WASHINGTON — Shortly after Frank H. Reed and Joseph J. Cicippio were kidnaped off a West Beirut street in broad daylight last month, the pro-Iranian Shia movement, Islamic Jihad, called a Western news agency, claiming responsibility.
Then another caller claimed the abductions in the name of the Arab Revolutionary Cells-Omar Muktar Brigade, named for a Libyan resistance hero. Later, a third caller boasted that the Al-Baath Cells had taken the two men, adding the United States should not carry out any aggression against Syria.
Finally, Islamic Jihad released a written statement denying culpability, saying the real kidnapers should "come forward . . . instead of hiding behind our name."
The confusing claims and counterclaims, the formless nature of all three groups and the murky reasons behind this latest round of hostage-taking all reveal the dramatic changes in the face and focus of extremist violence in the Middle East. Conventional wisdom about terrorism now rarely applies, for conventional terrorism emanating from the Middle East has virtually ended.
The issue of control is now so nebulous that Western intelligence services disagree about the extent of Syrian complicity in the recent attempted bombings of El Al planes in Britain and Spain. On Friday, however, Britain broke off diplomatic relations with Syria within hours after a Palestinian was convicted for the plot at Heathrow, concluding a trial that revealed the most damning proof against Syria in any public forum. The United States, in a show of support, withdrew its ambassador from Damascus. Syria is also suspected of involvement in September's Paris bombings.
Terrorism in the Middle East has passed through three stages during the past two decades, each more complex and deadly. And the next could bring almost total chaos to the region, as traditional groups and sponsoring states lose control over extremists and they disintegrate into increasingly fragmented forces.
The emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the mid-'60s marked the first phase, dominated by the Palestinian issue. It started with disorganized raids into Israel to lob a few grenades and climaxed with the well-orchestrated 1970 hijacking of three jumbo jets blown up in the Jordanian desert and the massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
The second stage, in the later 1970s, saw the beginnings of Palestinian fragmentation and the emergence of non-Palestinian groups, often initially aided by the PLO. Although the PLO's political clout grew, Yasser Arafat's organization suffered from internal divisions over ideology and tactics, reflecting differences in the Arab "nation" of 22 states. Groups ranging from Marxist to moderate, from rejectionist to pro-peace, aligned with governments as far apart as the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia.
The turning point for the third, and current, phase was in 1983, when groups and objectives proliferated. Middle East violence is no longer dominated by Palestinians, and vengeance against Israel or disruption of the peace process is no longer the sole flash point. The arena of attack is increasingly outside the region, with victims chosen indiscriminately. The dozens of different movements now have their own momentum and dynamics--often in conflict.
Some groups have been formed for a specific operation, to avoid detection or because of a basic lack of allegiance or cohesion. These fringe elements often switch loyalties according to the paymaster or political passions of the moment.
The hijacking of the Pan Am flight in Karachi, the suicide assault on the Istanbul synagogue, the series of bloody bombings in Paris, the videotape appeals of American and French hostages in Lebanon over the past month and the grenade attack at the Wailing Wall--apparently the responsibility of different organizations with different motives--are stark indications of the kaleidoscopic changes in Middle East terrorism.
Due to economic necessity, political and military impotence and geographic dispersion, traditional Palestinian groups respond to pressures and bribes of patron governments with their own agendas.
Arafat, forced to abandon first Lebanon and then his Tunis base, grows isolated from his fighters and the front lines, despite strong political support among the Palestinian diaspora and West Bank. With little motion on the peace front, members of the umbrella movement he once headed are ever more independent.
At the same time, a new generation brought up in the crucible of Lebanon, has introduced a more ominous dimension. Knowing nothing but killing, they go to unprecedented lengths to gain attention in a region where violence is often the only means of expression.
This climate of despair has also made it easy for the destabilizing force of the politicized religious fundamentalism, sparked by the Iranian revolution, to forge a new breed of zealots.