Palestine Liberation Front (PLF)

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Palestine Liberation Front (PLF)

LEADER: Abu Ahmed Halab Shibli (Omar Shibli)

USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Lebanon

OVERVIEW

The Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) is a leftist nationalist Palestinian organization dedicated to the creation of a Palestinian homeland. In its four-decade-long history, it has taken the form of many incarnations as a result of splits, mergers, further splits, and reorganization. It has nevertheless undertaken a handful of notorious terrorist attacks, most notably the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro, in 1985.

HISTORY

The Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) has seen many guises in its long history. It was originally formed by Ahmad Jibril, a former captain in the Syrian army, in Damascus in 1961. It had the backing of the Syrian government, but besides launching several unsuccessful raids from south Lebanon into northern Israel, remained a minor force. With Syrian support, the PLF merged with two other groups—George Habash's Youth of Revenge (the military wing of the Arab National Movement) and the Lebanese-based Heroes of Return—in 1967 to form the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). However, this coalition lasted only months, when Jibril's PLF followers seceded after an argument over Syria's sponsorship of the organization and formed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

Jibril's continued kowtowing to Damascene demands would be a continued theme in the PFLP-GC's history. It carried out a number of attacks in the early 1970s in the name of a socialist-inspired liberation of Palestine, but by the middle of the decade the PFLP-GC was increasingly becoming just an instrument of the Damascus government and carrying out intimidation acts in the interests of Syria rather than the Palestinian people. This culminated in "Black June" of 1976 when Syria invaded Lebanon, which had just broken out into civil war, and supported a Maronite Christian force attacking Palestine guerillas within the country. PFLP-GC gave its unequivocal support to its Syrian hosts.

Following this act of Arab heresy, PLFP-GC split, with Muhammad Zaiden (Abu Abbas) and Tal'at Ya'akub leading the breakaway faction, which they named the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF). They moved to Lebanon where the PLF fought alongside PLO forces in the incipient civil war. Essentially, it operated as a militia in south Lebanon, carrying out border raids against Israeli targets, also trying to take hostages during its operations. The attacks it carried out, however, such as a mission in April 1981 to capture hostages by crossing the Israeli border in a hot air balloon, were less notorious than those carried out by other Palestinian militant groups, both in terms of savagery and ubiquity.

KEY EVENTS

1961:
Formation of the original PLF by Ahmed Jibril.
1967:
PLF merges with two other Palestinian militant groups to form Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), led by George Habash.
1968:
Jibril leads his pro-Syrian faction out of the PFLP after disagreements with Habash and forms a new organization, the PLFP-General Command.
1977:
Following Syria's "Black June" support of Maronite forces against Palestinian guerillas in the Lebanese Civil War, Abu Abbas leads a faction away to form a new PLF.
1983–1984:
PLF splits yet again, this time three ways as members go to Lebanon, Syria, and Tunisia.
1985:
Achille Lauro hijacking.
1991:
Abu Abbas leaves the PLO to live in semiretirement in Iraq, he later backs the Oslo Accords.
2004:
Abu Abbas dies in U.S. custody.

In 1983–1984, after the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon, the PLF split again, though this time three ways. One faction, headed by Abd al-Fatah Ghanim, returned to Syria and based itself in Damascus. It would continue staging terrorist attacks against Israel from the south Lebanese border, which continued to be controlled by Syria through Hezbollah. The second faction was headed by Abu Abbas, and followed Yasser Arafat and the PLO to Tunisia. A final faction was headed by Tal'at Ya'akub, the PLF's General Secretary, which remained in Lebanon. When Ya'akub died of a heart attack in November 1988, the remnants of his disintegrating faction merged with Abbas's forces. Confusingly, each side described themselves as the PLF, although it was Abbas's faction that was to emerge as the most infamous.

By the time of this latest split, the PLF was still struggling to make a name for itself in the maze of Palestinian liberation politics. This changed in October 1985, almost by accident. The Abbas faction, which numbered not more than 100 individuals, attracted instant worldwide notoriety after it hijacked the Italian cruise liner, Achille Lauro. The aim had been for stowaway militants to enter Israel under its cover, but they were detected before the ship entered Israel, and they took control of the ship. In almost farcical circumstances, they attracted the attention of the world as the hijackers sailed around the Mediterranean with a small number of the Lauro's passengers (the majority had been on a sightseeing trip of Alexandria when the hijackers took control), not quite knowing what to do. The PLF made some vague demands for the release of fifty Palestinian terrorists and murdered one passenger, a New Yorker named Leon Klinghoffer, before the situation was diffused after Arafat led negotiations. (This bungled adventure would surely have been forgotten but for a controversial opera, "The Death of Klinghoffer," produced in New York in 1991 and subsequently staged elsewhere in the world.)

