``Shadowy'' is the term most frequently used to describe the ``Islamic Jihad.'' But the terrorist actions of this fundamentalist Shiite Muslim organization are decidedly public. Its latest act appeared to be the hijacking Friday of a TWA jet carrying more than 100 Americans. Although there are conflicting reports about who is actually behind the hijacking, it bears the markings of an Islamic Jihad operation.
The common thread is hostage-taking.
Over the past year, the group has abducted, detained, and threatened to execute eight Americans and two French diplomats in Beirut. It has also claimed responsibility for truck bombings of US embassy buildings and US and French military barracks in Beirut.
But if its acts are public, the organization itself is not. Islamic Jihad (or ``Islamic Holy War'') is one of two major clandestine Shiite organizations in the Arab world that are linked to Iran.
The other is the ``al-Dawa al-Islamia'' (Islamic Call Party), which is centered among antiregime Shiites in Iraq and the Persian Gulf states. Most of its operations have focused on Arab targets, although several of its members are among the 17 held in Kuwaiti prisons for December 1983 attacks against the US and French embassies there.
The Islamic Jihad is also regional in its operational focus, although it was spawned among the radical Shiites in Lebanon.
Most qualified observers agree the number of ``card carrying'' Islamic Jihad members is small. ``Perhaps 10 to 15 core people in Lebanon and corresponding small numbers in the Persian Gulf and Iraq,'' guesses one expert. But in Lebanon, these cadres swim in a sea of lawless militiamen and general anarchy. It is easy for Islamic Jihad to find recruits in Lebanon for specific operations.
Lebanon's largest Shiite militia group -- Amal (meaning ``hope'') -- is run by the relatively moderate Nabih Berri. Along with the radicals, Amal has participated in Shiite resistance to the three-year Israeli occupation of south Lebanon.
But Amal has split with the ``Hizbullah'' (Party of God), the largest breakaway Shiite organization in Lebanon. Transforming the emotionally charged militants of Hizbullah into trained Islamic Jihad terrorists is undoubtedly easy.
Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah is a charismatic Shiite religious leader whose name has been associated with both Hizbullah and the terrorist activities of Islamic Jihad. Fadlallah concedes that he urges opposition to US and other foreign influences in Lebanon.
In a recent interview reported by the Middle East Insight publication, he was quoted as saying: ``The Muslims believe that you struggle by transforming yourself into a living bomb like you struggle with a gun in your hand. There is no difference between dying with a gun in your hand or exploding yourself, but I do not tell them, I do not specify for example, blow yourself up.''
Shiite terrorism against Western and moderate Arab targets derives directly from the revolutionary methods of Iran and also from the political awakening of a long-deprived people. In Lebanon, the Shiites make up at least 44 percent of the population and have long been the country's largest but least influential sect.
In the shifting power balances following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Shiites have become conscious of their potential strength. They perceive Western influences as opposing purist Shiites' political and religious objectives.
Are terrorist actions undertaken by the Islamic Jihad done at the orders of Iran?
Certainly Iranian influence, through its 650-man Revolutionary Guard contingent in the Bekaa Valley region of Lebanon, is a key stimulant to radical Shiite behavior.
Some unconfirmed reports say that a secret committee of the Revolutionary Guard in Tehran, the ``War Against Satan Committee,'' plans, pays for, and runs the most important terrorist operations. Lebanese intelligence has accused the Iranian Embassy in Beirut of funding radical Shiite elements. But the exact nature of the Iranian connection remains unclear.
The US government places the responsibility for Islamic Jihad activities squarely on Iran. In response to threats by the organization to execute US hostages in Lebanon if 17 prisoners in Kuwait are not released, the State Department said last month that Iran ``is on notice'' that it will suffer consequences, including possible military attack, if any of the Americans are executed.
Clearly, the risk of a larger confrontation between the US and Iran, prompted by actions by the Islamic Jihad, is steadily escalating.
The writer was a US government official before becoming a consultant on international affairs.
APRIL 18, 1983 Truck bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. OCT. 23, 1983 Suicide bombings of US and French military headquarters in Beirut, killing 241 Americans and 58 French.
DEC. 12, 1983 At least six bombings in Kuwait, including one at US Embassy.
DEC. 21, 1983 Explosion at French military command post in Beirut, killing 18.
JAN. 18, 1984 Shooting death of Malcolm Kerr, president of American University of Beirut.
FEB. 8, 1984 Shooting deaths in Paris of former Iranian martial law administrator, Gen. Gholam Ali Oveissi, and his brother Gholam Hosein Oveissi.
SEPT. 20, 1984 Car bombing of US Embassy annex in Beirut, killing at least 8 people.
SEPT. and OCT. 1984 Shootings of two Saudi Arabians on Spain's Costa del Sol.
MAY 25, 1985 Suicide car bomb attempt against the Emir of Kuwait.
JUNE 14, 1985 Probably behind hijacking of TWA flight between Athens and Rome.
KIDNAPPINGS: Islamic Jihad has also claimed responsibility for numerous kidnappings of Westerners in Lebanon since March 1984.
Americans: William Buckley, embassy official. Jeremy Levin, reporter (only American to gain freedom so far). The Rev. Benjamin Weir. Peter Kilburn, librarian. The Rev. Lawrence Jenco. Terry Anderson, reporter. David Jacobsen, hospital official. Thomas Sutherland, professor.
French: French Embassy employees Marcel Fontaine, Marcel Carton, and Danielle Perez (later freed).
British: Brian Levick (now free). Geoffrey Nash (now free). Alec Collett.