THE forces opposing global terrorism are the stronger this week for Kuwait's firm decision not to give in to hijacker demands. The terrorists who held a Kuwaiti Airways 747 and many of its passengers captive for a long 16 days failed wholly in their mission to free 17 fellow terrorists in Kuwait; the 17 were convicted of killing five people in the course of 1983 bombings of the United States and French Embassies there.
Despite intensive threats, including pleas from members of the Kuwaiti royal family on the jet, Kuwait refused to bend. Terrorists have tried before to free the 17, also a key condition for release of Western hostages in Lebanon, and would surely have tried again, with other aims, if Kuwait had yielded.
Regrettably, the hijackers got away. They are free to repeat the crime; many observers suspect they will. The Algerian negotiators faced a tough choice, but at the end getting everybody off the plane alive was clearly better than bringing them all out dead.
The hijackers viciously murdered two Kuwaitis, a crime that should not go unpunished. The hijackers are believed to be Shiite Muslims acting on orders from the pro-Iranian Hizbullah; two of them may have been involved in the 1985 hijacking of a TWA jet. US and British officials are correct in insisting that the hijackers must be held accountable for their crimes.
Western resolve is sure to be tested again. Terrorism expert Robert Kupperman, who terms the just-ended hijacking ``the most professional and sophisticated terrorist operation ever committed,'' says attacks against electrical power and communications facilities may in time follow. All nations need to be alert to the possibilities and take precautions.
Still, the number of hijackings in recent years has declined, from 33 in 1983 to eight in 1987. Also, a consensus that no deals with terrorists must be made is growing. Just a decade ago, capitulation was common. When the Venezuelan terrorist nicknamed ``Carlos'' marched with his accomplices into an OPEC meeting in Vienna in 1975, his demands for, among other things, a DC-9 on which to carry hostages were promptly met. As a top Austrian official explained, ``Human lives must be saved at all costs.'' Even traditionally lenient governments now show more pluck; witness the French verdict last year of life imprisonment for Lebanese terrorist Georges Ibrahim Abdallah.
In the recent hijacking Kuwait's only softening was to keep the door open to talks. Extending negotiations as long as possible is the wisest course in any terrorist incident. In this case all the delays in deadlines, the talk of food and fuel, and the success in getting two-thirds of the passengers off before the last stop helped in that respect.
Most of the six Middle Eastern governments involved behaved cooperatively and constructively in trying to avert a catastrophe. It is probably better for all concerned that both Lebanon and Syria refused to let the jet land. Officials there presumably realized that their involvement would only complicate matters, particularly in Beirut, where radical Shiites might have spirited away some of the passengers.
Iran, where the jet first stopped, played a highly suspicious role: Passengers insist that fresh arms and new hijackers appeared after the stop in Mashhad. PLO leader Yasser Arafat blamed Iranian authorities for interfering with his mediation efforts.
Cyprus played a compassionate role and kept talks going. Algeria, once criticized in the '70s for striking deals and becoming a sanctuary for hijackers, was an important mediator in both the release of US hostages from Iran in 1981 and in ending the '85 TWA hijacking. So far nonaligned Algeria is sharing no word as to where hijackers of the Kuwaiti jet have gone or as to what kind of deal was struck. The negotiators early on secured a promise from terrorists to commit no more violence on Algerian territory. But later on they seemed less than neutral in their criticism of Kuwait for its ``intransigence'' in refusing to yield on the 17.
Fortunately, an ordeal that never should have occurred is over. Terrorists should learn from it that neither intimidation of the innocent nor media coverage for their case is likely to bring them sympathy or the victory they think they deserve.