Robert Fisk: How Achille Lauro hijackers were seduced by high life

On board the cruise ship, the Palestinian boys who murdered a wheelchair-bound American pensioner had seen a lifestyle they knew nothing of, according to new research

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The Achille Lauro was an Italian cruise liner from hell. Named after the chairman of the company that came to own her, the ship – her keel was laid in 1939 – suffered an onboard explosion in 1965, caught fire in 1972, collided with a cargo ship in 1975, caught fire again in 1981.

Then, in October 1985, steaming for the Israeli port of Ashdod with more than 400 holidaying passengers and crew, the Achille Lauro was hijkacked by four young armed Palestinians who had originally intended to open fire on Israeli soldiers when they landed. Their plan went horribly wrong. And off the coast of Syria, they lost their temper with – of all people – an elderly, wheelchair-bound American-Jewish pensioner called Leon Klinghoffer. One of them shot him twice and told the crew to tip him and his wheelchair overboard.

When the Achille Lauro later sailed into Port Said and the gunmen surrendered on the orders of the leader of their Palestine Liberation Front, Abu al-Abbas, I stood with many other journalists on the waterfront. What we all saw was horrifying. Klinghoffer’s blood was still streaked down the side of the vessel. Tragic, the Palestinians claimed, but had not the Israelis sent their murderous Lebanese militia into the Sabra and Chatila camps three years earlier, an ‘operation’ in which up to 1,700 Palestinian civilians were slaughtered? It was not a parallel the world was prepared to accept. Leon Klinghoffer’s vicious killing outraged even those nations which had tried to support the Palestinian cause.

Many mythical tales were woven around the story of the hijacking; the Palestinians had been spotted by a female Mossad spy on board the ship and were loading their weapons when they were surprised by the crew, they always intended to kill the passengers, not Israeli military targets in Ashdod, so it was said. It was a revenge raid for an Israeli air strike on PLO headquartyers in Tunis just a week earlier.

But now Abu al-Abbas’ widow Reem al-Nimer, has written her own soon-to-be-published account of her husband’s life and of the Achille Lauro attack. A woman so loyal to the Palestinian cause that she had once tried to attack the Assad regime’s ‘betrayal’ of the Palestinians by blowing up the Syrian ministry of defence in Damascus – an exploit repeated more spectacularly by anti-Assad rebels last year – al-Nimer’s account reveals intriguing new details about the Achille Lauro’s fateful voyage; not least because one of the hijackers, Bassam al-Achkar – who later supposedly trained rebels for their attacks on US occupation forces in Iraq – gave his own account of the story to her in Beirut.

One of them shot him twice and told the crew to tip him and his wheelchair overboard

Al-Achkar was only 17 years-old at the time and it was Abu al-Abass who first dreamed up the hijacking while looking out over Algiers port. He was struck by the ease with which Israel might be attacked from the sea – rather than from Lebanon, Syria or Jordan – and sent the four Palestinians on two ‘dummy’ training runs on the Achille Lauro over the course of 11 months. So much for the ‘ revenge’ raid one week after the Israeli attack on Tunis. Reem al-Nimer knew nothing of the plans and only realised her husband’s involvement after seeing a brochure for Achille Lauro cruises in their Tunis flat.

According to al-Nimer’s research – and her interview with Achkar last year – the four men had been disguised as wealthy Latin American passengers. Far from ‘surprising’ the hijackers, the crew had been alerted by the smell of petrol on the ship. “Before boarding the ship,” she writes in the manuscript she gave me last a few days ago, “the weapons had been hidden in the reservoir of a car parked on Italian territory... the arms smelled of gasoline, and this aroused (the) suspicion of the housekeeping teams... The four young Palestinians, suffering from the same stench within their rooms, took out the weapons to dry them with a hairdryer.” The crew opened the door not because they suspected the occupants, but because they wanted to deliver complimentary fruit to the passengers. Discovered with their weapons, they instantly decided to take the whole ship hostage.

Abu al-Abbas told his wife later that his intention was “to carry out an honourable operation against the Israeli Army... I wanted them to reach Ashdod: not to fight the passengers on board.” Later he would shout at the four men: “Why the hell were you fixing your weapons without having locked the damn door first?” But Reem al-Nimer has another explanation.

“The young men cowered when it was time for them to die...They came from the Palestinian camps of Jordan and Syria, and had never seen anything as lavish in their lives, as what they experienced on the Achille Lauro...Overnight, here were these street boys sipping champagne at pool parties, surrounded by beautiful Italian women in bikinis. Before... they had always embraced death, as they had never seen a day of comfort in their lives...(Now), they quickly began to understand that there were indulgences in life that they previously knew nothing about. Life, suddenly, began to have a new sweet meaning to it.” It matters little today. Rounding up the passengers, “Klinghoffer made so much noise onboard that he frightened the living daylights out of the four young men. Panicking, they shot him and then threw him overboard.” It’s an uncomfortable sentence. Were these Palestinians really ‘frightened to death’ (sic) by a crippled old man?

It was a despicable act that would not only enrage the West – his family rightly sued the PLO for millions of dollars – and would be, according to al-Abbas, “financially and politically disastrous for the Palestinian cause.” He was to be haunted by the crime for the rest of his life. And when he died mysteriously in US custody in a Baghdad prison camp after America’s 2003 invasion, all the world remembered of Al-Abbas was a crippled man called Leon Klinghoffer. No-one cared how an apparently healthy man would die in American hands. The Achille Lauro sailed ignobly on and caught fire again in 1994 off the coast of Somalia, this time sinking forever beneath the waves.

Robert Fisk on Algeria

Buy the new Independent eBook - £1.99 Two decades of reportage on a tragic conflict the West can no longer afford to ignore - by one of the world’s great foreign correspondents

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