Amid a welter of conflicting claims for responsibility and other confusing signals, the latest upsurge of Middle East violence has left a trail of questions in its wake: Who was behind the Karachi hijacking and the Istanbul synagogue massacre, and were the events linked?
Do the attacks, coming at a time of overt threats from the United States against the sponsors of terrorism, mean that terrorists have found ways of striking without implicating any state sponsors?
Rarely after such attacks has there been so much uncertainty over the affiliation, motives, and objectives of the assailants. (US reaction to attacks, Page 3.)
Observers speculate that the confusion may be deliberate. In the current climate, anyone leaving an address tag on such outrages might expect swift retribution. None of the claims of responsibility for either attack was particularly convincing, and given their conflicting nature, some were clearly seen as red herrings.
In the case of the Pan Am hijacking in Karachi, two organizations said they were responsible.
An Arabic-speaking man claiming to represent the hitherto unheard-of ``Libyan Revolutionary Cells'' phoned a statement to a news agency in Nicosia. Libya's name, however, has never been openly tagged to any terrorist operation in the past. For it to be so now, with the US already straining at the leash, would be downright suicidal, analysts say. Reacting swiftly, Libyan state radio broadcast a lengthy denial, and accused the US and Israel of trying to frame Libya as pretext for aggression.
A statement issued in Beirut claimed responsibility in the name of ``Jundallah'' (Army of God), a known organization of mainly Sunni Muslim fundamentalists. The statement, laced with anti-American jargon and references to Pakistani politics, did not shed any light on the demands or immediate motives of the hijackers.
The main demand apparently made by the hijackers -- to fly to Cyprus and free jailed ``friends'' there -- added confusion. The only likely candidates for such a bid are two Palestinians and an Englishman who received life terms last December for the September killing of three Israelis in Cyprus. The three men are known to belong to the Palestine Liberation Organization's ``Force 17,'' a commando unit loyal to PLO chief Yasser Arafat.
However, the PLO has condemned such actions, and is maneuvering to gain admission to Middle East peace moves. To carry out a hijacking now, would defeat that end, observers here say. However, they do not exclude the possibility that wayward elements of Force 17 might have acted independently to free their comrades.
The demand also raises questions about the real aims of the hijacking, which seemed carefully planned and organized. If the gunmen had succeeded in freeing the prisoners, where would they have then sought refuge?
In the current climate, no Arab state would dare touch them, analysts agree. The Beirut airport has often been a haven in the past for Shiite Muslim hijackers, but not for Palestinians. It is now under the control Syrian security forces who, along with the local Shiite Amal movement, are fiercely hostile to the PLO.
To some observers, this suggests that the demand relating to the prisoners in Cyprus may not have been genuine, but was aimed at implicating the PLO and blackening its name. They suggest evidence points to the breakaway PLO faction headed by renegade Sabri Banna, better known as Abu Nidal, as being responsible. His group has specialized in terrorist attacks to discredit the PLO and eliminate it from Mideast peace negotiations.
The immediate aims of Saturday's attack on an Istanbul synagogue seemed clearer. It was, observers say, a slaughter of innocents designed to cause a wave of shock and revulsion. The identity of the assailants, who died in the assault, was obscure, and the conflicting claims of responsibility had little credibility.
In Beirut, a statement purporting to come from the ``Islamic Resistance'' said it had carried out the attack in reprisal for Israeli actions in southern Lebanon. However, the group is not known to have carried out attacks against Jewish targets abroad before and it later denied the claim. In Nicosia, an Arabic-speaking woman called a news agency and said the attack had been carried out by the unknown ``Palestinian Revenge Organization.''
The Istanbul massacre bore hallmarks of previous attacks by Abu Nidal's group, which is known to have attacked synagogues and other Jewish targets in Europe. These attacks are in line with Nidal's consistent strategy of discrediting the PLO, disrupting Mideast peace moves, undermining the position of Arab and Palestinian moderates, and strengthening the hand of Israeli hard-liners who reject a negotiated settlement.
The Istanbul attack already appears to have had that effect, with Israeli Industry Minister Ariel Sharon terming it ``the Palestinian response to Israeli concessions'' offered to Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco.
The Istanbul attack came at a time of intensive regional diplomatic efforts to hold a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that would take the Mideast peace process a step forward. President Mubarak has long been trying to draw the PLO into that process.
In the past, Abu Nidal's men have struck at times of similar diplomatic activity. They are held responsible for the 1982 attack on the Israeli ambassador in London, which triggered Israel's invasion of Lebanon, and last December's Rome and Vienna airport attacks, which pitched the issue of terrorism to center stage, elbowing peace moves to the sidelines.
An analysis of Mideast-related international terrorist actions in recent years shows that most attacks have been carried out either by pro-Iranian Islamic fundamentalists or by Nidal's Palestinian extremists. Islamic activists have not carried out gratuitous acts of slaughter like the Istanbul massacre, and their hijack ventures have invariably had specific goals.
Even if the recent attacks are proven to be the work of Abu Nidal's men, it may be equally hard to establish complicity of Libya, Syria, or any other identifiable and punishable target as it would be to track down those directly involved in planning the outrages. The two attacks Pakistan: Four gunmen commandeered a Pan Am jet Friday in Karachi. They demanded to be flown to Cyprus to rescue imprisoned colleagues there. After a 17-hour standoff, the gunmen killed at least 15 hostages. The gunmen are in Pakistani custody. Turkey: Two gunmen attacked worshippers with guns and grenades at a synagogue in Istanbul Saturday, killing 21 people. The terrorists also died, in an apparent suicide.