• U.S.

Terrorism: The Price of Success

23 minute read
George Russell

For Ronald Reagan, it was a time to savor a triumph, not indulge in nagging second thoughts. At an intimate Georgetown dinner party for the President, guests took turns heartily congratulating him for the bold midair interception of the four Palestinian hijackers of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro. In Boise, admiring supporters erupted in cheers as Reagan declared he was “most proud” of the U.S. Navy F-14 pilots who were able to pinpoint their EgyptAir Boeing 737 target in the Mediterranean darkness and, as he put it puckishly, “persuade” it to land in Italy. His declaration that “there is a new patriotism alive in our country” reflected the widespread joy felt by the American public at finally getting a chance to strike back against terrorism. When reporters asked whether he had any reason to apologize to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Reagan issued a one-word reply: “Never.” Richard Wirthlin, the White House pollster, told the President at midweek that his job-approval rating had hit a heartwarming 68%.

Yet even as the President basked in domestic approval, shock waves from the Achille Lauro incident rippled through a world once again shown to be vulnerable, in messy and unpredictable ways, to the instability that terrorism seeks to sow. In Italy, the coalition government of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, a staunch U.S. ally, suddenly collapsed in an imbroglio triggered by the EgyptAir interception. In Cairo, university students poured into the crowded streets, burning American flags and chanting anti-U.S. slogans, while President Mubarak voiced his own sense of pain and humiliation over the incident. As Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres visited Washington, it also appeared that the Middle East peace initiative advanced by Jordan’s King Hussein and Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, had been dealt yet another severe setback.

Improbable as it might seem, all this geopolitical turbulence, and more, could be traced to the bizarre cruise-liner hijacking, which also resulted in the cold-blooded murder of U.S. Passenger Leon Klinghoffer, 69. Asked a senior State Department official as he surveyed the diplomatic damage: “How could four idiots fail in their mission and still cause so much trouble?”

The fallout from the Achille Lauro proved one thing: that terrorism, horrifying in its immediate impact, can also have dangerous side effects that are as hard to control as they are to foresee. Certainly no one would have forecast the chain of events triggered by the four scruffy young members of a splinter of the Palestine Liberation Front who were being interrogated last week in a maximum-security prison in Spoleto about their role in the Achille Lauro hijacking. Nor could Mohammed Abul Abbas Zaidan, the man U.S. authorities were pursuing with grim determination from Italy to Yugoslavia to the murkier reaches of the Middle East, be described as a major figure of the international terror network. But Washington had turned Abbas, the P.L.F. leader who it believes helped plan the hijackers’ mission, into the personification, at least for the moment, of a contest that CIA Director William Casey describes as a “war without borders” (see interview).

Last week’s turmoil also signaled that the Reagan Administration’s resolve to pursue its counterterror crusade is strong enough to outweigh a number of other regional or bilateral concerns, including tranquil relations with Italy and Egypt and the immediate fate of the Middle East peace process. This was reflected in the Administration’s decision to emphasize its hunt for the hitherto obscure Abbas, with all the risks and diplomatic disruptions that it entailed, rather than be content with its relatively uncomplicated coup in capturing the four Palestinians who were aboard the ship. That decision and its consequences were bound to give graphic emphasis to any mention of the terrorism issue that Reagan makes at his meeting in New York City this week with West European leaders and at his summit next month with Soviet Chief Mikhail Gorbachev. America’s antiterror policy, a State Department official predicted last week, “will now become more muscular.” This new, combative antiterrorist line has been inspired by a number of factors. The first was the success of the EgyptAir interception. Not since the 1983 Grenada invasion have Americans been able to salute such dramatic and effective use of their armed forces. Unlike the 1983 bombing of U.S. Marine headquarters in Beirut or last June’s TWA jetliner hijacking in the same city, the seizure of the Achille Lauro offered the U.S. the opportunity to hit back cleanly.

Such a deft success has, perhaps inevitably, engendered a more assertive confidence about America’s ability to wield its might against elusive thugs. Indeed, some analysts feared that it could increase the pressure on a President to opt for a similar bold stroke during some future incident, perhaps one in which the target was not quite so clear nor the operation quite so hazardless. This cockiness about U.S. capabilities was reflected in the boast made last week by an aide to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger: “We had the planes, we had the intelligence, and we had the guts.”

