Eighteen years after the execution of American Leon Klinghoffer on the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro, the U.S. has demonstrated by the capture of Abu Abbas that it will not wipe the slate clean on international terrorism. For years, however, diplomatic niceties and misplaced State Department priorities subverted this principle, enabling purveyors of terrorism to literally get away with murder. The war of liberation in Iraq now provides the U.S. with an opportunity to ensure that those Arab leaders and regimes who have carried out or threatened attacks against this country and its citizens are subject to American justice.
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Because of its conspicuously brazen support for Saddam Hussein in transferring military supplies to Baghdad and providing sanctuary to Iraqi Baathists, and in encouraging Arab fighters to go to Iraq to kill Americans, Syria's role in supporting terrorism and threatening American interests has finally come into focus. That it took actual complicity in the killing of American soldiers in Iraq for us to finally confront Damascus is a measure of how successful Syria was in deceiving the world, with the connivance of even the U.S. All one has to do is read the State Department's annual reports on international terrorism which have stated with mantra-like repetition, that Syria has not been involved in "international terrorism" since 1986.
Given the fact that the Israeli borders with Syria and Lebanon are international borders, I have always failed to see how the State Department could portray Damascus in this light given its direct support, training, supplies and sanctuary extended to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, to name just a few of the groups that serve as de facto members of the Syrian foreign service. Since 1988, more than 1200 Israelis and some 30 Americans have been killed in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza by groups headquartered in, or sponsored by, Damascus. Recently, the U.S. indicted the head of Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, on charges including murder. Shallah continues to receive sanctuary in Damascus, where he routinely issues threats against the U.S.
After Sept. 11, Syria pretended to be helping the U.S. in the war on al Qaeda, as evidenced by Damascus' arrest of a senior suspected al Qaeda operative. The State Department even issued a statement lauding Syria's role in the fight against al Qaeda. But the reality was different. Testimonies, court records and wiretaps introduced in Italian trials of al Qaeda and other militant Islamic leaders show that Syria has been working hand-in-hand with Islamic extremists in Europe for years, providing transit, sanctuary and training for al Qaeda terrorists traveling between Iraq and the Arab world. An eye-opening expose, by Sebastian Rotella in this week's Los Angeles Times, shows in incredible detail how Syria served as a hub for al Qaeda terrorists shuttling between Iraq, Syria and Europe. U.S. officials believe that at least one of the primary 9/11 plotters spent extensive time in Syria and that Syrian front-companies in Europe worked intimately with al Qaeda.
According to U.S. intelligence, conspirators in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American servicemen met repeatedly in Syria to plan the terrorist operation -- meetings that could not have taken place without the knowledge of the Syrian regime. Syria's role in attacking Americans goes way back. In 1983, Syria -- together with Iran and the Hezbollah -- coordinated the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines.
The capture of Palestinian terrorist leader Abu Abbas has provoked demands from the Palestine Authority that he be immediately released and claiming that the slate had been wiped clean by the Oslo Accords. Under the PA's reasoning, compliance with treaties need only be one-way since both Abbas and the PA brazenly violated the terms of Oslo by continuing to carry out terrorist attacks.
Since October 2000, Abbas's group, the Palestine Liberation Front, has transferred millions of dollars to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Abbas has dispatched terrorists trained in his Iraq-based training camps to the West Bank to carry out major attacks on Ben Gurion airport, poison Israel's water supply and attack schools and other civilian targets.
The Palestinian Authority's defense of Abbas is not just symbolic; it's self-protecting. If Abbas goes down, so could Yasser Arafat. If Abbas is prosecuted for Achille Lauro, or for the funding given to the families of suicide bombers (some of whose victims included Americans in Israel), Arafat's complicity in these terrorist plots would almost certainly be exposed. And if a true accounting were to be made, the role of the Tanzim and the al Aqsa Brigades -- terrorist groups directly sponsored by Arafat -- would show their roles in the killing of hundreds of Israelis and at least 15 Americans in the past 30 months. As for the mass murder carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the PA today continues to protect the killers and masterminds.
The duplicitous role of Saudi Arabia in extending support to al Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist groups also needs to be fully exposed. In the buildup to the war, Saudi Arabia demonstrated where it really stood on al Qaeda by releasing Sheikh Saeed bin Zuair, a militant Islamic cleric whose release had been demanded by Osama bin Laden in a tape distributed last year. (The other person whose release was demanded by bin Laden was Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, convicted for his role in the WTC related conspiracies in 1993.)
In unprecedented ways, the war of liberation of Iraq has provided a unique opportunity to see exactly where Arab nations and Islamic leaders have stood on the issue of international terrorism. If anything, the war has enabled Americans to see an unvarnished reality of true attitudes toward the U.S.