, if not in official name, Force 17 and to keep the security services fractured was intentional, according to terror analyst Daniel Byman. Arafat kept the security leadership fragmented in order to prevent a rival from rising up within the security services (for more information on the reorganization of the Palestinian security and intelligence services post-Oslo see “The Palestinian Security Services——Between Army and Navy,” Gal Luft, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 1999).
Mahmoud Damara (a.k.a Abu Awad) served as a top commander under Hawari. Damara was reportedly close to Yasser Arafat. Although Arafat later dismissed him from his position of Force 17 commander in Ramallah, he nonetheless remained close to the Palestinian leader. Damara was appointed to be Force 17’s second in command by PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Charged with supporting terrorist attacks, Damara was arrested by Israeli authorities in September 2006 (“Ramallah: IDF nabs Force 17 commander,” Ynet news, Sept. 5, 2006). During the second intifada (2000-5), Ramallah Force 17 operatives under his command carried out 25 attacks in Jerusalem, Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank.
Damara was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his actions. While incarcerated, the Palestinian Authority promoted him to general. He was released in October 2011 as part of a prisoner exchange deal that saw 1,027 Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for IDF solider Gilad Shalit. Shortly after his release, Damara was made an assistant to the adviser on district affairs for Mahmoud Abbas (“Abbas appoints terrorist released in Shalit deal as top adviser,” Israel Hayom, Jan. 2, 2012).
Force 17 possessed an aviation component that was the model for the Aerial Police (Shurta al-Jawiya) formed amid the post-Oslo reorganization of the Palestinian security branches (Luft,1999). Additionally, Force 17 possessed an armored element, according to a Jewish Virtual Library profile.
In 2001, Force 17 had an estimated 3,500 operatives (“Who are Force 17?” BBC, Dec. 4, 2001). This number seems to have been fairly consistent; in 1982, the group was described as having a “combat strength of 3,600 (Mannes, 2004).”
Ali Hassan Salameh was a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and had worked with Fatah’s Security Apparatus, the movement’s intelligence bureau. Salameh was the son of Sheikh Hassan Salameh a member of Abdul Qader al-Husseini’s Jihad al-Muqaddas (Holy Struggle), which had participated in the Arab Revolt (1936-1939) and the 1948 war against the fledging Jewish state. The elder Salameh was exiled from Mandate Palestine for his participation in terrorist attacks and served as an aide to Hitler collaborator Haj Amin al-Husseini. Sheikh Hassan Salameh was killed in combat with the Irgun during Israel’s 1948 War for Independence.
According to the author Kai Bird, Ali Hassan Salameh was raised to hold his father——and his father’s cause, the annihilation of the Jewish state——in high esteem. Salameh, who had spent time in Germany and Lebanon in his youth, took charge of the Kuwaiti chapter of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Popular Organization Department. Salameh was asked by Arafat to become a member of Fatah’s Security Apparatus shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War. He received intelligence training from the Egyptian government in 1968.
Salameh also had contact with the U.S. government. By 1970——around the same time that Force 17 was being developed and professionalized by Salameh——the son of the Sheikh had been recruited as a CIA source. As Bird noted, “The PLO was regarded as a terrorist organization, and thus political contacts with its members were prohibited. On the other hand, the CIA viewed the PLO as a natural target for intelligence recruitment.”
Salameh was briefly removed from his position as head of Force 17 in mid-1971 at the instigation of Abu Iyad, the PLO’s second in command. However, by the year’s end he was reinstalled.
During his absence, Abu Iyad had created a rival PLO organization, Black September, which later committed several terror attacks, including the 1972 Munich Olympic Games Massacre. Salameh reported to Abu Iyad and no doubt knew about Black September whose operational commander was another top PLO official, Abu Daoud. However, it’s possible that Salameh was shut out of some of Black September’s planning, given Abu Ilyad’s view of him as a rival for PLO chieftain Arafat’s affections. Nonetheless, Salameh likely did participate as the “mastermind”of several Black September operations, including the Nov. 28, 1971 assassination of Jordanian Prime Minister Wasfi al-Tal in Cairo.
