It started on my 42nd birthday — Monday, Oct. 7, 1985. No sooner had I arrived at my office in the White House that morning, than the senior watch officer in the Situation Room called. No hard intelligence was available yet, but something was amiss in the Mediterranean. What we did know was that it was an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, and it was about 30 miles from Port Said, Egypt, where four Palestinian terrorists had embarked carrying grenades, guns and ammunition. Years before Sept. 11, most passenger cruise ships didn’t have the security procedures they do today.
Urban legends to the contrary, more of my time in Ronald Reagan’s White House was spent on counterterrorism than on any other issue. This particular incident was about to keep me and other members of the counterterrorism task force awake and working around the clock for the next several days. For the terrorist who planned the attack, the ultimate conclusion came last week, when Abul Abbas, a.k.a. Mohammed Abbas, died in American custody after being captured in Baghdad 11 months earlier by U.S. Special Forces.
The original goal of the hijackers was to attack Israeli interests after docking at the Israeli port of Ashdod. But their cover was blown by a cabin steward on board, and they resorted to taking over the ship, demanding the release of 50 Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails. To demonstrate their brutality, they murdered an American and later bragged about it. Leon Klinghoffer, who was confined to a wheelchair, was shot in the head and dumped into the sea.
After being denied asylum in Syria, the ship returned to Egypt. Charlie Allen, the CIA’s expert on terrorism at the time, noticed that Abul Abbas — the head of the Palestine Liberation Front, a terrorist organization, and a member of the PLO executive committee — had been granted diplomatic clearance into Egypt. Abbas was a key ally of PLO leader Yasser Arafat and had a history of brutal, though poorly executed, attacks on Israeli citizens.
Abbas was dispatched to Egypt by Arafat to play the role of a “neutral peacemaker.” Apparently, the terrorists on board the Achille Lauro didn’t get the memo explaining the ruse that Abbas would pose as a neutral party, because when he came on the radio to “negotiate” with them, they greeted him with the words, “Commander, we are happy to hear your voice.”
Back at the White House, we drafted a strong personal message for President Reagan to send to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, asking him to turn the terrorists over to us — or at least to the Italians, as we learned that Arafat and Abbas had struck a deal with Mubarak that if the terrorists surrendered to the Egyptians they would be given safe passage out of the country.
While that information was true, it was the timing of their exit that was in question. In the Situation Room on Thursday morning, I found a cable informing us that the Egyptians allowed the four terrorists to leave the country. Mubarak claimed ignorance to the validity of the report, the terrorists’ whereabouts, and the murder of Klinghoffer.
After checking with numerous sources in Washington and around the world, we learned that not only were the terrorists still in Egypt, but that they would be flying out that night, with the help of the Egyptians, and Abul Abbas would be on the plane with them.
We devised a plan for F-14 Tomcats flying off the Sixth Fleet’s USS Saratoga to intercept the plane and force it down at a base in Sigonella, Sicily, so we could take the terrorists into custody and fly them back to the United States to stand trial. A team of Special Operations Forces had been dispatched overseas days earlier, believing that they would have to board the Achille Lauro and take out the terrorists on the ship.
It was a difficult, dangerous mission, but Navy pilots and Special Ops Forces executed it to the letter. The problem began when the Italian national police involved themselves and demanded custody of Abbas and his terrorists. Since a shoot-out with the Italians would have been a political disaster, we had to entrust them with custody of Abbas and his henchmen. Abbas was separated from the others and eventually was put on a plane in Rome where he made his way to Yugoslavia to Tunisia to Damascus to Baghdad.
In the years that he was given safe haven in Iraq, Abbas was believed to be a key conduit between Saddam Hussein and Palestinian terrorists whose families were rewarded by Saddam based on the number of Israelis they were able to murder.
While I was in Iraq as an embedded correspondent for Fox News, U.S. Special Forces found Abul Abbas in Baghdad and took him into custody, proving what Ronald Reagan said 18 years earlier: “You can run, but you can’t hide.” Abbas and Abu Nidal, who was found dead in Iraq, were just two of numerous terrorists who were granted safe haven by Saddam.
While it is unfortunate that Abbas avoided having to stand trial and answer for his crimes, the American public can take comfort in the fact that he was in American custody, and there is one less terrorist in the world today.