On 3 June the United States Justice Department announced that Mohammed Rashid, former member of the 15 May Faction (Abu-Ibrahim Faction) would stand trial before an American court for terrorist acts against American passenger planes in the 1980's. The announcement was an impressive culmination to a 16 yearlong worldwide manhunt, and furnishes yet another indication of the perseverance of American law enforcement authorities in the fight against terrorism.
Rashid was a member of a radical Palestinian organization known as the "15 May Faction" or the "Abu-Ibrahim Faction". The organization began operating in 1979. Like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - Special Command (Salim Abu Salem Faction) The 15 May Faction was an independent offshoot of Wadi' Haddad's terror group, which split upon Hadad's death from cancer in 1978.
Wadi' Haddad, who was one of the leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (under the leadership of George Habash) split in 1976 and formed a Faction that became the foremost Palestinian organization in international terrorism in the 1970's. His organization was responsible for a long list of effective terrorist attacks, among them the Air France hijacking to Entebbe in 1976, the Lufthansa hijacking to Mogadishu in 1977, and the kidnapping of the OPEC leaders in Vienna in 1975. The infamous "Carlos" carried out a number of terrorist attacks as a Haddad operative.
The 15 May Faction continued the tradition for violence and radicalism of its predecessor. The organization group specialized in the use of sophisticated suitcase bombs and plastic explosives, and focused on American and Israeli targets, and in particular means of transportation--ships and planes. The organization's is charged with the attack on the Greek shipOrion in Haifa Port (December 1981); attacks on American and Israeli airliners in the years 1982-83, and attacks on crowded hotels and restaurants for the purpose of wholesale killing.
From the outset of its existence as an independent organization, May 15 operated out of its bases in Iraq and with Iraqi funding and support. American pressure on Iraq to restrain the group's activities was only partially successful--and that only as a result of Iraq's need of American support in its war with Iran, in the 1980's. From then on the faction suspended its operations, and its operatives dispersed to other organizations, among them Yassir Arafat's "Fatah".
Mohammed Rashid, as a veteran operative of the 15 May Faction, was active in a number of attacks against American and Israeli planes. In August 1982, Rashid, accompanied by his wife and young son, boarded a Pan Am flight from Japan to Hawaii. They deplaned at a transit stop, leaving behind them under the passenger seat a bomb with a delayed timer. The device exploded while the plane was over Honolulu, killing a 15 year-old boy and injuring 15 other passengers. An identical bomb on another Pan Am plane was discovered in Rio de Janeiro and defused without injury.
Rashid was responsible for another attempted airline attack, this time on an Israeli plane, at the end of 1983. A sophisticated suitcase bomb, made by the Abu-Ibrahim Faction was given to a British woman, who acted as courier to bring the suitcase to Israel, where she checked the suitcase through to London after deplaning. The device was intended to explode in mid-flight, causing the plane to crash, but a technical defect prevented it from going off. Thus a major catastrophe was narrowly averted. Some 7 years later, in September 1990, Fuad Shara, Rashid's accomplice in preparing the attack, was captured and brought to trial in Israel. He was sentenced in May 1991 to 25 years in prison.
In the later half of the 1980's, Rashid joined the "Special Operations Group", one of the terrorist apparatuses of "Fatah", under the command of Abdullah Abd al-Hamid Labib, alias Colonel Hawari. He was implicated in the April 1986 bombing of TWA flight over Corinth. The bomb, made of plastic explosives, exploded en route from Rome to Athens just before landing, blowing a hole in the right side of the Boeing 727. The result was an immediate loss of cabin pressure, which sucked out four American passengers, including an infant. Nine other passengers were injured. Fortunately, the plane was able to land safely.
On October 20, 1988, a French court convicted Hawari, in absentia, for his role in several terrorist attacks throughout Western Europe in the mid-1980s aimed at Syrian, Libyan, and US targets. The court sentenced him to the maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for complicity in transporting arms, ammunition and explosives and of "criminal association." The US charged that Hawari was also behind the TWA attack, but did not indicate whether he was acting on orders of Yassir Arafat, PLO and Fatah chief. Hawari headed at the time the Fatah Special Operations Group's intelligence and security apparatus and sometimes served as Arafat's bodyguard. He reportedly had used Palestinian terrorists who previously belonged to the May 15 Organization. Hawari was later killed in a car accident in Iraq.
As a result of a relentless chase on the part of the American authorities, Rashid was finally captured at Athens International Airport in May of 1988. However, Greece, apparently fearing terrorist reprisals, refused an American request for his extradition. After many delays and considerable pressure from Washington he was tried in Greece and sentenced to 15 years. During his trial in Athens, Rashid, claimed to be a member of the PLO and the Palestine Liberation Army. He insisted that his name was Mohammed Hamdan, the name in his passport. However, the court identified him as Rashid after Greek police testified that he had been arrested in 1973 for smuggling hashish in Greece and had served 3 years of a 6-year term. His fingerprints matched those taken in 1973. During this earlier term in a Greek prison, he managed to recruit several criminal elements to perpetrate terrorist attacks on behalf of his organization.
In 1996, after serving only 8 years of his 15-year sentence, despite all efforts by the U.S. to prevent it, Rashid was released by the Greek authorities, for "good behavior". Now two years later, and a decade and a half after the American Justice authorities set themselves the goal of bringing him to justice, Rashid is finally standing trial before an American court.
The arrest of Rashid is in keeping with long-standing American counter-terrorist policy implemented by all the U.S. presidents since the 1980's.
The first expression of this policy was the capture of Fuad Younes, a member of the Shi'ite Amal organization, who was responsible for the 1985 hijacking of a Jordanian plane carrying American citizens. Younes was caught in 1987, tried in the U.S. and sentenced to an extended term for terrorist activities.
The U.S. has continued to lead in the fight to bring terrorists to justice, and has established laws whereby cases involving international terrorism against American interests or citizens are kept open until the perpetrators are caught and brought to justice; international boundaries no longer offer any refuge to terrorists. Rashid's arrest is the latest of a whole string of successes in this regard over the past few years. For example: