1985 – A Death at Sea

Some topics are so vast that to contemplate addressing them in a four-page blog is more than foolish, it is insulting to anyone who cares about the issue being addressed.  For that reason, I want to limit this blog to just one incident in 1985. However, to do that, I will have to provide a brief and almost certainly inadequate background.  The event at issue can be traced back to the founding of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which was, obviously, a group devoted to the ‘liberation’ of former Palestine.  The UN had adopted a Partition Plan for former Palestine in 1947, entailing its breakup into independent Arab and Jewish states and an ‘internationalised’ Jerusalem.  The plan was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs.  By 1948 an ‘All-Palestine’ Government was set up to govern the whole of the former Palestine, although its effective jurisdiction was limited to the Gaza Strip.  This ‘Palestine’ was governed by the PLO, to include the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem as its capital.  In practice, the entire area claimed as the State of Palestine had been occupied since 1948.

The ideology of the PLO was made clear when it issued its 1964 ‘Palestinian National Covenant’, an anti-Zionist statement dedicated to the ‘restoration of the Palestinian homeland’.  It made no reference to religion.  The core of the PLO’s ideology was the belief that Zionists had unjustly expelled the Palestinians from Palestine and established a Jewish state in its place under the pretext of historic Jewish ties with their country. The PLO view was any claims of historical or religious ties between the Jews and Palestine were “incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes statehood. Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong”.

The story of the PLO is complex, especially as Israel worked hard to dismember it.  By 1970, it had driven PLO guerrilla fighters out of Jordan, and eight years later out of Beirut and Southern Lebanon.  As a result, the PLO was scattered among several locations, including Tunisia, Yemen, Southern Yemen, Algeria, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and the Sudan.  Despite this, the Palestine Liberation Front and other members of PLO carried out numerous attacks on both civilian and military targets in Israel, mainly from the Lebanese border. While based in Lebanon, the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, fell out with the Syrian President and decided to move his loyalists and the PLO headquarters from Tripoli to Tunisia.   The resulting hostility between Syrian President Al-Assad and Arafat was to play a role in the events of late 1985.

On 3 October 1985, a cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, leased by the Chandris cruise line, left Genoa, Italy, for a planned eleven-day cruise, going to Naples and Syracuse in Italy; Port Said and Alexandria in Egypt; Ashdod in Israel; Limassol in Cyprus; Rhodes and Piraeus in Greece; and finally, Capri before returning to Genoa.  Its 748 passengers included a group of close friends from New York and New Jersey who were there to celebrate the 58th birthday of Marilyn Klinghoffer, together with her 36th wedding anniversary.  Her husband Leon, a small busines owner, was paralysed on one side, and while he could walk with a cane he relied on a wheelchair. The group had chosen this ship as it was wheelchair accessible.

Having visited Naples, the ship arrived at Alexandria on October 7 and 651 passengers left the ship for a bus tour of the pyramids, scheduled to reboard fourteen hours later at Port Said, at the mouth of the Suez Canal.  Given lax security, four PLO terrorists had got on board, with a cache of weapons.  A cabin steward came their room to deliver complimentary fruit and surprised the four Palestinians using a hairdryer to clean their weapons (the weapons had been hidden in the fuel tank of a car parked in Italy prior to boarding).  Once seen by the steward, they abandoned their original plan to launch an attack on a military installation in Ashdod, and in something of a panic the terrorists decided to hijack the ship instead.

The four terrorists raced into the ship’s dining room, firing their weapons over the heads of the passengers. The ship’s executive officer notified Captain Gerardo De Rosa that there were armed men on board, shooting at passengers.  The 97 who had remained on the ship were seized as hostages.  The terrorists ordered the captain and crew to continue to continue as normal, but to stay clear of the hostages.  From the start, their behaviour was erratic, going from politeness to cruelty:  one minute a hijacker would wash a cup for a hostage’s use, the next another would ram a gun stock into a passenger to force her from the floor.  Before radio silence was enforced, the ship’s crew had sent out an S.O.S., picked up in Sweden.  As a result, the international community was alerted that Palestinians had seized an Italian ship.  

If the beginnings of the hijack had been the result of panic, now events became increasingly  complicated and confused.  Advised of the hijacking and the fact Americans were on board, the Reagan administration in Washington prepared for action.  The US Terrorist Incident Working Group implemented its pre-existing counterterrorist procedure and sent a State Department Emergency Support Team to Rome to assist the embassy there, as the vessel was Italian. It also recommended the Pentagon send a team of special operations forces to Europe in case the hostages needed to be rescued.  The U.S. State Department asked countries along the Mediterranean to deny the ship access to their ports to keep it in international waters and to keep the press away from the ship, wanting to avoid giving the terrorists any publicity.

