COVER

THE SUICIDE TERRORISTS

Robert Miller December 26 1983
COVER

THE SUICIDE TERRORISTS

Robert Miller December 26 1983

THE SUICIDE TERRORISTS

COVER

Robert Miller

A heavy dump truck rumbled along the sunwashed street in Kuwait City, on its way to a midmorning appointment with oblivion. It carried a deadly cargo of high explosives, a chilling message for the United States, and two fanatical young Moslems who had volunteered for a do-and-die mission. At 9:35 a.m. Kuwait time on Monday, Dec. 12, the fanatics’ truck swung off First Ring Road, near the waterfront, and started down a side street leading to the main gate of the U.S. Embassy compound. For the driver and his frontseat passenger/accomplice, the moment of glory was at hand.

With savage effectiveness, kamikazestyle terrorism last week made the 1,200-km leap from embattled Beirut to the Persian Gulf and sparked grim fore-

casts in Washington and elsewhere that it might soon vault the Atlantic. The terrorists’ objective is nothing less than to help force the ouster of all Americans from the Middle East. Their inspiration: the fundamentalist Islamic revolution proclaimed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran and embraced in the Arab world by the increasingly militant Shi’ite Moslem sect. Their motivation: a profound belief that to die in the Islamic cause means an admittance to heaven. Their method: a suicide attack, the latest worrisome addition to Mideast terrorism’s bag of dirty tricks.

A solitary U.S. marine was on duty as the dump truck approached. Several Kuwaiti soldiers with automatic weapons stood guard in the shade of the three-metre-high concrete wall surrounding the embassy compound. Barely 100 m away, in the Hilton Hotel, foreign businessmen were sipping cof-

fee or eating $15 continental breakfasts and planning their work week in the oilrich republic. It was a splendid desert morning—clear sky, dry air, a cooling breeze off the shimmering gulf. Everything appeared normal, routine, ordinary—except for the truck, which slowed as it reached the embassy gate.

Explosives: The driver—identified later as Raad Musten Ageel, 25, an Iraqi fundamentalist sentenced to death in Baghdad for pro-Iranian activities— turned the steering wheel hard to the right and floored the accelerator. The heavy truck smashed through the gate. Neither the marine nor the Kuwaiti soldiers opened fire. In an instant, the truck swung left and was out of their sight. It roared across the paved courtyard separating the main four-storey embassy building from the smaller chancellery. Just before it reached the far end of the courtyard, the fanatics

detonated their cargo: 330 kg of highpowered explosives and several containers of butane gas.

The ensuing blast levelled an annex, severely damaged the chancellery and main building, blew out all the front windows in the Hilton, stripped and blackened most trees in the area and killed six people. By a quirk of fate, the passenger in the dump truck was blown clear and survived. On the weekend, Kuwaiti government sources said that he was in a Kuwaiti hospital with serious injuries, under heavy guard and in the care of two Indian doctors. The driver, Ageel, was blown apart.

U.S. Embassy spokesman David Good offered a graphic report on the blast. Said Good, who was in his chancellery office typing out a cable: “[There was] a tremendous, sharp, deafening bang and a kind of enveloping pressure which went all around my body and throughout the room. Broken glass came flying in through my window and hit the opposite wall. Fortunately, I was sitting just below the window, which was about five feet over my head, so I only had some glass and debris and dust falling on me.” Minutes later, workers were sorting through heaps of rubble, looking for survivors and bodies.

The acrid stench of death and gas hung heavily as the shock waves reverberated across the compound, throughout the Middle East and around the world. But the terrorists were not yet through for the day. In rapid order, bombs detonated by remote control exploded at five other Kuwaiti locations. Among the secondary targets were the French Embassy on busy Alistiqlai Street, a dozen blocks from the U.S. compound; the international airport, where an Egyptian technician was killed; and a U.S. residential compound 14 km from the city centre. In each case, terrorists had parked a car packed with explosives in the target area. Altogether, Kuwait’s morning of terror cost seven lives and 84 injuries.

Holy War: Within hours, a shadowy group of fundamentalist Moslems who call themselves Islamic Jihad (Holy War) claimed responsibility for the attacks. Kuwaiti authorities imposed tight security on the country and began rounding up suspects. Senior U.S. officials in Washington said they believed, but could not prove, that the new suicide terrorists were trained, armed and assigned by Iran, with the knowledge and approval of Syria. Both Tehran and

Damascus denied the accusation. Still, U.S. President Ronald Reagan insisted: “You could not go into a court of law and say that Khomeini ordered this. But we do know [that there is] an Iranian connection.”

The U.S. administration, which has been increasingly preoccupied with the Middle East since it dispatched marines and a major naval task force to try to keep the peace in Lebanon in September, 1982, reacted to the bombings by intensifying already elaborate security measures in an effort to protect the president, federal buildings and military establishments. A so-called “grey alert” was in effect across the country, meaning that federal agents were screening visitors to 7,500 government buildings. The administration put up special metre-high concrete walls at the White House, state department and other key locations to foil attacks by truck bombs. The earlier deployment of surface-to-air missiles, intended to counter a possible aerial attack on the White House, became public knowledge as official concern mounted.