Force 17 operatives may have been behind the July 1, 1973 assassination of Col. Yusef Alon, the Israeli embassy’s assistant air attaché, who was murdered outside his Chevy Chase, Maryland home. As Bird noted, “The murder remains unsolved, but it was reportedly the work of a Force 17 assassination team led by an operative named Abu Faris, a Palestinian of African descent who wore an Afro hairstyle. Their intended target was Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin, but because Rabin’s personal security was so tight, the assassins instead targeted Colonel Alon.”
As part of an agreement reached with the CIA——in which the PLO claimed it would refrain attacks on American soil——Arafat deployed Force 17 members to go after the Abu Nidal Organization, a rival Palestinian terrorist group, sponsored by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. According to Harawi, “We in Force 17 were requested by Arafat to attack Abu Nidal’s headquarters in Libya, and we killed all who were there planning operations to kill PLO representatives in Europe.…Many terrorist operations were disrupted and stopped dead in the their tracks.” The move, of course, was not one of benevolence, but rather Arafat eliminating rivals with American knowledge and quite possibly, support (Kai Bird, The Life and Death of Robert Ames, Crown Publishers, 2014).
Force 17’s work to target others, including Israelis, continued unabated.
Force 17 fought IDF troops in the 1982 war in Lebanon. When the PLO left Lebanon for Tunis, Force 17 went with it——but not before reportedly losing as many as 500 operatives in attacks against the IDF. While in Tunisia in the late 1980s, the “Hawari Apparatus,” also known as the Special Forces Apparatus, was created.
As Barry Rubin noted in his 2003 biography of Yasser Arafat:
“Armed struggle in the form of terrorism, rather than diplomacy, continued to be Arafat’s main tactic. Deprived of the ability to hit Israel from Lebanon, the PLO turned to attacks by sea and operations Israelis outside the country. Abu Jihad [a founding member of Fatah later killed in 1988 in Tunisia] and Arafat’s personal bodyguard unit, Force 17, mounted terrorist attacks from Algerian bases. Fatah members also tried to bomb Israeli offices in Frankfurt, Rome, and Madrid.”
Arafat, engaging in an old antisemitic trope, claimed that Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, was actually behind the anti-Jewish violence.
The decision to expand Force 17’s operations in Europe——as part of the “Hawari Apparatus”——was implemented in 1984 with the building of “an infrastructure of terrorist cells, weapons depots and safe houses worldwide (Daniel Baracskay, Palestine Liberation Organization: Terrorism and Prospects for Peace in the Holy Land, Praeger Press, 2011).” However, the group had long had a presence in Europe——even owning a restaurant in Rome called the Diplomat Venture (Bird, 2014).
On Sept. 25, 1985, three Israeli tourists were murdered in Cyprus by Force 17 operatives. According to Rubin, “The killers included a British neo-Nazi skinhead working for the PLO, which highlighted Arafat’s shadowy connections with the European antisemitic far right; a former member of Arafat’s bodyguard, who had been an official in the PLO’s Athens office; and a Fatah man evacuated from Lebanon with Arafat. PLO denials of involvement thus rang rather hollow.”
In response to the September attack, Israel conducted an aerial bombing of PLO offices in Tunisia.
Force 17, nonetheless, continued to carry out terror attacks from its bases in Tunisia and Algeria. According to Mannes, “In 1987, Force 17 killed Nagy El-Ali, a well-known political cartoonist who was critical of Arafat.” Efraim Karsh, a Middle East analyst and academic, said that El-Ali was killed for implying that Arafat had a relationship with a married woman. El-Ali was killed in London, where Force 17 had an “extensive network (Efraim Karsh, Arafat’s War, Grove Press, 2003).”
As noted by Dan Raviv and Yossi Mellman in their book Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community, Force 17’s unit in England was set up by Abdel Rahim Mustapha. A major in the organization, Mustapha posed as a legitimate businessma
n, running a gasoline station outside of London. He oversaw the assassination of El-Ali.
French police caught Ziad Hashash, a member of the Hawari apparatus, in March 1987 before he could carry out a terror attack. He was found to have a machine gun, a pistol and 16 kilograms of explosives. This was one of several incidents in which Force 17 operatives were caught and exposed while conducting operations in Europe.
In another incident, on March 30, 1986, a bomb planted by Force 17 exploded on TWA Flight 840, killing four American citizens and wounding ten others (Mannes, 2004).
