Germany's Strategic Error in the War Against Terrorism

Report Europe

Germany's Strategic Error in the War Against Terrorism

January 4, 2006 4 min read
Nile Gardiner
Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow
Nile Gardiner is Director of The Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow.

The Bush Administration and Congress should strongly condemn Germany's extraordinary decision to release convicted terrorist and murderer Mohammad Ali Hammadi. Hammadi's release last month and subsequent transfer to Lebanon raise major questions about Germany's commitment to the war on terror and will cast a shadow over the January 11 White House meeting between President George W. Bush and newly-elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The United States must send a clear message that Hammadi's release is unacceptable and that it will take immediate action to ensure that this brutal terrorist and his fellow Hezbollah hijackers are brought to justice.


The Murder of Robert Stethem

In 1989, a German court convicted Hammadi, a Shiite militant from Lebanon, of the brutal killing of U.S. Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem in the June 1985 Hezbollah hijacking of TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome. Stethem, singled out because he was an American serviceman, was savagely beaten before being executed and dumped on the tarmac of Beirut International Airport. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His killers escaped from the scene of the hijacking.


Hammadi was subsequently arrested at Frankfurt Airport in 1987 carrying liquid explosives in his luggage. He was sentenced to life in prison in Germany (after German refusals to hand him over for trial in the United States) but, after less than 19 years behind bars, was released in December 2005 and flown to Lebanon. This move came in the face of strong opposition from Washington and a long-standing American request for his extradition to the United States.[1] Robert Stethem's parents were not even informed in advance that their son's killer was to be released.[2]


The timing of Hammadi's release is significant. It came just days before the release in Iraq of German hostage Susanne Osthoff, an archaeologist kidnapped in the north-western region of the country and held captive for several weeks. The German government is firmly rejecting any suggestion that Hammadi's release was part of an agreement to free Osthoff. However, Hammadi's exit from Germany raises serious questions over how exactly the Germans secured Osthoff's freedom, especially in light of an alleged secret deal between the Italian government and Iraqi insurgents to gain the release of two Italian hostages last August.[3]


Recommendations to Congress and the Bush Administration

  • The Senate and House should pass resolutions condemning the release of Mohammad Ali Hammadi, sending a clear message of disapproval to Berlin. Congress should call on Lebanon to hand over Hammadi for trial in the United States.
  • In his meeting with Chancellor Merkel, President Bush should express his strong disapproval of the decision to release Hammadi and seek a clear explanation of his release. The President should push for Germany to adopt a more robust role in the global fight against terror and should call for European governments to extradite terror suspects for prosecution in the U.S. and to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
  • The United States must make every effort to hunt down and bring to justice the three other terrorists involved in the TWA hijacking, who are still at large.[4] Immense pressure must be placed on Lebanon to hand over any terror suspects it is holding or protecting in addition to Hammadi. If Lebanon does not agree to requests for extradition, the U.S. should seize Hammadi and other wanted terrorists under its policy of 'rendition.'


The release of Mohammad Ali Hammadi is an impolitic and dangerous move by the German government. It sends a powerful signal to terrorist groups such as Al-Qeada and Hezbollah that continental European leaders lack the stomach for the fight. It will only encourage more acts of terror on European soil by Islamic terrorists. It could jeopardize the improved relationship between Germany and the United States that Chancellor Merkel has pledged to strengthen, and it has the potential to sow the seeds of further division between the United States and Europe, a stated policy goal of the terrorist groups who threaten international security.


Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation. The author is grateful to James Dean, Deputy Director of Government Relations in Foreign and Defense Policy at the Heritage Foundation, for his advice and suggestions.

[1] For background, see "Germany Frees Hizbollah Man Wanted by US," Reuters, December 20, 2005.

[2] "Release of 1985 TWA Hijacker Leaves Victim's Family Bitter," Associated Press, December 20, 2005.

[3] See "Italy 'Did Deal to Free Hostages,'" BBC News Online, August 25, 2005. See also "Ex-Hostage's Iraq Return Angers Her Rescue Team," The Times, December 28, 2005. According to The Times, the German government had made "huge efforts to secure her (Osthoff's) release and is widely believed to have paid a ransom."

[4] Three of the terrorists, Hasan Izz-Al-Din, Ali Atwa, and Imad Fayez Mugniyah, all Lebanese, were placed on the Bush Administration's list of 22 'Most Wanted' terrorists after the September 11 attacks. See "$21 Million Awarded in Fatal Hijacking," Washington Post, April 21, 2002.


Nile Gardiner
Nile Gardiner

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow