Middle East Overview
The Middle East witnessed some of the world's most horrific acts of terrorism in 1997.
In November, the Egyptian Islamic extremist group al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group or IG) demonstrated that it was still capable of carrying out devastating acts of terrorism by staging a brutal attack that left 58 tourists and four Egyptians dead. The attack, which occurred at Hatshepsut's Temple in Luxor, took place in spite of the Egyptian Government's crackdown on extremist groups that resulted in a dramatic decrease in terrorist incidents and calls from some imprisoned al-Gama'at leaders for a truce. Fatalities from security incidents in upper Egypt remained low.
In Algeria, political violence and random killings soared toward the end of the year, as Armed Islamic Group (GIA) members stormed villages and towns, some no more than a few dozen kilometers from Algiers. Killing of civilians at highway checkpoints and in outlying towns continued on a regular basis. The Government of Algeria publicly blamed Iran for providing support to Islamist militants. Elsewhere in North Africa, Morocco and Tunisia remain vigilant against the spillover of Algerian political violence into their countries. Security incidents in those two countries continued to be low to non-existent.
Suicide bombers from the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS) set off bombs in crowded public places in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem three times in 1997:
The Palestinian Authority (PA) continued its efforts in cooperation with Israeli authorities to counter the threat posed by Palestinian terrorist groups and succeeded in 1997 in thwarting several planned terrorist attacks. At the same time, more effort is needed by the PA to enhance its bilateral cooperation with Israel and its unilateral fight against terrorism.
In Lebanon, the security situation improved incrementally as the government continued its efforts to expand its authority over more of the country. Despite these efforts, large areas of the Bekaa Valley, the southern suburbs of Beirut, and south Lebanon remain outside the effective control of the government. Terrorist groups, especially Hizballah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), used these areas in 1997 to stage attacks and engage in terrorist training.
In Saudi Arabia, the investigation to identify those responsible for the June 1996 bombing of the Khubar Towers US Air Force residential compound continued without reaching a conclusion. The bombing killed 19 US servicemen.
The Government of Algeria does not face a significant threat to its stability from Islamic extremists, but the country's domestic terrorist problem remained among the world's worst in 1997. At least 70,000 Algerians--Islamic militants, civilians, and security personnel--have been killed since Algerian militants began their campaign to topple the government in 1992.
The government made some progress against the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS)--the military wing of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) that primarily attacked government-related targets--which, together with the FIS, called for a cease-fire on 1 October. The government was less successful against the GIA, the most radical of the insurgent groups, although its efforts appear to have forced the group to operate in a smaller geographic area. GIA terrorist operations continued, nonetheless, against a broad spectrum of Algerian civilians in 1997, including women and children. The worst incident of 1997 occurred on 31 December when more than 400 civilians were killed in Relizane, approximately 150 miles southwest of the capital. This act of violence was also the single worst massacre since the GIA began its reign of terror in 1992.
Seven foreigners were killed in acts of terrorist violence in Algeria in 1997, bringing the total number of foreigners killed by the GIA in Algeria since 1992 to 133. The group did not claim responsibility for these killings, nor did it issue an official communique announcing a resurgence of its violent campaign against foreigners. It remains unclear whether the foreigners were being specifically targeted or whether those killed were incidental victims of violence.
The Algerian Government prosecuted cases of persons charged with committing terrorist acts or supporting terrorist groups in 1997. In July an Algerian court convicted a former lawyer for the FIS of belonging to an armed group, and in December an Algerian court jailed 17 GIA members for setting fire to an Algerian oilfield.
Bahrain continued to be plagued by arson attacks and other minor security incidents throughout 1997, most perpetrated by domestic dissidents. The most serious incident was an arson attack on a commercial establishment on 13 June that resulted in the death of four South Asian expatriates. One day later an abandoned vehicle detonated outside the passport directorate of Bahrain's Interior Ministry; the explosion caused no injuries.
Bahraini courts in March convicted and sentenced to jail 36 individuals for being members of Bahraini Hizballah, an Iranian-backed organization that sought the overthrow of the island's government. The jail sentences range from five to 15 years. Some Bahraini Hizballah members reportedly underwent terrorist training in camps in Iran and Lebanon.
In November the government convicted in absentia eight individuals for orchestrating and funding from abroad a campaign aimed at disrupting the security of Bahrain. Several of the defendants were charged with sending to Bahrain propaganda inciting violence and destruction, which led to damage to public property, such as electricity and water installations. In addition to jail sentences, six of the defendants (along with others previously convicted) were ordered to pay compensation totaling over $15 million for damage to public property.
Reversing a trend since 1995 of decreasing death tolls, the number of fatalities from terrorist incidents in Egypt rose in 1997 due to a heightened level of attacks during the latter half of the year by al-Gama'at. The group claimed responsibility for a brutal attack at a pharaonic temple site in Luxor on 17 November that killed 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians--the most lethal attack by the group. The six al-Gama'at perpetrators were killed in a shootout by police during their escape effort. Al-Gama'at claimed it intended to take hostages in the attack in exchange for the release of Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, serving a life prison term in the United States after being convicted in 1995 for several terrorist conspiracies. The claim was belied, however, by surviving eyewitnesses who reported the perpetrators took their time to execute systematically victims trapped inside the temple.
