The hijacking of the Achille Lauro

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I still vividly remember this story, I just couldn’t fathom the needless cruelty of the crime.

On October 7, 1985, four men representing the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) hijacked the Italian MS Achille Lauro liner off the coast of Egypt, as she was sailing from Alexandria to Ashdod, Israel. The hijacking was organized by Muhammad Zaidan (a.k.a. Muhammad “Abu” Abbas), leader of the PLF.

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A 69-year-old Jewish American man in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish-American appliance manufacturer, was murdered by the hijackers. They then threw his blood-stained body – still in his wheelchair – overboard in full view of many of the American and British passengers on board.

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He was a relative of Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and writer David Klinghoffer.

Abbas had been responsible for many attacks on Israel and its citizens in the early 1980s. On multiple occasions, he sent men on hang gliders and in hot air balloons on bombing missions to Israel, all of which turned out to be miserable failures. In an attempt to salvage his reputation, Abbas ordered the hijacking of the Achille Lauro. Yet there were no specific goals or demands set forth in the mission.

The hijackers threatened to execute more passengers if their demands to release 50 Palestinian terrorists held in Israeli jails were not met. Abu Abbas,  was determined to make Israel release Samir Kuntar. His was the only name specified by the hijackers.
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On Tuesday morning, October 8 the hijackers began to separate the hostages. They were looking for Jews and Americans asking for the hostages to identify themselves but meeting refusal. They collected the passports of the passengers and pulled aside twelve Americans and six female British dancers who had been hired as entertainers (originally set to perform in the very lounge they were being held hostage in). Looking at the passports of an elderly couple, the hijackers asked if they were Jewish. Upon hearing that they were one of the terrorists knocked the man to the floor and repeatedly hit him with the butt of his gun.

The world’s outrage forced PLO chief Yassir Arafat to cut PLO ties with the terrorists and to demand that Abbas end the situation.

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On October 9, Abbas contacted the terrorists, ordered them not to kill any more passengers, and arranged for the ship to land in Egypt.

Meanwhile, the elite U.S. Navy SEALs were dispatched to raid the Achille Lauro. But by the time they arrived, the terrorists had already gotten off the ship in Egypt and boarded a plane to Libya. The United States then sent out two F-14 fighter jets, which intercepted the plane and forced it to land in Italy. A three-way standoff between the PFLP terrorists, the Americans, and the Italian Army on the runway in Sicily ended with the Italians taking Abbas and the other terrorists into custody.

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Despite intense American pressure, the Italians allowed Abbas to leave the country,and then prosecute the four who were on board. All were convicted, but only one received a sentence of 30 years; the others got off with lighter prison terms. Italy tried and convicted Abbas in absentia, but did not seek extradition until 2003. He was captured by U.S. Special Forces in Baghdad that year and died in American custody in 2004.

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