Mohammed Abu Abbas, the terrorist whose botched ocean-liner hijacking in 1985 ended in the murder of an elderly American Jew and set back the Palestinian cause, has died in American custody.
His death, confirmed Tuesday by a U.S. official in Washington, buried the opportunity to put Abbas on trial as an example of bringing to justice those who use terrorism as a political tool.
Whatever testimony Abbas gave his captors about the role of Palestinian terrorist groups in propping up Saddam Hussein’s regime remains shrouded in secrecy for now.
Abbas was said to have died of natural causes in Iraq, where he has been held since his capture there last April. He was 55 and journalists who had encountered him in Baghdad prior to the American invasion said he appeared to be in poor health.
Various governments, including those of the United States, Italy and Israel, over the years had sought to try Abbas for his role in masterminding the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro, but no one yearned for justice more than Leon Klinghoffer’s family.
Four terrorists belonging to Abbas’ Palestinian Liberation Front hijacked the Italian-owned cruise ship off the Egyptian coast. The hijackers shot the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer, 69, in the head and chest as his wife Marilyn watched. Then they dumped his body overboard.
Klinghoffer’s family had pressed U.S. occupation authorities to extradite Abbas to U.S. soil to be tried for their father’s murder.
"Our family was shocked to learn of the death of Abu Abbas," Klinghoffer’s daughters, Ilsa and Lisa, said in a statement released through the Anti-Defamation League. "We have been relentless in our efforts to ensure that Abbas be captured and brought to the U.S. to stand trial for our father’s murder and, hopefully, to be convicted and to receive the maximum sentence under our law."
"Our hopes were raised last year when he was captured in Iraq by U.S. troops and arrested," the statement said. "Now, with his death, justice will be denied. The one consolation for us is that Abu Abbas died in captivity, not as a free man."
Italy, which tried and convicted Abbas in absentia in 1986 for hijacking the ship, also had sought Abbas’ extradition.
Abbas’ main legacy to the Palestinians was as a bungler; it was never clear why exactly his faction split from the PLO.
He planned the Achille Lauro hijacking off Egyptian waters to secure the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners. In the end, however, his negotiations with Egyptian authorities secured only the safe passage of the four hijackers to Tunisia.
Klinghoffer’s vicious murder brought notoriety to the Palestinian cause. Abbas didn’t help matters when he told reporters that the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer, an American Jew, somehow had "provoked" his tormentors.
Even though the Palestinian Liberation Front was marginal to the PLO, the hijacking helped further isolate PLO chief Yasser Arafat in the West.
European and Arab leaders began searching for a credible Palestinian alternative, and attacks such as the one on the Achille Lauro led King Hussein of Jordan to reconsider his reluctance to assume responsibility for the Palestinians.
Arafat and the PLO were rescued from obscurity only through the first intifada, launched in 1987 by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who had little to do with the PLO and nothing to do with Abbas. The popular uprising helped return Arafat to the mainstream, eventually leading to long-sought U.S. recognition of the PLO in 1988.
Yet barely a year later, in 1990, Abbas did it again. At Arafat’s side in Tunis, he sent Palestinian terrorists to raid an Israeli beach south of Ashdod. Israeli commandos intercepted the terrorists before they could inflict any damage — except on the reputation of the Palestinian movement. The United States promptly shut down U.S.-Palestinian dialogue.
Much of Abbas’ time was spent a step ahead of the law.
After the hijacking, U.S. Navy jets forced the EgyptAir flight carrying Abbas and his freed band of terrorists to land in Sicily. Two days later, arguing that Abbas held an Iraqi diplomatic passport, Italian authorities allowed him to go.
After that, Abbas spent time in Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. Since 1994, he made his home in Iraq.
He resurfaced on occasion in Palestinian-run Gaza; as part of the Oslo framework, Israel agreed not to seek his prosecution.
In exchange, Abbas lent qualified support to the emerging peace process, though this mattered little among Palestinians. He had virtually no following in the West Bank.
U.S. Special Forces who raided Abbas’ house near Baghdad last year found Lebanese and Yemeni passports, thousands of dollars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and some documents. Abbas had fled north but was turned back by the Syrians. His running days were over. U.S. forces captured him in April.
U.S. military officials said at the time that they would interrogate Abbas. No one has said since whether he was of use in tracking down leaders of the Iraqi regime that had sheltered him.