In October 1985, the four men who boarded the
Achille Lauro were hardly ones for midnight buffets and conga lines.
They kept to themselves, shrugging off invitations to socialize outside
their small circle. They claimed to be Argentinean, but apparently had
difficulty understanding Spanish. That’s because they were actually
members of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), a small Palestinian
group aligned with the PLO. And, as was later learned, they were
packing something other than swimsuits and sunscreen in their
suitcases: enough guns to hijack the ship and keep 450 passengers at
bay for two days.
Which is exactly what they did. The passage
of time has resulted in different interpretations of what was supposed
to happen, and whether or not the men ever intended to hijack the ship.
But this much is known: The PLF members took over the Italian cruise
ship off the Egyptian coast. They demanded that Israel free 50
Palestinian prisoners. To prove they meant business, they shot a
wheelchair-bound American passenger named Leon Klinghoffer and hurled
his body overboard with the wheelchair. Over two days, the Egyptian
government—apparently not informed about the shooting—agreed to provide
the hijackers safe passage in exchange for leaving the ship with the
But, before they could make a getaway,
authorities found out about the murder. US Navy F-14 fighters then
intercepted the hijackers as they flew in an Egypt Air 737 toward
Tunisia. The F-14 pilots deftly forced a landing in Sicily. The
terrorists were taken into custody in Italy, where they were convicted
and sent to prison. But the reputed mastermind of the hijacking, PLF
leader Abu Abbas, remained free for nearly two decades, even though he
was convicted in absentia by an Italian court.
“There was a great sense of outrage about
this, especially from the Jewish communities,” says Victoria Toensing,
who, as deputy assistant attorney general, was the top US Justice
Department official on the case. “We had to drop our warrant against
Abbas and set him loose. We did try to see if we could get some kind of
case against him. It wouldn’t have been murder. It wouldn’t have
applied the full measure of the law against him. It would have been a
symbolic punishment. But we simply didn’t have the evidence to pursue
even a hostage-taking crime against him. We simply didn’t have the
evidence. We did have an intelligence report come in that indicated a
foreign government was claiming that they had Abbas on a wiretap saying
that he was responsible. But when we actually listened to the wiretap,
the only thing we could attribute to him was taking over the hijacking
to end the whole thing. This was after Klinghoffer was killed. So we
just didn’t have the evidence to pursue any kind of case, neither
murder nor hostage-taking.”
The incident has inspired books; two TV
movies—one with Oscar-winner Karl Malden as Klinghoffer,—a
still-thriving non-profit devoted to his memory and even an opera, The
Death of Klinghoffer, which presented the hijackers in sympathetic
terms. In its immediate aftermath, it prompted a worldwide tourism
industry collapse, as well as a global overhaul of maritime security
policies and practices.
“It was the first time that such a horrific
thing like that had happened,” says Klinghoffer’s daughter Lisa, who,
along with her sister Ilsa, now runs the Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer
Memorial Foundation of the Anti-Defamation League, based in New York.
“An act of violence was focused upon one person. One man. The name
Klinghoffer has resonated around the world. No one could comprehend
such a heinous act at the time. Now, of course, it’s different. But
this simply didn’t happen back then.”
Not the first
It wasn’t the first hijacking of a ship. In
1961, two dozen men took over the Portuguese liner Santa Maria to
protest against the governments of Spain and Portugal. Those hijackers
surrendered without incident, and, until 1985, all was peaceful on the
water for cruise lines.
But terrorism was hardly a novel concept at
the time. Bombings and shootings had erupted that year in Europe, and
Lebanese Shi’ite gunmen conducted a hijacking on a TWA plane from
Athens to Rome in an incident that lasted for 17 days, resulting in one
victim’s slaying. Still, the security modus operandi on the Achille
Lauro amounted to little more than a passport check in Genoa, says
Michael K. Bohn, author of an authoritative book on the incident, The
Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of
Terrorism (Brasseys), due out in August. Witnesses reported that the
ship’s staff didn’t check luggage contents, for example.
“This seems appalling now,” Bohn says. “But
the mindset was: ‘The TWA hijacking was on a plane. This is a ship.’
Now, if you hadguys do what these hijackers did—carrying around
passports from Argentina and Norway and acting suspiciously—it wouldn’t
pass for a New York minute.”
