At this point you may well ask, "What happened between the Marine barracks bombing of 1983 and the Khobar Towers attack of 1996? If, as you claim, Iran has been conducting a clandestine war upon America since 1983, why didn't the IRGC attack us during this 13-year period?" The answer is that they did. However, between 1980 and 1988, Iran was in a life-and-death struggle with Saddam Hussein's Iraq; a war so devastating that it took Iran another eight years to recover. It is important for you to understand this, because it shows that Iran must quickly ratchet back its terrorist activities when it is engaged in a conventional war. Nevertheless, during this interregnum, Iran did not totally abandon its attacks upon the United States military. Despite the massive cost of the war with Iraq, the IRGC had enough spare time and resources to conduct little murders. This is the story of one of those killings.
The Strange Saga of Flight 847
On the morning of June 14, 1985, two Islamic extremists boarded TWA Flight 847 in Athens, Greece. (A third conspirator had been bumped to another flight and was eventually arrested.) Ten minutes after takeoff, the hijackers, armed with pistols and grenades, assaulted a flight attendant in the forward section, and entered the cockpit. Thus began one of the strangest incidents in the history of commercial aviation:
• Over the next three days, seemingly without purpose, the hijackers forced the pilot to fly first to Beirut, Lebanon, then Algiers, Algeria, then Beirut again, then Algiers again, and finally Beirut.
• Twelve additional hijackers boarded the plane in Beirut. One of them allowed himself to be photographed without a mask outside the aircraft.
• The hijackers released hostages at each stop until none were left on the plane.
• They allowed ABC News to interview the pilot through an open cockpit window while the jetliner was in Beirut.
• When a stubborn Algerian airport official refused to refuel the aircraft without payment, they allowed a female flight attendant to pay for the fuel with her own credit card.
• All of the hijackers escaped, even the third perpetrator, who had been arrested in Athens.
If, during the second stopover in Beirut, the hijackers had not murdered Robert Dean Stethem, the whole episode might have been dismissed as comic Middle Eastern theater. But the killing of petty officer Robert Stethem was the whole point; for the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 was actually an assault by Iran upon the American military.
Imad Fayez Mugniyeh
At first glance, the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 does not appear to have been a military operation. It does not seem to conform to the Iranian Attack Model, especially Items 1, 2, and 5. (The use of the IRGC, careful planning, and suicide truck or car bombs.) Most importantly, it does not seem to have been sponsored by Iran.
In order to understand what happened on Flight 847, let us begin with its most unusual feature: the unmasking of one of the hijackers. Why would he allow himself to be seen and risk being photographed by the worldwide press? To the best of our knowledge, he never willingly exposed his face again. It is hard to resist the conclusion that this was a narcissistic act: the man wanted to be recognized and known to the world as a dangerous terrorist. Who was he?
According to Item 1 of the Attack Model, the chief instrument of Iranian geopolitics is the IRGC, a uniformed branch of the Iranian military. However, there is nothing in the Model to prevent an entire operation from being planned and directed by one man. Imad Fayez Mugniyeh is such a man. By 1985, he was both an officer in the Qods Force of the IRGC and a legend among terrorists worldwide. It was Mugniyeh who had led the attack upon the Beirut Marine barracks in 1983. He had also been responsible for three other attacks:
1. On April 18, 1983, Mugniyeh blew up the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 17 Americans.
2. On September 20, 1984, he attacked the Embassy again, this time bombing an annex building.
3. On March 16, 1984, he kidnapped CIA Beirut Station Chief William Buckley, and after torturing him for 14 months, killed him.
To you, the American Embassy and the CIA may not seem like military institutions. But the Iranians routinely use their diplomatic corps and the Iranian equivalent of the CIA to stage attacks upon American forces. We know, for example, that both the Marine barracks and Khobar Towers bombings were planned originally by officials in the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, Syria. We also know that MOIS (the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security) was involved in the Khobar Towers plot, and that MOIS is the Iranian equivalent of the CIA. Therefore, in the Iranians' minds, an attack upon an American embassy, the kidnapping of a CIA officer, and the assassination of a U.S. serviceman are all legitimate acts of war.
Imad Fayez Mugniyeh is a naturalized Iranian citizen whose home is in Qom, Iran. He has a wife and three children. As a young Shiite growing up in war-torn Lebanon, Mugniyeh almost certainly became associated with both Islamic Amal and Hezbollah. (The 9/11 Commission Report refers to him as a Hezbollah operative.) During the late 1970s, he served as a security officer for Yasser Arafat. When Arafat was expelled from Lebanon in 1982, he handed over Mugniyeh and the rest of the PLO's Force 17 security operatives to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. By 1983, Mugniyeh was an IRGC officer. He continues to serve in that capacity today.
There is one other aspect of Mugniyeh that you must understand: he is a confirmed psychopath. Unlike his colleagues, who are either thugs or ideologues, Mugniyeh is among the one percent of human beings who do not possess the neurological circuitry to empathize with others. Almost certainly, psychopaths are born, not made. They cannot imagine the suffering of others, and therefore do not possess the built-in inhibitions the rest of us have against killing. Mugniyeh loves to kill. Like most psychopaths, he also craves excitement and notoriety; they feed his blatant narcissism.
