WORLD MARCH 22, 2011
Chancellor Bruno Kreisky of Austria rolled out the red carpet for the arrival of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi at Vienna's Schwechat Airport on March 10, 1982. A thousand specially trained Cobra antiterrorist troops guarded the airport and motorcade route to Qaddafi's hotel. The dictator donned olive drab and a swagger stick for the occasion. Kreisky for his part praised Libya as a valuable trading partner and dismissed as propaganda American accusations that Qaddafi had sent assassination squads to the United States on a mission to kill his opponents. "There is absolutely no evidence for charges that Qaddafi is the so-called father of terrorism," Kreisky said.
On December 27, 1985, the carpet at Schwechat was red again, this time from the blood of dozens of holiday travelers killed and wounded by flying shrapnel and bullets. Austria's crack Cobra troops were nowhere to be found. However, Qaddafi was there again, in spirit at least. Standing in for him were the gunmen of the Abu Nidal Palestinian faction responsible for the simultaneous attacks in Vienna and in Rome. The terrorists carried Tunisian passports that Libyan authorities had confiscated from Tunisian migrant workers in Libya earlier this year. Like other terrorists, their leader Abu Nidal receives financial support, military hardware, and sanctuary in Libya.
For years Qaddafi was lampooned as a comical Third World fascist impersonator, or at worst a North African version of Idi Amin. Even the revelation in 1979 that President Carter's brother Billy was acting as an agent for the Libyan government served more to amuse than outrage the American press. Yet Qaddafi is anything but funny. By now his not-so-secret recipe for Pan-Islamic fanaticism is familiar: terrorism, subversion, assassination, and an occasional invasion of a neighboring country.
Within three years after seizing power in 1969, Qaddafi signaled his acceptance of terror as a normal aspect of statecraft by offering safe haven to the Palestinians, directed by Yasir Arafat, who slaughtered the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. By supporting such groups, the leader of a powerless desert regime found a way to command global attention. Throughout the 1970s he backed revolutionary elements in trouble spots as diverse as Latin America, Northern Ireland, West Germany, and Sudan.
A ruthless dictator makes plenty of enemies among his own people. Qaddafi is no exception. He insists on tracking down and eliminating his opponents, wherever they might be. In 1980 alone, six Libyan exiles were shot and killed by Qaddafi's infamous "hit squads" in office buildings, cafes, and hotels in several European capitals. In April 1984a diplomat inside the Libyan Embassy in London fired out a window on a crowd of anti-Qaddafi demonstrators, wounding 11 and killing a British constable on the street.
It is a pathetic and revealing comment on current standards of international conduct that most Western European nations maintain full diplomatic and economic ties with Qaddafi's outlaw state. Italy, for example, is Qaddafi's foremost trading partner. The Italians send Libya roughly 15,000 guest workers to help, among other things, extract the petroleum from Libya's deserts that goes to pay for Qaddafi's military adventures. Libya, in turn, owns 15 percent of the Fiat auto company. Twice burned, by the Achilie Laura episode and the recent attack at the airport in Rome, the Italians have yet to figure out that you cannot buy immunity from terror through exports and imports.
The refusal by Bonn, London, Paris, and Rome to cut off Libyan trade and diplomatic relations comes as no surprise. President Reagan was being too hopeful when he said Qaddafi was a pariah. Obviously we can't wait for the Europeans to join us in a united front against Qaddafi. But we can at least provide the Europeans with an incentive to get serious about security. Last year Congress passed the International Airport Security Act, which requires the State Department and the Federal Aviation Administration to evaluate all foreign airports according to accepted security standards.
If, say, the Rome airport is deemed dangerous (and the fact is that no airport is safe in a country that has a Libyan embassy), the Italians have 60 days to improve conditions. After that, the secretary of state issues an advisory to American travelers. The president must then prohibit our own airlines from landing at Rome and deny landing rights in the U.S. to Alitalia, Italy's national airline. Greece lost millions of dollars last year following American and British warnings about lax safety at the Athens airport. Marked improvements already have been reported there.
Airport security can secure just so much. The president has decided for now to forgo military retaliation against Libya. One wonders why a president, on whose watch a record number of Americans have been killed by terrorists, cannot bring himself to order strikes against military bases and training camps in Libya—like the one carried out by Israel against the PLO base in Tunis.
First, though, President Reagan ought to turn to the CIA for a solution to the Libyan menace. An executive order originally signed by President Ford expressly prohibits all persons employed by the U.S. government from engaging in assassination plots. But efforts to topple a criminal regime through a third nation or opposition party are perfectly legal. Qaddafi would long since have been just a bad memory if President Carter hadn't aborted a plan bequeathed to him by his predecessors to back an eager Egypt in military action against the Tripoli regime.
In addition to his many exiled enemies, Qaddafi has opponents within Libya willing to risk their lives to remove him. He has alienated career military officers displaced by "Revolutionary Guards" loyal to the dictator alone. A Libyan army officer reportedly managed to shoot Qaddafi in the jaw during a failed attempt on his life in 1981. Last year Libya confirmed that several dozen air force officers mutinied against Qaddafi after receiving orders to invade Tunisia. These disaffected elements, not to mention nations such as Egypt, Sudan, and Chad, deserve our active support in (heir fight to rid the Middle East of this particular scourge.
But the near-exclusive focus on Qaddafi and Abu Nidal misses the larger point. Terrorism has been part of the routines of Arab political life for years. It is unpleasant to write this and to read this. But it is the truth. A forthcoming book by Conor Cruise O'Brien, The Siege, shows how the extremist consensus among Palestinian Arabs has always been enforced by terror and assassination. In colonial days, leaders such as Haj Amin Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, were always denying their responsibility for the terrorists, and the British were always eager to believe them. This was even then a transparent game, an example of the forked tongue through which the Middle East speaks.
The fixation on Abu Nidal and his latest sponsor obscures the harsher and more intractable reality that terror is the reflex of governments and movements we wish to perceive as reasonable and which we conceive of as partners in compromise, but which have never shown any inclination to settle permanently for less than what they imagine they might somehow win by terror.
The virtually unmentioned party these days is Syria, which perhaps, unlike the suicidal maniacs, makes political calculations and therefore can be deterred. Under President Assad, Syria has been at least as egregious a patron and mobilizer of terror as Qaddafi—and with far greater impact on the real politics of the region. There are Palestinian ultras under Syria's protection just as indiscriminate in their bloodletting as Abu Nidal—whose group now enjoys Syria's hospitality as well. That's a change. The Nidal gang used to be supported by Iraq, Assad's sworn enemy (but regarded as a friend by many in the U.S. State Department).
In the world of Palestinian and Arab terror, alliances and enmities are not stable. Loyalties constantly shift in the various wings and winglets of the PLO, often for unaccountable or petty reasons. Some factions, moreover, have been created simply for tactical purposes to give cover and respectability to others. There are, of course, also deep and abiding hatreds among some of the factions.
To be sure, Abu Nidal and Qaddafi are the wildest cannons at the moment. The quantity of terrorism would decline somewhat in a world without them. But it would still be a world in which terrorists are being exhorted, trained, and deployed from Syria and Iran and South Yemen to perform those acts of murder to which the political culture of Arab Islam, in its alternately entranced and demoralized states, seems now habituated. And if there weren't an Abu Nidal, Yasir Arafat would invent him. In fact, he already has: his name is Mohammed Abbas.
This article originally ran in the January 27, 1986, issue of the magazine.