HIJACKINGS HAVE their own peculiar horror. A group of unsuspecting innocents is selected from among millions of air travelers, with the random carelessness of an earthquake or a hurricane; then, with contrasting deliberateness, it is threatened with the kind of calculated brutality that only rational beings can concoct. While the victims are held under a death sentence, the rest of the world is left confused and mostly impotent: hoping for the captives' safety, yet knowing that concessions to the hijackers may only ensure that more hijackings take place.
At the time of writing, on the sixth day of the Indian Airlines hijacking, there was no guessing its outcome. Of the nearly 200 passengers and crew who boarded the short flight from Katmandu to New Delhi, at least 155 remained entrapped; 27 had been released; one had been murdered. After stops in India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, the plane rested uneasily in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The ordeal could end instantly, either peacefully or amid horrendous bloodshed. Or it could just continue: In 1968 Palestinian terrorists held an Israeli airliner hostage for 40 days.
Though the last chapter of this hijacking is uncertain, its main lesson is already evident. Islamic terrorism, which was once headquartered in a few states such as Libya and Lebanon, has diversified. It has a new western outpost in Algeria, two of whose nationals were recently seized trying to enter the United States under suspicious circumstances. And it has an eastern concentration in the Himalayan territories of Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India.
The group that hijacked the Indian aircraft seeks the independence of Muslim-majority Kashmir from predominantly Hindu India; many of its leaders come from Pakistan; many of its fighters have been trained in Afghanistan. All these places share the lack of legitimate government that earlier made Lebanon a terrorist haven. Kashmir has been in rebellion against the authority of the Indian central government for a decade; Pakistan is riddled with corruption that recently helped provoke an army takeover; Afghanistan is under the partial control of fundamentalist guerrillas. Add in a plentiful supply of weapons, courtesy of endless wars and interventions in Afghanistan, plus a thriving drug trade, and it is not surprising that this area has become a terrorist's paradise.
That terrorism combines alarmingly with the region's nuclear capability. The Indians blame Pakistan's government for sheltering and possibly inciting the group that did the hijacking; the Pakistanis retort, brazenly, that India might favor the hijacking as a means to damage Pakistan's international reputation. Earlier this year, these newly self-declared nuclear powers marched to the brink of warfare, then retreated. The recriminations surrounding the hijacking could yet rekindle their advance.
Officially, no government in the region condones the hijacking. Pakistan, which supports the Kashmir separatists, has condemned it. Afghanistan's militia government, which openly hosts the world's most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, declares that it will not tolerate the murder of captive passengers on its soil. These anti-hijacking homilies represent the only shard of opportunity in this episode. The rest of the world should now demand that these governments make good on their rhetoric by clamping down on terrorist groups rather than sheltering them. Deporting Mr. bin Laden would be a good start.