Pawns of terror politics

BOB LEVIN February 9 1987

Pawns of terror politics

BOB LEVIN February 9 1987

Pawns of terror politics


Even by the chaotic standards of Lebanon, where kidnapping has become almost a local industry, the past two weeks have produced a fearful haul of hostages. On Jan. 24 four men disguised as police officers walked into Beirut University College and seized four male professors—three Americans and an Indian. Two days later gunmen kidnapped two unidentified men, believed to be foreigners, and a Saudi national. And last week there was growing concern that Terry Waite, the special envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury who had previously helped to free hostages from Iran, Libya and Lebanon, may have been taken hostage himself on his latest mission. Waite had not been heard from since he left a West Beirut hotel on Jan. 20. The archbishop, Most Rev. Robert Runcie, announced that, according to the Druze militia leaders responsible for Waite’s security, the envoy was safe and negotiating with hostage takers. But at week’s end the Lebanese weekly magazine Al-Shiraa reported that Waite was being held under house arrest.

Waite’s return to Lebanon was an attempt to complete the business left unfinished when the U.S. arms-to-Iran scandal broke last November. His intention, apparently, was to persuade the faction called Islamic Jihad (Holy War) to release Americans Terry Anderson, 39, Mideast correspondent for the Associated Press, and Thomas Sutherland, 56, dean of agriculture at the American University. Militia sources in Beirut said last week that

the tall, bearded Waite had been seen in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon. And the Voice of Lebanon radio station in Christian East Beirut reported that Waite had been taken, blindfolded, to four villages in the valley, where he met with American hostages. But according to Al-Shiraa, the magazine that exposed the arms-toIran sale last November, Waite was seized as security when the kidnappers detected U.S. military preparations in the area.

That was an apparent reference to Washington’s decision, announced last week, to send a group of Mediterranean-based warships closer to the Lebanese coast. The move was ostensibly designed to aid in a possible evacuation of foreigners. With the latest spate of kidnappings raising the number of foreign hostages in Lebanon to at least 26, the state department ordered 1,500 Americans in Lebanon to leave within 30 days and barred all travel there on U.S. passports. In Ottawa, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark said that Canadians in Lebanon should leave and others should not travel there unless they had a “very strong reason.”

But the show of U.S. naval force was also an unmistakable threat. In response, the Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine, a previous-

ly unknown terrorist group that claimed to have kidnapped the four professors, threatened to kill them if the United States attacked Lebanon. The group’s message to a news agency included a photo of 56-year-old American hostage Robert Polhill—with two submachine guns pointed at his head.

The key to the current rash of kidnappings is 22-year-old Mohammed Ali Hamadei. A Lebanese who has lived in West Germany since 1984, Hamadei was arrested on Jan. 13 at Frankfurt airport carrying several bottles of methyl nitrate, a liquid explosive. Since then, the United States has been trying to extradite him to stand trial for air piracy and the murder of a U.S. navy diver during the 1985 hijacking of a TWA jet. But two weeks ago Beirut gunmen countered by seizing two West German businessmen—Rudolf Cordes, 53, and Alfred Schmidt, 47—and threatening to murder them if Hamadei were extradited.

That left the government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl with a thorny dilemma: whether to comply with the U.S. request and put the hostages at risk, or refuse extradition and alienate Bonn’s U.S. allies. In an attempt to buy time, West German officials asked the Frankfurt high court to validate the U.S. request. They also sent an envoy to Tehran. One option reportedly under consideration by Kohl’s crisis team was to try Hamadei in West Germany on the lesser charge of possession of explosives, then deport him to Lebanon in exchange for the German hostages. A high-placed foreign ministry source noted that Bonn had ample precedent to negotiate with the kidnappers, including the U.S. arms-forhostages swap with Iran. The liberal newspaper Die Zeit said that the United States had “discredited itself as a pioneer” against terrorism and “can hardly be offended if we preferred to save our countrymen at the expense of America’s legal claim.”

As Bonn officials debated the issue last week, West German authorities arrested Abbas Ali Hamadei, 28, the suspect’s brother. A naturalized West German, the older Hamadei was apparently picked up in connection with the kidnappings of the two West German businessmen. A spokesman for the Hamadei clan denied any family connection with the abductions. But based on information provided by Abbas, police found 4.5 gallons of volatile methyl nitrate in a field outside the town of Beckingen near the

German border with Luxembourg.

The U.S. arms scandal may also have had an impact on Waite’s safety. The Anglican envoy has repeatedly denied that he was operating as an agent of a foreign government. But the three releases of Americans that he arranged had coincided with U.S. arms deliveries to Iran, suggesting that he had at least been an unwitting cover for Washington’s efforts. And late last week a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization said that Waite had paid $2.6 million for the release of David Jacobsen last November—money that he said had been raised privately in the United States. Waite had indicated recently that his latest mission might be among his last, and he had never minimized the dangers of his efforts. “When you get into a car,” he said last month, “you never know whether you will be coming back again.” With the flow of American arms now dry, U.S. analysts said, the kidnappers might have concluded that Waite was less valuable as a hostage negotiator than as a hostage.

While Western offi-

cials worried about Waite, they also tried to ensure that no more hostages would be taken. The state department edict gives Americans 30 days to leave Lebanon or face penalties of up to five years in jail and a $2,600 fine. Most of the Americans are of Lebanese extraction or married to Lebanese, but some without such connections have stayed as well—even in Beirut, the war zone once known as the “Paris of the Middle East.” Some were clearly unhappy about the U.S. order. “I hate to be blackmailed by my own government,” said Barbara Sayers, an English professor at the American University, who said that she would leave.

Washington has also tried to intimidate the hostage takers. Two weeks ago U.S. officials told reporters that they were considering military action against terrorists in Lebanon if any American hostage was killed. And last week the United States moved a carrier group, led by the nuclear-powered Nimitz, closer to Lebanon. The likely targets of an American attack would be the Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian party that i is the largest Shiite

Moslem terrorist group in Lebanon. “We know where to find the Hezbollah,” said Neil Livingstone, president of the Washington-based Institute on Terrorism and Subnational Conflict. “We have people entirely capable of going into Beirut and making a number of strikes.”

Although the Hezbollah is at the top of the U.S. hit list, terrorism in Lebanon is not an exclusive domain. The country harbors some 32 terrorist organizations, and, according to U.S. and French intelligence sources, many freelance kidnappers have emerged as well. Those gangs kidnap foreigners on speculation, then sell them to the highest bidder among the extremist groups. They have helped to create a virtual open season on foreigners, a state of affairs that has been heightened by the Hamadei extradition case. The next move in the legal proceedings will be up to the West Germans, and both the Americans and the Lebanese kidnappers will be watching closely. They will also be watching the fate of Terry Waite, the envoy who tried to invoke reason and compassion in a land where the only conspicuous law is that of the gun.