The incident was the cause of intense embarrassment for the PLO given that Abbas was part of its ten-man executive. His role had been exaggerated because the U.S. authorities had tried to use the hijacking as a pretext to secure his arrest and extradition, but they subsequently bungled the operation to arrest him as badly as the PLF had done the hijacking. In turn, this led to a transcontinental manhunt for Abbas after he slipped out of Italian custody while awaiting extradition. The PLO, for its part, temporarily expelled Abbas, although they were later reconciled and he retook his place on the executive.

In many ways, this marked the highpoint for the PLF in terms of the influence and notoriety it exerted, but it was also the onset of its decline. Over subsequent years, it increasingly became a mere offshoot of Fatah. The PLF initiated an abortive raid on Israel in 1990, but with moves toward peace between the PLO and Israel being discussed, Abbas, and as a consequence, his movement, were increasingly forced to take a back seat. In 1991, he left the PLO Executive and went into semiretirement in Iraq, where he was joined by many of his remaining supporters.

Abbas backed the Oslo peace accords and condemned terrorism, following which Israel allowed him to return to Gaza. In 1996, he admitted that seizing the Achille Lauro was "a mistake," and apologized for killing Klinghoffer. Israeli courts confirmed his immunity in 1999.

Abbas later castigated the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and publicly denounced al-Qaeda. He was still doubted, however, with the reports that PLF units were planning more attacks in the al-Aqsa intifada (uprising). It has also been alleged that Iraq used the PLF as a conduit to fund the families of suicide bombers, and that PLF forces were sent to Iraq to train under Saddam Hussein's forces. Neither of these accusations have ever been backed up with firm evidence, and as of 2005, the PLF has apparently claimed no part in any attack during the al-Aqsa intifada.

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Abu Abbas was arrested by U.S. forces, despite apparent assurances to the Palestinian Authority that he would be immune from prosecution, and Washington dropping an earlier arrest warrant. The U.S. detained him for eleven months without charge, and he died while in custody in March 2004 in what the Pentagon described as "apparently … natural circumstances." Nevertheless, Abbas' family called for international human rights organizations to conduct an investigation into the causes of his death.

PHILOSOPHY AND TACTICS

The PLF is a secular nationalist Palestinian liberation organization, with Marxist-Leninist origins that have eroded since the fall of the USSR (although it maintains a red star on its emblem). It holds pan-Arab convictions too, which probably earned it the sympathy of the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein, who, for years, provided sanctuary to Abu Abbas.

LEADERSHIP

ABU AHMED HALAB SHIBLI (OMAR SHIBLI)

Abu Ahmed Halab Shibli (known as Omar Shibli) was elected leader of the PLF following the death in U.S. custody of Abu Abbas. He was born in the Shibli Haifa village in Mandate Palestine in 1943 and served in a variety of positions within the Palestinian Resistance, including as Abbas' deputy.

Little is known about his plans for the leadership of the PLF, and his public outpourings—in the Western media at least—have consisted almost wholly of accusations that his predecessor's death was the result of a U.S./Israeli conspiracy. "Continuous interrogation by agents from the Mossad and the CIA led to his [Abbas'] tragic death," he said in March 2004. "Since his apprehension last April, Abu Abbas has been the target of a slow assassination plot conducted by the Americans. We all expected him to die in detention as a result of the inhumane conditions he was going through."

Shibili's apparent lack of vision for the PLF is seemingly an indication of the group's present weakness. He is closely allied to the PLO and is a member of the Palestinian National Council and the PLO's Higher Political Council.

In many ways, the botched hijacking of the Achille Lauro has distorted the PLF's place in the history of Palestinian liberation groups. Almost by accident, the group attracted worldwide attention through its "shambolic" attack and the United States' equally calamitous attempts to capture Abu Abbas. Though Abbas held a senior position within the PLO, his identification with the attack meant it was later politically expedient for Arafat to sideline him when making moves toward peace.

Prior to Achille Lauro, the PLF had been involved in small-scale border raids from south Lebanon. Because it has never had any presence in the occupied territories, however, the sort of guerilla attacks—shootings, suicide bombings, ambushes, etc.—carried out by other Palestinian groups have been conspicuous by their absence.

