The capture of Abu Abbas yesterday by U.S. special forces near Baghdad is an important victory in the war on terrorism. Abu Abbas, whose real name is Muhammad Zaidan, was the founder of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) and was best known for masterminding the November 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, in which wheelchair-bound passenger and American citizen, Leon Klinghoffer was shot and his body dumped overboard. This cruel murder shocked the world, epitomizing the violence against the defenseless that defines terrorism. (Abu Abbas, by the way, would have been brought to justice 18 years ago, but Egyptian and Italian authorities allowed his escape — out of fear of reprisals from Arafat’s terrorists.)
Still Abu Abbas is a relative footnote in the annals of terrorism. Of the PLF’s numerous attempts to infiltrate Israel, only a 1979 attack in which a policeman and a father and his daughter were killed was successful. The history of Abu Abbas and the PLF show that their real role was a state proxy and conduit for terrorism:
The PLF was born out of Lebanon’s multisided civil war of the late 1970s. In April 1977 a splinter group of the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) formed the PLF. The split was over the PFLP-GC’s support for Syria against Arafat. The PLF received backing from Arafat and Iraq. In August 1977 the PLF’s headquarters was bombed by the PFLP-GC, over 200 were killed including several top PLF commanders.
The PLF itself split during a 1983 Syrian-backed rebellion within the PLO against Arafat. One branch aligned with Syria while another stayed neutral. Abu Abbas headed the largest faction and remained loyal to Arafat and aligned with Iraq.
During the first Gulf War, Abu Abbas offered to conduct terror attacks against Americans on behalf of Saddam Hussein.
An unsuccessful May 1990 attempt to land 17 terrorists on the Tel Aviv beach received support from Libya (the rubber boats the terrorists used were released from a Libyan ship). When Arafat refused to condemn the attack, the U.S. broke off a dialogue with the PLO. The dialogue was resumed in 1991, when Abu Abbas left the PLO executive council.
Although the PLF is often described as being no longer active, since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the PLF, in conjunction with the Arab Liberation Front, has been the key conduit of Iraqi funds to Palestinian terrorists.
In November 2001 and in September 2002 Israeli security uncovered PLF cells in the West Bank. One of these cells had abducted and murdered a Jerusalem resident and had attempted several bombings. The members of these cells had received training in Iraq.
Capturing Abu Abbas reinforces the principle that the United States has a long memory for those who murder Americans and never ceases trying to bring such murderers to justice.
But, Abu Abbas may also turn out to be an intelligence coup. Terrorism is a business of shadowy links. Counterterrorism is the business of breaking them; it is a painstaking task of accumulating bits of information and amassing the details into a complete picture. Abu Abbas was a veteran of the Lebanese inferno, which spawned and fostered terrorism for a generation, as well as the primary channel between the PLO and Iraq. He should prove a goldmine of data and could open new paths of inquiry. He knows where the bodies are buried — literally.
— Aaron Mannes is the author of Profiles in Terror: The Reference Guide to the Terrorist Organizations of the Middle East and their Affiliated Groups.