The Italian Government took a number of measures.  The Defense Minister arranged for 60 paratroopers, four helicopters, and experts on the ship’s layout to be sent to the British base at Akrotiri, Cyprus.  The Prime Minster started discussions with every country involved, both those nations with citizens aboard, and the Arab states of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Tunisia.  Italy called on the PLO to publicly state if it had any involvement; in response Yasser Arafat denounced the hijacking and offered to assist in negotiating for a peaceful conclusion. He sent two men to Egypt to join a negotiating team alongside Italians and Egyptians, an advisor and PLO executive committee member, and Abu Abbas, founder and leader of the PLO.

Back on the ship, on Tuesday morning, October 8, the hijackers questioned the hostages, looking for Jews and Americans.  They identified 12 Americans.  Looking at the passports of the Klinghoffers, the hijackers asked if they were Jewish.  Once they knew, Leon Klinghoffer was knocked down and repeatedly hit with the gun butt.  The terrorists ordered 20 UK and US passengers up to the next deck.  As Leon’s wheelchair couldn’t make the climb, he was left below.  On the upper deck, ringed with containers said to contain fuel, the terrorist leader, Youssef Majed Molqi, told them any rescue attempt would lead to their being executed.

When the ship arrived near the Syrian port of Tartus, Molqi broke radio silence, and asked Syrian authorities to allow him to dock the ship at Tartus.  His demands included someone from the International Red Cross to be sent to the ship, along with British and American representatives, and that the Israeli Government be contacted and agree to free 50 jailed Palestinians.  If they weren’t, he said the terrorists would begin killing hostages.  Syria, after consulting with the U.S. and Italian governments, did not respond to any of the demands.  The terrorists had chosen Leon Klinghoffer as their first victim, possibly because he was both Jewish and American.  Molqi later said: “[we] agreed that the first hostage to be killed had to be an American. I chose Klinghoffer, an invalid, so that they would know that we had no pity for anyone, just as the Americans, arming Israel, do not take into consideration that Israel kills women and children of our people.”  Klinghoffer was shot; his body and wheelchair thrown into the sea.  Molqi ordered Captain De Rosa to tell the Syrians that a passenger had been killed and that they were prepared to kill another. The Syrians responded. telling Molqi to “go back where you came from”; discussions with the US and the bad blood between Arafat and Al-Assad had ensured their refusal.  Captain De Rosa was told to sail for Libya.

It was at this stage that Abu Abbas intervened.  On a radio broadcast, he ordered the hijackers to return immediately to Port Said and treat the passengers ‘kindly’.  As the ship made its way, frequent communications allowed the location of the Achille Lauro to be identified and tracked, and the Israelis were also able to monitor the content of calls between Molqi and Abbas.  After the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 earlier in the year, when it had been viewed as impotent and ineffective, the US was anxious to be proactive.  Fearing that the terrorists’ threat to kill passengers, the American special forces in Cyprus prepared to storm the vessel.  The U.S. ambassador to Italy, advised the Italian Prime Minister of the U.S. plans.

Now politics and confusion took over.  The Italian Prime Minister objected, on the grounds the ship was Italian, and therefore only Italy should act, noting there was no confirmation of any killings. He was certain negotiations for the release of the ship were possible.  When he spoke to the Egyptians, they told him that no one had been killed, and they began to conduct negotiations through Abu Abbas.  By the evening, the PLO decided they wanted the hijackers turned over to them, as it seemed they were about to surrender.  Arafat told Abu Abbas to let the Italians know the hijackers had promised to release all the passengers unharmed and would drop demands for the release of prisoners.  Assuming they landed in Port Said, Arafat persuaded the Egyptians to hand over the hijackers to the PLO in Tunis for prosecution.

It was obvious things would go wrong.  On Wednesday morning, October 9, the Achille Lauro stopped outside Port Said.  Molqi met with a small group, including Abu Abbas, who was speaking with the support of both Egyptian and Italian officials. The PLO took credit for what they described as successful negotiations and Hassan notified Arafat, who told the Italian PM the hijackers would release the captives if two new demands were met: that the ambassadors from U.S., Italy, West Germany, and Great Britain visit the ship; and that the hijackers be given safe passage off the ship.  The ambassadors discussed the proposals, and the American and British ambassadors refused to meet with the terrorists, repeating their countries’ policies of not negotiating with terrorists.  Meanwhile the Reagan administration put in place a plan to board the ship and free the hostages:  SEAL Team Six was ready.

