The Reagan Administration’s determination to counter international terrorism has been more popular at home, and more successful abroad, than any other single policy. It was a bitter irony that this policy was also the proximate cause of the severe political crisis which confronted the Administration as 1986 ended. In considering how this drastic turn came about, it is important to recall the mood of America in the latter half of 1985.

There was widespread anger in the United States, and demands by Congress and the public for vigorous action to protect Americans abroad, following two serious incidents: the dramatic detention and killing of American citizens in the highly publicized hijackings of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 and the cruise ship Achille Lauro, in June and October, respectively. The Reagan Administration, already frustrated by two years of inability to stop terrorism, was determined to find better ways to do so. When 20 innocent American travelers were killed or wounded on December 27, 1985, in bloody attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports, with the carnage covered extensively on television, it was inevitable that combating terrorism would be the most important, urgent issue on the Administration’s agenda as 1986 began.

During the year the Administration acted in three particularly important areas relating to terrorism. First, a series of broad policies and programs was adopted to strengthen long-term counterterrorist action. Second, the struggle to combat Libyan- and Syrian-sponsored terrorism continued and was escalated. On the whole these two efforts were successful. The Administration made progress in bringing about a sharp diminution in international terrorism and a firmer, more cooperative approach to the problem by Western governments. Moreover, American and European retaliatory actions led to an apparent decision by Libya and Syria to use their influence, at least temporarily, for restraint rather than promotion of terrorism.

The third area of activity in 1986 was the effort to moderate the policies of Iran, and in the process to obtain the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. The revelation of covert arms dealing with Iran, as part of this activity, detonated a domestic political crisis for the President much greater than anything else he had faced during six years of office. It also contributed to a serious credibility gap with Western allies and friendly governments in the Middle East and damaged the moral authority of the Administration to lead the common international effort against terrorism. There appeared to be blatant contradictions between the secret arms deals and repeated policy statements calling for no concessions to terrorists and an international arms embargo against Iran and other states supporting terrorism—both issues on which the United States had taken the world lead.

Thus, the political furor over the Iran arms/contra link publicly eclipsed the very favorable record against terrorism that the Administration had compiled during 1986. As 1987 began there were five American hostages still waiting to be freed, terrorism was adding significantly to political disruption in the Middle East and Latin America, and sporadic indigenous terrorist activity continued in several European countries (e.g., the United Kingdom, Spain and France). These were reminders of the unfinished business that awaited the Administration’s effort to recover from the Iran affair and resume active leadership of the effort to combat terrorism.


During 1985 there had been reason for satisfaction when the United States forced the perpetrators of the hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer into Italian hands—despite the temporary damage that the U.S. management of the incident did to its relations with Egypt and Italy. The successful outcome was mitigated by the refusal of Egypt, Italy and Yugoslavia to hold the mastermind of the operation, Abu Abbas, for trial or extradition. This underlined the Administration’s difficulties over the previous three years to take effective action, or get others to act, against terrorists who had killed Americans—including those who bombed the U.S. marine barracks and embassy (twice in the latter case) in Beirut in 1983 and 1984, killing over 250 Americans, and those behind the June 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 and the deliberate killing of an American passenger.

Moreover, U.S. government intelligence analysts had charted an unmistakable pattern of increasing international terrorism, up from a yearly average of 500 incidents during 1979-83 to 780 in 1985, and from 1,279 casualties (41 U.S. citizens killed or wounded) in 1984 to 2,200 in 1985 (198 U.S. citizens killed or wounded). Although some of the increase took place in Latin America, most of it came from terrorist activities originating in the Middle East. At the end of 1985 five Americans were hostage in Lebanon, despite Reverend Benjamin Weir’s release in September, and Americans throughout the region were regarded as being in serious danger. There was also a sharp rise in attacks by Middle East groups (often supported by Libya and Syria) against Western targets in Europe—especially in Madrid, Athens, Frankfurt and Rome—with Americans more frequently the victims than before. Twenty such attacks and 484 casualties took place in 1985, compared to six attacks and 28 casualties in 1984.

The vast majority of these attacks, including the bloodiest and most publicized, had little apparent connection to the cause of a Palestinian homeland. Even spokesmen for the Palestine Liberation Organization, including Chairman Yasir Arafat, denounced the attacks or distanced the PLO from them. Many of the terrorist incidents in the Middle East, including the seizure and holding of American, British and French hostages and the conflict in southern Lebanon, also appeared unrelated to the Arab-Israeli dispute over Palestine. This tended to divert attention from, and dilute the force of, the argument that the Palestinian struggle with Israel is the primary cause of Middle East terrorism.

