MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Iraq—U.S. Special Forces captured Palestinian terrorist Abul Abbas, who was convicted in the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship and murder of an invalid American, Leon Klinghoffer, the Marines said Tuesday.
Marines said Abul Abbas, who had long been known to be living in Iraq, was captured on Monday in a house in Baghdad by the same secret team of U.S. commandos that rescued American Army prisoner of war Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital.
The team, composed of elite forces from the U.S. military and other government branches, is also at work tracking down senior figures in Saddam Hussein's former regime.
Abbas will be brought to the United States to face justice for Klinghoffer's murder, said a senior U.S. official, requesting anonymity, although there are no U.S. charges outstanding against him.
"This reiterates a clear message to terrorists that they can run but they cannot hide. We will hunt them down, we will find them, and no matter how long it takes, we will bring them to justice," said a senior White House official. "This is one more example of Saddam Hussein's regime's ties to terror."
At least 20 foreign fighters have been captured in Iraq during the war after they rushed here to launch an Afghanistan-like holy war against the infidel U.S. and British troops now occupying the country.
Abbas, a Palestinian radical who tried to kill Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat in the early 1980s, was convicted in absentia by an Italian court of masterminding the hijacking of the 633-foot Italian liner off the coast of Egypt.
During the two-day hijacking in the eastern Mediterranean, his gunmen shot Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish American who used a wheelchair, in the head and chest, then dumped his body overboard. His body was found several days later on the Syrian coast. Firing automatic weapons and casually pulling the pins from grenades, the gunmen terrorized the other 96 passengers before fleeing the ship.
Months later Abul Abbas told a group of American journalists at a PLO summit in Algiers that Klinghoffer had "gone for a swim."
Adding poignancy to the case, Klinghoffer was murdered in front of his wife and a large group of friends from a Jewish synagogue in New York.
"They were all from the same temple," recalled Nicholas Veliotes, who at the time was U.S. ambassador to Cairo and boarded the ship once the seizure ended. "This was her farewell trip. She was dying of cancer."
Marilyn Klinghoffer later died, but the couple's two children survive.
"Hopefully, this will help the family come to closure in this tragedy," Veliotes said.
Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old who used a wheelchair after suffering two strokes, became a symbol of the brutality of Middle Eastern terrorism in the 1980s.
The four other members of the Abul Abbas terror squad were arrested, convicted and sent to Italian prison, but later escaped.
Although long officially a part of the PLO, Abul Abbas remained on the fringes of the Palestinian movement, settling down in Baghdad along with another notorious terrorist from the 1980s, Abu Nidal.
Iraqi authorities reported that Abu Nidal committed suicide in Baghdad last summer, although there were rumors that Saddam's secret services murdered him to eliminate a potential embarrassment as the Bush administration was threatening an invasion.
Washington has long accused Iraq of harboring Abu Nidal and Abul Abbas, although its most recent allegations against Saddam focused on his regime's reputed links with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
Last Oct. 7, President Bush mentioned Abul Abbas in a speech in Cincinnati as he built his case for the need to send troops to topple Saddam.
"Iraq has also provided safe haven to Abul Abbas," Bush said then, "who is responsible for seizing the Achille Lauro and killing an American passenger. And we know that Iraq is continuing to finance terror and give assistance to groups who use terrorism to undermine Middle East peace."
In an interview with a New York Times reporter last November, Abul Abbas sought to distance himself from the murder of Klinghoffer, suggesting that he wasn't personally responsible and that the American was caught in unfortunate circumstances.
"Of course, it wasn't my fault," Abbas told the newspaper. "I didn't shoot the man. But he was a civilian, and I ask myself, `What was his fault?' It is no different whoever the civilian who is killed may be—whether you drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki or you kill some innocent person who is walking down a road."
Abbas, who allegedly directed the operation from onshore, said he later asked the four men in the terrorist squad why they killed Klinghoffer.
"They told me there was an argument on board, Klinghoffer made some noises, so they shot him," Abbas said. "And then . . . and then, something else happened, something bad."
The image of Klinghoffer getting thrown off the ship into the Mediterranean horrified many Americans, giving Abbas' capture special significance.
"He's symbolically important to the U.S. because . . . the American was killed under such absolutely horrendous circumstances," said Mike Ackerman, a former CIA terrorism expert who runs an international security consultancy in Miami.
Abul Abbas, whose real name is Mohammed Abbas, was the head of the Palestine Liberation Front, an offshoot of the PLO headed by Yasser Arafat. The splinter group carried out a number of smaller attacks, but was sometimes seen as bungling.
"His group was always kind of a sideshow," Ackerman said.
The PLF spent the 1980s and early 1990s carrying out a series of destructive terrorist attacks, failing as often as they succeeded.
In 1990, 17 armed terrorists from the faction sought to use hang gliders to attack Israelis sunning themselves at beach resorts. Israeli commandos intercepted the group, and no Israelis were killed. Four of the terrorists were slain.
In November 2001, 15 members of a PLF cell were arrested by Israeli authorities. Some of those captured had received terrorist training in Iraq. The cell had been planning attacks in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and at the nearby Ben Gurion airport.
One question remains. Why did Abbas decide not to flee Iraq as American troops closed in on Baghdad?
"It makes me think that he wasn't welcome in Syria," Ackerman said.
(Knight Ridder correspondents Tim Johnson and Shannon McCaffrey in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030415 USIRAQ ABBAS