The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
15. The Achille Lauro Incident

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
The face of terrorism

In the 1980s more of the world's populace than ever before lived in fear of a terrorist act.  There were in excess of 600 international terrorist incidents in 1984, a 20 percent increase over the previous five years' averages.  Between 1982 and 1985, terrorist acts in the Mideast doubled annually.  This sharp rise in assassinations, bombings, hijackings and kidnappings was attributable in part to improved technology -- better communications, more rapid transportation, and weapons that were both more compact and more deadly.  Another factor was the rise in state-supported terrorism, with Iran, Syria, Libya, Cuba and Nicaragua actively promoting terrorist acts.  Terrorists usually targeted civilians; innocent people were routinely blown up in discos and buses or gunned down on street corners and airport concourses.  Kidnapping businessmen brought terrorist cells tens of millions of dollars in ransom, while attacks on diplomatic personnel and facilities rose by 60 percent in 1980-81 over the previous two years.  In the mid-Eighties, $300-400 million was spent by the United States each year to enhance security at U.S. diplomatic posts, while the number of security personnel was doubled.
On Monday, 7 October 1985, Palestinian terrorists seized control of the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship carrying over 400 passengers and crew, of whom 19 were Americans.  Communicating by ship-to-shore radio, the hijackers demanded the release of fifty of their Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF) comrades imprisoned in Israel. The Reagan administration responded by urging Israel to make no deals with the terrorists.  It also called on all Mediterranean nations to forbid the Achille Lauro from docking at their ports.  Three months earlier, Shi'ite terrorists had hijacked TWA Flight 847 and landed the plane at Beirut Airport, where the 37 hostages were dispersed throughout the city, and the crisis dragged on for two and a half weeks as a result.  This time the administration hoped to contain the situation aboard the Achille Lauro.
While the vessel was shadowed by American and Italian ships using "over the horizon" surveillance, British and Italian commandos made preparations at the Royal Air Force base at Akrotiri, Cyprus. U.S. Navy SEALs also arrived at Akrotiri, but by Wednesday, when the commandos were ready to attempt a rescue mission, the terrorists were no longer aboard the Achille Lauro.  On Tuesday the hijackers had steered for Egypt's Port Said and requested a deal -- they would surrender if they were immunized from prosecution and released into the custody of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).  Much to the chagrin of U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, Egypt agreed to a deal negotiated with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who posed during the crisis as a peace-loving statesman in an interview with ABC Nightline's Ted Koppel.  "Arafat," said Secretary Shultz, "wanted a medal for helping to put out the fire he had set." Israeli intelligence learned that Arafat's right-hand man, Abul Abbas -- cofounder of the PLF, commander of a 1500-man Palestinian army based in Tunis, and one of the world's most wanted terrorists -- had masterminded the hijacking and was now with Arafat negotiating for the escape of his men.  Apparently the four hijackers had intended to remain incognito until the cruise ship docked at Ashdod, Israel, but were discovered by a ship's steward -- only then did they seize the ship.  (This was later confirmed by Abbas himself.)
On Wednesday the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Nick Veliotes, reported that the terrorists had executed an American tourist named Leon Klinghoffer, a retired appliance manufacturer from Manhattan. The victim of two strokes, Klinghoffer had been wheelchair-bound. He was shot in the chest and head and his body tossed into the sea. Americans relived a nightmare; U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem had been murdered by the Hezbollah Shi'ites who hijacked TWA Flight 847.  The world had watched, horrified, as Stethem's corpse was thrown out of the plane onto the Beirut Airport tarmac.  Those criminals had escaped justice.  Would the murderers of Leon Klinghoffer also get off scot-free?  At first it seemed so.  Ignoring U.S. protests, the Egyptian government rushed Abul Abbas and the Achille Lauro hijackers into an EgyptAir 737 charter plane bound for Tunis.
At 5:30 P.M. on Thursday, October 10, President Reagan was aboard Air Force One, returning to Washington, D.C. from a speaking engagement in the Chicago area, when word reached him that the terrorists were getting away.  He authorized the carrier USS Saratoga, patrolling the Adriatic Sea, to put seven F-14 Tomcats into the air.  Their orders: divert the Egyptian aircraft to a NATO base at Sigonella, Sicily.  The appearance of the Tomcats unnerved the EgyptAir pilot, who compliantly altered course for Sicily.  He had no way of knowing that the American "top guns" had orders to refrain from shooting down the 737 without direct instructions from the president.
Initially the Italians were not disposed to cooperate, scrambling their own warplanes to prevent a landing at Sigonella, but after a call from Reagan, Italy's Prime Minister Bettino Craxi gave permission to land. The American plan was to load the Palestinians onto a U.S. military aircraft and transport them to the States.  But when American troops encircled the 737 they found themselves surrounded in turn by Italian soldiers.  Italy had decided that since the Achille Lauro was an Italian vessel, the hijackers should be tried in Italian courts.  The terrorists faced charges of premeditated murder, kidnapping and hijacking. When Reagan called Craxi this time, the Italian leader wouldn't budge -- Abul Abbas and his cronies would remain in Italian hands.  After Arafat threatened *uncontrollable reactions" if the Italians turned Abbas over to the Americans, Italy refused a U.S. request to extradite the terrorist leader.  Abbas was soon freed. In 1986 the four hijackers were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms,
The American public emphatically approved of the bold mid-flight interception of the Achille Lauro terrorists.  Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak decorated the 737 pilot and demanded an apology from the United States.  Reagan vowed he would never apologize, and Cairo University students staged several anti-American demonstrations. The Craxi coalition government in Italy collapsed as crucial members abandoned it to protest what they deemed to be an anti-Israel, pro-PLO stance.  And, bowing to U.S. pressure, the United Nations General Assembly shelved a proposal to invite Yasser Arafat to speak at an event celebrating the UN's fortieth anniversary.  Having himself condoned the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, Arafat accused Reagan of an "act of piracy" by intercepting the EgyptAir 737.