This was the background of President Reagan’s approval in January 1986 of the report of the Vice President’s Task Force on Combatting Terrorism, a group established during the TWA hijacking. The report concluded that "international terrorism is a growing problem and priority" and recommended specific measures for "improved coordination and increased emphasis in such areas as intelligence gathering, communications procedures, law enforcement efforts, response option plans and personal and physical security." It also called for "expanded cooperation with other countries." As the recommendations were implemented during the year, still higher priorities and additional resources were devoted to counterterrorism by the relevant agencies.

The Department of State led an effort, combining the resources of several government agencies, to intensify high-level discussions, systematic cooperation, and technical and training assistance to combat terrorism with some 50 foreign governments. The overall objective was to reach a better mutual understanding of how to control the long-term international threat. The programs featured arrangements for the short-term exchange of intelligence and the strengthening of capabilities to terrorism. By the end of 1986 over 3,000 officials from civilian agencies of other governments had participated in the State Department’s Anti-Terrorist Assistance program, and special high-level policy dialogues were under way with key governments. The CIA and other agencies launched an increased intelligence effort and an improved system for reporting on the identity of terrorists, their various activities and their sources of support, which involved intensified exchanges with intelligence services of selected friendly governments. On the military side, preparedness by U.S. Special Operations Forces was improved and there was a greater effort to work with and train foreign military counterterrorist units (e.g., the Special Air Service in the United Kingdom and GSG-9 in West Germany).

The Department of Justice and the office of the Legal Adviser to the Department of State sought greater international legal cooperation against terrorism. One key area was extradition, focusing initially on obtaining Senate ratification of the revised U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty, which removed the "political offense" exception for serious acts of violence—an important point of principle in judicial consideration of terrorist activity. (The treaty was ratified in 1986.) Another area of cooperation was legal assistance to and discussions with several European governments, designed to encourage them to increase their application of judicial measures against terrorists. The United States explained to other governments the procedures for prosecuting certain terrorist acts abroad as crimes under U.S. law, according to legislation that came into effect in 1985.

The Departments of Justice and State also worked with Congress on legislation that would cover all major terrorist crimes committed against any American citizen abroad. A law to this effect was adopted in August as part of the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Anti-Terrorism Act of 1986. The Omnibus Act provided for funds and organizational changes to strengthen the State Department’s ability to provide security to diplomatic missions abroad, as recommended by the Inman Panel, appointed by Secretary of State George Shultz in 1984. It also contained measures tightening standards for U.S. maritime and civil aviation security, and providing compensation for victims of terrorism.

Within the territory of the United States, terrorist incidents remained at the low level of fewer than ten reached in 1985. Once again there were no international terrorist incidents—despite the ever-present potential threat from various ethnic, religious and nationality minority groups in the country, some of whose members abroad were engaged in active terrorism (e.g., Palestinians, Shi‘ites, Sikhs and Libyans). Some planned activities were detected and disrupted before they could take place. Declarations by Libyan strongman Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi and by Shia terrorist groups under Iranian influence that they would strike the United States came to naught. This success was due in large part to effective intelligence and law enforcement work by the FBI and other agencies in the United States, assisted abroad by the CIA and friendly foreign governments. It was also due in part to a desire by most minority groups in the United States to avoid terrorist activities in this country, no matter what their political beliefs.

One very important, but difficult, problem identified and considered at length by the vice president’s task force was the relationship between terrorist activities, media coverage and the government. There can be no doubt of the extraordinary emotional impact and political potency of terrorism when it is broadcast live into millions of living rooms. The immediate shock from reports of bombings and armed attacks, and the more prolonged agony and suspense from hijackings and hostage situations, are often heightened by interviews with anguished family members. Under these circumstances it was not surprising that there was a widespread public belief, following the terrorist incidents in Europe in late 1985 and early 1986, that the life of almost any visiting American would be at risk and that the European governments were completely uninterested in security.

In almost all major terrorist incidents the strength of the immediate media message, usually coupled with an absence of perspective, generates powerful pressures on governments, particularly in democratic countries with a tradition of humanitarian concern. President Carter’s reelection chances in 1980 were badly damaged by the continued detention of the hostages in the American embassy in Teheran, whose release he had so clearly made his top priority in response to powerful public concern. President Reagan’s similar response to the plight of the hostages in Lebanon, made for similar reasons, was a major factor in motivating the secret arms dealings with Iran—the revelation of which damaged his Administration.

