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Terrorism: Islamic Scholars Debate Suicide Bombing And Hostage Taking

More than 50 people were killed in multiple suicide-bomb attacks in Amman, Jordan, on 9 November (AFP) In the current nomenclature, "martyrdom operations" is a euphemism for suicide bombings. In Iraq and Israel these incidents occasionally kill military personnel, but the majority of casualties tends to be civilians. In interviews with RFE/RL, two of Lebanon's leading Shi'ite clerics -- Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah and Afif Nabulsi -- and prominent Lebanese scholar Amal Saad-Ghorayeb discussed martyrdom operations, as well as the holding of hostages.

One of the first suicide bombings took place at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April 1983, killing 63 people. This was followed in October by bombings in Beirut of a French paratroopers' barracks and a U.S. Marines' barracks -- killing 58 and 241 people, respectively. Over the rest of the decade, suicide bombings became relatively commonplace, and many of them were attributed to Hizballah, the Lebanese political party that has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Hostage-takings in Lebanon began in the early 1980s and continued for about 10 years, and most of these incidents were attributed to Shi'ite militants as well.

Of course, such incidents continue to this day. An 11 December suicide bombing in Kandahar, Afghanistan, killed three civilians, and in suicide bombings in Iraq take civilian lives virtually on a daily basis. Meanwhile, militants in Iraq claimed recently that they have killed an American electrician they were holding, and more recently an Egyptian translator was killed.

'State Of War'

Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah is Lebanon's leading Shia cleric, and he is seen by some scholars as the spiritual guide of Hizballah. The deputy secretary-general of Hizballah, Sheikh Naim Qassem, writes in his recent book on the organization that Fadlallah provided guidance in the early days. Some even wanted him to be Hizballah's first leader. Qassem writes that Fadlallah preferred to "remain a cleric," and in a 6 December interview with RFE/RL, Fadlallah denied having a formal relationship with Hizballah.

A critic of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda against the United States, Fadlallah offered a differentiated response regarding the issue of martyrdom operations. He was asked if there is a difference between martyrdom operations against Israeli troops who invaded southern Lebanon in the 1980s, similar operations that take place in Israel today, and the suicide bombings that occur in Iraq.

"Those operations by Al-Qaeda in Iraq are not justified because they kill innocent civilians without any circumstances that make this permissible," Fadlallah said. "There is no state of war between them. As for what happened in Lebanon when the Israelis invaded and what's happening now in Palestine in the intifada, these operations have been in the framework of a state of war between the two parties. We know that both the Palestinians and the Lebanese had to face the huge power of the Israelis, and they had no other weapon. And everybody knows that what is allowed in war is not allowed outside war, and especially, when the war is against occupation."

In Iran there is an ongoing program to recruit volunteers for martyrdom operations in Iraq, and it is organized by the Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement. Fadlallah denied such an effort exists. "I believe it is a media campaign, and not a real one," he said. "There is a difference between the media world and real world."

Civilians And Soldiers

Lebanese American University Professor Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is the author of a highly regarded book on Hizballah, and she follows Shi'ite politics in Lebanon closely. She explained Fadlallah's stance on martyrdom operations by saying that the Iraqi people are seen as "innocent."

"The Israeli people are not considered innocent," Saad-Ghorayeb continued. "So even if the targets are not Shi'ites in Iraq, and in fact even when they are Westerners, when Westerners are killed, this is considered.... Hizballah will not come out and say this is terrorism, but they will speak disparagingly of such attacks even when the victims are Westerners. This just goes to show that in the eyes of Hizballah, there is no such thing as an Israeli civilian."

Saad-Ghorayeb does not believe that Hizballah's position on martyrdom operations has changed over time, whereas its tactics have. "There is no perceived need for martyrdom attacks," she added. "Hizballah hasn't done that for years." Saad-Ghorayeb said Hizballah sees martyrdom operations as a temporary military tactic, but continues to support them in Israel. "There has been no change, whatsoever, ideologically speaking," she said.

Some Actions Are Justified

Associated Press journalist Terry Anderson was kidnapped in Beirut in March 1985 and released in December 1991. Other Western journalists were taken hostage in the 1980s, as were academics and clerics visiting Lebanon. Several hostages died while in captivity -- for example, UN observer William Higgins was hung by the neck until dead in July 1989. British and French hostages were killed as well.

Saad-Ghorayeb said that many Westerners in Beirut at the time were seen as spies. "These actions, first of all, like the Marine bombing, targeted American soldiers who were perceived as occupiers. Now regarding Western hostages even, Hizballah -- and I say this in my book -- Hizballah regards these people as having been American spies -- many of them at least -- working for intelligence services. And so the level of justification differs considerably."

Sheikh Afif Nabulsi, president of the Association of Jabal Amel Ulama, argues that there are circumstances in which taking hostages is permissible. He said in an 8 December interview with RFE/RL at the Sayyida Fatima al-Zahra mosque complex in Sidon that holding "spies" such as Elhanan Tennenbaum (an Israeli businessman and reservist kidnapped by Hizballah in October 2000 and released some three years later) is "acceptable." "We should take hostage the spies because they are sent to take the information from our country and send it to the Israeli people, and then the Israelis would come and demolish our country," Nabulsi said.

It is unacceptable to hold journalists, UN workers, or businesspeople, Nabulsi said. "The reporter's job is just to take the news, nothing else," he said. "The reporter must be very objective, he doesn't take sides, he just comes to take the news from the country." Nabulsi opposed aggressive actions against United Nations personnel who come to Lebanon.

Nabulsi also addressed the issue of martyrdom operations. He said there is a difference between ones that take place in Israel and those in Iraq. "If these operations happen in occupied regions, for example here, where the Israeli occupiers were, yes, we have the right to do that," he said. Nabulsi contrasted these incidents with the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, and he condemned ones that occur in Iraqi mosques.

Things that happen in the occupied regions, he said, differ from those in other areas. "If you kill some of the British or the American army here or in Iraq, it could be [permissible], but we do not allow such things," he said. "We do not go there and kill them there. If they are occupying us here or in Iraq, we do such things." Nabulsi cited the Koran as saying two wrongs do not make a right.

No End In Sight

The carnage wrought by suicide attacks, particularly when the victims are civilians, is horrific. Therefore, Fadlallah and many other respected Islamic scholars were critical of the 11 September 2001 attacks by Al-Qaeda in the United States. Many analysts argue, however, that unless respected clerics speak out against suicide bombings per se, including such attacks in Israel -- and this seems very unlikely -- the carnage will continue.

Nor is it likely that hostage takings will end soon. They likewise seem to be an inevitable extension of the tactics being used against Israeli soldiers. In a 25 November speech at the Sayyid Al-Shuhada Compound in southern Beirut, the secretary general of Hizballah defended the practice. Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah said it is "not a crime" to kidnap Israeli soldiers, Al-Manar television reported. "Yes, it is our natural right to capture Israeli soldiers," he continued. "Can I be clearer? We have the right and even the duty to do this."