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A tragic mystery.

ON JULY 27,1989, ISRAELI COMMANDO forces abducted Sheik Obeid, one of the leading figures of the Shia Muslim community in Lebanon. Following that operation, a videotape was released in Lebanon demonstrating vividly the execution of a man who allegedly was Lieutenant Colonel William Higgins. Intelligence reports later confirmed the execution and death of the Marine officer, who had been serving in a peaceful mission with United Nations agencies in war-ravaged Lebanon.

However, many discrepancies have to be cleared up. When was Higgins executed? Why didn't Hezbollah (or Islamic Gihead or whatever the terrorist group's name may be) murder the Marine officer initially instead of issuing a threat on his life? Why was an American national hanged instead of an Israeli soldier believed to be held by Hezbollah? Why was hanging chosen as a method of execution? Was Higgins the victim, or was another man? Why wasn't the body released? While the mystery to this bizarre and murderous execution may never be fully unraveled, an analysis of the case's discrepancies provides some explanations.

Timing. The Lebanese captors who released the videotape to the press issued a statement that Higgins was hanged after the Israeli abduction of Sheik Obeid. On the other hand, Israeli intelligence and military forces claim he was murdered in 1988, probably after the downing of an Iranian civilian plane on July 3 by an American missile fired from the USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf.

Both versions lack evidence, suffer from logical flaws, and are inconsistent with previous terrorist behavior, thus raising questions about their credibility. A flaw in the Shia version is that the captors did not issue a threat to execute Higgins if the sheik was not returned. On the other hand, they were quick to issue a threat to kill Joseph Cicippio, another American hostage, if their demands were not met.

Experience suggests that a threat of execution is issued only while the hostage is still alive. Thus, after Obeid's abduction, Higgins may not have been alive. Further, the common practice has been to release a photograph of a hostage holding a newspaper that clearly shows the date. That practice demonstrates that the hostage is still alive. Why didn't the terrorists follow that procedure?

Having a dead body on their hands already, they wanted to announce that Higgins was dead, and they found an opportunity in the Obeid incident. If terrorists are cold-blooded, rational, calculating actors, they may have used Higgins's death in the most effective fashion. Therefore, they had to say Higgins was executed after Obeid's abduction.

The Israeli version of events also contains discrepancies. The Israelis claim Higgins was executed in 1988 in retaliation for the downing of the Iranian plane. If so, why didn't the terrorists claim responsibility for his death then? Why didn't they release the videotape a year and a half ago? What could they have gained by withholding the information for so long?

I conclude Higgins was murdered before the downing of the civilian plane. The real retaliation to the loss of the Iranian plane occurred in December 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Linkage politics. The execution of an American officer in the service of the UN in retaliation for an Israeli attack and abduction is strange, especially since the terrorists hold three Israeli soldiers. Why did the terrorists not threaten to execute one of their Israeli captives?

If the terrorists were rationally trying to maximize benefits, they might have killed Higgins (or claimed to have just done so) for one of two reasons. First, by executing an American officer, the terrorists created a linkage between the United States and Israel. Such a pattern has been established many times before-in Khartoum in 1973, in June 1985 with TWA flight 847, and in many other incidents. Since then such motives were exercised by other groups, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and Black September.

The terrorists calculated correctly that the US government would apply political pressure on Israel to release the sheik. Also, they anticipated correctly that the death of Higgins would turn the emotional tide in the United States against Israel, since several other American hostages are currently held in Lebanon.

The terrorists understand it is unlikely that the United States would exercise its military might and engage in a rescue attempt or military retaliation. Any such attempt would endanger the other American hostages.

Furthermore, from the distorted perspective of terrorists, the death of an officer on duty in a war zone such as Lebanon is viewed and weighed differently than the execution of a civilian. Hence, the terrorists anticipated correctly that there would be no military reaction from the United States.