In addressing this aspect of terrorism, the task force report noted that terrorists deliberately manufacture sensations to capture media attention—a ploy that often takes advantage of U.S. press freedom—but that this activity can be offset by close communication between media and government. The report suggested that regular meetings between media representatives and government officials regarding the coverage of terrorism would contribute to more effective government-media relations. The failure of the government to follow these recommendations and establish a regular process for the enhancement of media understanding—evidently due to the high priority given secrecy—was to exacerbate problems faced by the Administration later in the year.


In the early months of 1986 the question of terrorism centered on Libya. This situation was intensified on March 24-25, when six Libyan missiles were fired at U.S. naval aircraft, and Libyan patrol boats threatened U.S. ships engaged in a freedom-of-navigation exercise in international waters in the Gulf of Sidra. In addition to asserting, for the ninth time since 1973, the right to navigate in (and fly over) the Gulf of Sidra, the U.S. Navy presence was obviously meant to remind Qaddafi and others that the United States not only retained a military option but was prepared to exercise it should there be renewed Libyan terrorist attacks. U.S. public opinion was strongly supportive of applying military pressure on Libya. On March 25, in response to the Libyan threats, the U.S. Navy made limited counterattacks on fire-control radars and patrol boats. Polls showed that 75 percent of the American public thought that the naval operations were justified; 15 percent were opposed.

On March 25 the Libyan government ordered its "People’s Bureaus" in some 30 countries to attack targets directly related to the United States. This caused the Administration to send an urgent "threat alert" message to all diplomatic and military establishments abroad. Additional intelligence on specific Libyan threats was received in the following days, including intelligence of attacks being planned by Libyan People’s Bureaus in East Berlin, Bonn, Ankara, Paris and several other locations (e.g., Yugoslavia, Switzerland and Italy). Local governments were alerted by the United States, and the response from all the governments that were approached, except the U.S.S.R. and East Germany, was positive. The latter two nations rejected U.S. demarches. Further communications from the Libyan People’s Bureau in East Germany before and after the April 5 bombing of a discotheque in West Berlin, in which two Americans and a Turkish citizen were killed and over 250 persons were injured, convinced the United States that Libya was indeed responsible for the bombing.

During early April, in France and Turkey, the intelligence and law enforcement agencies identified individuals suspected of being Libyan-supported terrorists; observed them pick up weapons from the Libyan People’s Bureaus in Ankara and Paris; and arrested them just before attacks could be carried out against the U.S. consulate in Paris and the American officers’ club in Ankara. The markings on the weapons provided by Libyan officials to terrorists in Ankara and Paris were the same as those on weapons used in earlier attacks on the Vienna and Rome airports, and in the hijacking of an Egyptair jet in November 1985. This evidence reinforced earlier intelligence judgments of Libya’s culpability in the series of incidents during late 1985.

Consequently, on April 14, President Reagan ordered simultaneous air strikes on installations in Tripoli and Benghazi in order to deter further terrorist attacks and give credence to the President’s stated policy of using military force in self-defense of American citizens, if alternatives failed and Libya persisted in terrorist attacks. The carefully planned night bombing raids were aimed at terrorist-related targets and Qaddafi’s "palace guard" in Tripoli and Benghazi. Civilian casualties were to be avoided if at all possible and economic targets were deliberately excluded. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher approved President Reagan’s request to use U.S. Air Force F-111 jets stationed at British bases in order to reinforce U.S. navy carrier aircraft. During the days immediately prior to the raids, presidential emissary Ambassador Vernon Walters consulted European governments; European Community foreign ministers held an urgent eleventh-hour meeting on April 14 at which they finally agreed that Libya was indeed a state supporting terrorism. However, by the time they concluded their deliberations, the operation had already been launched. The widespread view in Washington was that despite repeated approaches, the Europeans—aside from the United Kingdom—had waited far too long and done too little to have any hope of deterring terrorism.