Amid the huzzahs, a few cautionary voices were raised by those who thought the interception of the Egyptian plane was a reflexive action in which the desire for short-term gratification overwhelmed more prudent long-term considerations. One caveat came from Robert Hunter, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, who warned of “residual distress” in Italy as a result of the tensions incurred during the EgyptAir interception. Another warning came from Cesare Merlini, president of Rome’s Institute for International Affairs, who argued that the bold U.S. military action set the wrong kind of challenge in front of other would-be terrorists. Said Merlini: “How many young Palestinians are now burning to emulate those four yokels who captured the attention of the world and caused an earthquake in America’s relations with Egypt and with Italy?”

For most of last week it was the angry recriminations among allies that held the world’s attention. Initially, it had been mostly Egypt that felt aggrieved, but the U.S. and Italy were soon at sharp odds when Reagan learned on Saturday, Oct. 12, that he had been denied part of his goal in the airintercept operation. By that time, the four P.L.F. hijackers aboard the Boeing 737 at the Sigonella air base in Sicily had been taken into Italian custody and charged with murder, kidnaping and hijacking. But the mysterious Abul Abbas had literally flown the coop, aboard a Yugoslav JAT jet bound from Rome to Dubrovnik and Belgrade. Back at Camp David, when President Reagan received word from Deputy National Security Adviser Admiral John Poindexter of Abbas’ escape, he cursed mildly.

U.S. Ambassador to Rome Maxwell Rabb had more elaborate things to say. More than 13 hours before Abbas’ flight, at 12:30 a.m. EDT, Rabb had delivered a formal request to the Italian Justice Ministry for Abbas’ provisional arrest on charges of complicity in hijacking and murder. According to the Italians, the evidence offered by the U.S. to support that request was inadequate. The formal reason Craxi later gave for denying the request was that the EgyptAir Boeing 737 in which Abbas had ridden along with the hijackers was Egyptian government territory. In addition he noted that Abbas carried an Iraqi diplomatic passport, which allegedly gave him diplomatic immunity.

On the same day, however, WAFA, the Palestinian press service based in Tunis, reported that P.L.O. Chairman Arafat had sent Craxi a message warning him against turning Abbas over to the U.S. If the Italians did so, Arafat reportedly said, “uncontrollable reactions could result, as happened in the affair of the Achille Lauro.”An irate Rabb later declared that he was “not happy with what happened today.”

Craxi’s actions also alienated someone else: his Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini. The leader of the small (29 members in the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies) Republican Party within Craxi’s five-party coalition, Spadolini had grown increasingly unhappy with Craxi’s foreign policy in the Middle East, which in the Defense Minister’s view was increasingly pro-P.L.O. and ( excessively anti-Israel. But what bothered Spadolini even more was that Craxi made the decision to release Abbas without consulting him. Incensed, the Defense Minister announced in advance that he would not attend a Cabinet meeting that Craxi had called for Monday afternoon to discuss the growing difficulties with the U.S. A coalition crisis was looming.

In Egypt, matters were already at full boil. On the same day that the strange drama with Abbas played out in Rome, Mubarak was pronouncing himself “deeply wounded” by the EgyptAir interception. Said Mubarak at a Cairo press conference: “We had not expected this attack from a friend.” Four hours before Mubarak spoke, the first of several anti-U.S. demonstrations broke out at Cairo University. Among the slogans chanted by several hundred outraged students: “The Americans are our enemy!” The next day at a press conference in Khartoum, the capital of neighboring Sudan, Chairman Arafat added his own sneers. Said he: “Reagan the cowboy (committed) an act of piracy.”

Washington had already decided to take a strong stand against any objections by its allies to the terrorist-interception effort. Any subsequent repairs in relations, the White House had decided, would take place largely behind the scenes, and at a lower level of priority than the pursuit of the antiterrorist policy. Thus the U.S. was both ready and willing to express its unhappiness to the Italians, even as American diplomats scrambled to see if they could get Abbas back from the Yugoslavs. There was little hope, of course, for that. The nonaligned Communist government in Belgrade quietly let Washington know that it would refuse the formal request for extradition that the U.S. had quickly submitted.

After Washington heard of Abbas’ flight from Italy, word was passed to both Ambassador Rabb in Rome and White House Spokesman Larry Speakes in Washington to display U.S. displeasure plainly. Both men certainly did. In a two-hour meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti on Sunday, Oct. 13, Rabb declared that the Craxi government’s release of Abbas was “incomprehensible to the U.S.” Speakes used the same words in a statement issued in Washington. Shortly thereafter, Administration officials publicly claimed to possess transcripts of radio conversations that took place during the Achille Lauro hijacking. In a statement, the White House charged that Abbas “planned and controlled” the operation. The Administration refused to release its evidence, however, saying that it could compromise intelligence- gathering methods. At the same time that the Administration issued its complaints about Italy, the U.S. Justice Department announced its intention to get Abbas “wherever he goes.”

