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Extraditing Terrorists: U.S. Enters a Deadly Game

January 25, 1987|James Adams | James Adams, defense correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, is the author of "The Financing of Terror" (Simon and Schuster)

PALM SPRINGS — Last week, terrorists in Lebanon responded immediately and predictably to the arrest in West Germany of Mohammed Ali Hamadi, suspected of hijacking TWA Flight 847 in June, 1985. Two West German businessman were kidnaped in Beirut to pressure Bonn for Hamadi's release.

Unless the West Germans swiftly free Hamadi, kidnapings will probably continue and the killing of hostages is likely to start. The Reagan Administration has asked the Bonn government for Hamadi's extradition so that he can stand trial. At first, Bonn seemed to be processing extradition papers as fast as possible so that the terrorists' attention would shift to Washington.

But after the kidnaping of the second West German on Wednesday, Bonn's resolve appeared to weaken. There is now talk of delays and a growing U.S. concern that the West Germans may trade Hamadi for the hostages. An alternate scenario would have Hamadi stand trial first in West Germany, to give the Bonn government more time to work out a deal.

In the past, West Germany has had a poor record in holding out against terrorist demands. And today's German national election complicates matters. But other factors may strengthen German resolution. Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Reagan have an unusually close relationship; Bonn and Washington have cooperated more than any other governments in the fight against terrorism. Although West Germany has not been the focus of Middle Eastern terror, the country has suffered a number of recent bombings and killings by a new generation of terrorists led by the Red Army Faction. A three-year-old alliance of European terrorist groups targeting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been particularly active in West Germany. Any demonstration of weakness would simply encourage them.

In seeking Hamadi's extradition, the United States embarked on a course of confrontation with international terror. Americans will again be prime targets in the Middle East and a wave of bombings, kidnapings and assassinations may follow as Hamadi's colleagues apply pressure for his release. The lives of Americans now held in Lebanon will be at risk and their prospects for freedom remote.

"We have put ourselves in a serious predicament," said one senior intelligence source last week. "They have a few of our people that they could waste right now without doing themselves much damage and they could also go for some kind of spectacular bombing."

There is little doubt that a bloody period lies ahead. But the price that may have to be paid for Hamadi's extradition and trial will be worth it.

In the hijacking of the TWA aircraft, a 24-year-old Navy diver, Robert D. Stethem, was shot. Before being killed he was so badly beaten that, when his body was dumped on the Tarmac of Beirut airport, he was unrecognizable. It was a brutal murder and when the terrorists subsequently walked away free, it was a telling demonstration of apparent U.S. impotence in the face of terrorism.

During the 17-day ordeal, the hijackers demonstrated a remarkable knowledge of U.S. counterterrorist techniques. Until that event, the expected pattern was for terrorists to stay in one place after negotiations began. Then, if the terrorists began killing hostages, negotiations stopped and an assault to rescue the remaining victims would begin. But the TWA hijacking conformed to none of the usual patterns.

The terrorists kept moving the plane, from Algiers to Beirut and back again. Even after they had killed, negotiations continued and a peaceful settlement was reached. The hijackers had figured, correctly, that the elite U.S. counterterrorist unit, Delta Force, had been authorized to launch an assault; the terrorists never gave them time for such an operation.

The terrorists had become well-informed after the kidnaping and torture of the Central Intelligency Agency station chief in Beirut, William Buckley. Last week, the U.S. government admitted for the first time that Buckley was dead. Formerly in charge of Middle East intelligence-gathering at the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters and one of the agency's top analysts, Buckley was a major catch when kidnaped in March, 1984. Not only was he carrying a briefcase full of documents, he knew a wealth of detail about U.S. counterterrorist contingency plans. The terrorist now in German hands will know exactly how much Buckley talked. U.S. tactics can be revised once the Administration also knows.

More important than simple intelligence, however, is the matter of Western credibility in the fight against terrorism. Over the last 25 years, Western governments have realized that terrorists only recognize strength. It is generally accepted that there should be no negotiations, no payment of ransom for hostages and no exchange of hostages for terrorists. Failure to apply these simple rules has proved costly to the Reagan Administration.

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