In the United States over 70 percent of those who responded to several different public opinion polls supported the bombing—even if it were likely to bring, as most believed it would, further terrorism. Congressional reaction was also favorable. The majority of Arab governments were either silent or mildly critical (and less so than after the Gulf of Sidra confrontation), while Syria and Iran led the critics. The U.S.S.R. took an aggressive propaganda stance, ostentatiously canceling a visit by Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to the United States and vigorously criticizing the Reagan Administration around the world, especially in Arab countries and Western Europe. But more noteworthy was the failure of the Soviets to provide an early warning to Libya of the attack, and the absence of Soviet military personnel from the Soviet-supplied air defense installations in Tripoli and Benghazi once the attack began.

In Western Europe initial government and popular reaction was largely negative. Public opinion polls for April 18-20 showed the following attitudes toward the raid: 60 percent against and 30 percent for in the United Kingdom; 70 percent against and 25 percent for in West Germany; but 50 percent for and 37 percent against in France, despite the French government’s refusal of overflight clearance for the U.S. bombers on their way to Libya. A survey of commentary appearing in 71 European newspapers showed a striking 95-percent level of disapproval. Yet 80 percent of the commentators worried that the controversy would strain alliance relations, and 90 percent were critical of inaction by their own governments against international terrorism.

The American public response to European criticism of the raids was sharp: 83 percent of those polled expressed a negative attitude toward a perceived European weakness in dealing with terrorism. Responding to this mood, some members of Congress even renewed calls for a reduction of U.S. forces in Europe. Fear of increased terrorist activity provoked by the raids, lack of confidence in security for tourists overseas, and anger at European opinion (along with falling dollar exchange rates) combined to bring about an estimated 50-percent reduction in the number of American travelers who planned to visit Europe in the spring and summer of 1986. (Approximately two million persons, with an estimated spending potential of $1 billion, stayed home.) This, in turn, aroused more European anger over what some Europeans saw as rash, Rambo-like use offeree rather than diplomacy by the United States, provoking Qaddafi and strengthening his position instead of stopping terrorism.

Symptomatic of this overheated atmosphere was a speech by the NATO commander, General Bernard Rogers, in which he said that this period was one of the most stressful for NATO that he had experienced during his term as SACEUR. However, becoming more aware of the intensity of the international terrorist threat and the danger of its political repercussions, European governments began to shift their positions and the strains subsided. On April 21 the European Community foreign ministers met again, condemned Libya, banned arms sales to that country, called for drastic reductions in the number of Libyan "diplomats," and urged better surveillance of potential terrorists and closer cooperation among international intelligence agencies. On April 25 the Trevi Group (composed of interior and justice ministers from the European Community) met, exchanged intelligence on Libya and other international terrorist threats, found that terrorism had not been taken seriously enough in the past and vowed to take tougher measures in the future. And on May 5 heads of state or government of the seven major industrial democracies, along with a representative of the European Community, met in Tokyo and issued a special statement to "strongly reaffirm our condemnation of international terrorism in all its forms, of its accomplices and of those, including governments, who sponsor or support it." They pledged "maximum efforts" to fight terrorism, "combining national measures with international cooperation." Libya was singled out and specific actions were agreed upon, including a total ban on arms sales and a major reduction in the allowed number of Libyan "diplomats."

A large number of concrete actions were subsequently taken by European Community governments to implement their policy statements. In many cases the actions were administrative or unofficial, often undertaken without publicity. Nevertheless, they were effective and had a cumulative impact. Some 500 Libyan "diplomats," officials of other Libyan government organizations (e.g., airlines and trade offices) and "students" were expelled or had their stays curtailed. In addition contracts with Tripoli were canceled, government financing and guarantees for trade with Libya were stopped, and purchases of Libyan oil were reduced by most Western countries. Italy’s trade with Libya, the greatest in the Community, was drastically reduced. More generally, the application of resources and political efforts to intelligence, security and law enforcement activities was increased, as was regional cooperation, all with the goal of deterring and detecting terrorist activities in Europe.

During the late spring and summer there was a sharp decrease in the number of terrorist incidents in Europe attributed to Middle East origins, and a drastic reduction in indiscriminate, innocent casualties among Westerners—the hallmark of the new strain of terrorism introduced into Europe in 1985. Between May 1 and September 1 there were only eight incidents, compared to 22 for the period from December 27 (the date of the Vienna and Rome airport attacks) to May 1 (when Libyan activities ordered on March 25 had either taken place, been disrupted or been canceled). Total casualties were fewer than 20 for this later period, compared to over 500 casualties during the earlier period.


A direct Syrian connection to terrorism in Europe emerged from two potentially high-casualty incidents that were prevented by the good security procedures of Israel’s El Al Airlines. In April, at London’s Heathrow Airport, a bomb was detected just before it could be placed, set to explode in flight, on an El Al plane carrying over 350 passengers (230 of whom were Americans). Intelligence collected after the incident, and evidence presented at a trial in London in October, revealed direct links between the man arrested for, and convicted of, planting the bomb and senior Syrian government officials, including some long believed to be behind terrorist activities in the Middle East.

At Madrid’s airport in June, another bomb was detected before it could be placed on an El Al plane. The individual was arrested, and there were indications tending to substantiate his claim to be a member of the Abu Musa organization, a Palestinian splinter group created with Syrian help and headquartered in Damascus.

Another earlier instance of Syrian support for terrorism in Europe was the March bombing of the German-Arab Friendship Society in West Berlin; the perpetrators were convicted by a Berlin court in November. Evidence linked these terrorists directly to the Syrian embassy in East Berlin, to Syrian intelligence officials in Damascus and to the terrorist who tried to blow up the El Al plane in London.

As a result of the public evidence of Syrian support for terrorism, the European Community foreign ministers (except the minister from Greece) agreed at their November 10 meeting to single out Syria as a state supporting terrorism and to take initial, limited action against that country, including an end to arms sales. Syria’s support for the Abu Nidal organization, in parallel with Libya’s aid, was a major factor in the Community decision. The United States, timing its actions to correspond with those of European governments, recalled its ambassador from Syria, cut several commercial links and ended all forms of economic assistance.

When evidence linking states to the sponsorship of terrorism can be revealed in open court trials, the effect on popular attitudes and foreign policy making is clearly much greater than when only sensitive intelligence, which usually cannot be made public, is involved. Trials (and convictions) create a very compelling argument for governments to take action against terrorist organizations and against any state supporting terrorism. Although they had intelligence of a Syrian connection very soon after the incidents at Heathrow and the Friendship Society, the governments of the United Kingdom and West Germany acted only after the guilty verdicts. They broke (in the case of the United Kingdom) or sharply downgraded (as did West Germany) their diplomatic ties with Syria and cut off certain aid and trade connections.

Other court trials in Europe during 1986 helped produce a firmer popular and official stand against terrorism, as well as increase the use of judicial action. In Italy the hijackers of the Achille Lauro were convicted and received long sentences. On the basis of evidence given during the trial, an arrest warrant was issued for Abu Abbas—whom the Italian government had released in 1985 despite a U.S. extradition request. In France and Spain, as in Italy, trials of terrorists strengthened those countries’ resolve to take a firm stand, despite threats from groups such as Abu Nidal, Action Directe and the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Faction (LARF) to commit additional terrorist acts unless their comrades were released from prison.

The French government of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac followed a special policy toward Syria. In November it joined the common European Community position, not exempting itself as Greece had done, and agreed with the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and West Germany to place tight controls on Syrian officials in West Berlin after the court verdict on the bombing of the Arab social center. Yet in public statements, Prime Minister Chirac expressed reservations as to the degree of Syrian support for terrorism. One reason may have been that suggested by the French press: a desire to encourage Syria to prevent future terrorism in France by groups headquartered in territories under Syrian influence, as well as to enlist Syrian support for the release of French hostages in Lebanon. The resumption by LARF of bombings in Paris during September, which killed some ten persons and left over 160 wounded, had created serious problems for the Chirac government. Information from intelligence and police sources indicated that the LARF terrorists came from Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon. It was noteworthy that after a high-level dialogue between the French and Syrian governments was established in late September there were no further LARF bombings.


Terrorism was also a serious problem in South Asia and Latin America, and in the latter area it had a significant effect upon important foreign policy interests. Although terrorist incidents conducted in these regions had substantially less public and political impact in the United States than those in Europe and the Middle East, Americans were the number-one target of international terrorist attacks in Latin America, and more incidents involving American persons or property took place there than in any other region. However, since the number of American casualties was small, and because the more publicized and dangerous political violence stemming from internal terrorism and guerrilla warfare in Latin America seldom involved U.S. citizens, terrorism there has had only a limited political impact in the United States.

