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ISLAM RISING : Militants : Conspiracy Theories Remain Just That--Theories : There have been nearly a dozen failed attempts by Western-style governments to document an alleged worldwide drive to spread Islamic rule through violence.

April 06, 1993|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AMMAN, Jordan — At 49, Laith Shbeilat was among Jordan's most popular and respected political leaders when he was thrust onto center stage of a legal drama with enormous international implications--a five-week public trial that typified the secular world's tireless hunt for an organized, Islamic terrorist network.

Until his arrest last fall, Shbeilat had been Jordan's top crusader against official corruption, a champion of the poor and, in the years since he was elected to Parliament in 1989, an articulate critic of Jordan's ruling monarchy.

But that, according to prosecutors, was just Shbeilat's public face.

According to the military court that sentenced the self-avowed Islamic fundamentalist to 20 years of hard labor, Shbeilat secretly was working with fellow legislator Yacoub Qarrash to form an Iranian-financed terrorist organization committed to overthrowing the secular, pro-Western regime of King Hussein.

As it unfolded during the trial in Amman, though, the government's case was thin. The strongest evidence in support of the judge's conclusion that the two lawmakers were guilty of attempting "to achieve dreams that had been inspired by the theorists of the Iranian revolution and its ideologues" came from a mystery witness. Prosecutors said the witness testified in a secret session that the legislators received automatic weapons and $200,000 in German marks from Iranian agents after meeting top officials in Tehran in 1990.

Within days of the verdict, King Hussein pardoned both men, ordering their convictions expunged.

It was an apt conclusion to what had become a cause celebre among fundamentalists and secularists alike.

Shbeilat's case was just one of nearly a dozen failed attempts by Western-style governments in the Middle East and authorities elsewhere to use legal resources to document the existence of an Iran-backed international underground network driving to spread Islamic rule and terror to secular lands through force and violence.

The hunt predates by several years the FBI's search for clues to a radical Islamic terrorist network it suspects may have been involved in the bombing of New York's World Trade Center on Feb. 26. The quest has become a near-obsession for governments from India to Turkey to Algeria, as intelligence agencies search for evidence of an international underground organization that Islamists and Iranians insist simply does not exist.

Officially, Iran concedes that it has provided financial backing for radical Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories, for the Islamic government in Sudan and for Hezbollah (Party of God), which was responsible for holding Western hostages in Lebanon. But, comparing such support to Washington's aid for its allies, Iran's ruling clergymen insist that it is merely benevolence, consistent with their role as a vanguard of Islam.

Iran also justifies its hand in the assassination of dissident Iranians abroad, asserting such activities are part of the regime's legitimate right to self-defense.

But Tehran has consistently denied that it trains foreign terrorists, finances their movements or supplies arms to outlawed groups fighting to establish Islamic states.

Most Western diplomats in the Middle East doubt that Tehran has created an Islamic version of the old Moscow-directed Communist International, an institution formed after the Russian Revolution to assert Soviet leadership of the worldwide Communist movement and to encourage socialist rebellions worldwide.

Most diplomatic and intelligence analysts say they believe Iran lately has begun taking steps to distance itself from any such undertaking. The suspected existence of such a network gained credence after the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini founded the modern world's first Islamic theocracy and pronounced "death sentences" on people he viewed as enemies of Islam.

Experts' doubts, however, have not been convincing for many pro-Western regimes in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, which face varying degrees of internal Islamic rebellion and firmly suspect direct Iranian involvement in these rebellions.

A strong backer of the terrorist-network theory is Israel, which says it has documented a direct link between Palestinian-American financiers in the United States and the insurgent Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which is now waging a bloody uprising in the Israeli-occupied territories.

In neighboring Egypt, investigators say they have found clear reasons to suspect that there is such an international network, a group they say may yet be linked to the World Trade Center bombing.

Egypt is convinced that an extremist campaign to destabilize that country's secular administration by attacking foreign tourists is being financed and directed by fundamentalist regimes in Sudan and Iran. But Cairo authorities so far have offered no proof tying Egyptian insurgents to Iran.

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