A Hijack on the High Seas - Part One Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A Hijack on the High Seas - Part One

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The Achille Lauro

The hijacking in October 1985 of a Mediterranean cruise ship attracted the personal involvement of the Presidents of Italy, Egypt, the USA and various other countries. The incident involved the killing of American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer. The way in which this incident was handled by the authorities caused tensions between a number of allies, eventually resulted in the collapse of a friendly government, and left the person suspected of being the mastermind behind the operation at liberty in the Middle East.

Even though the incident made headline news across the world at the time, the whole affair would probably have been consigned to the history books after a few years - but for one thing. An opera was written, based on the incident and entitled The Death of Klinghoffer (music by John Adams, libretto by Alice Goodman, directed by Peter Sellars).

This opera attracted considerable controversy at its world premiere (Brussels, Belgium, 1991), its US premiere (Brooklyn, New York, 1991) and ever since. Ten years on, after the terrorist attacks on the USA of 11 September, 2001, the opera has continued to ignite passions (as opera often does), especially over the cancellation of four performances of excerpts from the opera that had been scheduled for November 2001 in Boston, USA. Other planned productions, notably for the opera houses of Los Angeles (USA) and Glyndebourne (UK), were also mothballed.

The opera serves to remind us of the original incident and the wider subject of terrorism and freedom fighters. It is the hijack incident itself, however, that is the focus of this entry.

The Achille Lauro

The Italian liner Achille Lauro was on a 12-day Mediterranean cruise with about 680 passengers and a mostly Italian and Portuguese crew of about 350. On the Monday (7 October, 1985) it had left Alexandria in Egypt and was heading for Port Said (its next Egyptian port of call) when the captain sent out an emergency radio message. The message, picked up by a radio station in Gothenburg, Sweden, said that the ship was under the control of a group of armed men. The following day the men themselves sent a message, claiming that they were members of the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF). They demanded the release of 50 Palestinians held in prison in Israel, failing which they would start killing the people on board (who were now hostages), starting with the American passengers. They threatened to blow up the ship in the event that anyone tried to rescue the passengers or capture the gunmen. As it turned out, Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish man, was later shot and killed and his body and wheelchair were thrown overboard.

Meanwhile, groups of experts were hastily assembling in Rome and Washington to handle the incident. But it was proving extremely difficult to collect even the most basic information about what was going on out there in the Mediterranean.

For one thing, it wasn't known exactly who was on the vessel. Most of the passengers had disembarked at Alexandria to go on a sight-seeing trip to the Pyramids, followed by a trip to Port Said. They were to rejoin the ship and sail on to Ashdod, an Israeli port some 40km south of Tel-Aviv and close to the Palestinian area known as the Gaza Strip. The Italian authorities estimated that, in addition to the crew, there were perhaps 60 to 80 passengers of many different nationalities still left on board. US authorities on the ground started interviewing those passengers who had opted for the sight-seeing trip. Their responses indicated that about a dozen of those left on board were US citizens.

Another problem was that the ship had, for all the authorities could tell, disappeared. After the hijackers1 had radioed their demands on Monday night, the ship's radio was turned off and she sailed away into the busy Mediterranean. The whole area was now being monitored by the Egyptian and Israeli authorities, and both US and British reconnaissance aircraft were sent in, but at various times during the next few days the authorities just didn't know where the ship was.

Who Were the Hijackers?

It was vitally important to establish the identity of the hijackers. Just who were these people? This question was never going to be fully answered, even after the hijacking incident was over. They claimed to be members of the PLF. Sure enough, when they demanded the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners, one they mentioned specifically by name was Samir Qantari, a known PLF member. He had been captured six years earlier during a raid in which three Israelis had been killed. But the PLF was a generic term covering three different and conflicting factions. It was crucial to the US to know with whom they were dealing, but at this stage they could only hazard a guess.

Although the hijacking of a ship was a new twist, a few months before this incident a US TWA passenger jet aircraft had been hijacked by Palestinians, and passengers had been held hostage for more than two weeks in Beirut. This incident also involved the killing of an American, and the hijackers escaped. The Reagan administration in the USA was therefore determined that the same thing would not happen this time. But history has a knack of repeating itself.

The Governments Respond

By Monday night, groups consisting largely of top brass who had handled the TWA hijacking were being hastily convened in Washington, with lines of communication to President Reagan. An emergency team of experts in counter-terrorism and communications was sent to Rome to advise the US ambassador there. Special forces (the Delta Force) were sent on their way from their base in North Carolina to a NATO airbase in Sicily.

The consensus in Washington was that, to prepare for a military rescue mission, the ship should be denied a safe haven and kept on the high seas, as the permission of other countries would not be required for a military action on a vessel in international waters.

At the same time, the Italian government was forming a crisis management group. This of course faced the same basic problems of not knowing the affiliations of the hijackers or the details of which passengers were on board. This group was headed by Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti, and Defence Minister Giovanni Spadolini. They also decided to launch a military rescue mission. So by Tuesday morning, ships of the Italian navy were sailing to the eastern Mediterranean, Italian special forces had been sent by helicopter to Akrotiri - a British airbase in Cyprus - and the Italian forces generally were put on a state of high alert.

On the Tuesday afternoon the Achille Lauro was finally spotted off the coast of Syria. It contacted the Syrian port authorities for permission to dock at Tartus. The hijackers also wanted to hold negotiations with the ambassadors of Italy, West Germany, the UK and the USA. Both Italy and the USA urged the Syrian government to refuse, and the Syrian navy ensured that the ship stayed outside its territorial waters, while the port authorities in Tartus remained non-committal on the request for negotiations.


