From its very beginning the cruise liner Achille Lauro seemed to live a cursed existence. The keel for the ship was laid in 1939. It suffered an onboard explosion in 1965, the ship caught fire in 1972 and then collided with a cargo ship in 1975, the ship caught fire once again in 1981. And she caught fire one last time in 1994 off the coast of Somalia, where, she finally went to the bottom of the ocean. But for a few days in October 1985, the Achille Lauro was well-known around the world because she was hijacked.
The Achille Lauro left Genoa, Italy on October 3, 1985, with an itinerary for an eleven-day cruise with ports of call in Naples and Syracuse in Italy; Alexandria and Port Said in Egypt; Ashdod in Israel; Limassol in Cyprus; Rhodes and Piraeus in Greece; and returning to Italy for a stop at Capri before finishing back in Genoa. On-board were 748 passengers as well as the crew. Security both on the ship and in checking passengers bags was extremely lax.
Four young Palestinian men were on-board disguising themselves as wealthy Latin American travelers. They claimed to be Argentinian but when other passengers spoke to them in Spanish, they couldn’t understand anything said to them. They carried passports that identified them from Portugal, Norway, and Argentina. Passengers were curious but did not report them to ship’s authorities.
They had smuggled weapons on the ship from a gas tank of a car in Italy and the gasoline smell permeated both the weapons and the men. Both passengers and ship’s crew noticed this but once again did nothing. The four men were representing the Palestine Liberation Front, conducting a mission masterminded by Muhammad “Abu” Abbas. They were supposed to attack Israeli soldiers once the ship docked at Ashdod.
But soon things would go terribly awry.
The ship is Hijacked: The ship docked in Alexandria on October 7, and 651 of the passengers disembarked to go on a tour of the pyramids. They were to meet the ship fourteen hours later in Port Said, Egypt at the mouth of the Suez Canal.
A ship steward surprised the terrorists while delivering a bowl of complimentary fruit to their room via an unlocked door only to see the four men using a hairdryer to clean the excess gasoline off of their weapons. The four men decided to seize the entire ship.
They stormed the dining room and fired automatic weapons at the ceiling to frighten the passengers and after herding them together, they then moved to the bridge. The Italian crew had sent off an SOS message that the ship had been hijacked and the message was picked up by authorities in Sweden. The terrorists then ordered the ship’s captain to set sail for Tartus, Syria.
Only 97 passengers remained onboard along with the full complement of the ship’s crew. The terrorists told the captain that they had 20 armed men on the ship which at the time was believed. The passengers who had gone to the pyramids arrived at the dock at 10:30 p.m. and were told the ship was held up in traffic in the canal. It was only at 1:30 a.m. on October 8, would they be told the truth.
The US responded immediately, General Carl Steiner, Command of SOCOM immediately dispatched Navy SEALs from SEAL Team Six and Army Delta Force Operators to a British base in Cypress in case the ship needed to be assaulted to rescue the hostages.
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat denounced the hijacking and offered to assist in negotiating for a peaceful conclusion to the incident. He sent two of his advisers to assist in the peaceful solution to this incident. One of his men was Abu Abbas who planned the operation.
Early in the morning on October 8, the terrorists began to separate the hostages, looking for Jews. The passengers refused to identify themselves as such so they checked their passports. When confirming with an elderly couple that they were Jewish, they clubbed the man with the butt of a rifle knocking him to the floor. Leon Klinghoffer was confined to a wheelchair and when the hostages were moved to another location, his wheelchair wouldn’t allow him to go. His wife Marilyn wanted to stay by his side by the men put a gun to her head and ordered her to leave, saying that they would take care of him.
Arrival in Syria: The Achille Lauro arrived in Syria around 11:00 a.m., the leader of the hijackers, Youssef Majed Molqi radioed to Syrian authorities to alert the International Red Cross as well as the British and Americans. He then demanded that Israel release 50 Palestinians being held. They threatened to start killing hostages at 3:00 p.m. sharp.
At precisely that time, they pushed Klinghoffer in his wheelchair to the rear of the ship. The hijackers were annoyed by his slurring speech, because of a stroke and the fact that he wouldn’t cow to them.
Molqi shot Klinghoffer twice, once in the head and once in the chest and ordered two of the ship’s crew to throw Klinghoffer’s body and wheelchair overboard. The Syrians told Molqi to “go back where you came from.” The ship began to sail to Libya.