Nevertheless, the combined effect of international and internal terrorism on the region, along with that of guerrilla warfare, is of major importance to Washington. It threatens countries where friendly civilian-controlled governments are trying to consolidate or maintain political power and democratic institutions. Administration concerns are even greater when groups conducting acts of political violence receive support from the U.S.S.R., Cuba, Nicaragua, Libya or other governments unfriendly to Washington. Among countries where this is a problem are El Salvador, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Chile. Another terrorist-related problem, particularly in the Andean region, is the symbiotic relationship between narcotics traffickers, who supply money or arms, and terrorists or guerrillas who in exchange provide protection for the growing, processing and shipping of drugs. For a number of countries in the region, the Reagan Administration has established programs to offer assistance in counterterrorism, military and intelligence matters, and narcotics enforcement.

In South Asia, too, international terrorism is of less danger than internal terrorism and separatist violence, and Americans are rarely a target. However, this political violence is of serious concern to India, where it stems primarily from Sikh-Hindu friction (there have been some allegations of Pakistani help for Sikh separatists); to Sri Lanka, where it pits the Tamil minority (which gets aid from Tamils in India) against the government and the majority of the population; and to Pakistan. Terrorism in Pakistan is primarily international, conducted mainly by foreign elements supporting the communist regime in Afghanistan, although occasional terrorist actions are conducted by Middle East groups. The attack upon a Pan American World Airways plane in Karachi in September may have been conducted by the Abu Nidal organization with Libyan support.

In the Middle East during 1986 terrorism continued at much higher levels of frequency and lethality than in any other region. Frequently terrorism was a deliberate instrument of state action—in addition to that conducted by groups and individuals for their own political or religious objectives. Terrorism was one of the instruments used in conflicts of varying intensity between Arabs and Israel; among and between Arab governments and Palestinian groups; as an adjunct to the Iran-Iraq war and in Iran’s efforts to subvert or sway the policies of various Arab governments; in the kaleidoscopic violence in Lebanon; and against selected Western targets in the region and in Europe. During the month of September alone, for example, the world witnessed the Karachi hijacking and a suicide assault on a synagogue in Istanbul, apparently by members of the Abu Nidal group; the series of bloody bombings in Paris by LARF; and a Palestinian grenade attack on Israeli army recruits and their families at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Terrorism and guerrilla warfare marked fighting between pro-Syrian Lebanese Shi‘ites and Palestinians in Beirut; attacks by pro-Iranian Lebanese Shi‘ites and Palestinians against Israel and the Israeli-backed South Lebanese Army in southern Lebanon; and clashes between Syrian forces and pro-Iranian Lebanese Shi‘ites in the Bekaa valley of Lebanon. On Christmas Day an Iraqi airliner was hijacked and over 60 persons died in the firefight and crash landing that ensued.

The perpetrators, their motives and those who supported them differed in most of these incidents. Few incidents had a direct relationship to the traditional Arab-Israeli dispute and responsibility for some was claimed by several organizations. For example, the supplying of weapons by France to Iraq was obviously one of the reasons for the hostility of pro-Iranian Shia groups in Lebanon that have engaged in killing and kidnapping French citizens, including French members of the U.N. peacekeeping force deployed near the Israeli-Lebanese border. The efforts to reach agreement between Jordan and the PLO, as a basis for potential negotiations with Israel, led to a drop during 1986 in terrorism directed at disrupting the peace process, such as those actions conducted by the Abu Nidal group (with Syrian support) against Jordan during 1984-85. There were signs, however, of a tendency toward more political activity and some spontaneous terrorism among younger Palestinians (the "second generation") in the West Bank.


During the summer of 1986 the level of domestic public comment about the American hostages in Lebanon increased, as did the pressure perceived by the Administration for their early release. In May, June and early July the hostage families became more openly active, visible and critical. In late July Father Martin Jenco was freed, an event that was followed by new appeals for the liberation of the remaining American, French and British hostages. Feeling the need to redirect the force of public pressure, the terrorists broke a long period of silence with a flow of communiqués and the release of messages and videotapes from the hostages—some of which were evidently prepared under psychological duress.

In October, when the Administration arranged the release from detention in Moscow of U.S. News and World Report correspondent Nicholas Daniloff, there was an immediate call by some members of the hostage families for the same amount of attention and effort to be directed toward freeing the hostages in Lebanon. A videotape was rapidly produced by the captors in which two of the hostages (David Jacobsen and Terry Anderson) read statements pleading with President Reagan to make arrangements for their release as he had done for Daniloff, and accusing him of deliberate neglect. This was the first time Associated Press correspondent Anderson had appeared on videotape, a development obviously intended by the captors to reinforce the emotional involvement of the American media in the hostage situation and highlight parallels with the Daniloff case.

