Coming clean on terrorism

On December 21, 1988, a bomb blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and 270 persons - 189 of them Americans - were killed. On June 25, 1996, a truck bomb exploded outside a building housing American air personnel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and 19 Americans were killed, hundreds wounded.

These were among the two worst incidents of anti-American terrorism in this era. And, thanks in part to the pressure of the victims' families, the search for the culprits has never ceased.

Lockerbie was believed to bear the fingerprints of Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. Two suspects in the bombing took refuge in Libya. After years of sanctions and other pressures, Mr. Qaddafi finally delivered the two to be tried in the Netherlands, starting next February. Qaddafi presumably has reason to believe that they will not implicate him.

Dhahran has been an even more frustrating story. For years the Saudi investigators withheld information and witnesses from the FBI until last June, when the FBI simply pulled out its agents with a blast against the Saudi government for lack of cooperation. Since then the Saudis have announced the end of their investigation, but have refused to release the results.

American intelligence sources say they understand the probable reason for the Saudis' bizarre behavior. Indications are that the bombing was carried out by the Saudi Shiites, trained and equipped by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. And Saudi Arabia has no desire to pick a fight with the tough guys in Tehran.

But there may have been changes in Iran and President Mohamad Khatami may be ready to pursue a more moderate policy than his predecessors.

So President Clinton has taken a cautious approach by sending Mr. Khatami a letter asking for help in finding the Dhahran bombers and suggesting that this could lead to better relations and an easing of sanctions.

It is known that three suspects are in Iran.

Mr. Clinton received a reply, not personally from Khatami, but from the Iranian government, denying any involvement in the Dhahran bombing. It did not say what had happened to the three suspects.

Meanwhile, the US Justice Department has ordered the deportation to Saudi Arabia of a Saudi dissident, Hani el-Sayegh, who has reneged on a plea bargain in which he initially agreed to tell of his part in the bombing in return for asylum in the United States or Canada.

Both Iran and Libya are eager to see an easing of sanctions against them. Whether eager enough to confess their role in terrorism against Americans remains to be seen. But the Clinton administration is committed to pressing the two cases.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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