Suspicious they were. According to Bohn,
cruise manager Max Fico said the young men kept together and remained
aloof. For cruise ship passengers out for a good time, they sure didn’t
act like they wanted to have a good time. If you tried to chat them up
during a meal, they’d say, “We are Argentineans,” in a terse
explanation as to why they’d rather not. Stranger still: When a woman
speaking Spanish attempted to mingle, the men appeared unable to
understand a word, Bohn reports.
“They stuck out like a sore thumb,” he says.
“In retrospect, you’d think the ship’s authorities would have noticed
and taken action. But this sort of thing didn’t happen on cruise ships.
These days, you wouldn’t even have to wait for the cruise director to
step in. Travelers have become so self-vigilant that they’d report on
the guys themselves, or even initiate their own action.”
The actual intent of the hijacking remains
cloudy. While those responsible claim that it was never intended to
turn deadly—and that the men actually responded out of panic upon being
surprised by a ship employee while they were cleaning guns—others
remain skeptical of such revisionist history. Why did they have guns on
board in the first place, after all? It was reported that they didn’t
want to hijack the ship, that they were actually traveling on the ship
to get to Israel to launch attacks there. Many, including Bohn and the
Klinghoffer family, scoff at such conjecture.
“This was an intended hijacking from day
one,” Bohn says. “To claim that they took over the ship just because
they were surprised while innocently cleaning out guns? That’s
ridiculous. Look, they had trained for months. They went on a prior
cruise on the ship to case the ship’s routine. They launched the
hijacking when most passengers had left the ship for a pyramid tour,
realizing it would be easier then with less people on board. They told
the captain that there were 20 of them on board taking over. He didn’t
know any better, that there were only four, so he complied.”
The long pursuit
What turned the relatively self-contained
incident into a never-ending, self-defeating tale was the status of
Abbas, who maneuvered his way around the international legal system
until he was captured in April 2003 while hiding out in Iraq. He later
reportedly died of natural causes while in US custody.
During his lifetime, Abbas led his small band
of terrorists to attack Israel by any means available, even via a hang
gliderand a hot-air balloon. Even though Abbas was convicted in
absentia in July 1986 by an Italian court for the hijacking, he was
never captured and taken to Italy. For its part, the US government
endorsed a 1995 interim peace deal that gave Palestinians such as Abbas
immunity for violent acts committed before September 1993, when Israel
and Palestine agreed to recognize each other. Abbas emerged as a
media-friendly public figure, visiting Gaza and apologizing for the
killing of Klinghoffer, although indicating that the hijacking was just
one big mistake. It was all, Abbas said, a plan that simply went wrong.
The frustrations of pursuing Abbas lasted so
long because for years nations fought terrorism using covert, “Spy vs.
Spy” tactics. Unfortunately, the “bad guy” spies too often were able to
get away withmurder.
“Many countries have spent decades fighting
terrorism using covert and clandestine tactics,” says Robert N. Davis,
a military/national security law expert and Stetson University law
professor who recently served with the Joint Intelligence Directorate
in the operations and plans division at MacDill Air Force Base in
Tampa. “Unfortunately, such tactics are limited and not as effective
against a well-organized terrorist network.
“Terrorists are unconventional fighters and
nations are now approaching the terrorism issue in unconventional and
creative ways,” Davis points out. “Only recently have many nations
begun to focus on the problem with a more organized and aggressive
intent to fight terrorism at its roots, including financial and
governmental linkages. As for legal changes on an international scale
that are needed to avoid this situation again—there should be
agreements that would discourage any country from harboring or
supporting terrorism. These agreements should include provisions for
immediate extradition to a country seeking to prosecute the terrorist
for attacks in that country. And of course, swift, harsh and certain
punishment for those involved in terrorist activities would be a step
in the right direction.”
Abbas wasn’t unique when it came to legal
frustrations in dealing with the hijackers. Italy paroled Bassam
al-Asker in 1991, just six years into a 16-year sentence. Ahmad Marrouf
al-Assadi, another accomplice, disappeared in 1991 while on parole.
“It’s always frustrating,” says Toensing, now
a founding partner at the Washington-based law firm of diGenova and
Toensing. “But foreign governments have different rules. Besides, we
have some crazy rules here, too—procedural rules where people who are
obviously guilty are set free. It’s no different here than it is over
As for the ships themselves, are they much
safer? While another act of terrorism cannot be thwarted with 100
percent certainty, a sea change of overhauls has forever altered the
security—even the culture—of cruise lines.
