• U.S.

The Terrorist: An Implacable Enemy of This World

4 minute read
George Russell

He cropped up anywhere and everywhere: aboard an airliner after takeoff from Athens; on the bridge of a Mediterranean cruise liner; in a downtown street in San Salvador; and last week at crowded air terminals in Rome and Vienna. Wherever he appeared, his victims, if they were not murdered outright, faced endless hours or days of anarchy and wrenching fear, often accompanied by harsh rantings about some strange and often incomprehensible political creed. Once again the terrorist, the sinister perpetrator of violence in the name of politics, showed himself to be, as the 19th century Russian Revolutionary Sergei Nechayev put it, “an implacable enemy of this world.” What made the year different was the willingness of governments to fight back.

The essence of the terrorist’s penumbra of fear is that no one can be safe from his danse macabre. In that sense, 1985 was the terrorist’s bumper year. In West Germany, bombs that exploded in and around U.S. military installations killed three and injured 50. Investigators strongly suspected that a terrorist bomb had destroyed an Air India Boeing 747 carrying 329 passengers and crew across the Atlantic in June. In the same month, leftist guerrillas opened fire on four crowded San Salvador cafés, slaying 13 people, including six Americans.

The image that summed up the frustrations engendered by the terrorists’ rampage was an airplane: TWA Flight 847, helplessly ferrying its 153 captives around the Mediterranean after being taken over by two Muslim Shi’ite extremists. The U.S. endured 17 days of prime-time humiliation before the last 39 American hijack victims were released. One American, Navy Diver Robert Stethem, was killed.

Another aircraft brought the new, aggressive response into focus: an EgyptAir Boeing 737 with the hawk-faced image of Horus, the ancient Egyptian god of the sky, emblazoned on its tail. Late in November, Egyptian commandos stormed the aircraft at Valletta’s Luqa International Airport on Malta in a bid to rescue 79 passengers and crew aboard who had survived 24 hours of horror. When the rescue mission was over, three Palestinian hijackers were dead, but so were 60 travelers.

Controversy immediately erupted over the event’s outcome, but there was near unanimity about the virtue of the rescue mission itself. President Reagan somberly supported the decision to go in. So did the hijack survivors, including Pilot Hani Galal, who had told the tower at Valletta, “Please do something. They’re going to kill us all.” The same shock coupled with somber understanding had accompanied an anti-terrorist assault 17 days earlier in Bogotá, Colombia, where at least two dozen terrorists died, along with nearly 100 hostages.

The U.S. could boast of a bloodless triumph in October, when U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat fighters accosted an Egyptian Boeing 737 (by coincidence, the same one that ended up as a charred hulk in Malta) and forced it to land in Sicily. There it disgorged four young Palestinians who had hijacked the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro and, before giving up, killed Leon Klinghoffer, 69, a semi-invalid U.S. citizen. An Italian court has already convicted the four men of illegal weapons possession; in the spring they are due to go on trial for piracy and murder.

For all its surgical flair, the U.S. military action failed to win the capture of the probable mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking, the Palestinian faction leader known as Mohammed Abul Abbas Zaidan, who was also aboard the EgyptAir plane. His escape from justice underlined the greatest single difficulty in the war against the terrorist: lack of international cooperation and coordination. Last June, President Reagan declared firmly that “this cannot continue.” There is, of course, no doubt that he meant it, but as last week’s horror confirmed, little doubt that he is wrong. –By George Russell

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com