Some representatives of the press seemed to have no trouble finding him in Belgrade. The Egyptian Middle East News Agency conducted an interview with Abbas in which he declared that the Achille Lauro hijackers had never intended to take over the ship, but instead to launch an attack on the Israeli port of Ashdod, one of the liner’s scheduled stops. In another interview with Yugoslav Journalist Dobrica Pivnicki, Abbas once again denied any foreknowledge of the hijacking. Said he: “When we learned that a Palestinian group hijacked the Achille Lauro, we didn’t believe it.” He concluded with a harsh denunciation of the U.S.: “We Palestinians, through this chance event, now know that the real enemy is the U.S., while Israel is only one of the federal units of the U.S.A.”

While Abbas issued his protestations of innocence, the U.S. was already beginning to make an effort at damage control in its relations with Egypt. Ambassador Nicholas Veliotes–who first confirmed the murder of Leon Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro and urged the Mubarak government to “prosecute those sons of bitches”–made a conciliatory statement in Cairo. He declared that the U.S. had “deep regrets” about what it felt was the “necessary” interception of Cairo’s EgyptAir 737.

The Ambassador also passed on to Mubarak a letter from President Reagan. In it, Reagan said that the U.S. had done what it believed it had to do in intercepting the Egyptian airliner. The President also pointed out that the U.S. and Egypt shared an interest in fighting terrorism. Finally, Reagan asserted that there were too many important ties between the U.S. and Egypt to allow them to be damaged by a single incident. U.S. officials described the missive as “very conciliatory, without being apologetic.”

Mubarak, however, declared that he was still too upset to read the letter. As protests continued in the streets of Cairo, always under close supervision by riot police armed with tear gas and nightsticks, the Egyptian President demanded an apology from the U.S. for “all Egyptians.” That prompted President Reagan’s “Never” response, raising the public dimension of the crisis another notch. But already U.S. diplomats in Cairo were suspecting that Mubarak’s outrage, while honest enough, was also part of a calculated effort to let the volatile Egyptian populace blow off steam over the EgyptAir incident. In the days ahead, Mubarak’s tone would slowly moderate; meanwhile he staved off appeals from both left- and right-wing opposition parties calling for specific retaliatory measures against the U.S.

In human terms, the most poignant new development came on Monday, when the body of Leon Klinghoffer washed ashore near the Syrian port of Tartus. The Achille Lauro was off the Syrian coast when the retired Manhattan appliance manufacturer, who was partly paralyzed by two strokes and confined to a wheelchair, had been killed and his body thrown overboard. Abbas and P.L.O. Chairman Arafat, among others, had publicly questioned whether Klinghoffer had actually been shot. The Syrian government of President Hafez Assad, a foe of Arafat’s, quickly reported the discovery of the corpse, and an FBI agent flew to Damascus to help make an identification based on Klinghoffer’s dental records. Later the body was flown to Rome, where it was confirmed that Klinghoffer had suffered gunshot wounds to both the head and chest.

Arafat suffered a different blow to his credibility on Monday in London. There, British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe announced the cancellation of a planned meeting between himself and a joint Jordanian-P.L.O. delegation, the first such meeting ever scheduled between P.L.O. representatives and a member of the British government. If the meeting had taken place as planned, it would have given a new measure of authority to the P.L.O. as the legitimate voice for Palestinian interests in the Middle East. Even though Arafat was not one of the P.L.O. representatives invited to attend, the gathering, if successful, would have bolstered his campaign to portray himself as a political moderate.

It was not to be. The day before the session was scheduled to begin, the Palestinian delegates, Anglican Bishop Elia Khoury of Amman and Mohammed Milhem, former mayor of the Israeli-occupied West Bank village of Halhul, suddenly balked. After consultation, the pair refused to sign a declaration that acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. Howe called the cancellation a “disappointment and a setback,” but added, “We must not allow it to be a fatal one.” The problem for the P.L.O. was compounded on Tuesday when Jordan’s King Hussein announced his support for the British decision to call | off the meeting. Said Hussein: “We’ll have to see what went wrong and how it can be corrected.”

Arafat soon suffered another serious diplomatic blow. Under heavy U.S. pressure, including intimations that Reagan would cancel his own planned visit this week, the General Assembly backed away from a proposed invitation to the P.L.O. chairman to speak during the U.N.’s 40th-anniversary celebrations.

In Rome, meanwhile, the Craxi government’s impending collapse had become almost inevitable. By Wednesday, Spadolini had made it official: he and two other Republican Party ministers were leaving the government. Craxi scheduled a parliamentary debate on the hijacking issue for the next day and observed, “Now everything is more difficult and uncontrollable.”

