WASHINGTON -- There are usually no more than a handful--ragtag bands of former shoe clerks or bakery workers, anonymous students or manual laborers in Lebanon's orange groves. Often, they seem to have barely enough money to feed themselves and their families.

But they have guns. And they have one more thing: American hostages.

In the remorseless calculus of terrorism, that is all it takes to paralyze the power centers of the world.

As the Bush Administration is discovering, one of the things that makes terrorism and hostage-taking so hard to deal with is that many of the groups involved are so small and so narrowly based and operate in a netherworld so alien to the realm of superpower diplomacy.

"In any other context, these people would be absolute nobodies," said a U.S. counterterrorism official. "Taking hostages is the only asset they have. But with hostages, they are world players."

Intelligence analysts believe that all of the groups fall under the broad umbrella of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, or the Party of God. And Administration officials expressed guarded hope Wednesday that behind-the-scenes pressure from Iran and Syria had at least temporarily lifted the death sentence imposed by his captors against American hostage Joseph J. Cicippio.

But the promise of respite--if it is granted for Cicippio--is temporary at best. The myriad groups that have abducted foreign nationals in Lebanon during the five-year hostage crisis have such distinct personalities, use such diverse tactics and pursue such individual agendas that even their chief supporters and benefactors--Iran and Syria--cannot fully control them.

Their grandiose names suggest the boldness and bravado of their tactics: the Revolutionary Justice Organization, the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, and Islamic Jihad. Tiny as most are, each professes to be fighting the injustice and tyranny of the outside world.

The one thing almost all share is a common lineage, according to U.S. analysts. The Shiite Muslim youths who make up most of the captor groups are all products of the violence of Lebanon's 14-year civil war and the systematic discrimination imposed on the Shiites by both the Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims.

These factors make them highly vulnerable to the appeal of revolutionary Islam exported by Iran, experts say. But the catalyst for the emergence of Hezbollah was, ironically, Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

"I believe that among the many surprises that came out of the war in Lebanon, the most dangerous is that the war let the Shiites out of the bottle," conceded then-Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1985, shortly before Israel ended its three-year occupation of most of southern Lebanon under pressure from Shiite extremists.

"No one predicted it. I couldn't find it in any intelligence report," Rabin lamented. "In my opinion, the Shiites have the potential for the kind of terrorism that we have not yet experienced."

In response to the invasion, Iran dispatched about 1,000 Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon, allegedly to help Lebanese Muslims and Palestinians fight Israel. Instead, the Iranians were missionaries more than soldiers, proselytizing the local population and recruiting men for new militias.

A Quiet Player

By 1983, Hezbollah had become a quiet player, spreading its tentacles into Muslim-dominated West Beirut and challenging the traditional militias as well as Western peacekeepers from the United States, France, Britain and Italy.

Islamic Jihad, which now holds American hostages Terry A. Anderson and Thomas Sutherland, was the first of the many cells under the Hezbollah umbrella to gain world attention. Beginning in 1983, it introduced the deadly new terrorist tactic of suicide bombings during two attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and two others on the U.S. Marine and French peacekeeping forces in Lebanon. More than 300 people were killed in those attacks.

"For all the attention gained, the suicide bomb turned out to be rather ineffective," said a U.S. diplomat formerly based in Beirut. "The victims were buried and then often forgotten.

"The targets also diminished as foreign embassies introduced new security and the peacekeepers went underground, then left. To achieve their goals, these groups had to look for something else."

In the Western hostage, they found it.