Hijack ending: Does it send wrong message to terrorists? US concerned that hijackers may not be brought to trial
Washington — The resolution yesterday of the Kuwaiti airliner hijacking may encourage more terrorism, say senior US officials, if initial reports are correct that those who staged the event were allowed to go free. The United States ``would be very disappointed and critical'' of any arrangement by which the hijackers were not ``brought to justice,'' says L. Paul Bremer III, US ambassador at large for counterterrorism.
``These people, if they go free, will be free to attack another plane.... We think that one of the hijackers of TWA Flight 847 three years ago [during which a US Navy diver was killed] may have been on this plane. In other words, he may have already committed murder twice ... so it's not a theoretical point about how you deal with terrorism. This is a very practical question of how you deal with criminals.''
Ambassador Bremer warned any groups that might be considering an attack on American targets that ``the US has made clear over the last year and a half that it will not engage in any kind of dealmaking or concessions with terrorists.'' This policy continues to be the best defense against terrorism, he says.
US officials are concerned that pro-Iranian and radical Palestinian groups may be targeting US interests after a relative lull in such attacks. Events in the Iran-Iraq war and in the Persian Gulf may make Iran more willing to use terrorism again, they say. Radical Palestinians seeking vengeance for the assassination of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Abu Jihad, allegedly by Israeli agents, are charging US complicity. Some may look for US targets thinking they are easier to strike than Israeli interests, officials say.
US specialists are thus trying to make very sure that the ``wrong'' messages are not sent by the outcome of the Kuwaiti hijacking. Privately, they speculate that the hijackers are already out of Algeria and back in Lebanon. They have no information to suggest that Kuwait yielded to the hijackers' demands, and point to Kuwait's previous firm rebuff of every effort to win the freedom of 17 Shiite Muslim terrorists imprisoned in Kuwait for bombings of US, French, and Kuwaiti installations.
George Carver, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that Kuwait's tough stand in the final analysis ``forced the hijackers to back down.'' He sees the outcome as a ``messy stalemate,'' however, because the hijackers were still able to negotiate their free passage out of Algeria.
US specialists believe the hijacking was engineered by Hizbullah, the pro-Iranian Lebanese Shiite organization. However, Iran probably knew about the attack beforehand and ``OK'd'' it, says one well-placed official. Someone in Iran also apparently assisted the hijackers when the plane was on the ground there, other officials say.
PLO and Algerian mediators were in contact with Hizbullah leaders in Lebanon while trying to find a solution during the 16-day ordeal, US specialists say. The Algerian government and the PLO have both previously tried to help mediate the release of Western hostages in Lebanon, most of whom are held by Hizbullah. Algeria has approached Kuwait in the past about releasing the 17 prisoners as part of a broader deal, which would include liberating Western hostages in Lebanon, officials say.
Hizbullah specifically wants the release of two Lebanese who are among the 17 prisoners in Kuwait. One is the brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, chief of Hizbullah security, say US intelligence sources. In this capacity, Mughniyeh oversees most of the Western hostages held by Hizbullah, including US and French hostages. The other Lebanese prisoner in Kuwait is a cousin of Hussein Musawi, head of the Islamic Amal and a leading figure in Hizbullah.
US analysts believe Iran supported the hijacking as part of a complicated quid pro quo with Hizbullah. ``This was Hizbullah's way of saying to Iran `we have our demand which must be taken into account too,''' says one specialist.
US experts say much of the negotiation over Western hostages has been to achieve Iranian objectives, while Hizbullah has had its demands treated as a lower priority. Most recently, French-Iranian negotiations have progressed toward a deal for the release of the last three French hostages in Lebanon, these specialists say. The main French gesture in the proposed deal will apparently be repayment by France of $340 million owed to Iran. Though Hizbullah will probably get a share of the money, US specialists say, its leaders apparently decided to make another effort to get their relatives freed, and Iran apparently acceded.
Evidence of Iranian involvement is still fragmentary, US specialists say, but compelling. The consensus of the passengers released earlier from the Kuwaiti jet was that either more or new hijackers entered the plane while it was on the ground in Iran. The passengers also said the hijackers produced heavier weapons and a large box of explosives, which would have been practically impossible to carry onto the plane in hand luggage.