Lebanon Hostage Crisis

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Lebanon Hostage Crisis

"President Calls for All Hostages to be Released"

News article

By: Rita Beamish

Date: July 31, 1989

Source: The Associated Press.

About the Author: Rita Beamish earned a degree in history before pursing a master's degree in journalism from Columbia Graduate School. Beamish served as a White House, political, and foreign affairs writer for the Associated Press for over ten years.


In 1979, an Islamic revolution led by Shia Muslims ended the secular rule of the Shah of Iran and ushered in several decades of continued unrest in the region. Spurred on by western supported Israel and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, militants sought to rid the region of both Israel and all western influences. However, in the midst of civil war in Lebanon between Christian Maronites and Muslim fundamentalists, southern Lebanon was invaded by Israel, which added to the unrest. Multinational peacekeepers sent to enforce a cease-fire, journalists covering the conflict, and any other westerner in the region became a target for assassination or kidnapping.

The Shah of Iran, backed by the United States, lost popularity as the economic disparity in Iran increased. By 1979, the secular parties within the government could not compete with the power accumulated by the Islamic Republican Party, led by former students of the cleric Ayatollah Khomeini. In October 1979, a group of students entered the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took sixty-six Americans hostage. The hostage takers demanded that the Shah be returned to Iran so that he could stand trial for crimes. The captors also wanted the return of billions of dollars that they assumed the Shah had secretly funneled into his own accounts. Fifteen months later, a deal was brokered that allowed for the return of the hostages. These events, however, brought to an end the once close ties between the U.S. and Iran.

At the same time in Lebanon, Shia populations with familial ties to Shia Muslims in Iran facilitated the creation of militias. With Syrian approval, these militias, in the form of groups such as Hezbollah, entered Lebanon with the purpose to fight Israeli expansion. Within poor Shia communities, these groups began to promote the idea of an Islamic fundamentalist state in Lebanon, similar to Iran. The extremists promised to expel western influence and destroy Israel. After the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, these groups began to gain wide support. Their tactics included suicide bombings, hijackings, and kidnappings, harkening back to the 1979 hostage crisis.

The Phalange party of Maronite Christians, allies with Israel, supported the idea of modernizing Lebanon. Phalange policies before the civil war had expanded western influences in the country. The clash between the two camps fueled the nation's civil war. Peacekeeping became a multinational task, bringing western militaries into the war torn country. In addition, journalists also reported from the region. These people, by virtue of their U.S. and European citizenship, became targets for Islamic fundamentalist militias.

The first American kidnapped was William Buckley on March 16, 1984. Buckley was a political officer for the State Department and had been stationed in Beirut since 1983. Islamic Jihad claimed that he was the CIA station chief and killed him. Confirmation of his death did not occur until 1987. Also kidnapped in 1984 was Peter Kilburn, a librarian for American University. He disappeared on December 3, 1984 and was found shot to death on April 16, 1986. His death, along with two British hostages, was said to be in retaliation to the U.S. air strikes on Libya.

In 1985, Associated Press chief correspondent in Lebanon, Terry Anderson, was kidnapped by members of Hezbollah. (Anderson was the longest-held hostage, remaining in captivity for over six years before being released.) That same year, six foreign nationals were also kidnapped. Nicolas Kluiters, a Dutch Roman Catholic priest was abducted and killed. In May, British professor of English Denis Hill was also abducted and killed. Acting dean of agriculture for American University, Thomas Sutherland was kidnapped in June of 1985, and Italian businessman Alberto Molinari was also abducted later that year. Four Soviet officials were kidnapped in 1985; however, three were released immediately, while one was killed.

The kidnappings continued on through 1988. In 1986, Irish and British educators from American University and the Lebanese International School were abducted. On April 16, 1986, British professors Leigh Douglas and Philip Padfield were kidnapped and later found dead, along with Peter Kilburn. In 1987, three visiting professors at the Beirut University College were abducted. In addition, Terry Waite, a British envoy of the Anglican Church seeking the release of the hostages was taken. In 1988, abductions occurred with the accusation of espionage. In February, U.S. Marine Lt. Colonel William Higgins was abducted and accused of spying. Later that year, Belgian physician Jan Cools was also kidnapped and accused of collecting intelligence.

In all, thirteen hostages were taken by Lebanese terrorists from 1985–1992.


President Bush, condemning the reported hanging of Lt. Col. William Higgins by pro-Iranian kidnappers, Monday night called on "all parties" holding hostages in the Middle East to release them "to begin to reverse the cycle of violence."

In a statement telephoned to news organizations, Bush pointedly renewed his criticism of Israel, whose kidnapping on Friday of a Moslem Shiite cleric led Higgins' kidnappers to release a tape which they said showed his execution by hanging.

"On Friday, I said that the taking of any hostage was not helpful to the Middle East peace process. The brutal and tragic events of today have underscored the validity of that statement," Bush said.

"Tonight I wish to go beyond that statement with an urgent call to all, all parties, who hold hostages in the Middle East to release them forthwith, as an humanitarian gesture, to begin to reverse the cycle of violence in that region."

In his conference call to news agencies, presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said it was "impossible to tell" what the reaction to the president's statement would be.

Asked if the U.S. government had contacted Israel in an attempt to persuade it to release its hostage, Fitzwater replied that"We have had contacts with Israel, but not in the past day." He did not elaborate on the nature of the contacts.

"We face a very difficult situation," Fitzwater said. "We have threats of two other possible deaths. We have hostages being held by a number of countries or factions or groups."

"The president feels his plea, with real attention focused on the situation, could give everyone a chance to release their hostages."

Fitzwater referred to threats made during the day by groups in the Middle East against two hostages, Joseph James Cicippio, an official of the American University of Beirut, and Anglican church envoy Terry Waite.

