US pressures Arafat to clarify stance on terrorism. Cites secret network's ties to PLO leader
Washington — The United States is upping the pressure on Yasser Arafat to break with terrorism. The State Department this week issued a fact sheet on a heretofore hidden terrorist network headed by a very close associate of Mr. Arafat - Colonel Hawari or Adballah Abd al-Hamid Labib.
The revelations, based partly on previously secret intelligence, appear aimed at pressing Arafat to clarify his stance on the use of terrorism.
Arafat is now trying to give the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) a moderate image in hopes of opening a dialogue with the US. But one of the US preconditions is his renunciation of terrorism.
A specific test case appears to be a US request for extradition to Greece of a member of the Hawari network, Muhammad Rashid. Mr. Rashid is charged with the 1982 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Honolulu. Although this occurred before he joined Hawari, the PLO has been exerting pressure in Greece to prevent his extradition.
Colonel Hawari's network has been in operation since early 1985. It is built in part on recruitment of sophisticated bomb experts from other Palestinian groups, US officials say. The network is credited with at least nine terrorist operations, including the bombing of a TWA flight in 1986, which killed four Americans.
A French court last week issued an international arrest warrant for Hawari, after convicting him in absentia in connection with a weapons cache discovered outside of Paris.
But more relevant in the eyes of Washington is the pressure the PLO is exerting on Greece to prevent Rashid's extradition to the US on terrorism charges.
Greece's supreme court is slated to review the US extradition request on Nov. 8. A lower court has already ruled that Rashid is extraditable. But the PLO continues to exert pressure against his extradition. It claims this is a case of mistaken identity and the man being held is a PLO member.
The lower Greek court, however, identified Rashid by fingerprint. And US officials say they have more than enough evidence to bring him to trial for the 1982 Pan Am bombing.
US officials point out that the 1982 bombing occurred before Rashid joined Hawari's group and the PLO. He and several others were recruited later from the dissident ``May 15 Organization.'' That group was renowned for its sophisticated use of explosives, including inside suitcase linings or in thin strips that could be slid under airplane seats and subsequently detonated.
A European terrorism expert says the PLO feels it has to expend great capital to defend Rashid. This is seen as a test case of PLO loyalty by other former Palestinian dissidents who came over to the PLO in recent years, the European says. In addition, Rashid is apparently Hawari's top operative, and Hawari is very close to PLO chief Arafat.
The Arafat-Hawari relationship dates at least to the early 1980s, when Hawari was charged with Arafat's personal security, US and European terrorism and Middle East specialists say. In 1984, Arafat apparently asked Hawari to build a deniable terrorist network, whose primary purpose was to strike back at opponents waging an all-fronts war against Arafat.
Hawari subsequently established cells in Europe and the Middle East and oversaw a series of terrorist operations, many of which were directed at Syrian targets, these source say.
But some of the attacks were aimed elsewhere. Based on intelligence and forensic evidence, US experts believe the April 1986 bombing of a TWA jet flying to Athens was the work of the Hawari group. There were also several foiled suitcase bomb attacks reportedly aimed at the US Embassy in Rome and an Israeli target in 1986. Finally, in August 1986, four Hawari operatives were intercepted in Morocco planning bomb attacks in retaliation for Moroccan King Hassan's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
According to US and European specialists, Arafat had to intervene to protect Hawari from others in the PLO and the PLO's Tunisian hosts. As one puts it, ``Arafat saved Hawari's neck after Morocco. Arafat protected him because he feels he can rely on him. He's Arafat's creation and has served as his personal emissary to radical Palestinian groups.''
These Western terrorism experts are divided about whether Arafat knew of or approved the attacks against US targets or in Morocco. Many believe the PLO chief would not have approved of them. But they apparently agree that Arafat has stuck with Hawari, whatever his faults.
Hawari reportedly has close ties to Iraqi intelligence and worked out of Baghdad. In 1986, he was forced to leave after several of his operatives were discovered with suitcase bombs in Western Europe. He was subsequently expelled from Tunis after the foiled Morocco attack.
Hawari then reportedly tried to set up shop in Yugoslavia, but was ushered out. He is now believed to be in Lebanon, preoccupied with the PLO struggle with Syria and Syria's Palestinian allies.
In addition to the Hawari network, Arafat has access to at least three other semi-clandestine operations groups, according to Western specialists. Force 17 is responsible for Arafat's security and counterintelligence operations. Arafat's faction of the PLO, Fatah, has its own security group. And the PLO's United Security Organization serves as the PLO intelligence service.