Little credence was given to statements by the Administration that it was making constant efforts to obtain the release of the hostages and was willing to engage in a dialogue with anyone able to bring about their release. Public and media attention instead focused almost exclusively on the Administration’s public insistence that it would not make concessions, a policy that was criticized as indicating indifference and a refusal to communicate with the captors. However, as the world suddenly discovered in early November, the Administration had indeed been conducting vigorous efforts, through a wide variety of contacts, to obtain the freedom of the hostages.

The White House had evidently hoped to resolve this anguishing dilemma by dealing with Teheran in secret, to obtain release of the hostages without any visible deviation from U.S. policies of no concessions and no arms for terrorist countries. The agreement to sell limited amounts of arms to Iran was predicated on the hope of long-term improvements in Iran’s policies toward terrorism and the war with Iraq, as well as being a response by those involved to the President’s deep personal commitment to the hostages and their families. To this was added the persistent pressure of the media and the public for the hostages’ release. Some of those involved may also have hoped to obtain the release of the hostages before the November 1986 elections.

Two analogous recent situations come to mind wherein democratic regimes, motivated by humanitarian concern, found themselves in compromising situations. In May 1984 the Israeli government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres concluded secret negotiations begun by his predecessor and freed almost 1,200 prisoners—including terrorists convicted of multiple murders of Israeli citizens—in exchange for three Israeli soldiers held by Palestinian organizations. Many commentators and politicians in Israel reacted bitterly at this turnabout by the chief proponent of no-concessions, all-out war against terrorists. The explanation heard most frequently was that the release was motivated by pressure from the hostage families, whose members were constantly making appeals, first to Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, and then to Peres and other senior Israeli officials, such as Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In late 1985 and early 1986, French President François Mitterrand sent a number of official and unofficial envoys to Beirut, Damascus and Teheran to seek the release of French hostages. They crossed, crisscrossed and collided with each other, causing confusion in Paris as well as in the Middle East. French television led a spirited campaign for release of the hostages (several of whom were media personnel) which resembled that conducted by U.S. media during the Teheran embassy crisis. The wives of hostages were frequently featured in the media, pleading for action and criticizing the Socialist administration. French officials privately indicated concern over the pressure of this publicity and the complications caused by the media’s pointing out of discrepancies between official statements against negotiations and what were believed to be contradictory actions. Jacques Chirac, then leader of the opposition, accused the Socialists of giving in to terrorists. These efforts to free the hostages not only failed, but led to the seizure of four more French hostages (a television crew), and to strong public demands upon France by terrorist groups in Lebanon and the government of Iran.

When Chirac became prime minister he, in turn, placed a high priority on the release of the French hostages. However, he placed the effort publicly and diplomatically in a broad context of improved relations with Iran, as well as overall policy toward Syria and the rest of the Middle East. At the same time, Chirac took a strong public position against concessions to terrorists. As "normalization" with Iran slowly progressed, including phased reimbursement to Iran of a billion-dollar investment in France made by the shah of Iran, French hostages were released (two on June 21, two on November 11 and one on December 24). As was the case with the United States, the captors and their Iranian supporters appeared to be doling out the hostages in bazaar-like trading.

There have been numerous other events that demonstrate the dilemma that a democratic society faces in a politically motivated hostage situation. It is a truly agonizing one, especially when the incident is incapable of rapid resolution and it takes place abroad. The highest officials are torn between maintaining a national and governmental posture of strength, based on antiterrorist principles, and a policy more in keeping with their humanitarian and domestic political concerns. Public opinion and media pressures are similarly schizophrenic, one day calling for toughness and no concessions to terrorists, but the next day moved by the plight of the hostages and the appeals of their families.

President Reagan faced this dilemma. His response gradually led him to decide, in early 1986, upon a high-risk, high-stakes gamble involving Iran and hostages, just as President Carter—for similar reasons—had undertaken a high-risk, high-stakes gamble involving Iran and hostages five years earlier. Ironically, in both instances the initiatives were marked by very tight secrecy, were supported by presidential national security advisers and were opposed by the secretaries of state. Both gambles failed, albeit for very different reasons. Both Presidents suffered substantial political embarrassment as a result.

