The Washington Times

Terrorist Abu Abbas caught in Iraq

April 16, 2003
Section: PAGE ONE

Page: A01


Caption: Abu Abbas [NO CREDIT]

Leon Klinghoffer was killed by terrorists on the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985 while celebrating his anniversary with his wife, Marilyn Klinghoffer. [Photo by AP]

Iraq announced in August that terrorist Abu Nidal, shown in 1976, had committed suicide in Baghdad, though U.S. officials said he was probably killed. [Photo by AP]

U.S. Special Forces in Baghdad have captured long-sought Middle East terrorist Abu Abbas, known for organizing the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in which elderly American passenger Leon Klinghoffer was murdered.

"Abu Abbas has been captured," a U.S. official said last night.

Abu Abbas, a Palestinian, was caught in a Special Forces raid late Monday night at a house on the outskirts of Baghdad, the official said.

U.S. officials said they expect to capture more high-profile terrorists in Baghdad now that Saddam Hussein's regime has been ousted.

Another major target of U.S. Special Forces in Iraq is Abdul Rahman Yasin, who is wanted by the FBI for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Yasin was known to be in Iraq as of last year, U.S. officials said.

Abu Abbas, whose real name is Mohammed Zaidan, directed the four terrorists who took over the Achille Lauro with more than 400 passengers and crew members off the coast of Egypt in October 1985.

During the hijacking, the terrorists shot the disabled Mr. Klinghoffer, 69, and threw him overboard along with the wheelchair he used.

Mr. Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, along with nine friends from the New York area, took the cruise to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary.

The hijackers demanded the release of 50 Palestinians held by Israel, but they agreed to surrender in exchange for free passage out of Egypt.

The members of the squad turned themselves in to the Egyptian authorities, where they were joined by Abu Abbas and permitted to leave for Tunisia in an Egyptian plane.

U.S. fighter jets intercepted the plane and forced it to land in Sicily, where the Italian authorities claimed jurisdiction. The four terrorists who participated in the hijacking were tried in Italy and sentenced to prison by the Italian courts. However, Italian authorities released Abu Abbas, saying they lacked evidence of wrongdoing.

He was later convicted in absentia in Italian courts and sentenced to five life terms, but by then Abu Abbas had moved from Tunisia to Iraq.

Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the Klinghoffers' grown daughters, said yesterday that "bringing Abbas to justice will send a strong signal to terrorists anywhere in the world that there is no place to run, no place to hide."

"He got away from us, and we've been chasing him ever since," said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. "He's a big catch for us. It's an old score to settle."

According to the State Department's annual report on terrorism, Abu Abbas had set up the headquarters of his group, a faction of the Palestine Liberation Front, in Baghdad and had operated from there for years.

Abu Abbas also appeared on state-controlled Iraqi television to praise Baghdad's support for Palestinians.

The capture of Abu Abbas lends support to the Bush administration's charge that Iraq under Saddam was a major sponsor of international terrorist groups. The administration had accused Saddam's regime of giving support to the al Qaeda terrorist network.

President Bush mentioned Abu Abbas in an October speech in which he outlined the United States' argument for ousting Saddam.

"Iraq has ... provided safe haven to Abu Abbas, who was responsible for seizing the Achille Lauro and killing an American passenger," Mr. Bush said. "And we know that Iraq is continuing to finance terror and gives assistance to groups that use terrorism to undermine Middle East peace."

In recent years, Abu Abbas has sought to distance himself from terrorism and in 1996 apologized for the Achille Lauro hijacking.

Now in U.S. custody, Abu Abbas can be prosecuted for the killing of Mr. Klinghoffer, U.S. officials said.

His whereabouts last night were not disclosed, and it was not clear how the conviction in Italy would affect any U.S. efforts to prosecute him.

Abu Abbas also directed a speedboat attack on a Tel Aviv beach in 1990, as well as attempts to attack Israel from Lebanon in the 1980s using rubber boats, hot-air balloons and gliders.

"It is true that a large percentage of the Western world hopes that I am imprisoned or dead," Abu Abbas told a reporter in 1996. "But all my people, the Palestinians and the Arabs, wish me long life and freedom."

Abu Abbas is the second major terrorist leader uncovered in Iraq. In August, Iraq announced that another Palestinian terrorist, Abu Nidal, had committed suicide in Baghdad.

U.S. intelligence officials said it is more likely that Abu Nidal, leader of the Abu Nidal terrorist group, was killed.

Abu Nidal, a Palestinian whose real name was Sabri al-Banna, was one of the most notorious international terrorists during the 1970s and '80s.