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 masterminded by Muhammad Zaidan, leader of the PLF. One 69-year-old American man in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered by the hijackers and thrown overboard.
Throughout the 1980s, the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) and other members of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) launched attacks on both civilian and military targets in the north of Israel, across the Lebanese border. In response to one such attack by the PLO's Force 17 on an Israeli yacht, the PLO headquarters in Tunis were bombed by the Israeli Air Force (Operation Wooden Leg) on October 1, 1985. The headquarters were completely destroyed in this attack, and sixty PLO members were killed. The hijacking of Achille Lauro was thought to have been an act of retaliation for the bombing. However, this claim was refuted in 2013 by Reem al-Nimer, widow of the PLF leader Muhammad Zaidan. According to al-Nimer, the hijacking had been planned 11 months in advance, and the hijackers already been on two 'dummy' training runs on Achille Lauro. The plan was to open fire on Israeli soldiers when the ship reached Ashdod – a suicide mission.
On October 7, 1985, four PLF militants hijacked Achille Lauro off Egypt. The hijackers had been surprised by a crew member and acted prematurely. Holding the passengers and crew hostage, they directed the vessel to sail to Tartus, Syria, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons.
As many of the hostages were American tourists, U.S. President Ronald Reagan deployed the Navy's SEAL Team Six and Delta Force to stand-by and prepare for a possible rescue attempt to free the vessel from its hijackers.
On October 8, after being refused permission by the Syrian government to dock at Tartus, the hijackers murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a retired, wheelchair-bound Jewish American businessman, shooting him in the forehead and chest. They then forced the ship's barber and a waiter to throw his body and wheelchair overboard. Klinghoffer's wife, Marilyn, who did not witness the shooting, was told by the hijackers that he had been moved to the infirmary. She only learned the truth after the hijackers left the ship at Port Said. PLO Foreign Secretary Farouq Qaddumi later denied that the hijackers were responsible for the murder, and suggested that Marilyn had killed her husband for insurance money. Over a decade later, in April 1996, PLF leader Muhammad Zaidan accepted responsibility, and in 1997, the PLO reached a financial settlement with the Klinghoffer family.
Achille Lauro headed back towards Port Said, and after two days of negotiations, the hijackers agreed to abandon the liner in exchange for safe conduct. They were flown towards Tunisia aboard an Egyptian commercial airliner.
The plane carrying the hijackers was intercepted by F-14 Tomcats from the VF-74 "BeDevilers" and the VF-103 "Sluggers" of Carrier Air Wing 17, based on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, and directed to land at Naval Air Station Sigonella (a NATO base in Sicily) under the orders of U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger; there, the hijackers were arrested by the Italian Carabinieri after a disagreement between American and Italian authorities.[Note 1] The other passengers on the plane (including the hijackers' leader, Muhammad Zaidan) were allowed to continue on to their destination, despite protests by the United States. Egypt demanded an apology from the U.S. for forcing the airplane off course.
The fate of those convicted of the hijacking is varied:
- Ahmad Marrouf al-Assadi disappeared in 1991 while on parole, but in 1994 was known to Spanish authorities, during the trial of Monzer al-Kassar.[Note 2][Clarification needed]
- Bassam al-Asker was granted parole in 1991. He was thought to have died on February 21, 2004, but according to the Lebanese Daily Star, he had instead fled the country. He spent 14 years in Iraq, training Palestinian militiamen to fight the US army alongside Iraqi rebels, before travelling to the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon, where he resided as of 2007.
- Ibrahim Fatayer Abdelatif was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment. He served 20 and three more on parole and on July 7, 2008, he was expelled from an illegal immigrant detention center in Rome. He plans to appeal this, arguing that he has nowhere else to go since Lebanon will not allow his return as he was born in a refugee camp and is thus not a Lebanese citizen.