Although Force 17 conducted operations targeting Israelis and Arafat enemies abroad, it generally did not conduct terror attacks in the West Bank or Gaza Strip prior to 1993. Nor did the group take part in the First Intifada. According to terror analyst Reuven Paz:
“In the mid-1980s, Force-17 took responsibility for terrorist operations in Israel that never occurred, under the name of Al-Wathiqun bi-Amri Allah (Confidants of Allah’s orders). These claims were an attempt by Abu Tayyib to make Force-17 appear more important by publicizing a fake group that contributed nothing to the Palestinian armed struggle (Paz, 2001).”
Operations in the 1990s and 2000s
Shortly after the 1993 Oslo accords, Force 17 operated against “collaborators” in the West Bank, particularly those involved in the sale of land to Israel. The group reportedly kidnapped and murdered land dealers (Kushner, 2004). Force 17 targeting these land dealers based off of a list prepared by the PA (Paz, 2001). In 1995, Force 17 arrested and held for 25 hours Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights campaigner who has been outspoken against abuses by the authority.
The organization used similarly brutal tactics against critics of Arafat——including those outside of PA-controlled territories. For example, on Jan. 3, 2002, Force 17 operatives appeared in a Cairo hospital to threaten Jawad Ghussein, a recuperating patient and former Arafat associate who had accused Arafat of corruption. Force 17 locked his family members in a neighboring room and kidnapped Ghussein, taking him to Gaza. Ghussein, a former head of the Palestine National Fund, was charged with embezzlement, but managed to escape to London with Israeli assistance (Karsh, 2003).
Force 17 operatives were also involved in anti-Jewish violence that immediately followed the 1993 Oslo accords. Documents seized by the IDF in the 1990s show that “large sums of PA money were being released to Hina Bakar, a colonel in Force 17, for purposes of the illegal manufacture and purchase of weapons.”
Force 17 took part in terrorist attacks during the Second Intifada (2000-05). According to Kushner, senior officers of Force 17 were involved in several operations. Analyst Reuven Paz has stated that Force 17, lacking local ties in Gaza and the West Bank, and in competition with the nine other PA security agencies also operating, may have been seeking to raise its profile during the second intifada. Mannes concurs with Paz’s conclusion, adding that prior to the Second Intifada, Force 17’s role, “in crackdowns on Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) made them unpopular with those organizations and their supporters in Palestinian society.”
Ariel Sharon, who served as Israel’s Prime Minister during the Second Intifada, pointed to Force 17’s role, telling an American interviewer, “One must look at the facts. And the facts are that most terrorist attacks are executed by people who have been armed by the PA, with some of the shooting attacks on Israeli civilians carried out by the closest people to Arafat, belonging to his personal guard unit known as Force 17 (Karsh, 2003).”
Demonstrating Arafat’s control of Force 17, the group even briefly refrained from violence in order to guard visiting American officials. For example, during a February 2001 visit by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Force 17 assisted in guarding the diplomat. As Rubin noted, “this was also the PA Security agency most involved in previous operations against Israeli civilians. As soon as Powell left Ramallah, Fatah squads restarted their attacks.” According to Kai Bird, Force 17 had previously provided security to U.S. diplomats in Lebanon in the 1980s, as part of an agreement reached with the CIA.
Documents seized by Israel during its March 2002 siege of Arafat’s Ramallah compound showed that many of the Palestinian terrorist attacks were occurring with Arafat3”s tacit knowledge, if not approval. Indeed, “the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, nominally an independent group ignoring Arafat’s authority, was shown to be led by local Fatah leaders who were on Arafat’s payroll and used official Fatah stationery to ask his personal approval to give money for gunmen, weapons, posts, and financial assistance to the families of its terrorists who had been capture or killed in action.” Arafat even “wrote notes on his own personal stationery ordering payments” to Force 17 operatives and members of the Tanzim faction, led by Marwan Barghouti, who were carrying out attacks (Barry Rubin, Yasser Arafat: A Political Biography, Oxford University Press, 2003).
