Muhammad Abbas, the mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking
TRAIL OF TERROR
NEW ROLE FOR 'ACHILLE LAURO' HIJACKER
Murderer of American to become 'peacemaker'
Muhammad Abbas, the mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking, is expected today to arrive in Cairo from Baghdad for talks with Egyptian officials on the possibility of his Palestinian Liberation Front joining talks there among leading Palestinian factions next week to discuss an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire with Israel.
Palestinian Authority officials said yesterday that the Egyptian government, at the behest of the U.S. and the EU, is expected to seek the Palestinians’ approval for the proposal, which calls for a cessation of all military actions on both sides, the Jerusalem Post reported today.
In addition to ending the violence, the Egyptian initiative also calls for granting Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat permission to leave his headquarters in Ramallah.
A draft of the initiative was presented to Hamas and Fatah representatives who visited Cairo last week for talks aimed at paving the way for a meeting that would bring together representatives of other Palestinian groups, such as Islamic Jihad, the Democratic Front, the Popular Front, and the Peoples’ Party.
Gen. Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian intelligence, has played a major role in convincing the Palestinian groups to send their representatives to the talks. Yesterday, he met with Islamic Jihad.
The No. 2 man in the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas is expected to lead the Fatah delegation.
Hamas and Fatah officials who visited Cairo last week have told Egyptian officials they would agree to stop their attacks against civilians inside Israel only if the IDF pulls back to its pre-September 28, 2000 positions. Shiekh Nafez Azzam, an Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip, also said his group would be prepared to halt its attacks inside the Green Line if Israel stops its ”military aggression against the Palestinians.”
Abbas has been trying to rehabilitate his image with Americans for the last several months – even by denouncing the terrorism of Sept. 11.
But 17 years ago his Palestinian splinter group shot Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old American Jew from New York, and pushed him, in his wheelchair, into the Mediterranean from the deck of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.
After years as a fugitive, interrupted for four years in the 1990s when the Oslo accords allowed him to live unhindered in Gaza, Abbas, 53, has been living in Baghdad under the protection of President Saddam Hussein. But President Bush’s threat to invade Iraq in pursuit of a ”regime change” has put this refuge in doubt, and Abbas has to contemplate the day when American troops might arrive at his door.
Perhaps because of that, or perhaps because the passing years have lent a new perspective on a lifetime’s commitment to violence for political ends, Abbas has been eager to meet with American reporters and explain his past.
The killing of Klinghoffer, on Oct. 7, 1985, in full view of his wife, Marilyn, was an act that at the time seemed to set a standard for remorselessness among terrorists.
In an interview with the New York Times two months ago, he condemned the attack on the World Trade Center, saying it made no political sense and took thousands of innocent lives.
The essential difference between his group and al-Qaida, he said, was that in the Achille Lauro operation and later attacks, his group was serving what he described as a limited, historical goal – the liberation of Palestinians and the recovery of their ”occupied” lands – and not the borderless, limitless holy war on America and Israel, and Americans and Jews, declared by Osama bin Laden.
”That,” he said, with emphasis, ”is terrorism.”
Asked if he was sorry for what happened to Klinghoffer, Abbas seemed to search for words that would express regret but not an apology, and that would equate the Klinghoffer killing with American and Israeli military actions that have caused civilian deaths, according to the New York Times report.
”Of course, it wasn’t my fault,” he said. ”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.”
He faces a life sentence in Italy, and American prosecutors have left open the possibility that a federal indictment for piracy, hostage-taking and conspiracy could be revived. It was dropped in the 1990s, partly because of the statute of limitations and partly because Justice Department officials were not sure that their evidence would stand up in an American court.