On the other hand, execution of an Israeli civilian or soldier would have elicited a different reaction. The Shia captors know that if they reveal any information about their Israeli captives, Israel will immediately retaliate with an air, land, or sea attack. Thus, admitting the death of an American rather than an Israeli provided the terrorists with a safety mechanism against an overwhelming Israeli military retaliation.

Execution by hanging. The released videotape reveals vivid images of death by hanging. This was probably the first time such an execution ever took place at the hands of terrorists. No other group in the Middle East used this method before. Why then was this form of execution used?

In bloody Lebanon, hanging as a form of execution stands out. In a country of mutilation, desecration of the dead, torture, and barbaric treatment of prisoners, hanging appears a somewhat aesthetic or cosmetic form of killing. That type of death formalizes the execution as a premeditated act with symbolic meanings. But why did Higgins, an American who is considered the enemy, receive this unique form of execution? Why wasn't he hanged in public?

The answer to that probably will never be known, unless the hanged man was not Higgins. On the tape the condemned man's face was fully covered. It seems odd that a terrorist group that practices violence and commits atrocities almost daily would go to the trouble of covering the victim's face. Moreover, if the purpose of releasing the tape was to establish credibility, why wouldn't the terrorists film the hostage's face?

The victim's body. If the man hanged by Hezbollah was Higgins, why was the body not released to the authorities and made available to the family for proper burial? Again, the execution appears to be inconsistent with similar incidents, such as those involving Aldo Moro in 1978 and Hanns-Martin Schleyer in 1975.

Terrorists concerned with building credibility for their threats would have produced a body. Since they did not, perhaps one of the following possibilities is true:

* The man wasn't Higgins.

* The man was Higgins but had been killed a long time ago.

* Higgins was killed by other means, and his dead body was hanged for the filming.

* Higgins was tortured, and his captors did not want to reveal the atrocity.

If they released the body, the terrorists knew an autopsy by the US government would find and establish what really happened to Higgins. Such evidence would reveal with a high degree of accuracy the date of execution, the method used, the type of interrogation the victim had experienced, and other important factors.

Overall, the government would deduce that the terrorists had been bluffing at one time or another and might be bluffing about the other American hostages. Who knows how many of the hostages are still alive? If the terrorists' bluff was called, their credibility within the entangled power politics of Lebanon would dissolve. Therefore, Hezbollah could not release the body.

William Buckley met a fate similar to that of Higgins. While it is believed he died in October 1985, his body was never recovered. William Buckley was CIA chief in Beirut and was kidnapped in March 1984. The similarity between these two cases enhances the possibility that both men were subjected to the same torturous interrogation and died in that process.

To deflect responsibility for their deaths under such circumstances, the executioners had to recreate different circumstances under which they could explain the hostages' deaths. By the way, Buckley's death was never acknowledged by the captors, who still hold the two bodies.

Since terrorist acts are inconsistent with our way of thinking, we tend to believe terrorists are sick and murderous maniacs. Although the circumstances of Higgins's execution may appear irrational, the terrorists' decisions were not without reason and served the interests of the group.

The kidnapping and murder of Buckley and Higgins vividly demonstrate the magnitude of the terrorists' manipulative power over the United States. Even such a supposedly insignificant detail as the date of execution illustrates the inability and paralysis that a great power experiences against a much weaker but elusive foe. The Shia terrorists of Lebanon have discovered that in low-intensity conflict even the dead body of an official can serve a purpose far beyond the realm of established diplomacy in such a situation.

The mystery behind the death of Higgins may never be unveiled. However, I believe he was interrogated and tortured and that he died in the process. It is possible that Higgins and Buckley both chose to die and thus defy the terrorists who expected to use them as showpieces.

About the Author . . . Dr. Reuben Miller is assistant professor of political science at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, CO.
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Title Annotation:deaths of hostages Lt. Col. William Higgins & William Buckley
Author:Miller, Reuben
Publication:Security Management
Date:Mar 1, 1990
Words:1561
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