Mohammed Zaidan died Tuesday at the age of 56 from natural causes while in United States custody. Better known as Abu Abbas, his name rarely appears without being described as the organizer of the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking in which the elderly, wheelchair bound Leon Klinghoffer was shot and his body dumped into the Mediterranean. He was wanted by both the United States and Italy, which had tried and sentenced Abu Abbas to five consecutive lifetimes in prison for the Klinghoffer murder (Achille Lauro was an Italian ship.) He had been living under Saddam Hussein’s protection and was captured by U.S. special forces in April 2003.
The Klinghoffer murder aside, Abu Abbas’s long career has much to tell us about the evolution of terrorism. The foundation of his faction, the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) speaks volumes about the nature of the Palestinian fight with Israel. In 1967, as a student at Damascus University he joined the Arab nationalist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He joined a splinter group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), which felt the PFLP was too much talk and not enough action. The PFLP-GC became a Syrian proxy in the Palestinian movement. In 1977, when the PFLP-GC supported Syria’s intervention in Lebanon’s Civil War, Abu Abbas founded the PLF. Abu Abbas was supported by Iraq and the PLF became their proxy in the Palestinian movement (no major Arab power could be without one.)
Iraq and Syria were rivals and in 1978 the PFLP-GC bombed the PLF’s headquarters in Beirut, killing over 200 people including four top PLF operational commanders and destroying millions of dollars of equipment. The PLF never really recovered from this early blow and launched very few effective operations. It is ironic that the PFLP-GC, a vicious terrorist group in its own right, should have delivered this clear lesson in counter-terrorism–that killing terrorists and destroying their facilities reduces the likelihood of successful terror attacks.
The PLF’s ineffectiveness was not for lack of trying. There were numerous attempts to infiltrate Israel’s northern border. There were also innovative attacks including a failed pair of airborne infiltrations, one by glider and another by balloon, in 1981. In May 1990 17 PLF terrorists on rubber boats launched by a Libyan ship attempted to land on Tel Aviv’s beaches. They were intercepted, but when Arafat would not condemn the attack the United States broke off talks with the PLO. In 1992 another sea borne infiltration occurred in Eilat when two PLF terrorists swam unto the beach where they killed a security guard before being stopped.
One of the few successful PLF attacks occurred in 1979 in the town of Nahariyah, where four PLF terrorists landed on the beach in a rubber boat. They killed a policeman and attacked an apartment building. They captured a father and his four-year-old daughter. As the police arrived, they shot the father and then smashed the girl’s skull. (The girl’s younger sister was accidentally smothered by her mother as she attempted to conceal them from the terrorists.) Abu Abbas stated that the attack was a protest against the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
When four PLF operatives hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro, taking hundreds of passengers hostage, the insisted on the release of 50 Arab terrorists held by Israel–including Samir Kuntar, the Nahiriya killer. It was during this operation that Klinghoffer, an American citizen, was murdered, in front of his wife, specifically because he was Jewish.
After two days, the hijackers forced the boat to Egypt. Egyptian authorities permitted the hijackers and Abu Abbas to return to Tunisia. United States warplanes forced the hijacker’s jetliner to land in Italy where most of the operatives were tried and imprisoned. But Italy, wary of taking on a prominent Palestinian terrorist, claimed it lacked the evidence to prosecute Abu Abbas and allowed him to slip away to Yugoslavia. (Italy later tried and convicted him in absentia). He then relocated to Iraq and embrace of his long-time patron Saddam Hussein.
Klinghoffer’s murder came to epitomize the inhumanity of terrorism. Since then Abu Abbas has variously tried to explain and distance himself from the Klinghoffer murder–calling it a “mistake”–and from terrorism. In a November 2002 interview with the New York Times he condemned the 9/11 attacks for taking innocent lives and because they made no political sense.
But Abu Abbas never actually quit terrorism. The PLF was a key conduit for millions of dollars from Saddam to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Despite Saddam and Abu Abbas’s supposed secular orientation these payments were distributed to supporters of every Palestinian faction, religious or secular. The PLF continued to operate a terrorist camp near Baghdad and PLF operatives attempted several bombings, plotted major attacks on Israeli cities and airports, and kidnapped and murdered and Israeli citizen in July 2001.
While Abu Abbas was not the biggest fish, perhaps we should have heard more about him in the run-up to the war on Iraq. While there was a laundry list of reasons to remove Saddam, if the United States was prepared for war over the murderer of single American it would have sent a powerful message to anyone harboring terrorists. It is a message we should have sent long ago.
–Aaron Mannes is the author of the TerrorBlog and Profiles in Terror, forthcoming May 2004.