Collett, a journalist and U.N. aid worker, had been abducted in Beirut more than a year earlier.
Abu Nidal, his captor, was the brand-name terrorist of his era. Indeed, his own name was a brand: Sabri Khalil al-Banna was the name he was born into, in a wealthy Palestinian family driven to dispossession and refugee camps by the Nakba. It was the Abu Nidal organization‘s assassination attempt on Israeli diplomat Shlomo Argov that triggered Israel’s counterproductive 1982 invasion of Lebanon, perhaps (for its long-term consequences) the crowning achievement of Abu Nidal’s career.*
This very conflict brought Collett to Beirut, as an aid worker for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Stopped at a militia checkpoint on March 25, 1985 where he might have been taken because of an Israeli-stamped passport, Collett became one of about 100 foreigners seized as hostages by various factions over the long course of the Lebanese conflagration.
Only a few of these hostages died in their captors’ hands; they were in the main prisoners for leverage, and so efficaciously did they lever that it was these very souls that Ronald Reagan‘s U.S. administration proposed to retrieve by purchasing the (officially enemy) influence of Iran in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.
Confusingly shifting factional advantage has tangled Middle East politics for many a year, to be sure, and here the prospect of a negotiated release was aborted by the April 5, 1986 terrorist bombing of a Berlin discotheque frequented by U.S. soldiers — two of whom died in the blast.
This outrage proved to be the project of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who then stood in a very tense position vis-a-vis the West. Ten days after the disco attack, Reagan responded with an air raid on Libya clearly intended to assassinate Gaddafi — who fled his compound moments before it was crushed by a fleet of 2,000-pound bombs. (The bombing might or might not have slain the dictator’s infant daughter.)
This attack on Gaddafi was also an attack on that arch-terrorist Abu Nidal, whom Gaddafi had recently taken in after a former patron Saddam Hussein made a bid for respectability by expelling him from Iraq.** And it so happened that Collett’s unoffending person offered Abu Nidal the most immediate vehicle for retaliation.
It’s not completely certain that April 16 was the date of Collett’s murder, though there is no real reason to doubt his executioners’ claim on this point. The matter was confused at the time because three other dead westerners discovered on April 17 were initially reported to include Collett among their number — a claim subsequently debunked. On April 23, Collett’s captors released a grainy video of their masked prisoner being hanged;† however, the identification of the noosed man was still questioned for many years. Collett’s remains — confirmed by DNA testing — were only discovered in 2009.
The anniversary of Collet’s initial abduction, March 25, is kept annually by the United Nations as International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members.
* Israel withdrew from the bloody morass three years later, having displaced the Palestinian Liberation Organization for a much more effective new resistance movement in Hezbollah. Decades later, Osama bin Laden would cite Lebanon as the event that “gave birth to a strong resolve to punish the oppressors,” including the sight of “demolished towers in Lebanon” to inspire a bit of tower-toppling of his own.
** Abu Nidal had only recently on Gaddafi’s behalf hijacked an EgyptAir flight, killing dozens.
† I have thus far not been able to locate this video online.