Earlier, referring to "this brutal murder" of the Marine officer, Bush said: "It is a most troubling and disturbing matter that has shocked the American people right to the core. There is no way that I can properly express the outrage that I feel."

While Bush cautioned publicly that he had no confirmation Higgins had in fact been hanged, Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., said the president told congressional leaders Monday night that "it's about a 98 percent probability that it happened."

Bush monitored reports through the afternoon after returning from Chicago, then met into the evening in the Cabinet room with top advisers, including Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and other Cabinet members, before briefing the congressional leaders.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David Boren, D-Okla., said after that meeting that Bush was considering several options but he declined to identify them.

"I don't think anything has been ruled out at this point," Boren said.

During his earlier meeting with advisers, Bush "received a briefing on the status of our knowledge of the situation. This was primarily an informational meeting at which all aspects of the case involving Col. Higgins and the other hostages were discussed," Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said in a statement.

Higgins' reported killing triggered an instant debate in Congress over Israel's role in the events. Israeli commandos kidnapped a Shiite Moslem cleric last week, and the announcement of Higgins' hanging said he was killed in retaliation.

"Perhaps a little more responsibility on behalf of the Israelis would be refreshing," Dole said. But Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., countered that blaming Israel would be "turning the world on its head."

At the White House, officials carefully avoided direct criticism of Israel, but Fitzwater said, "It is fair to say that many people do share the senator's concerns." He would not elaborate.

An Israeli official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "It's ridiculous to say that Israel is responsible for Higgins' death. We don't even know if it's him, and if it is, when he was killed."

A member of Congress who attended the leadership meeting with Bush, speaking on condition of no further identification, said the lawmakers were told repeatedly the United States was given no notice of Israeli's intent to kidnap the cleric, and "There was no consultation between Israel and the United States."

After meeting with Bush, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, said the president "strongly reaffirmed his belief in the appropriate policy of not negotiating with terorrists in any circumstances."

He, like others at the meeting, declined to discuss which possible responses, including military options, might be under consideration.

One administration official, asked about reports that Bush would not undertake military retaliation or rescue missions, said it would be premature to reach that conclusion.

The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said administration officials planned more meetings to discuss the crisis, indicating a likelihood that no final decisions had been made.

Rep. William Dickinson, R-Ala., ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said after the White House meeting: "The president made it very clear, until the facts are known, at least more facts than we have now, there's no way you can make a definitive decision" on what to do.

There are nine Americans in captivity in the Middle East, including Terry Anderson, Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press.

"Somehow there has got to be a return to decency and honor, even in matters of this nature," Bush said on the White House lawn after returning from Chicago, where he had addressed the National Governors' Association.

He also said he had spoken by telephone with Higgins' wife, "a wonderfully stoic individual who is going through sheer hell."

Bush had been scheduled to proceed from Chicago to Las Vegas for a speech to the Disabled American Veterans, and then on to Oklahoma City for a Tuesday address to the Fraternal Order of Police convention.

But he said in Chicago, "This matter is of such concern to me and to all of you and to the American people that I think it's appropriate that I go back to Washington."

He learned of reports of the execution as he landed in Chicago.

Higgins, 44, was serving as part of an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon when he was taken captive in February 1988. Pro-Iranian Shiite Moslem captors said they hanged him Monday in retaliation for Israel's kidnapping of a Moslem cleric. The group released a videotape purporting to show the execution.

Israel offered earlier in the day to swap the cleric, Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, and other Shiite Moslem captives for all captured Israeli soldiers and foreign hostages held by Shiite groups in Lebanon.

Secretary of State James A. Baker, leaving Paris for Washington after a weekend of meetings focusing on U.S.-Soviet relations and the future of Cambodia, called the execution report "outrageous and uncivilized."

Dole said in Washington, "I would hope the Israelis would take another look at some of their actions that they must know in advance would endanger American lives."

But Rep. Schumer said, "Israel is among the few countries seeking to fight terrorism. The blame has to fall on the terrorists themselves."

Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., was circulating a letter asking colleagues to support a resolution calling for the extradition of Sheik Obeid to stand trial in the United States for the kidnapping of Higgins.


Several groups, including Islamic Jihad, the militant wing of Hezbollah, assumed responsibility for the hostage takings and for the killings. The group sought the release of seventeen of its members who had been convicted of terrorist activities against U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait in 1983. The groups used the hostage takings and assassinations as a terror tactic to dissuade foreign intervention in the Middle East.

The United States government maintained the public position that they would not negotiate with the terrorists holding American and European hostages. However, President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) and his administration thought that they could influence Iran to persuade the pro-Iranian Hezbollah terrorists to free the hostages. In a series of secret dealings, the United States tried to establish an arms-for-hostages program where weapons were sold to Iran, who was then engaged in a war with Iraq. The money from the arms sales was used to help fund anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua. When news of the program beame public, Congress urged President Reagan to convene an investigative Presidential Commission, which became known as the Tower Commission (named for former Sen. John Tower, head of the commission).

The Tower Commission implicated several top Reagan advisors in the scandal, but did not determine that Reagan himself had knowledge of the events. The Reagan administration weathered the scandal, despite widespread media coverage of the Iran-Contra Congressional hearings.



Coughlin, Con. Hostage: The Complete Story of the Lebanon Captives. New York: Warner Books, 1993.

Web sites

BBC News. "On This Day, February 2, 1987: Negotiator Turned Hostage." <http://newssearch.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/witness/february/2/newsid_2880000/2880753.stm> (accessed July 10, 2005)

BBC News. "Timeline: Lebanon." <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/country_profiles/819200.stm> (accessed July 10, 2005).

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