At the time of the hijacking, the
International Maritime Organization (IMO) was already firmly in place
as the United Nations-based agency responsible for safety on ships. So
it took the lead in launching policy shifts, as well as better
equipping ships with tools to counter terrorists’ intentions. Before
1985, passengers and their baggage went on board relatively unchecked.
Now, and especially after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, baggage is
subject to X-ray screening and spot checks, and additional checks are
often undertaken when Homeland Security-based information raises
suspicion about a passenger. And forget about “bon voyage” parties;
they were phased out shortly after the Achille Lauro incident.
Nobody gets on board unless they can prove
they have a valid reason to be there. If a travel agent wants to check
out a ship for his or her customers, that visit must be approved and
scheduled by someone in authority and approved by the cruise line.
“If you don’t have a reason for being there,
you’re not getting on board,” says Ted Thompson, executive vice
president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, the Arlington,
Va.-based lobbying/legislative arm of the cruise industry. Thompson
oversees safety and security issues for the council. “You need a
purpose, and a sponsor, to get you on the ship. You’ll need to log on
when you enter, and log off when you leave.” All visitors arealso
escorted while on board.
Technological tools have also played a
greater role in security since 1985. With a July 1, 2004, IMO deadline
to increase international security standards on ships, governments and
private companies are vastly improving communications tools.
Integrators such as Chandler, Ariz.-based World Communication Center
(WCC) are providing state-of-the-art tech tools to anticipate and
respond to a terrorism threat. WCC’s MariTrack system allows alerts to
be sent out via e-mail, pager or fax when a ship is in danger of an act
of terrorism, hijacking or piracy. “It will transmit the vessel’s ID,
its GPS coordinates, speed and the date and time,” CEO Weldon Knape
says. “If its path suddenly changes—a possible indication of piracy or
terrorism—notifications can be sent to the ship manager or authorities
for analysis of the situation.”
That’s not all. Video surveillance and
biometric ID systems—non-existent back then—are far more prevalent now.
“All areas of the ship—the casinos, the bridge, the restricted
areas—are all under video surveillance,” Thompson says. “And, when you
make a reservation, all of the information is, by law, shared with
Homeland Security—your name, date of birth, address and boarding
documents. When you check in, you’ll get your picture taken and it will
be stored in a computer. You then get a card like a credit card that,
on a magnetic strip, can call up your facial image by screeners. You
need that card to go anywhere. It acts as the key to your bedroom, as
well as a charge card to purchase items. When you depart the ship and
come back on, you need it to log on and off. The security personnel
oversee this process and, because they can call up your picture on
their computers, they can see if your card has been stolen and is being
used by someone else to gain improper access.”
To the Klinghoffer daughters, such measures
are needed to eliminate the “anything goes” approach that made it easy
for the Achille Lauro terrorists in 1985. But they say such steps can’t
be allowed to lead to complacency.
“When my parents took their cruise, they had no idea how vulnerable
they were,” Lisa Klinghoffer says. “Anyone could come on to the ship.
There was no security. When they docked at the ports, all the tradesmen
came on board to sell things. It was like a carnival. Now, since
changes have been made, there’s a better sense of security. But it
shouldn’t lead to a false sense of security, either. We can’t let our
guard down. We need to have a heightened sense of security at all
Stay alert: The passengers and crew
of the Achille Lauro didn’t think the four hijackers were acting
suspiciously before they launched the takeover, even when they claimed
to be Argentinean, but didn’t understand Spanish.
Yes, it can happen on a ship: Terrorists go for the most vulnerable target and the biggest impact — whether in the air, on the ground or in the water.
Politics matter: When pursuing
terrorists on a global scale, politics will play a role. Critics say
that’s why Italy never pursued Abbas with any particular enthusiasm
after convicting him in absentia in 1986.
Global laws need to effectively thwart global terror:
Without the capability of immediate extradition to a country seeking to
prosecute, the war on terror will have a limited impact.
The good news? Ships are safer:
The IMO and technology advances have combined tomake the cruising
experience a more secure one. For instance, say “bon voyage” to those
“bon voyage” parties. They aren’t allowed anymore. And when you’re on a
ship, you have more than one reason to smile— video surveillance is
pretty much ubiquitous these days.