In parliament, the Prime Minister delivered a spirited defense of his actions during the hijacking ordeal. Then Craxi made the five-minute trip to President Francesco Cossiga’s Quirinale Palace to resign. Craxi’s government had served 26 months, which was one month shy of the tenure record for the 44 governments Italy has had in the past 39 years. Instead, the outgoing coalition earned a new distinction: it was the first one to fall owing to a foreign policy crisis rather than a domestic one. At week’s end Cossiga was carrying on discussions with all of the country’s political parties before calling on anyone to form a new government. One possible candidate: Craxi again.

Italian antiterrorist forces were meanwhile assembling the case for the prosecution of the cruise-liner terrorists and widening the net of guilt. Five days prior to the cruise hijacking, police in Genoa, the home port of the Achille Lauro, had picked up a young Palestinian, Khalif Zainab, for possessing both Iraqi and Moroccan passports. In due course, he too was charged with murder, multiple kidnaping and lesser weapons charges along with the original four terrorist detainees. (The quartet: Abdel Atif Ibrahim, 19, Hallah Abdullah Hassan, 19, Hammad Ali Abdullah, 23, Majed Youssef Molky, 23.)

A total of six arrest warrants were issued. Italian authorities believe that they have identified another terrorist who purchased tickets on the Achille Lauro for himself and for the four hijackers being held in Spoleto. Yet another suspect was registered aboard the cruise liner as a Greek citizen, but left the ship prior to the hijacking, at the Egyptian port of Alexandria.

Roman police last week also arrested two other Arabs who arrived at the ( capital’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport bearing suitcases, each carrying 7.7 lbs. of plastic explosive. The duo had Moroccan passports similar to those carried by the captured Achille Lauro hijackers. Said Rome Prosecutor Rosario Priore: “We suspect that all these Moroccan passports may be linked. Possibly they come from a single stock made available for terrorist actions.”

While Italian authorities continued their investigations, Abbas continued his elusive travels. There was strong evidence that he was in Belgrade at least through Tuesday. Reports at midweek placed him in South Yemen, but the country’s Marxist government issued a denial. Other speculation put him in Baghdad, where P.L.O. Leader Arafat was slated to put in an appearance at a meeting of the P.L.O.’s ten-member executive committee. Abbas is also a committee member, but in his case, attendance might not be advisable. Said another P.L.O. executive committee member: “Not even the Israelis could have achieved so much (damage) in so little time. Abbas has a lot to answer for.”

U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese wanted Abbas badly. Meese refused to rule out kidnaping as a means of bringing the fugitive Palestinian to justice. The only limitation on U.S. action that Meese acknowledged was “respect for the sovereignty of other nations.” That still left Washington the option of taking action in international waters or, once again, in international airspace if Abbas should ever be found there. Said a U.S. intelligence official: “The world is getting very small for Abbas. His days as a free terrorist are numbered.”

A curious world was given a peek at some of the evidence that his enemies claim to have against Abbas. On Wednesday evening, Ehud Barak, chief of Israel’s military intelligence department, appeared on television. He played a tape recording in Arabic of the radio conversations that served to back the American and Israeli claim that Abbas was involved in the hijacking. There was nothing beyond the Israeli assertion to show that the tape was genuine. A man identified as Abbas, but referring to himself by the nom de guerre Abu Khaled, could be heard talking of “our objective” to the hijackers aboard the Achille Lauro. The conversation, with much static in the background, was somewhat cryptic, but at least seemed to indicate that Abu Khaled knew the hijackers personally. Said he: “Listen to me well. First of all, the passengers should be treated very well. In addition, you must apologize to them and the ship’s crew, and to the captain, and tell them our objective was not to take control of the ship.” Both the hijackers and their parent organization, the P.L.F., later issued an apology along those lines.

The Israeli revelations were broadcast the day before Prime Minister Shimon Peres arrived in Washington for a three-day visit with President Reagan and other U.S. officials. Said a senior Israeli official with satisfaction: “This meeting could not have happened at a better time.” The Israelis were hoping to drive home their contention that Arafat’s P.L.O. was associated with the recent terrorist acts, and therefore should be dealt out of the Middle East peace process. Peres apparently found a sympathetic ear. Said a senior U.S. official: “This time Arafat has shot himself in the foot with both barrels.”

Peres and President Reagan retired inside the White House for a discussion, lasting more than an hour, on Middle East peace efforts and closer cooperation in combatting terrorism. In his talk with Peres, according to a knowledgeable Israeli source, the President “did not mince his words” when he commented on the P.L.O. and Arafat.