A nationwide Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published on December 5 found that only 17 percent of the respondents believed President Reagan’s "handling of America’s relations with Iran" had been either excellent (four percent) or good (13 percent), while 73 percent found it either only fair or poor (29 and 44 percent, respectively). The figures in the same poll for President Carter’s handling of America’s relations with Iran were that 30 percent believed it had been excellent (5 percent) or good (25 percent), while 65 percent found it either only fair (39 percent) or poor (25 percent).

On December 11 the distinguished French journalist and political observer Jean Daniel wrote, of the news that arms transactions had been conducted with Iran by former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, that just when "Europe seemed increasingly prepared to heed the exhortations [on terrorism] coming from Washington . . . the revelations of the McFarlane mission have had the effect of a bombshell." He added that while there was anger, the principal reaction of America’s allies was concern over "a crisis of unity in the democratic camp." He went on:

On the Middle East, on Lebanon, on the Arab-Israeli conflict and on terrorism, one used to think that there were two different approaches on the two sides of the Atlantic. Now it seems that the United States has decided—all by itself and without consulting anyone—to try a completely different approach. It leaves us Europeans wondering whether Washington has a strategy at all.

The sharp decline in President Reagan’s credibility and in public confidence in his handling of foreign policy as a result of actions related to terrorism was a particularly ironic and bitter turn. During his first six years, he had succeeded in asserting U.S. leadership in the fight against terrorism. Other governments, including to a limited degree even those of the Warsaw Pact, had rallied to his idea of a firmer, more cooperative effort against terrorists and states supporting them.


Despite the Iran controversy, Western governments made significant progress in countering terrorism during 1985-86. Since early May there was an appreciable strengthening of collective political will, as well as closer bilateral and multilateral cooperation within the Western alliance to identify, control and pre-empt potential terrorists in their territories. There was also a greater willingness to apply collective and individual pressures in varying degrees on Libya, Syria and other states supporting terrorism. Major public statements to this effect by the European Community were notably stronger than before. More important, these policies were given practical application to a greater degree than before. U.S. and West European concern even spread to the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe, where there were the beginnings of an awareness that distinctions must be made between so-called liberation movements and groups whose objectives and operations are primarily directed toward producing terror, and whose targets are often unrelated to their putative "liberation" goals.

Nevertheless, the situation at the end of 1986 was complex, and the outlook was decidedly mixed. Whereas the number of Americans killed or wounded in terrorist attacks in 1986 declined drastically from 1985, the number of attacks against U.S. citizens and facilities during 1986 was about one-third greater than occurred during 1985. Concerted efforts by the United States and West European states had forced the diminution of terrorist incidents in Western Europe after May. However, incidents in September in Pakistan and Turkey were dramatic evidence of the terrorists’ ability to shift to "softer" targets. The major downturn in terrorism in Europe was more than matched by increases in Latin America and the Middle East. The Iran-Iraq war and the ongoing conflict in Lebanon continued to generate terrorism, some of it even outside the Middle East. Moreover, the apparent decisions by Syria and Libya to reduce active terrorism outside the Middle East were subject to reversal at any moment.

As for the United States, its credibility as a leading force for more effective multilateral measures to prevent terrorism was undermined by the revelations concerning dealings with Iran—as was its ability to lead in the resolution of festering regional and national problems which create the political and psychological environment that nurtures potential terrorists.

As 1987 began, the Administration took initial steps to reassert itself in the field of foreign policy generally, responding to the need to restore its credibility and demonstrate its ability to act, as well as reacting to a dynamic Soviet exercise in public diplomacy, emphasizing its stated desire to be a peacemaker in the Iran-Iraq war and the Arab-Israeli and Afghanistan conflicts and highlighting its arms control policies. New policy pronouncements by the Administration included reaffirmation of its original policies on terrorism and of its determination to apply them in the future without deviation or lapse. Friendly governments in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America were hopeful that deeds would follow words, and that the United States would place still greater reliance upon quiet international cooperation—bilateral, multilateral and within international organizations—rather than unilateral action. At home as well as abroad there was strong popular support for the policies that had proven their value during 1986, before being eclipsed by the controversy over Iran. However, improved communication with Congress and the media will be essential if support for these policies is to be transformed into support for the Administration.

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  • Robert Oakley was formerly Ambassador at Large for Counter-Terrorism at the Department of State and is presently on the staff of the National Security Council. This article, representing his personal views, was written while on a leave of absence at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  • More By Robert B. Oakley