On October 7, 1985, four members of one of the PLO's factions, the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak persuaded the hijackers to surrender, but not before they shot to death a wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger from the United States named Leon Klinghoffer, dumping his body overboard.
Mubarak allowed the PLF leader and hijacking mastermind, Mohammed Zaidan, and the other terrorists to fly to their headquarters in Tunisia. President Ronald Reagan sent U.S. warplanes to intercept the flight, however, and forced it to land at a U.S.-Italian air base in Sicily. The United States and Italy fought over jurisdiction in the case, but the Italians refused to extradite any of the men.
Inexplicably, Zaidan was allowed to go to Yugoslavia. An Italian court convicted 11 of 15 others associated with the hijacking, while Zaidan and another terrorist were tried in absentia, found guilty and were sentenced to life in prison. Bassam al-Asker, one of the hijackers, was granted parole in 1991 and Ahmad Marrouf al-Assadi, another accomplice, disappeared in 1991 while on parole.
Zaidan was never arrested. In 1990, he struck again from the sea, with an abortive speedboat attack on bathers on a beach near Tel Aviv.
Though he was sentenced to five life terms in Italy, and was wanted in the United States, Zaidan remained a free man. He spent most of the years after the hijacking in Tunisia before moving to the Gaza Strip in April 1996, after the Palestinian Authority took control of the area as part of the peace agreement with Israel.
While in Gaza, Zaidan said he was sorry for the hijacking, but the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer said that he had been convicted of murder and should serve his sentence. As a result of the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian interim peace agreement, however, Zaidan and other PLO members were granted immunity for violent acts committed before the signing of the September 1993 Oslo agreement.
Zaidan eventually made his way to Iraq where he was believed to be a conduit for Saddam Hussein's payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. He was captured by U.S. forces in a raid in Iraq on April 15, 2003.
Zaidan died on March 9, 2004, at the age of 56 while in U.S. custody in Iraq. Klinghoffer's daughters said, “Now, with his death, justice will be denied. The one consolation for us is that Abul Abbas died in captivity, not as a free man.”
Sources: Mitchell G. Bard. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 3rd Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2005; Associated Press, (March 10, 2004). Ship photo copyright Ata Bilgili, Reprinted with permission from Dartmouth; CNN (April 23, 1996)