The group also continued to launch attacks against police, police informants, and Coptic Christians in southern Egypt.
Foreign tourists also were attacked in September by two Egyptian gunmen who professed support for the Egyptian al-Jihad but who were not found to be linked to an established group. Nine Germans and their Egyptian busdriver were killed in the attack outside the National Museum in Cairo. One of the gunmen was an escaped mental hospital inmate who previously had killed four foreign nationals, including a US citizen, in an attack at a restaurant in the Semiramis Intercontinental hotel in Cairo in October 1993.
Following the attack in Luxor, Egyptian officials intensified security at tourist sites in Cairo and southern Egypt. Nevertheless, the attack and subsequent decline in tourism caused severe economic losses to the country. As part of its effort to thwart extremists, the Egyptian Government also published on the Internet's Worldwide Web a list of names and photographs of 14 Egyptians sought for their suspected role in terrorist activities by al-Gama'at and the smaller Egyptian al-Jihad/Vanguards of Conquest. All of the individuals are believed to be living in various countries outside Egypt. External leaders of al-Gama'at and al-Jihad publicly rejected a call for a cease-fire in July by leaders of the two groups imprisoned in Cairo and vowed to continue their attacks against the Egyptian Government.
Israel and the Occupied Territories/Palestinian Autonomous Areas
Israel continued in 1997 to face terrorist attacks by Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process. HAMAS launched three deadly suicide bombings over the year: a 21 March bombing in a Tel Aviv cafe, killing three Israelis and wounding 48; a 30 July dual suicide bombing in a crowded Jerusalem market, which killed 16--including one US citizen--and wounded 178; and a 4 September triple suicide bombing at a popular Jerusalem pedestrian mall, which killed four Israelis and one US citizen, and wounded nearly 200. For its part, Israel imposed strict closures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, carried out wide-scale arrests, and on 25 September launched a failed attempt to assassinate HAMAS official Khalid Mishal in Jordan. The Israeli agents were captured by Jordanian security officials and returned to Israel after the Israeli Government released HAMAS founder Shaykh Yassin and others from prison.
Numerous other serious but less spectacular attacks against Israel and its citizens also occurred, including the 20 November murder of an Israeli student in Jerusalem's Old City carried out by unknown assailants. In addition, Israeli border forces stopped several attempted terrorist infiltrations from Lebanon and Jordan, including a 4 March border crossing attempt from Lebanon in which two Israeli soldiers were killed.
Palestinians also suffered from terrorist attacks by Israelis during the year, including a 1 January incident in Hebron where an off-duty Israeli soldier fired into a crowded market, wounding seven persons.
The PA, which is responsible for security in Gaza and most major West Bank cities, continued to act against Palestinian perpetrators of violence against Israel in 1997. The PA's security apparatus preempted several anti-Israeli attacks over the year, including several planned suicide bombings, and detained hundreds of individuals for their alleged roles in terrorist operations. In July, for instance, the PA uncovered a HAMAS West Bank safehouse where the group was preparing bombs for attacks and arrested several HAMAS members affiliated with the site. The PA also closed down 17 HAMAS social and charitable institutions that were alleged to have channeled money to the group's terrorist wing.
At the same time, more effort is needed by the PA to enhance its bilateral cooperation with Israel and its unilateral fight against terrorism.
Despite an active counterterrorism campaign, Jordan in 1997 continued to suffer from terrorism. A 22 September drive-by shooting of two Israeli Embassy security guards in Amman remains unsolved. In other violence, a Jordanian soldier on 13 March murdered seven Israeli schoolchildren visiting a peace park. The soldier, who was captured at the scene, was sentenced in July to life in prison.
Amman continued to maintain tight security along its border with Israel and to interdict individuals attempting to infiltrate into the West Bank. Jordanian security and police also continued to monitor secular and Islamic extremists inside the country and to detain individuals suspected of involvement in violent acts aimed at destabilizing the government or its relations with other states. Jordan, in early September, for instance, detained HAMAS spokesman Ibrahim Ghawsha, a Jordanian citizen, for issuing statements promoting anti-Israeli violence. In addition to HAMAS, several Palestinian rejectionist groups--such as the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Abu Nidal organization (ANO), and the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP and DFLP)--maintain a closely watched presence in Jordan.
Lebanon's security environment continued to improve incrementally in 1997 as the country worked to rebuild its infrastructure and institutions. US Secretary of State Albright subsequently allowed restrictions on the use of US passports for travel to Lebanon, in place since 1987, to expire in July. Nevertheless, Lebanese Government control remains incomplete in parts of the Bekaa Valley and portions of Beirut's southern suburbs, including areas near Lebanon's main airport. There is no effective Lebanese Government presence in much of southern Lebanon, where guerrilla groups are engaged in fighting in the so-called security zone controlled by Israel and its surrogate militia.