It was reported that, in the course of the exchanges between the hijackers and the Syrian port officials, some comments made by the hijackers suggested that one or two American passengers had been killed. The hijackers reportedly issued an ultimatum and said they would start killing American hostages. When their deadline had passed, the hijackers were sending messages such as, 'What are the developments, Tartus? We will kill the second. We are losing patience.' The Syrians later claimed to have informed the Italian government of this situation, but the Italians claimed that there was no confirmation of such reports and that they were under the impression that all the passengers were still safe.

In Washington, however, reports that American hostages may have been killed caused great consternation and dramatically affected the US approach to the whole hijacking incident. But organising a rescue operation in the current circumstances was thought to be very risky. And the logistics of such an operation were such that it would take some time just to get all the various forces - including navy frogmen, army commando units, helicopters and so on - together. Another problem for the management teams was how to assess the likely reaction of the hijackers to a military assault. They still didn't know who the hijackers were, which was a considerable impediment to the Americans.

Which Faction?

Experts from the CIA and other US intelligence agencies had come up with different guesses as to which of three different factions of the PLF the hijackers were from. That mattered, because the hijackers could be expected to react quite differently to an attack depending on whether they were pro- or anti-Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Two of these factions were opposed to Yasser Arafat and were trying to get rid of him, whereas the third faction, led by Mohammed Abbas (alias Abul Abbas) had remained loyal to Arafat, as a mark of which Abbas was elected to the executive committee of the PLO.

The general consensus among the US intelligence agencies was that the hijackers were probably anti-PLO. They thought it made no sense for a pro-PLO group to hijack an Italian ship in Egyptian waters, as the PLO had good relations with both those countries. They thought it more likely that a dissident Palestinian group, disagreeing with Arafat's apparent willingness to pursue peace talks brokered by the Americans, was trying to make things difficult for Arafat. Other US intelligence experts speculated (probably accurately, as it turned out) that the hijackers were probably making their way to Ashdod when something happened on board and they panicked and seized command of the ship.

Some of the experts in the US State Department fought shy of arguing that the hijackers were from a pro-PLO group. The US were sensitive about disrupting the ongoing Middle East peace process, and if they started to put the blame on Arafat that would amount to calling him a terrorist. This would make it impossible for the Americans to continue to negotiate with him. So there was an in-built tendency to give the PLO the benefit of the doubt. There was no clear line coming out of Washington, and the general feeling was that the hijackers were pro-PLO and therefore no rescue should be attempted. Yet somehow the Operational Sub-Group decided to go ahead anyway, and a military rescue mission was planned for the Wednesday night.

Under international law the US was within its rights to board and seize a vessel under the control of pirates, but Craxi wasn't convinced. He insisted that the Achille Lauro was an Italian ship and that, while the Italian government was prepared to use force if absolutely necessary, the best way forward was to enter into negotiations with the hijackers. Thus a gulf was developing between the US and Italian governments over the best way to resolve the crisis.

By Tuesday evening the ship had sailed away from the coast of Syria. US intelligence believed it was heading for Cyprus, but once again it seemed to vanish, and the best efforts of US satellites and reconnaissance flights failed to locate it. Later, an Israeli patrol spotted the ship off the coast of Israel on a heading towards Egypt, and informed the US. From then on the Achille Lauro was followed by three vessels of the US navy in a position to launch an attack. US diplomats in Rome and Cairo were trying to avoid negotiations with the hijackers and keep the ship outside Egyptian territorial waters. But the Egyptian government was happy to allow her to enter its waters in spite of US opposition, and the Italians were happy about that too.

Anchorage and Release

On Wednesday morning the ship anchored off Port Said and a radio telephone link was set up between the hijackers and the Egyptian authorities. Later, an Egyptian-Palestinian contingent sailed out in a small boat for face-to-face discussions with the hijackers. The Palestinians involved were representatives sent by Yasser Arafat, one of whom was Mohammed 'Abul' Abbas, the leader of the pro-PLO faction of the PLF.

Around midday Arafat informed Craxi that the ship could be released with all passengers safe and sound if the Egyptian and Italian governments gave the hijackers safe conduct and turned them over to the PLO for trial. But the hijackers were also asking that the Italian, US, British and West German ambassadors join the negotiations.

The governments of those countries each appeared to refuse, though the Italians had already decided to allow the hijackers safe conduct. Compromises were suggested, and politely declined. The USA were strongly opposed. Any agreement to allow the PLO to try the hijackers would amount to a far stronger recognition of the legitimacy of the PLO than the Americans had been willing to admit. It would also be an enormous propaganda coup for Arafat - in mounting such a trial he could appear to the world to be demonstrating a strong anti-terrorist policy.

While all this was being thrashed out, the news came through that the hijackers had released the Achille Lauro with all passengers and crew safe! In mid-afternoon the four hijackers were shown live on TV making victory signs as a patrol boat of the Egyptian navy carried them into Port Said harbour where a cheering group awaited them. But how the Italian authorities had decided that all aboard were safe, and when and how the Italians found out about the murder of the American citizen Leon Klinghoffer, were questions that aggravated the friction between the Italian and US authorities.

The Story Continues

  • Part Two - The death of the American tourist is discovered and the military intervene.
  • Part Three - Political and legal wrangling abound as the hijackers are put on trial, wanted men escape to a safe haven, and the Italian government collapses.
1'Hijacker' was originally an American term for a bandit who preys on criminals. Popular belief has it that the bandit would draw his gun, saying, 'Stick 'em up high, Jack.'

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