If they knew the full story of unintended consequences, Arabs might think twice about hailing as a hero the Lebanese terrorist who bashed a little girl’s head against a rock and is being released by Israel in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.
The terrorist is Samir Kuntar. He was captured after he and three other Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) operatives landed on an Israel beach in 1979. During the attack, Kuntar smashed a 4-year-old girl’s head against a rock, killing her. He also killed her father. The girl’s 2-year-old sister was accidentally suffocated by her mother, who tried to keep the toddler’s crying from revealing their hiding place.
In a decision that may have unintended future consequences, the Israeli cabinet voted on June 29 to release Kuntar and four other Lebanese prisoners, in addition to an unspecified number of Palestinians, in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. They were captured by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid in 2006 that prompted the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Kuntar’s brother, Bassam, described the deal as a “vindication for the resistance.”
In Sidon, Lebanon, members of the Popular Democratic Party were reported as decorating the central “Martyrs Square” with pictures of Kuntar and hanging banners such as “Freedom to the hero, prisoner Samir Kantar” and “Freedom comes with blood not tears.” That Kuntar is considered a hero by some in the Arab world is itself a sad commentary on the mindset of people who claim that they too often are “dissed” by the West.
Glorifying baby-killers and “martyrs” who blow up civilians with metal-packed explosive vests or using female suicide bombers is not the best way to earn respect in the civilized world. In Kuntar’s case, the Achille Lauro hijacking backfired on the terrorists in the legal arena.
The original plan by the PLF, a Palestinian Liberation Organization-affiliated group, called for four operatives to disembark from the ship at an Israeli port and then capture a number of Israelis to trade for Kuntar and other imprisoned terrorists. After a ship’s steward discovered the terrorists with weapons in their cabin, the terrorists quickly seized the ship.
During the takeover, PLF leader Abu Abbas threw overboard Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly wheelchair-bound American. The ship eventually docked in Alexandria, Egypt and the Egyptians put the terrorists on a plane for Tunisia, then the PLO’s operating base. American planes forced the aircraft to land at an Italian military base, but the U.S. forces were quickly surrounded by a superior number of Italian troops. The Reagan administration backed down and the Italians later let Abu Abbas go free. He eventually settled in Iraq. American forces captured him in 2003 after toppling Saddam Hussein and he died of a heart attack in March 2004 while still in American custody.
The Klinghoffer murder had prompted the Justice Department to propose a so-called “long-arm statute” that makes it a crime punishable in American courts to commit an act of terrorism against American persons or property overseas. Congress enacted the measure as part of the Omnibus Antiterrorism Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986. The law has been used to good effect by the Justice Department. High-profile cases include Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted of conspiring to kill Americans in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks; Richard Reid, the shoebomber; and John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban.” Late last month, it was also used against Abd al Al-Rahim for the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden.
The 1986 legislation also opened the way for the FBI and Justice Department to permanently post large numbers of agents and legal attaches overseas in order to more effectively conduct investigations. Currently, there are posts in 58 countries.
The legal attaches not only investigate terrorist attacks and other crimes involving Americans, but they can also help the host government when asked. For example, they facilitate forensic investigations using the FBI’s data bank. They also have assisted other countries seeking help drafting stronger counterterrorism legislation, and holding seminars on legal issues.
The Achille Lauro hijacking also led to the 1998 “International Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Attacks Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.” This was part of the Reagan administration’s effort to emphasize that such acts as hijacking planes or ships are crimes — regardless of the motivation — and that the culprits should be pursued and prosecuted.
Thus, aside from the issue of whether it is wise for the Israelis, in the long run, to swap live prisoners such as Kuntar for the bodies of dead soldiers — and I think it will only encourage more hostage-taking and blackmail - Kuntar inadvertently helped strengthen the international counterterrorism effort. Some hero.
Michael B. Kraft is a former senior adviser in the State Department Office of the Coordinator for counterterrorism and co-editor of “The Evolution of U.S. Counterterrorism Policy.”
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