Terrorism in the 1980s
"The distressing fact is that over these past five years terrorism has increased.  More people were killed or injured by international terrorists last year than in any year since governments began keeping records.  In 1983 there were more than 500 such attacks, of which more than 200 were against the United States.  For Americans the worst tragedies were the destruction of our Embassy and then the Marine barracks in Beirut.  But around the world, many of our close friends and allies were also victims.  The bombing of Harrods in London, the bombing at Orly Airport in Paris, the destruction of a Gulf Air flight in the United Arab Emirates, and the Rangoon bombing of South Korean officials are just a few examples -- not to mention the brutal attack on a West Jerusalem shopping mall this past April."
Secretary of State George Shultz
June 24, 1984
The Jonathan Institute's Second Conference on International Terrorism

Some terrorist threats were homegrown.  In the mid-Eighties a group calling itself Covenant, the Sword and the Arms of the Lord (CSA) sought to overthrow the United States government.  They planned to put 30 gallons of potassium cyanide into urban water supplies, believing that God would only allow non-believers and minorities to be poisoned.  The FBI infiltrated the group and prevented it from carrying out this scheme.


Time, 21 October 1985, 28 October 1985

Steven Anzovin, ed. (New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1987)

Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State
George P. Shultz (New York: MacMillan, 1993)