In response to Force 17’s role in carrying out several attacks in late March 2001, Israel launched an air strike against the group’s headquarters in Gaza and Ramallah. Additionally, on Dec. 4, 2001, Force 17 was named by the Sharon government, along with the Tanzim faction and the PA itself, as “an entity that supports terrorism [that] must be dealt with accordingly (Karsh, 2003).”
Unsurprisingly given its role as a praetorian guard of sorts, Force 17 took part in the Palestinian civil war between Fatah and Hamas. The organization conducted operations against rival Hamas members. Hassan al-Bazam, a bodyguard for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, was reportedly kidnapped by Force 17 operatives who extinguished cigarettes on his back, fired gunshots between his legs and dripped hot wax on him. Bazam’s eyebrows and beard were shaved and the number 17 was shaved on to his head. Among other gruesome acts, Hamas also reportedly threw a Force 17 member from an eighteen-story building. (Daniel Byman, A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism, Oxford University Press, 2011).
As part of an overall reorganization of his security forces, PA President Mahmoud Abbas disbanded Force 17 in October 2007, seeking to formally incorporate them into the Presidential Guard. Abbas’s decision came after Fatah’s failure in the conflict with Hamas and three years after the death of its chief benefactor, Arafat. It’s possible that Force 17’s unpopularity among Palestinians, failure to perform against Hamas, and lack of West Bank ties led to its disbandment as Abbas sought to reconsolidate power.
Financial Support and Future Outlook
Both Fatah and the PLO had long received aid and support from a variety of different governments, including covert support from Western nations. This support was enlarged in the post-Oslo period, including monies meant to train Palestinian security forces. As noted, Force 17 was supposed to be dissolved foll
owing Oslo, however this did not happen. Thus, although there is no evidence that U.S. and international aid went directly to Force 17 during this period, but with money being fungible, it’s fair to assume that international aid money helped make Force 17’s existence possible until the unit was officially dissolved in 2007.
Since being dissolved, some Force 17 members, such as Mahmoud Damara——now an adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas——have continued to be involved in the PA, PLO and Fatah.
Connections With Other Terror Networks
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was a generous supporter of Arafat and the PLO. In the months prior to his August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Hussein increased his support. Among other examples, Hussein supplied “direct subsidies” for Force 17 and the ability to train on Iraqi bases (Rubin, 2003).
Force 17 often worked with other Palestinian terror groups, including the Tanzim faction and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (“First attack on Israeli citizens by a female Palestinian suicide bomber,” International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Dec. 1, 2011). Additionally, Force 17 operatives such as Mas’oud Ayad——who organized an attack on Israeli settlers with mortars in February 2001——were affiliated with Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based, Shi’ite terror group. Shortly after that attack, Ayad was killed by IDF forces (Paz, 2001). According to Mannes, during the Second Intifada, “Force 17 officers…received training from Hizbullah and have taken the lead in adopting Hizbullah tactics.”
Force 17’s ties with Hezbollah may be long–standing. Imad Mughniyeh, Lebanese-born Shi’ite, was recruited into Force 17, likely in late 1978. Mughniyeh served as a bodyguard for Arafat in Beirut and acted as a sniper. According to Kai Bird, Mughniyeh “made his first visit to post revolutionary Iran as early as 1979. Some accounts have him performing the Haj to Mecca in 1980 in the company of Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, then a leading Shi’ite cleric.”
Mughniyeh returned to Lebanon and continued to serve as a member of Force 17 until 1982. Shortly thereafter he joined the Islamic Amal, a Shi’ite terror group. Mughniyeh and Fadlallah later became leading members of Hezbollah. Mughniyeh would mastermind multiple terror attacks, including the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing, the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, and the Hezbollah-Iranian bombings of an Israeli embassy and Jewish daycare center in early 1990s Argentina, among others. An admirer of Salemeh, he founded Hezbollah’s Unit 1800, part of the terror group’s External Security Apparatus (ESA sometimes referred to as the Islamic Jihad Organization Special Security Apparatus). Unit 1800 works with Palestinian terrorist groups, providing training and funding to Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas, among others. Like Force 17, Unit 1800 also gathers intelligence and works closely——often at the direct behest——of its movements’ leaders. Mughniyeh was killed in February 2008——allegedly in a joint U.S.-Israeli operation (“CAMERA: Hezbollah Backgrounder 2016,” July 19, 2016).