But before they got far, Abbas, using the name Abu Khaled got hold of Molqi on the ship’s radio and ordered him to return to Port Said. He then said to treat the passengers kindly.
The PLF then issued a statement, apologizing to the hostages, the Italian government and to the ship stating that they never wanted to take control of the ship but were on a mission against Israel. President Reagan then had SEAL Team Six move to the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima and gave the go-ahead to assault the ship if it was still in international waters.
Back to Egypt: The negotiations between all of the parties carried on for more than a day. The agreement was reached (still under the assumption that no one was hurt) that the hijackers would turn themselves over to the Egyptian authorities and be flown to Tunis. As the hijackers went ashore in an Egyptian tugboat, the Egyptian people cheered them as heroes. It was only then that it was learned that Leon Klinghoffer was murdered. A British journalist on shore, reported seeing his blood, smeared down the side of the ship.
The Americans angrily called the Egyptians and wanted them arrested and prosecuted.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was caught in a web, not of his doing. Because the hijackers had surrendered in his country, he had conflicting interests. Wanting to maintain Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, the 1978 Camp David Accords, but also keep good relations with his fellow Arab states in the Middle East. He also wanted to maintain good relations with the US to not jeopardize billions of dollars in foreign aid.
PLO official Farouk Kaddoumi told the UN that the claim that Klinghoffer had been murdered was “a big lie fabricated by the intelligence service of the United States.” He suggested to the UN that Klinghoffer might have died naturally, “Is there any evidence that those hijackers had killed the civilian? Where is the evidence?”
US Response: On October 10, 1985, the four hijackers boarded an EgyptAir Boeing 737 accompanied by Abu Abbas, Ozzuddin Badrakkan (also called Mohammed Oza), and several members of Egypt’s counterterrorism unit Force 777. The flight was set to fly to Tunisia, which was where the PLF headquarters were located. But the US was waiting.
President Reagan gave orders to the Navy, specifically the aircraft carrier Saratoga to send fighters out over the ocean to intercept the airliner and force it to the US air base to Sigonella, Sicily. The US scrambled F-14 Tomcats and they located and shadowed the Egypt airliner. The pilot of the airliner requested permission to land in Tunis but was denied. He then tried Athens. It was then that the Navy pilots contacted the Egyptian pilot on a VHF frequency and demanded he fly to Sicily. He refused.
It was then the pilots turned on their lights and the pilot of the 737 realized he was surrounded by warplanes who threatened to shoot him down unless he complied. The Americans were incensed that the murder had taken place and one of the negotiators (Abbas) was the mastermind behind the entire operation.The 737 touched down in Sigonella at 6:45 p.m.
Standoff: SEAL Team Six was already on the ground and surrounded the aircraft. Delta landed moments later. General Stiner went on-board the 737 to tell the hijackers that they were now in custody of the American Special Ops community. The Italians then surrounded the Americans with a force of Italian police (Carabinieri) and military police claiming jurisdiction, being it was on Italian soil. A tense standoff ensued.
The 80 SEALs and Delta operators were being surrounded with 300 or more Italian forces who also blocked the runways. After five hours of negotiations, at 4:30 a.m.the US eventually conceded to the Italian claim of jurisdiction but only after receiving assurances that the hijackers would be tried for murder.
The Italians wanted to fly the hijackers to Rome, but Steiner sent troops on a plane to shadow the airliner. The Italians responded with fighter aircraft, the Americans did the same and then proceeded to jam the Italian radars with E-6 Prowlers.
The Italians then despite the US demands that Abbas be turned over to them, allowed him to leave. The political fallout for Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi was quick. Days later his administration was replaced by a US-friendly coalition over his allowing Abbas to walk free.
The hijackers received sentences between 15-30 years, Abbas was sentenced to life in prison in absentia for planning the operation. The hijackers got lighter sentences because, in the eyes of the Italian courts, they had acted on “patriotic motives.”
Epilogue: Abbas moved around, always staying a step ahead of US and Israeli attempts to track him down. But eventually, his luck ran out. He was captured outside Baghdad by US Special Operations troops acting on good intelligence. He was caught with other operatives along with a treasure trove of intelligence.
He died in US custody of “natural causes” on March 4, 2004, 11 months after being captured.