In the afternoon Wednesday, Captain De Rosa broadcast, “I am the captain. I am speaking from my office, and my officers and everybody is in good health”. It was later revealed this was false, as Molqi was holding a gun to his head.  However, based on De Rosa’s statement, the Egyptian foreign minister met again with the four ambassadors, asking them to accept the transfer of the hijackers to PLO control.  The US and British refused, the Italian ambassador agreed, and the West German ambassador offered general but undefined support.  That was enough for the Egyptian government, and Abbas was told the hijackers could leave the ship. Captain De Rosa told the passengers that the Palestinians had told him to apologise for the hijacking, and the four Palestinians were taken ashore by the Egyptians in a tugboat.  It was only then that Marilyn Klinghoffer could go to the infirmary to re-join her husband Leon, only to find her hopes dashed when Captain De Rosa told her of her husband’s murder.

Given reports of De Rosa statement saying all the passengers were well, the Klinghoffer’s daughters and friends in New York were celebrating the news all the hostages were safe.  It was short-lived.  A reporter at the New York Times called to tell them their father had been murdered.  The American ambassador had boarded the Achille Lauro to find a distraught De Rosa, who explained Molqi had held the gun to his head while sending the message that all the hostages were healthy: in tears De Rosa handed the ambassador Klinghoffer’s passport.

With the hijackers on Egyptian soil and Klinghoffer’s murder known, Italy confirmed the ship was Italian and legally Italian territory and claimed the hijackers should be extradited to Italy. Israel demanded that the hijackers be prosecuted.  U.S. President Reagan initially stated it  would be ‘all right’ for the PLO to hold them as Arafat “can bring them to justice”, but his staff realised this would inadvertently give recognition to the PLO.  Quickly his view was explained as “he wants the PLO to turn these hijackers over to competent authority for trial”. Minutes later, and less than an hour after his initial comments, Reagan held another question-and-answer session with the press, saying “I really believe that the PLO, if the hijackers are in their custody, should turn them over to a sovereign state that would have jurisdiction and could prosecute them as the murderers they are”.  True to form, and later speaking to reporters Reagan said, “apparently there’s a little confusion, and maybe I’m responsible”.

Confusions and national tensions continued.  Eventually, on 10 October the four hijackers were flown out in a Boeing 737, on a commercial EgyptAir flight, EA2843.  US military aircraft forced the plane to land at Sigonella, Italy, after it had been refused landing in Tunis and Greece.  This sparked a dispute between the US and Italy.  Eventually, the U.S. conceded the Italian claim of jurisdiction over the terrorists, but only after the US received assurances that the hijackers would be tried for murder.  That left Abu Abbas, whose situation had become complicated due to competing international pressures.  The US wanted to extradite him, as the key figure behind the Achille Lauro hostage affair.  Despite briefings from the Israelis, the Italian PM  and his cabinet voted to permit Abbas to depart from Italy on the grounds there was insufficient evidence to link Abbas to the hijacking.  Abbas was able to fly out to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, after Italy had rejected a US request that Italy hold him.

Eventually, the hijackers were found guilty by an Italian court, as was Abu Abbas in absentia.  No overt attempt to capture Abbas or enforce his sentence was made by Italy, who were unwilling to abandon continuing relations with the PLO.   Towards the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, Abbas moved from Tunisia, to Libya, and then Iraq.  In April 2003, during the Iraq War, Abbas was captured outside Baghdad by U.S. Special Forces, based on information from U.S. Intelligence.  On Monday March 8, 2004, Abbas, age 55, died of natural causes, an American prisoner in an Iraqi jail outside Baghdad, where he had been held while discussions continued about his legal status and whether he could be tried in the US or elsewhere, given that most US anti-terrorism laws with extraterritorial provisions were only enacted after the hijacking. The Italian government, despite having sentenced Abbas to five consecutive life sentences in absentia, chose not to seek his extradition.

There is no easy translation for Achille Lauro, the name of a Naples mayor, and after whom the ship was named.  Achille is Achilles, the hero fated by his one weakness.  Lauro is the laurel tree.  Achille Lauro might be a laurel wreath won by Achilles before his fall.  For certain, the ship was fated.  In another of those odd and silly juxtapositions, 1985 was the year Microsoft Windows was launched, rather complementing the fact that this was a year in which a brief window was opened into the absurdly complicated world of international politics and terrorism.  For many of us, however, it was a year we remember for the sad, almost arbitrary, and eventually pointless death of Leon Klinghoffer at sea.