12 Months of Terror
(A list of the major terrorist acts occurring between April 1985-April 1986)
[From The New York Times Year in Review, 1986, Adam Clymer, ed. (New York: Time Books, 1987)]
April 12, Madrid: Bomb explodes at restaurant outside city frequented by U.S. servicemen, killing 18 Spaniards and wounding 82 people, including 14 Americans. Claimed by Islamic Holy War.
April 13, Paris: Bombs explode at branch of Israeli-owned Bank Leumi and National Immigration Office and at offices of rightist weekly newspaper Minute the next day. Direct Action, a French guerrilla group, says attacks were carried out by "Sana Mheidleh commando," a reference to a Lebanese woman who carried out suicide bomb attack in Lebanon.
June 14, Athens: Two Lebanese Shiite gunmen hijack TWA jetliner on Athens-to-Rome flight with 104 Americans aboard and force it to fly to Beirut. United States Navy diver, Robert Dean Stethem, is killed. A Shiite Amal militia leader, Nabih Berri, negotiates on behalf of hijackers; hostages released after 17 days.
June 19, Frankfurt: Bomb explodes at Frankfurt's international airport, killing 3 and wounding 42. Claimed by the Arab Revolutionary Organization, which some experts believe is the Palestinian Abu Nidal group.
July 1, Madrid: Terrorists bomb building housing offices of TWA and British Airways and attack offices of Jordanian national airline, Alla. One killed and 27 wounded. Claimed by the Organization of the Oppressed.
August 8, U.S. Rhein-Main Air Base, near Frankfurt: Car bomb explodes, killing 2 Americans and wounding 20 Americans and Germans. Claimed by Direct Action and the Red Army Faction.
September 3, Athens: Two grenades are thrown into lobby of Greek hotel, wounding 18 British tourists. Telephone caller tells Greek newspaper that unless unidentified Palestinian is released, Black September guerrilla group "would fill Athens with bombs."
September 16, Rome: Grenades are thrown into Cafe de Paris, wounding 38 people, including 9 Americans. Claimed by the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Moslems.
September 25, Rome: Bomb explodes in Rome ticket office of British Airways, killing 1 and wounding 14. Palestinian teenager who says he is a member of the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Moslems is arrested and confesses to police.
October 7, Mediterranean: Four hijackers seize the Achille Lauro cruise ship. An American, Leon Klinghoffer, is killed a day later; hijackers surrender in Egypt Oct. 9. Hijackers say they are members of the Palestine Liberation Front, a faction of the P.L.O.
November 23, Athens: Egyptian airliner is hijacked on flight from Athens to Cairo and forced to land in Malta. Five passengers are shot, 2 fatally, including an American, Scarlett Marie Rogenkamp; Egyptians then storm plane; 58 people are killed. Hijackers say they are members of a group called Egypt's Revolution, but Abu Nidal's Arab Revolutionary Command and the Organization of Egypt's Revolutionaries also issue statement taking responsibility.
November 24, Frankfurt: Car bomb explodes at U.S. military shopping center, wounding 35, including 33 Americans. The Abu Nidal group is suspected of involvement.
December 7, Paris: Bombs explode at Galeries Lafayette and Printemps department stores, 39 people wounded. Claimed by Palestine Liberation Front.
December 27, Rome and Vienna: Gunmen attack airports and 20 people are killed, including 4 terrorists and 5 Americans, and more than 110 others are wounded. Surviving gunmen say they are members of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, a Palestinian group headed by Abu Nidal.
February 3, Paris: Bomb explodes on Champs-Elysees, wounding 8 people. Claimed by Committee of Solidarity with Arab and Middle Eastern Political Prisoners, which demands release of 2 Arabs and 1 Armenian jailed in France, including leader of Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Factions.
February 4, Paris: Bomb explodes in crowded bookshop in Latin Quarter, wounding 4 people. That evening, bomb is discovered in Eiffel Tower, but police defuse it. Claim: None issued.
February 5, Paris: Bomb explodes in Forum des Halles shopping mall, wounding 9. Claim: None.
March 20, Paris: Bomb explodes on Champs-Elysees, killing 2 and wounding 28. Second bomb found in a subway station is defused. Claimed by Committee of Solidarity with Arab and Middle Eastern Political Prisoners.
April 5, West Berlin: Bomb explodes in a discotheque popular with American troops, killing one American serviceman and a Turkish woman and wounding 204 people, including more than 50 Americans. Claimed by West German terrorists and previously unknown group calling itself Anti-American Arab Liberation Front. U.S. officials say there are clear indications of Libyan responsibility for attack.