The capture of Mohammed “Abu” Abbas may advance the U.S. war on terror, but it also could set off a political time bomb.
Less than a day after U.S. Special Operations Forces in Baghdad nabbed the mastermind of the infamous 1985 Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking, parties ranging from the Anti-Defamation League to Italian authorities to PLO officials fought to influence his fate.
On Wednesday, the ADL called on Attorney General John Ashcroft to bring Abbas to the United States to stand trial for the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled American Jewish passenger who was shot after the ship was hijacked. Klinghoffer was then dumped in his wheelchair into the Mediterranean.
The United States should be the country to bring Abbas to justice because “it’s an American citizen who was murdered,” argued Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director. “We urge the Department of Justice to seize this moment to strike another blow in this nation’s war on terrorism.”
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority demanded that Abbas be freed, saying his arrest violated the Oslo peace accords and subsequent interim deals.
“We demand the United States release Abu Abbas,” Palestinian Authority Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat told Reuters. “It has no right to imprison him.”
According to Erekat, the Israeli-Palestinian peace pact, brokered by the United States, said PLO members should not be detained or charged for any terrorist attacks they committed before Sept. 13, 1993.
With apparent American and Israeli approval, Abbas was allowed to return to Palestinian areas several times starting in 1996, and even lived openly in the Gaza Strip for a time.
Israeli officials in the United States could not be reached for comment Wednesday, the eve of Passover.
A U.S. State Department official, meanwhile, was quoted in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz as saying that the 1995 deal did not apply to “the legal status of persons detained in a third country.”
Meanwhile, Italy — which let Abbas leave the country immediately after the attack rather than fall into U.S. hands and then, in 1986, tried him in absentia and sentenced him to life in prison — pledged to seek his extradition.
“We will have to clarify some legal questions as to whom to request the extradition, which we’ll do as soon as possible,” Italian Justice Minister Roberto Castelli told The Associated Press.
But with U.S. Special Operations and 3rd Infantry Division forces holding Abbas in Iraq, it seems the United States will have the final word, some experts say.
“By all legal rationales at this point, with his life sentence in absentia, the Italians have first dibs,” terrorism expert Steven Emerson said. “But possession is nine-10ths of the law, so of course the United States can decide what to do.”
Emerson said he believes there was some tacit agreement among the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority to allow Abbas and other Palestinians into Palestinian-run areas after Oslo, provided they renounced terrorism.
“What they did with Abbas was no different than with Arafat: They wiped the slate clean,” he said.
Abbas, 54, head of the Palestinian Liberation Front, a PLO faction, planned the 1985 hijacking of the Italian luxury liner. Four terrorists seized the ship with 410 people aboard off the Egyptian coast.
Abbas later called the killing of Klinghoffer a “mistake,” though he also claimed that Klinghoffer was “provoking” other passengers.
Though Abbas was said to have renounced terror, he told the Jerusalem newspaper Al Quds in 1998 that the “struggle between us and Israel does not stop at any limits.”
The hijackers shot the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer, 69, in the head and chest as his wife, Marilyn, watched, then dumped his body overboard.
The hijacking sparked an international crisis that in some respects foreshadowed today’s legal maneuvering.
Abbas initially won a deal calling for him and his men to be flown from Egypt to safe haven in Tunisia.
But Col. Oliver North, an aide to then-President Ronald Reagan, ordered U.S. Navy fighter jets to scramble the EgyptAir flight, and Abbas was forced to land at an airport in Sicily.
A standoff between Italian and U.S. soldiers ensued, with both sides demanding custody of the terrorists. Reagan and then-Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi negotiated a deal in which Italy would try the PLF members.
Two days later, however, Italy said it lacked sufficient evidence to hold Abbas and — arguing that he also held an Iraqi diplomatic passport — let him go. He quickly fled the country.
Abbas reportedly spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s living in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. He moved to Iraq in 1994, one of several terrorist leaders — including the infamous Abu Nidal — for whom Saddam Hussein provided asylum.
Shortly after Abbas resurfaced in Gaza in 1996, the ADL and its Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation welcomed U.S. calls for Italy to extradite Abbas and put him on trial in Italy.
But now, with Abbas having been captured during the war in Iraq, “the situation has changed,” Foxman said.
“Look where he was captured,” Foxman said. “Look where he was hiding out. He was captured during wartime, and it’s a new status for him, and for us.”
After Baghdad fell last week, Abbas traveled to the northern city of Mosul and on to the Syrian border, but Syrian authorities turned him away, the AP reported.
Someone tipped off U.S. officials to Abbas’ whereabouts, and U.S. forces were led to a safe house on the Tigris River south of Baghdad.
Special Forces raided the house. Abbas had fled, but they found Lebanese and Yemeni passports, thousands of dollars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and some documents.
Abbas later returned to the city and was captured along with several others.
Emerson, author of “American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us,” said the papers could prove a valuable weapon in the war on terror and will likely reveal Abbas’ terrorist ties to Syria and to the Palestinians.
“Why would the Palestinian Authority be so protective of him if he weren’t so close to them?” he said.
The Abbas evidence may “be equal to what the Israelis found in the West Bank” when they demolished Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters, finding papers reams of documents linking him to terror activities.
The White House said it would review the situation, while U.S. military officials signaled they were likely to interrogate Abbas about terrorism.
“Justice will be served,” Marine Maj. Brad Bartelt, a Central Command spokesman, told the AP.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.