In these areas, a variety of terrorist groups continued to operate with relative impunity, conducting terrorist training and other operational activities. These groups include Hizballah, HAMAS, the ANO, the PIJ, and the PFLP-GC.
There were no anti-US attacks in Lebanon in 1997; it is unclear if a small bombing against the American University of Beirut on 27 October was politically motivated. US interests in the country, however, remained under threat. Hizballah's animosity toward the United States has not abated, and the group continued to monitor the US Embassy and its personnel. Hizballah leaders routinely denounced US policies and condemned the Middle East Peace Process, of which the United States is a primary sponsor. Incidents such as the still unsolved 28 October explosion at a major Beirut bus station further illustrate the potential dangers to US civilians traveling in Lebanon.
In the spring Lebanese authorities arrested five members of the Japanese Red Army residing in Lebanon. In July a Lebanese court convicted all five of using false documents and residing illegally in Lebanon and sentenced them to prison terms. The five remain in custody.
There were no terrorist-related incidents in Morocco in 1997. The Government of Morocco has demonstrated a readiness to respond to terrorist threats and has investigated such incidents thoroughly. The Moroccan Government has worked actively to suppress Islamic unrest within its own borders, fearing a spillover of violence from neighboring Algeria. An Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) member considered to be one of the group's main donors was arrested in eastern Morocco in October.
There has been no solution to the question of responsibility for the June 1996 bombing of the Khubar Towers housing facility near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. In that incident, a large truck bomb killed 19 US citizens and wounded more than 500 others. Although the Saudi authorities have arrested and detained several persons in connection with the incident, legal proceedings have not reached a conclusion.
In March, a Saudi national named Hani al-Sayegh was arrested by Canadian authorities. Papers submitted to the Canadian court alleged al-Sayegh had participated in the Khubar Towers bombing as a member of Saudi Hizballah, and he was deported to the United States. Once he was in this country, however, al-Sayegh reneged on an agreement with US prosecutors, under the terms of which he would have pled guilty to a charge of conspiracy unrelated to the Khubar Towers attack, in return for providing information about those responsible for the bombing. US authorities were unable to marshal sufficient evidence to prosecute him for any crime. Prosecutors turned him over to US immigration authorities. He was ruled excludable, although a number of legal issues remain to be decided. Saudi authorities have requested that al-Sayegh be returned to Saudi Arabia in connection with their own Khubar investigation.
The United States continued to receive reports of threats against US military and civilian personnel and facilities in Saudi Arabia, including bomb threats, but there were no further terrorist incidents in the Kingdom.
In March 1997 renegade Saudi terrorist financier Usama Bin Ladin publicly threatened to attack US forces in Saudi Arabia to force a US withdrawal from the region. Local South Asian press reports indicated that he continued to make statements threatening Western interests throughout the year; however, in midyear statements to Western media, Bin Ladin evaded the question of his responsibility for previously claimed anti-US attacks in Somalia and Yemen.
There were no reported acts of terrorism in Tunisia in 1997, and the Government of Tunisia remains publicly committed to taking the necessary actions to counter terrorist threats, particularly from religious extremists. Tunisia plays an active role in combating terrorism by hosting conferences aimed at intensifying inter-Arab cooperation in the struggle against terrorism, such as the Council of Arab Ministers held in Tunis in January. Ministers agreed to take steps to cooperate in extradition, information exchange, and other measures. The Tunisian Government also actively condemns acts of Islamic terrorism throughout the world, such as the attack on tourists in Luxor, Egypt, in November.
Sanaa took major steps during 1997 to improve control of its borders, territory, and travel documents. It continued to deport foreign nationals residing illegally, including Islamic extremists identified as posing a security risk to Yemen and several other Arab countries. The Interior Ministry issued new, reportedly tamper-resistant passports and began to computerize port-of-entry information. Nonetheless, lax implementation of security measures and poor central government control over remote areas continued to make Yemen an attractive safehaven for terrorists. Moreover, HAMAS and the PIJ maintain offices in Yemen.
A series of bombings in Aden in July, October, and November caused material damage but no injuries. No group claimed responsibility. The Yemeni Government blamed the attacks on Yemeni opposition elements that had been trained by foreign extremists and supported from abroad. A principal suspect confessed in court he was recruited and paid by Saudi intelligence, but this could not be independently verified.
Yemeni tribesmen kidnapped about 40 foreign nationals, including two US citizens, and held them for periods ranging up to one month. Yemeni Government officials frequently asserted that foreign powers instigated some kidnappings, but no corroborating evidence was provided. All were treated well and released unharmed, but one Italian was injured when resisting a kidnap attempt in August. The motivation for the kidnappings generally appeared to be tribal grievances against the central government. The government did not prosecute any of the kidnappers.
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