This explains why Mugniyeh allowed himself to be seen and photographed. It also explains why the hijacking of Flight 847 was not a suicide mission: a man possessed of excessive self-love is not a candidate for suicide.
The hijacking showed no evidence of Tehran's usual careful planning. On the contrary, while the Iranian government may have ordered the operation, it was clearly conducted in an ad-hoc manner, with the hijackers adapting to events on the ground. All of this is perfectly consistent with Mugniyeh's unique status in the Middle East. The Iranian government denies that Mugniyeh is their employee. Furthermore, Mugniyeh has a large network of accomplices, supporters, and admirers. Backed by Iran's unlimited petrodollars, and by the military bases, safe houses, and diplomatic contacts of the IRGC, Mugniyeh is free to act in ways that other Iranian agents cannot.
It is now apparent that Mugniyeh was the mastermind and field commander of the hijacking. On October 10, 2001, partly as a result of his role in the assassination of Robert Dean Stethem, Mugniyeh was placed along with 21 others on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorist list. But he is not a terrorist: he is an officer in the military service of Iran.
The Real Story of Flight 847
When the hijackers took control of Flight 847, they shouted, "Americans, come to die!" The purpose of the hijacking was to assassinate one or more Americans. The conspirators began culling the passengers, looking for targets. Among the hostages were seven U.S. Navy divers. They had just finished a number of overseas underwater construction assignments, and were on their way home. The plane was bound for New York via Rome.
By the time the jetliner reached Algiers for the first time, the hijackers had identified at least two of the divers: Knut Carlson and Robert Stethem. They were bound, blindfolded, and moved to the forward cabin. Then the hijackers beat Stethem brutally until his face was swollen beyond recognition, shouting "One American must die!"
When the plane returned to Beirut, one of the hijackers, Mohammad Ali Hamadeh, waited until the world press had assembled outside the aircraft. Then, wearing a ski mask, he kicked open the door, shot Stethem in the head, and pushed his body down the stairway. The corpse of the young Navy diver remained there for hours in a pool of blood, while the press's cameras clicked incessantly.
Over the next few days, the hijackers demanded and obtained the release of the third conspirator, who had been arrested in Athens. They also demanded and obtained the release of 766 Lebanese Shiite prisoners who were being held by Israel. Approximately 40 hostages were sequestered in southern Beirut by Islamic Amal. (Amal was the Lebanese Shiite militia that Iranian Ambassador Mohtashemi had been ordered by Tehran to contact in order to stage the Beirut Marine barracks bombing of 1983.) They were held until June 30, when they were driven from Lebanon to Syria and finally released under orders from Tehran. Those orders were issued by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who, at the time, was the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament. (He later became President of Iran, and approved the Khobar Towers bombing.)
On June 17, the hijackers and the last of the hostages left Flight 847 and melted into the Shiite neighborhoods that surround Beirut International Airport. Because of the ongoing Lebanese Civil War, the airport had no perimeter security, and people could simply drive onto the runway. It is likely that the conspirators were Hezbollah members, and that Hezbollah militiamen in Beirut spirited them away to safety. Hezbollah is entirely financed by Iran.
The Significance of the Hijacking
The hijacking of Flight 847 and the assassination of Robert Dean Stethem advanced the geopolitical agenda of Iran by humiliating America, both politically and militarily. From this perspective, the incident can be seen as but one more battle in the war between Iran and America; a battle in which Iran once again emerged victorious. Consider the cascade of symbolic victories Iran achieved during this episode:
1. Iran hijacked an American airliner.
2. It took hostage six U.S. Navy divers.
3. It assassinated an American serviceman, and shamelessly flaunted his death.
4. It preempted attacks and rescue efforts by the United States military.
5. It obtained the release of the third hijacker from the Greeks.
6. It obtained the release of 766 Shiite prisoners from the Israelis.
7. It flagrantly violated international laws, and the laws of Greece, Lebanon, and Algeria.
At the same time, Iran also succeeded in thoroughly humiliating the Reagan Administration for the second time. (The first humiliation was America's retreat after the Beirut Marine barracks bombing of 1983. Iran had already humiliated the Carter Administration during the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979 – 1980.)
• Reagan had vowed publicly never to negotiate with terrorists. He reneged on this pledge, and pressured Israel to release the Shiite prisoners.
• He also allowed the conspirators to escape: The CIA planned to kidnap the hijackers, and fly them to America for trial; but FBI Director William Webster objected on the grounds that the kidnapping would violate U.S. and international laws. Reagan agreed with Webster and killed the plan.
• Finally, President Reagan publicly thanked Rafsanjani for helping him bring the hijacking to a peaceful end. (Peaceful except for the murder of Robert Stethem.) But it was probably Rafsanjani who ordered the hijacking in the first place.
The Reagan Administration then went on to sell thousands of missiles to Iran in what became known as “the Iran-Contra Scandal.”
When I began this blog, I pledged to be objective and dispassionate. However, as we wrap up the story of Flight 847, something less cool-headed needs to be said: In the postings that follow, we will relate many stories about Iran’s murderous brutality toward Americans; but the assassination of Robert Dean Stethem was the worst. The American people owe something to the Stethem family: justice.