Advantage: But despite those and other, unspecified steps to guard against Mideast-style terrorism, most U.S. authorities conceded that there was no absolute protection against wellequipped modern terrorists willing to die on a mission. Said FBI Director William Webster: “That is a quantum leap forward toward a greater destructive event, and one far more difficult to stop.” For his part, Brian Jenkins, a senior RAND Corp. researcher on terrorism, referred to the new kamikazes as “human Exocet missiles,” and he added: “We have to accept the fact that they have the advantage. They can attack anything, anywhere, anytime, and we cannot protect everything, everywhere, all the time.”

Still, U.S. security forces were determined to protect at any cost the personal safety of the president, wherever his job took him. Less than 10 hours after the Kuwait bombings, Reagan went to New York to speak at a meeting of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. He paid an emotional tribute to the 125 U.S. servicemen who had won their country’s highest award for bravery. Then he declared, “Our days of weakness are over.”

But security precautions outside the Sheraton Center Hotel in midtown Manhattan were so elaborate—a number of city streets blocked off; a double line of parked cars all the way around the hotel’s block; a flatbed truckload of heavily armed secret servicemen; 200 New York City policemen earning overtime pay to drive their private cars around the area to create a deliberate traffic jam—that to many observers the show of strength seemed to be

an admission of weakness.

Indeed, some Americans were concerned that so many precautions by the world’s leading power would be interpreted, at home and abroad, as an advance victory of sorts for terrorism and that a state of siege mentality in Washington would be a negative development. Said Representative Elliott Levitas, a Democrat from Georgia: “I think we need to err on the side of taking the risk and letting the public have access [to federal buildings]. We cannot let a handful of fanatics change our system of government.”

One result of last Monday’s attack on the embassy in Kuwait was almost certain to be a change in the system of diplomacy, not just for Americans but for representatives of most Western countries, including Canada (opposite). Increasingly, diplomats around the world will live and work out of heavily guarded facilities, largely because of the greater mobility of terrorists and the widely held belief that it is only a matter of time before they take their murderous and desperate act on a much longer road. This week the United States was urgently intensifying a crash program of security improvements at more than 200 embassies, consulates and missions in 120 countries.

But the improvements came too late for the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. In September, embassy officials asked Washington for enhanced defensive capability. The state department considered the request, and a month ago a Central Intelligence Agency report cited Kuwait

as a probable target for a terrorist attack. Washington still delayed. Finally, just before the truck bomb exploded, approval of the September request was granted. Said state department spokesman John Hughes: “The authorization cable was overtaken by the incident.”

Suicide: The Kuwait truck bombing was almost a carbon copy of the Oct. 23 suicide attacks on U.S. marine and French military bases in Beirut, where 241 Americans and 59 Frenchmen were killed. The same, little-known group— Islamic Jihad—claimed responsibility for those outrages, as well as for a Nov. 4 strike against an Israeli military base at Tyre (at least 60 dead) and the April 18 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut (63 fatalities). But, despite its impressive—and deadly—accomplish-

ments, Western intelligence services still have not managed to develop a comprehensive profile of the group. Anonymous telephone callers to Beirut news agencies have repeatedly said that Islamic Jihad owes its allegiance to Khomeini’s Iranian regime. After the attack in Kuwait, a caller declared: “It is part of the Iranian revolution’s campaign against imperialist targets throughout the world.” The suicide squads apparently had their origins in a meeting held nearly two years ago. According to U.S. intelligence sources, Iran’s leading theologians assembled in Tehran in March, 1982, to discuss the “ideal Islamic government,” and soon Khomeini decided to begin training Moslem militants from \ more than 20 Islamic nations, ö They would eventually return to t their own countries as “messengers.” The United States believes that as many as 2,000 mil-

itant fundamentalists, including

Shi’ites from Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, are undergoing religious, military and political training at a special school established by Khomeini near the Iranian city of Qom. Washington is also convinced that the suicide terrorists are recruited from the Qom facility.

British sources, on the other hand, question some of the U.S. assumptions. One foreign office specialist in London told Maclean’s that Qom is a holy city where few guns are seen and senior fundamentalist religious leaders are trained not as terrorists but as missionaries. Still, the specialist conceded that “it is possible small groups attending the main training base of the Revolutionary Guards at Qazvin (northwest of Tehran, where fresh troops are prepared to fight in the 38-month-old border war with Iraq) may be encouraged

to commit supreme acts of martyrdom by individual instructors.”

