Sifting evidence in ship attack

Who was behind Monday's terrorist attack on a Greek cruise ship? Western antiterrorism experts are trying to piece together the evidence.

Speculation centers around three axes:

Abu Nidal. The modus operandi of random firing and use of hand grenades against civilians fits the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), say Israeli terrorism specialists. ``Only one group has done this type of attack,'' says a well-placed United States official, ``the ANO.''

Iran and its Lebanese allies. A claim of responsibility received in France says the attack was in revenge for the US downing of the Iran Air jet. Iran has denied responsibility and experts question the authenticity of the claim. But they are not ruling out an Iran connection, perhaps through the Lebanese Hizbullah.

Muhammad Rashid. Mr. Rashid was arrested June 1 in Greece at US request. Washington wants to extradite him in connection with the bombing of a US civilian airliner in 1982, when he was known to be with the renegade Palestinian ``15 May'' organization. Greece, however, has not yet made a decision.

The leading suspect in the ship attack is the ANO, also known as the Fatah Revolutionary Council. After a 15-month hiatus, the ANO has sprung back with a vengeance. Western experts say the ANO is responsible for four to seven attacks in the last four months.

``This operation has Abu Nidal's footprints all over it,'' says a leading Israeli expert, ``even if we don't have proof yet.'' US terrorism specialists agree.

ANO might have several motives. Three ANO operatives are in Greek jails on terrorism-related charges. In June 1987, the US approached Greece with reports that the Greek government was negotiating with the ANO for their release. Greece publicly denied the charges and the three remained in jail. Abu Nidal has also promised to avenge the killing of PLO leader Abu Jihad allegedly by Israeli commandos.

The ship attack was claimed yesterday in Lebanon by a previously unknown group - the Abu Jihad Unit of the Organization of the Martyrs of the Popular Revolution in Palestine.

ANO might also have operated on behalf of Iran or one of its factions. Western intelligence sources say the ANO previously approached Iranians in Lebanon to offer its services and has recruited Islamic fundamentalists. It could be that the ANO offer was accepted, speculates one expert, perhaps by one of the more radical Iranian factions.

A problem with the Iran connection, a US specialist says, is that it doesn't seem to serve Iran's interest to have a random attack on Greek and other Western tourists, rather than an operation targeted on the US as revenge for the downed Iranian jet. Also, initial reports from Greece suggest some of the attackers entered that country long before the Iran Air incident.

The final possible rational for the attack is perhaps the most intriguing. Greek officials are speculating the incident is related to the trial of Muhammad Rashid, which had been scheduled to begin Wednesday in the port where the ferry was based and where a car bomb exploded the same day as the ship attack.

The Greek government Wednesday ordered his immediate trial on charges of traveling with a false passport. The more serious charges against Rashid revolve around a US request to extradite him.

Rashid was a member of the ``15 May'' organization, a violent Palestinian splinter group that carried out a series of aircraft bombings in the 1980s, US specialists say. Working for that group, they say, he planted a plastic explosive on a 1982 Pan American Airways flight, which killed one person and wounded 15. He is under US indictment for that attack.

The US has indications that Rashid was involved in other bombings, including the 1986 bombing of a TWA flight, in which four people were killed, and a subsequent failed attempt to bomb another Pan Am flight.

The case is even more sensitive, however, because Rashid reportedly left ``15 May'' and went to work for a mysterious Colonel Hawari (Muhammad Abdel Labib). Colonel Hawari has long had ties, though rocky at times, to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, say US, Israeli, and French antiterrorism experts.

Hawari was reportedly at one time a member of Arafat's bodyguard, Force 17. He was a member of the governing council of Arafat's Fatah organization until fall, 1986. At that time he was reportedly expelled from that body and from Tunisia for organizing an attempted attack against a synagogue in Morocco.

But the experts say the break appears to have been largely cosmetic. They say Hawari has built a terrorist structure in Europe and the Middle East, hiring Palestinian dissidents such as Rashid.

According to one well-informed official, Rashid is very close to Hawari and ``a brain'' of the operation. Hawari and his associates have been expelled from several countries, at US urging.

``This network still has ties to Fatah, but the question is how many ties and how much Arafat is involved,'' says one expert. ``It's all very murky,'' he adds.

``This could well be Arafat's deniable terrorist arm'' says another. If that proves to be the case, he says, it would be very sensitive because current members of it have attacked US targets, he adds.

In 1984, Greece released a ``15 May'' operative who had been caught in a suitcase bomb plot on the basis of US-provided evidence. This and other incidents have spurred worries in Washington that Rashid might not be extradited.

Rashid ``is a threat to Western civilization,'' says a Western specialist, ``a genuine gold-plated terrorist. He's been trying to blow up planes for six or seven years. This is precisely the type of guy we want to put in the slammer.''

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