Washington — As hostages have returned home after extended contact with the pro-Iranian radical Shiite Muslim group Islamic Jihad, a surprising profile is emerging of one of the Mideast's newest, most secretive terrorist organizations. ``They were basically gentle people, very religious, very prayerful,'' says the Rev. Lawrence Jenco, who was released last July after being held 18 months by the same group said to be at least partly responsible for the 1983 suicide truck bombing of the US Marines barracks in Beirut and the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in June 1985.
``They were very religious people ... and they saw themselves engaged in a struggle for justice,'' says the Rev. Benjamin Weir, released in September 1985 after being held by the group for 16 months.
According to former hostages, their captors are teen-agers and men in their early 20s who pray five times a day and spend long periods of time chanting religious passages from the Koran and singing Muslim songs to God.
They are young men with wives and children who are concerned about the future of the Shiite community in Lebanon. They are men who look to Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini for inspiration, and who want nothing to do with Hafez Assad and Syria. Some express doubts about their use of terrorist tactics.
Despite the emerging importance of Islamic Jihad as a group to be reckoned with in Lebanon, US government and expert descriptions of the organization remain sketchy. Mideast specialists are not even sure how much of the trail of blood and terror attributed to Islamic Jihad was actually caused by unrelated terror groups using the now-popular signature ``Islamic Jihad'' more as a rallying cry than a claim of responsibility for a particular abduction, bombing, or hijacking.
The pro-Iranian group is reported to have abducted 9 Americans in Lebanon in the past three years, as well as several French, British, and other foreign nationals. Of the 9 Americans held by Islamic Jihad, 2 have been killed, 1 was rescued, 1 escaped, and 3 have been released. Last weekend, the group released David Jacobsen after holding him for 17 months. Two other Americans, Terry Anderson and Thomas Sutherland, are still being held.
The veil of secrecy surrounding Islamic Jihad has forced the Reagan administration to pursue a variety of channels, including contacts with the Syrian and Iranian governments. ``We still are not sure who they are,'' says John Esposito, author of ``Islam and Politics'' and a professor at Holy Cross College. ``They are usually referred to as a shadowy group.''
Some press reports have linked Islamic Jihad to Lebanon's Shiite Musawi clan in the Bekaa Valley. Three members or associates of the clan are among 17 convicted terrorists imprisoned in Kuwait for a series of bombings conducted in 1983.
Middle East specialists say that the release of the imprisoned Shiites in Kuwait is only one of several items on Islamic Jihad's agenda for the United States. The terrorist attacks and kidnappings are also aimed at expelling Western nations from the region and at securing legitimate political power for Lebanese Shiites.
``They said they have no animosity toward the American people, but that their anger was directed at the US government,'' says Fr. Jenco, a Roman Catholic priest who directed Catholic Relief Services in Beirut. ``They felt US [Mideast] policy was unfair and one-sided.'' He noted that one of the members of Islamic Jihad who guarded him had been educated at a US college and ``had tremendous love and respect for America.''
Though the hostages were confined and required to wear blindfolds whenever their captors were present, both Mr. Weir and Fr. Jenco were able to have conversations and even long discussions with their young captors.
Though experts say that hostages quite often succumb to the so-called Stockholm syndrome and identify with their captors, Fr. Jenco notes that he was already sympathetic to the plight of the disenfranchised Shiite Muslim community in Lebanon before his kidnapping.
Ironically, many of the Americans taken hostage by Islamic Jihad have been supportive of the struggle of Lebanese Shiites. Some, such as Fr. Jenco, were working to improve the lives of poor Shiite families in the southern slums of Beirut. In such cases, potential hostages are seen by their captors in simple and symbolic terms as an extension of US involvement in Lebanon.
``They would say we don't have anything against you personally, just against Reagan and US foreign policy,'' says Jeremy Levin, a television correspondent who escaped in February 1985 after a year as a hostage.
During discussions with members of Islamic Jihad, Mr. Weir and Fr. Jenco explored how those who consider themselves devout Muslims could justify taking innocent hostages.``Some said we regret having to hold you and that it is not according to our principles to hold hostages but this is a special case,'' said the Rev. Mr. Weir.
Indeed, experts say there is no justification in Islam for taking hostages or committing other acts of terror. But members of Islamic Jihad are said to justify their actions by considering them in the context of centuries of suffering by fellow Shiites. ``It is basically a question of injustice,'' says Fr. Jenco. ``They consider themselves a group who are perhaps national heroes in their struggle to undo some of the injustices that have been done to the Shiites in that part of the world.''