The suicide terrorists of the Middle East are the latest manifestation of an ancient tradition dating back to the Crusades. Since the late 11th century, the Moslem world has produced fierce and determined religious zealots willing to undertake desperate acts in the name of Allah. Indeed, the English word assassin evolved from the Crusades, when drug-taking “hashishin” frequently launched suicide attacks against the “infidel” intruders. The original Moslem assassins—their thinking blurred by hashish, promised eternal paradise and encouraged by exotic sexual favors from specially trained women—undertook their assignments willingly and even eagerly, so strong was the lure of martyrdom. The current fundamentalist Moslem terrorists appear to be their natural successors. Some U.S. sources claimed last week that the ancient recruiting and training methods are duplicated in the Middle East now, although at least one expert dissented. Said Jonah Alexander, director of the Institute for Terrorism Studies at New York University: “There are strong links between terrorism and drugs, but we do not know if the members of Islamic Jihad have the benefit of hashish and willing women. That is the kind of detail that has not yet come our way.” Bombers: Middle East experts say that Islamic Jihad is an amorphous concept rather than an umbrella organization for extremist fundamental Moslem groups. The history of modern terrorism is sprinkled with exotically named groups, some of them deadly serious (page 25) and others almost whimsical expressions of wishful thinking. Western experts, including Col. Robert Elliot of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, believe that the Islamic Jihad bombers in Beirut were probably splinter cells from the radical Shi’ite guerrilla move-

ment known as Islamic Amal (Hope). That unit is a breakaway group from the main Shi’ite Amal organization, which reaches across the Arab world from Egypt to Iran and which has a huge membership in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. The Shi’ites are a Moslem Arab sect which for centuries has suffered deprivation and been relegated to second-class status by the larger, less doctrinaire Sunni faction.

The Shi’ites, whether radical or merely devout and committed to strict observance of Islamic holy laws, are rapidly increasing in numbers and power throughout the Arab world. Since Khomeini launched his purification/revolution and restimulated Islamic pride, the Shi’ites have become increasingly chauvinistic and active.

Friday attendance has soared at Arab mosques, nonradical Shi’ites have been winning new respect and funding from Sunni-dominated governments (including Kuwait’s), and the Amal movement has become far more than an idle dream. But there is increasing impatience, too, with growing U.S. influence in the Middle East, and the radical groups are finding it increasingly easy to recruit, particularly in the smashed and hopeless Shi’ite slums of suburban Beirut.

Glad: The Lebanese city of Ba’albek serves as headquarters for Islamic Amal, which is led by a 40-year-old former schoolteacher named Hussein Moussawi. He achieved notoriety in the West by saying that although his group did not

launch the October raids on the Marines and the French, he was glad that the attacks had occurred. Moussawi’s group may have fallen under the influence, if not the direct command, of the Iranians last year when hundreds of Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards moved into the area to help fight the Israelis. Indeed, it was the June, 1982, Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon that helped forge the Shi’ites—who make up an estimated 40 per cent of Lebanon’s roughly 3.5-million population—into an effective fighting force, a rare instance of miscalculation by Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, which had predicted wide Shi’ite indifference. For months the Shi’ites have been a more worrisome foe

for Israeli troops than Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. Increasingly, too, according to U.S. sources, radical Shi’ites such as Islamic Amal are being funded and extensively armed by Syria and Iran.

Certainly, the new terrorist activists in Lebanon are sophisticated and they have powerful friends. That coziness between national governments in the region and activists virulently opposed to any U.S. military presence in the area is relatively new and highly troubling to some Americans. Said the RAND Corp.’s Jenkins: “These bombings have been commissioned or instigated by national governments. The terrorists are being used as instruments of diplomacy.” Many U.S. officials, including Secretary of State George Shultz, have voiced similar sentiments. There seems little doubt that Syria’s assistance in chan-

nelling arms to Lebanese radicals, who continue to harass the U.S. marines, is at least part of the explanation for the increase in U.S.-Syrian hostility.

Last week Syrian troops continued to fire at U.S. aircraft flying reconnaissance missions over Syrian positions. On Thursday, the Americans retaliated in dramatic fashion: they unleashed the huge 16-inch guns of the battleship New Jersey, a recommissioned Second World War leviathan which can hurl one-ton shells a distance of 30 km. By the end of the week, still another ceasefire had been arranged—and was holding. Lebanese President Amin Gemayel said that Lebanon would try this week, with Syria and Saudi Arabia, to arrange a

new round of reconciliation talks, aimed at establishing a power-sharing formula for Lebanon’s diverse MoslemChristian factions. Such a formula could be a first step toward withdrawal of all foreign forces, the return of peace and the formation of a new Lebanese government of national unity.

Gunboats: This week’s scheduled departure of 4,500 PLO guerrillas loyal to Arafat from Tripoli was an important part of that process. At week’s end, five Greek ships were preparing to take Arafat’s men for their journey to Tunisia and North Yemen. The Greek ships were to be escorted by French warships because of fears that Israel, whose gunboats shelled Arafat’s positions in Tripoli again last week, might intervene. For his part, Reagan continued to resist pressure in the United States for an early withdrawal by the forces, saying

that the Marines and ships would stay until the job was done—unless Lebanon degenerated into total chaos.

Meanwhile, in the volatile Middle East jittery members of the peacekeeping force, as well as diplomats and ordinary civilians, will have still another danger signal to monitor: the simple sight of a dump truck rattling through the streets. Now there is the ever-present danger that behind the wheel there may be a driver as intent on suicide and destruction as the region itself seems to be.

David Bernstein

Sari Gilbert

Ian Mather

Michael Posner

William Lowther

Robin Wright