The Lebanon terror connection U.S. should look hard at former 'Switzerland of the Middle East'

December 15, 1996|By STEVE YETIV

IRAN IS BACK in the news. Recent evidence suggests that Iran may have been involved in the terrorist bombing of the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia that left 19 Americans dead. Interviews of suspected bombers and others have revealed this connection, and have once again raised a critical question: What can be done to address the international terrorism problem exemplified by the Khobar tower incident?

In a stinging evaluation, an independent review panel concluded several weeks ago that the Department of Defense should have taken numerous steps to prevent the bombing. But even this highly critical report failed to address seriously the need to check terrorism emanating from Lebanon. While Lebanon used to be called the Switzerland of the Middle East, it has become in the past two decades a principal hotbed of international terrorism.

Three events are worth looking at in this regard: the Khobar bombing; efforts to undermine the Bahraini monarchy; and the possible terrorist bombing of TWA Flight 800.

In a study called "Conspiracy," the Embassy of Bahrain presents strong evidence, confirmed by other sources, that Iranian intelligence has recruited disaffected Bahraini youths and trained them in Lebanon under the auspices of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim group that adamantly opposes the Arab-Israeli peace process. The group was founded by hard-liners who wanted to establish an Islamic republic in Lebanon to wage war on Israel. Hezbollah has been linked to countless acts of violence, including the 1983 suicide bombing in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. troops.

What goes on in Lebanon

The report establishes that military training in Lebanon focuses on such things as building explosives, avoiding security measures and producing safe communications. Forty-four of the recruits have already confessed on tape in front of Bahraini investigators.

But that is not where the Lebanon connection ends. In an event that was lightly reported in May 1996, a car was stopped at a Saudi border point for a routine check in early April. The car contained sophisticated bomb-making materials, and under interrogation, the driver stated that his point of origin was Lebanon.

Here are some other theories about terrorism coming from Lebanon:

First, militant groups such as Hezbollah may have acted in conjunction with indigenous groups in Saudi Arabia to conduct bombings. As such, they may not have clear support from Iran or Syria but may be running their own operations, with an indirect imprimatur from Tehran or Damascus.

A recently released study by the U.S. House's Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare made an interesting point. One day after the explosion that downed TWA Flight 800, the Islamic Change movement, which claimed responsibility for the Dhahran bombing, circulated a communique in Beirut saying that "we carried out our promise with the plane attack of yesterday." While the group may or may not have been involved, it has been linked to a larger umbrella terrorist group that united at a conference held in Iran in late June 1996. The agenda was anti-American and anti-monarchical.

The second possibility is that Iran is directly involved. Secretary of Defense William Perry hinted at this with regard specifically to the Dhahran bombing, before back-pedaling on it. While it is unlikely that Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani would be involved, Iran today is not a unified state. Iranian factions may very well support terrorism without Rafsanjani's knowledge, perhaps partly to sabotage his moderate foreign policy initiatives.

An Iraqi factor?

Iraq is the third suspect. After all, U.S. aircraft are keeping Saddam Hussein in check, and Hussein is dripping with desire for vengeance against Uncle Sam and the Saudis. However, despite Hussein's bravado in attacking the Kurds, Iraq remains in an economic, political and military box. Saddam is focusing on internal power, and external terrorism cannot rank high on his priority list.

Instability in Bahrain suggests a fourth possibility. An amorphous, cross-national movement is developing. It is composed at times of various Saudi exiles, Islamic fundamentalists and former Muslim Afghan fighters who are linked to various anti-U.S. and anti-monarchy elements in Saudi Arabia and backed sometimes by Iranian elements.

Over time, technology has made it easier for terror "networks" to develop, communicate and coordinate. Indeed, the Saudi Royal Family is even assailed daily on several World Wide Web sites, in a transnational act of dissension through the computer.

Satellite dishes are a common sight in Riyadh, a city that three decades ago was a bare skeleton of the modern metropolis that it has become as a result of multi-billions in oil-driven infrastructure investments.

In the future, the ability to stop international terrorism will require that threatened states use spies and counter-intelligence strategies to penetrate hotbeds like Lebanon. The targets of terrorism also will need to develop the knowledge to prevent terrorists from using technology and communication to organize TTC their acts and to motivate their followers.

While the independent panel made useful recommendations for counter-terrorism, recent evidence suggests strongly that more attention should be focused on Lebanon. It may very well be there, in that byzantine land where political intrigue reigns supreme, that future terrorism takes on an even more dangerous form.

Steve Yetiv is an assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University and a research fellow at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is the author of "America and the Persian Gulf: The Third Party Dimension" (Praeger 1995).

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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