Remembering When We Negotiated With Terrorists Successfully — And Why They Became Terrorists

On January 18, 1973, something horrible, almost unimaginable, happened in a house on 16th St. NW in Washington, DC. Some hit men commissioned by the Nation of Islam (NOI) entered said house, which was then the headquarters of a Muslim splinter sect of the NOI and had been owned by NBA star Kareem Abdul Jabbar; The invaders, paid by certain officials of the NOI, were sent to show “the way” to Hamaas Abdul Kaalis, who was a major detractor of Elijah Muhammad, founder and leader of the NOI. Kaalis was seen as a rival to Muhammad for leadership of the Nation, as had been Malcom X, murdered by representatives of Muhammad in 1965.

Kaalis had been Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s Islamic teacher and mentor.

Kaalis was to be the primary victim of the attack, which happened during daylight hours on a house that sits on a prominent corner in an upscale neighborhood, but he had gone out to buy groceries when the invasion and murders took place. He came home to find the carnage meant to be a message to him. The hit men murdered most of Kaalis’ family (five children, who were drowned in a bathtub) and two of his associates, who were shot.

DC officials managed to arrest and jail several of the men who were alleged to have committed the crime, but nothing much happened and over the ensuing four years people forgot, if they had ever even taken notice. It was, after all, among those “others,” not “us.” Kaalis and his sect members, who continued living in the house, waited and grieved for four years.

And then something snapped.

Kaalis, his remaining family, and those who had surrounded him during his four year wait for justice, hatched a plan to bring this atrocity to the attention of the public in a way no one could ignore.

On March 9, 1977, twelve Hanfi Muslim gunmen deftly laid seige to three significant buildings in the Nation’s Capital: The Wilson Building (then simply known as the DC Building, home of the DC mayor’s office and city council), the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Ave., and the B’nai Brith International Center, which was then on Rhode Island Ave.

There were at the time about 125 people in the B’nai Brith building. They were all held hostage. There were an undetermined number of people in the Wilson Building, and some where able to leave, but those on the floor where the council chambers are located were forced to stand, not allowed to leave their spots, and not allowed to use the restroom. The same basic conditions obtained at the Islamic Center, where 11 people were held hostage. At the B’nai Brith building, hostages had their hands tied and many of them were forced to lie in stacks on the floor.

The seige lasted for 39 hours. Two people died. One was Maurice Williams, a reporter for Howard University’s WHUR radio station, who was shot upon stepping out of an elevator in the District Building. The other death was a security guard, Mack Cantrell, who suffered a heart attack and was eventually allowed to be removed, but who died two days later in the hospital.

Haamas Abdul Kaalis told police, during the siege, that “We have told this government to get busy and get the murderers that came into our house on Jan. 18 [1973] and murdered our babies. And our children. And shot up our women…. Tell them the payday is here. We gonna pull the cover off of them. No more games.” He and his fellow hostage-takers had several demands, and one of them was that a motion picture, “Mohammed, Messenger of God” starring Anthony Quinn, be pulled from theaters. This demand was met. Another demand, that the people convicted of the murders of his family be turned over to the Hanafis for justice. He also demanded he be reimbursed $750 in legal fees charged to him over a contempt of court order during the trial of those charged with the murders. These last two demands were not met.

There was one other gunshot injury. Then-Councilman Marion Barry stepped out of a room to see what the commotion was, and was struck in the chest by a ricocheting shotgun pellet. He survived…and survived…and survived.

Then-DC Police Chief Maurice Cullinane was placed in nominal charge of the situation, but there wasn’t much to be done other than to contain things, and this the police did with amazing restraint. But terrorism was unheard of, especially in the nation’s capital, so the seige became a standoff. A 39 hour standoff.

A rather miraculous thing did happen, though. A group of negotiators came together, on their own, to talk with the Hanafis. Ambassadors from Iran, Pakistan and Egypt worked with police to persuade the men to surrender. It was not a quick surrender, obviously, but no further physical harm came to anyone. The quickly-gathered negotiating team was composed of diplomats, and this is what diplomats, ultimately, are for: To talk people out of untenable positions.

The hostage-takers did surrender and were arrested, tried, and jailed. Haamas Kaalis died in prison in 2002.

Today, upon this writing, the 40th anniversary of The Seige of Washington, DC will be observed, and that is a good and positive thing. There may even be some talk of what led up to this horrific event, already largely forgotten by the coming and going of staffers on Capitol Hill and K Street; but there will be those who were there or were on the edge of seats in living rooms and on the streets for those 39 hours, and many of those would already have forgotten the terrible act that led to this event.

Washington, DC, was given a message that day. It wasn’t the first message, but it was the loudest thus far. The attempt on President Harry Truman’s life by Puerto Rican nationalists, in broad daylight, between Blair House and the White House, is all but forgotten even though one of the President’s body guards died in the exchange of gunfire. The Puerto Rican nationalists who opened fire on Congress in 1954 is now as though it had never happened. The murders at Hanafi House in 1973 are an obscurity now. But because some Muslims took over three buildings in DC when we were still stubbornly innocent and ignorant, will be remembered so long as there are those who lived through that seige.

We may even eventually learn what turns people into terrorists. More likely, though, we will forget again, even as we live with the relatively new image of “terrorist” as some brown or black foreigner and his “filthy Eastern ways,” such as overwhelming grief ignored by the neighbors.

All, of course, in the name of God.

Writer, activist, novelist, sixth generation DC, local historian-storyteller, and 1:1 patient care technician five days a week.

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