The bulk–seven hours–of Peres’ discussions in Washington were with Secretary of State Shultz. But they also included a one-hour meeting between the Israeli leader and CIA Director Casey. At that meeting Peres apparently discussed a number of proposals for permanent joint U.S.-Israeli activities against terrorism. They included the notion of a routine exchange of antiterrorist intelligence information between the two countries. Another, hazier notion was that of future joint U.S.-Israeli antiterrorist operations.

While Peres and Casey swapped ideas, the Justice Department’s antiterrorist machinery continued to grind forward. Officials unsealed warrants that charge three Lebanese Shi’ites with the drawn-out Beirut hijacking of TWA jetliner Flight 847 in June and the murder of Navy Diver Robert Stethem. The U.S. offered a $250,000 reward for capture of the trio, all believed to be in Lebanon.

As the chaotic week drew to a close, the Administration began to buckle down to serious conciliation efforts toward the allies that it so wounded in the pursuit of the terrorists. As part of that process, the White House on Friday dispatched Under Secretary of State John Whitehead to Tunis, Rome and Cairo. His primary responsibility, said one Washington official, was to “reaffirm the essential strength of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.” But the State Department made clear that Whitehead, who carried “friendly” letters from President Reagan to Craxi, Mubarak and Tunisian President Habib Bourgiuba, was not going to offer any apologies. As a White House aide put it, “It’s the aftermath of something we felt we had to do.”

In the long run, Administration officials felt, Washington’s tough action had done no permanent damage to the U.S. relationship with either aggrieved ally or to the broader Middle East peace process. What had happened, said one official, was “a temporary dislocation.” In the case of Egypt, he argued, “the underlying interests on both sides are just too great.”

That assessment was probably correct. Just before noon on Friday, Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S. Abdel Raouf Reedy appeared at the White House, escorted by Secretary of State Shultz. The envoy was ushered into the Oval Office, where he presented President Reagan with a sealed letter from Mubarak. Reagan took it to read over lunch. In tone and content, Mubarak’s letter was remarkably similar to Reagan’s message five days earlier: it explained why the Egyptian President felt justified in his previous actions, then agreed that there was all the more reason for the U.S. and Egypt to rebuild their relationship.

The U.S. seemed to be making an equal effort to work out its problems with Italy. Whether justified or not, White House aides felt betrayed by the Italian Prime Minister’s release of Abbas, and they were not about to forgive and forget instantly. Said a State Department official: “We felt Craxi created his own problem and is paying the price.” Nonetheless, said another diplomat, “we don’t see any precipitous departure from the major lines of U.S.-Italian relations.”

Just where the hijack fallout left the Middle East peace process was harder to discern. After all the grief and travail of the previous two weeks, the U.S. might feel like excluding the P.L.O. from the peace process. Israel strongly supports such a stance. For very different reasons, Syria’s Hafez Assad and, for the moment, Jordan’s King Hussein are content to use this opportunity to hammer Arafat.

But officials at the State Department, who consider participation by moderate elements of the Palestinian camp to be crucial to any future settlement, feel that writing off Arafat is far easier said than done. He is, in many ways, a Lazarus, continually belying his obituary. Despite the embarrassment and setbacks it has suffered, the P.L.O. has not stopped being, as one U.S. diplomat put it, the “only available symbol” to most Palestinians of their national cause.

One other big question remained last week: How much of a taste had the Reagan Administration developed for unilateral military action in the face of a future terrorist threat? At the Pentagon, Noel Koch, the Defense Department’s top terrorism expert, argues that just such action is necessary if terrorism is ever to be defeated. Says Koch: “Even the closest of friends are going to have disparate interests on the margins. If you want to sit around and wait for a united strike, it becomes an excuse for doing nothing.”

The U.S. has often proclaimed its determination to strike back against terrorism with its military might; one of Reagan’s greatest frustrations in the presidency has been his inability to do so. At last presented with a clear shot, he acted forcefully and without hesitation. That just may have some salutary influence on the expectations and apprehensions of all parties when the next terrorist crisis breaks out.

Reagan and his advisers could not, of course, foresee all of the side effects and the spillovers from their direct action. In many ways, the President’s decision was an intuitive response–his strongest suit. Such is often the case with crisis management and, indeed, with political leadership in general. History is often made, for better or for worse, by the interaction of intuition and improvisation, of reflex and opportunity. How permanently he may have altered the geopolitical landscape remains to be seen, but the President has no doubt that he did the right thing, and there is equally no doubt that most Americans emphatically, exuberantly agree.

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