A Mediterranean Nightmare
"A Mediterranean Nightmare"
PLO terrorists seize the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro
By: Mary Janigan
Date: October 21, 1985
Source: "A Mediterranean Nightmare," Maclean's, October 21, 1985, p. 40.
About the Author: Mary Janigan is a political writer for Maclean's magazine, which was founded in 1905 by journalist and entrepreneur John Bayne Maclean. The magazine is a leading newsweekly in Canada.
On Monday, October 7, 1985, four armed Palestinian terrorists seized control of the Achille Lauro, an Italian passenger ship on a twelve-day cruise in the Mediterranean Sea. The ship had been carrying 680 passengers and 350 crew, but most of the passengers had disembarked in Alexandria, Egypt, for a sightseeing tour, leaving only about sixty-eight passengers still aboard to endure the fifty-two-hour ordeal.
The next day the gunmen sent a radio message threatening to begin killing passengers if Israel did not release fifty Palestinians held in Israeli jails. They identified themselves as members of the Palestinian Liberation Front, a name loosely applied to various breakaway factions of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). While some of these factions opposed PLO leader Yasser Arafat, the terrorists aboard the Achille Lauro were members of a pro-Arafat faction whose leader, Mohammed Abbas (also known as Abu Abbas) was the mastermind behind the hijacking.
On Wednesday, Egypt allowed the ship to dock at Port Said, where negotiations involving Egypt, the United States, Italy, and Arafat began. Arafat's representatives on the scene, including Abbas, wanted the hijackers turned over to the PLO for trial. The Egyptians, eager to get the hijackers off their hands, agreed. Accordingly, the smiling and waving hijackers were taken from the ship and placed aboard an EgyptAir jet bound for Tunis, Algiers.
Meanwhile, the United States was determined to bring the hijackers to justice, particularly after learning that they had murdered an American passenger, an elderly New Yorker named Leon Klinghoffer, and thrown his body and wheelchair overboard. As the EgyptAir flight was airborne, the United States dispatched four F-14 fighter jets that forced the plane down in Sicily, where a standoff ensued between 50 heavily armed U.S. Delta Force troops and an equal number of Italian troops. After diplomatic wrangling, the U.S. and Italian governments agreed that Italy would detain the men but that the United States would seek extradition.
That month, the Canadian newsweekly Maclean's ran the following article detailing the terror experienced by the hijackers' hostages onboard the ship.
. . . From the beginning, the four Palestinian hijackers singled out three categories of tourists for special abuse: Jews, Britons and Americans. Soon after they seized the 23,629-ton ship they forced the passengers from the dining room into a nearby salon. Then, methodically, the hijackers began sorting passports by nationality, isolating two Austrian Jews, 12 Americans, many of them also Jews, and six British women. "We expected to be shot," recounted Stanley Kubacki, a judge from Philadelphia. "They just hated Americans."
Meanwhile, Capt. Gerardo De Rosa and the remaining passengers and crew were left under the wary eye of erratic and gun-toting guards. The 51-year-old captain remained on the bridge while the terrorists screamed orders to guide the ship toward Syria and then to Libya. With most of the passengers huddled in the salon, their captors sprayed the walls and ceiling with bullets—and placed gasoline bombs on the stage and the showroom entrances. The hostages slept on chairs or on the floor. They watched their captors pull pins from grenades and toss them recklessly into the air. Above all, they learned to fear their captors' mercurial mood swings. "They looked like kids who were hopped up—dopeheads or schizophrenics," said Viola Meskin of Metuchen, N.J. "They kept saying things like 'Reagan no good. Arafat good.' Added her husband, Seymour: "They were constantly changing their minds. They would tell us to get in line to go to the toilet, then two minutes later they would tell us to sit down."
. . . The worst treatment was reserved for the 20 tourists whose nationality aroused their captors' ire. On Monday afternoon the Americans were herded to the top deck...The hijackers . . . positioned two barrels of flammable liquid next to them and threatened to set them on fire if anyone moved. Then, while the other hostages watched, three women were forced to hold live hand grenades. Said Kubacki: "We were forced to sit very close so that if one of these women fell asleep or fainted we would all be blown up."
. . . On Tuesday morning, the second day of their ordeal, the hijackers' mood grew uglier. The terrorists moved 19 of the 20 captives they had singled out to the deck above the ship's lounge and forced them to kneel. But one American, Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old New Yorker and a stroke victim confined to a wheelchair, was left on the deck below. By early afternoon, as the 643-foot ship neared the Syrian port of Tartus, the hijackers told De Rosa to put them in contact with the Italian and American ambassadors in Damascus and to reiterate their demand that 50 Palestinians held in Israel be set free. When the answer did not arrive promptly the Palestinians shot Klinghoffer in the forehead, ordered other passengers to toss his body over-board and then announced that they would kill, in sequence, the Americans, the British and the elderly.
. . . About 12 hours after the terrorists finally left the ship, a ship cleaner discovered Austrian Anna Hoerangner, 53, concealed in a cabin toilet. Disabled by a foot amputation, Hoerangner had been walking along a gangway when the terrorists charged past her into the dining room. Apparently overlooked, she managed to hobble into a nearby cabin, where for more than two days she subsisted on two apples and water.
The U.S. ability—and willingness—to force the plane carrying the hijackers down was perceived in the United States as an important victory over terrorism. Just a few months before, Palestinian terrorists had escaped after hijacking a TWA jetliner and holding the passengers hostage in Beirut, Lebanon, for two weeks. The administration of President Ronald Reagan was determined that the Achille Lauro hijackers would not elude justice. Meanwhile, Americans were elated. The New York Daily News ran a large headline exclaiming, "We Bagged the Bums!"
The incident, however, turned out to be more complicated. The ship was Italian, and the Egyptian airliner was forced down on Italian soil. Many Italians, both government officials and citizens, regarded the American response as heavy-handed and a violation of Italian sovereignty.
During the wrangling between Americans and Italian officials over who would take control of the hijackers, Abbas remained on the plane, claiming diplomatic immunity. Italian prime minister Bettino Craxi, eager to maintain good relations with both Egypt and the PLO, eventually concluded that he had no legal grounds to detain Abbas. Accordingly, Abbas was put on a plane and flown to Yugoslavia and from there to Baghdad, Iraq.
The U.S. government was infuriated. Abbas's escape led to a political crisis in Italy that eventually forced Craxi's resignation.
Three of the hijackers were prosecuted in Italy and given jail terms. In 1991, one was released for a short-term parole and disappeared; in 1996, the same happened with a second hijacker. In 2005, only one of the hijackers remained behind bars. For years, Abbas remained in hiding in Iraq, but in April 2003, U.S. forces arrested him outside of Baghdad. He died while in American custody in May 2004.
Klinghoffer's body was discovered when it washed ashore eight days after his death.
Bohn, Michael K. The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism. Dulles, VA: Brassey's, 2004.
"A Hijack on the High Seas." May 7, 2002. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A730900> (accessed May 16, 2005).
Audio and Visual Media
Adams, John. The Death of Klinghoffer. Nonesuch, 1992 (audio CD of opera).
Adams, John. The Death of Klinghoffer, directed by Penny Woolcock. Universal Music, 2003 (DVD of opera performance).