OTHER PERSPECTIVES

Almost by accident, the shambolic Achille Lauro hijacking in 1985 and murder of Leon Klinghoffer, thrust the PLF into the limelight. Time magazine characterized Abbas—possibly with a hint of sarcasm—as "a would-be Palestinian Rambo" when profiling the accidental villain. "He goes by a variety of names: Abul Abbas, Mohammed Abbas, Mohammed Abul Abbas Zaidan, Abu Khaled," they reported. "He has been an ally and enemy of Syria's, a colleague and critic—simultaneously—of Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat's. Until a few weeks ago he was one of the more obscure leaders within the fragmented P.L.O., a member of its ten-man executive committee but directly in charge of only a splinter of a splinter, with perhaps fewer than 100 hard-core followers. His supposed allies openly deride Washington's characterization of him as a terrorist mastermind. Said one P.L.O. official in Tunis: "Abbas is a would-be Palestinian Rambo, big on brawn with some cunning. The problem is he has no brains."

PRIMARY SOURCE
Palestine Liberation Front (PLF)

A.K.A. PLF-ABU ABBAS FACTION

DESCRIPTION

The Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) broke away from the PFLP-GC in the late 1970s and later split again into pro-PLO, pro-Syrian, and pro-Libyan factions. The pro-PLO faction was led by Muhammad Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Abbas) and was based in Baghdad prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

ACTIVITIES

Abbas' group was responsible for the attack in 1985 on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of U.S. citizen Leon Klinghoffer. Abu Abbas died of natural causes in April 2004 while in US custody in Iraq. Current leadership and membership of the relatively small PLF appears to be based in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. The PLF has become more active since the start of the al-Aqsa intifadah and several PLF members have been arrested by Israeli authorities for planning attacks in Israel and the West Bank.

STRENGTH

Unknown.

LOCATION/AREA OF OPERATION

Based in Iraq since 1990, has a presence in Lebanon and the West Bank.

EXTERNAL AID

Received support mainly from Iraq; has received support from Libya in the past.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

The Egyptian government allegedly "abetted" the escape of Abbas and the Achille Lauro hijackers. This was not through any great sympathy for their actions, believed David Bar Illan, editor of the right-wing Jerusalem Post. He cited the "blind eye" as the latest symptom of the rampant anti-Semitism that plagued Egyptian society. By aiding Klinghoffer's murderers, this was also the latest violation of Egypt's 1978 peace agreement with Israel, he believed: "Some 40-odd agreements undertaken by Israel and Egypt under the terms of their peace treaty have not been implemented because of Egyptian intransigence," he complained. "These range from trade, tourism, agricultural projects, transportation, and telecommunication to cultural relations, the exchange of youth delegations, and the cessation of anti-Israel propaganda. But that is hardly all. More than forty Israelis have been murdered by terrorists and Egyptian soldiers on Egyptian soil, to total official indifference. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still widely printed and distributed in Egypt, and Nazi-style propaganda against Israelis and Jews is rampant in the semi-official press. Polls in Egypt show that most members of the intelligentsia oppose peace with Israel, and the few Egyptian scientists and journalists who have dared to visit the country have been ostracized and boycotted by their professional guilds on their return. Israeli tourists and diplomats have been accused of importing every imaginable scourge, from hoof-and-mouth disease to AIDS. And Israel has been charged with perpetrating virtually every terrorist act which the rest of the world associates with Muslim extremists, from Pan Am 103 to the World Trade Center bombing."

SUMMARY

The notorious murder of Leon Klinghoffer in 1985 marked the high point of PLF activity, and the onset of its decline. Because its leader, Abu Abbas, was so inexorably linked to the hijacking in American minds, it made him a political liability for Yasser Arafat and saw his influence as a member of the PLO Executive decline. Having lived through a series of splits, his group was down to barely 100 members by 1985, and the PLO negotiating table was seemingly the best way for him to exert PLF influence.

His semiretirement to Baghdad in 1991 further moved the PLF from the heart of the action, although it had never had any presence in the occupied territories anyway. Abbas was succeeded in 2004 by Omar Shibly following Abbas' death while in U.S. custody.

SOURCES

Books

Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. New York: Westview, 2000.

Savigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949–1993. England: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Web sites

CBC Archives. "The Hijacking of Achille Lauro." 〈http://archives.cbc.ca/IDC-1-71-1153-6340-11/that_was_then/conflict_war/achille_lauro〉 (accessed October 22, 2005).

Audio and Video Media

CNN. "The Death of Richard Klinghoffer." 〈http://www.cnn.com/resources/video.almanac/1985/achille.lauro/klinghoffer.dead.45.mov〉 (accessed October 22, 2005).

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