- Youssef Majed al-Molqi, convicted of killing Leon Klinghoffer, was sentenced to 30 years. He left the Rebibbia prison in Rome on February 16, 1996, on a 12-day furlough and fled to Spain, where he was recaptured and extradited back to Italy. On April 29, 2009, Italian officials released him from prison early, for good behaviour. In June 2009, however, al-Molqui's attorney told the Associated Press that the Italian authorities had placed his client in a holding cell and were about to deport him to Syria.
Following the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, the Klinghoffer family founded the Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation, in cooperation with the Anti-Defamation League.
The Achille Lauro hijacking has inspired a number of dramatic retellings:
- The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro (1989) is a TV drama based on the hijacking, starring Karl Malden and Lee Grant.
- Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair (1990) is a TV drama/action movie based on the hijacking, starring Burt Lancaster and Eva Marie Saint and directed by Alberto Negrin.
- The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) is an opera by John Adams and Alice Goodman after a concept of theatre director Peter Sellars. Its depiction of the hijacking has proved controversial.
- Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi claimed Italian territorial rights over the NATO base. Italian Air Force personnel and Carabinieri lined up facing the United States Navy SEALs which had arrived with two C-141s. Other Carabinieri were sent from Catania to reinforce the Italians. The US eventually allowed the hijackers to be taken into Italian custody, after receiving assurances that the hijackers would be tried for murder.
- Although according to most sources this occurred during 1992 while al-Assadi was still in prison, according to Bohn's The Achille Lauro Hijacking, al-Assadi was convinced to testify in the Spanish court against the Syrian billionaire arms dealer el-Kassar, but later recanted and refused to travel to Spain.
- Fisk, Robert (5 May 2013). "How Achille Lauro hijackers were seduced by high life". The Independent.
- Bohn, Michael K. (2004). The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics And Prejudice of Terrorism. Potomac Books, Inc. pp. 6–7. ISBN 978-1-574-88779-2. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=754tx7I-98cC&pg=PA6.
- (subscription required) "P.L.O. Aide in a Charge Against Mrs. Klinghoffer". The New York Times. December 5, 1985. p. 9. http://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/05/world/around-the-world-plo-aide-in-a-charge-against-mrs-klinghoffer.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss (subscription required).
- "U.S. rejects terrorist's apology for Klinghoffer murder". CNN. April 24, 1996. http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9604/23/newbriefs/index.html.
- Berman, Daphna (May 9, 2008). "Klinghoffer daughters recall personal tragedy at commemoration of terror victims outside Israel". Haaretz. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=981987&contrassID=2&subContrassID=16.
- "PLO settles with family of Achille Lauro victim". CNN. August 11, 1997. Archived from the original on February 3, 1999. https://web.archive.org/web/19990203222958/http://europe.cnn.com/US/9708/11/achille.plo.ap/.
- "The 1985 Achille Lauro affair". F-14 Tomcat in Combat. http://www.topedge.com/panels/aircraft/sites/mats/combat.htm#achille. Retrieved March 21, 2013.
- Heymann, Philip B. (2001). Terrorism and America: A Commonsense Strategy for a Democratic Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
- Snyder, William P.; Brown, James (2004). Defense Policy In The Reagan Administration. DIANE Publishing. p. 141. ISBN 0-7881-4146-5.
- Bosiljevac, T.L. (1990). SEALS: UDT/SEAL Operations in Vietnam. Ballantine Books. p. 200. ISBN 0-8041-0722-X.
- Bohn, The Achille Lauro Hijacking, p. 174.
- "Achille-Lauro hijacker plays a new game". The Daily Star (Lebanon). May 28, 2007.
- "Achille Lauro Murderer Released in Italy". Israel National News. April 30, 2009. http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/131125.
- "Italy expels Palestinian hijacker to Syria". The Guardian. June 27, 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/8580273.
- Cettl, Robert (2009). Terrorism in American Cinema: An Analytical Filmography, 1960–2008. McFarland. pp. 280–81. ISBN 978-0-786-45442-6. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=nV4BvL8AqEwC&pg=PA280.
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