Hijackers captured global attention
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The Achille Lauro Hijacking – Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism
By Michael K. Bohn
Potomac Books, Dulles, Virginia
Reviewed by Captain Edward Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
Michael K. Bohn’s The Achille Lauro Hijacking; Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism, is an accurate historical account of a forceful drama that held the world spellbound for several days in 1985.
Bohn’s account is made so much more credible due to his work at the time as a naval officer in the White House Situation Room. In fact, Bohn has authored the revealing book, “Nerve Center – Inside the White House Situation Room,” on that critical facility. He provides intimate details and unique insights into the shock and frustration that gripped America and the world as Palestinian terrorists took an Italian cruise liner hostage, and killed an American passenger to make serious their demands. The U.S. was resolute in doing something about this incident, especially since it followed the TWA hijacking just a few months earlier, which resulted in the execution of a U.S. Navy Sailor.
The story gets interesting when Egyptian authorities permit the terrorists safe passage out of Egypt if they surrendered the ship. The U.S. Navy then was able to locate the EgyptAir 737 airliner leaving Egypt, intercepting it, and forcing it down at the NATO airbase at Sigonella, Sicily, near the port city of Catania.
Bohn describes the global attention upon the events surrounding the hijacking and the subsequent capture of the terrorists.
“Every country involved was mad at the others. The U.S. government was irate over Italy’s decision to release the man who organized the hijacking, Mohammed “Abu” Abbas. President Reagan was beside himself after Egypt failed to arrest the hijackers, then tried to sneak them out of the country. In turn, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak felt humiliated after U.S. aircraft “hijacked the hijackers,” as he described the intercept of the Egyptian airliner. Israel ranted and raved at the Palestine Liberation Organization for the death of a Jewish-American on board Achille Lauro. Italy was mad at the PLO because the PLO had promised to stay away from Italian targets in return for Italy’s support of the Palestinian movement. Months passed before the international brouhaha died down.
The military operation was an extraordinary demonstration of airmanship, Bohn says. “Although the entire air wing in Saratoga contributed, the leadership and innovativeness of Ralph Zia, the E-2C squadron commander, was superb. Aloft in one of his squadron’s Hawkeyes, Zia tracked all aircraft departing Egypt. He sent the F-14 pilots to intercept any headed toward Tunisia. The Tomcat crews had to get close enough to determine if the contact was an EgyptAir 737, and if so, did it have the tail number of the plane carrying the hijackers. Steve Weatherspoon, one of the F-14 pilots said the operation was no big deal, but those guys had the right stuff that night.”
I asked Bohn if the operation was well conceived and planned, or was it largely the result of having the right assets, resources and training in place to capitalize on an opportunity?
“The whole thing was a seat-of-the-pants operation,” says Bohn. “We were lucky to have Saratoga nearby, but after that, everything was the result of skilled participants doing their best. The intelligence community produced the aircraft tail number and departure time. Vice Admiral Art Moreau, the assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was largely responsible for putting Zia and the F-14 pilots in the right place at the right time. Several people at the White House made sure that everyone acted quickly. There was one other critical facet of the operation—Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger was on travel. Had he been in Washington, nothing would have worked as smoothly.”
As for myself, this reviewer was at Sigonella that night. Sigonella is an Italian Air Base, and the U.S. is a “tenant command.” The tower is jointly manned. The Italians at the base were not aware of the present state of the operation. When the Italians denied the aircraft permission to land, the U.S. Navy command duty officer – who was the air traffic control officer – was called up to the tower by the U.S. personnel to help get the EgyptAir flight on the ground. Lt. Gary Tate did just that, locking his Italian counterparts out. So I took over the duty officer’s responsibilities from him while he handled the air traffic control responsibilities. I watched the 737 land, escorted by F-14s, followed by USAF C-141s carrying Special Forces.
On board the aircraft were the terrorists, and Egyptian “777” commandos who provided an escort. All were presumably armed. Soon, U.S. Special Forces, then Italian forces, surrounded the aircraft. That the tense situation didn’t erupt into a shootout I attribute to my commanding officer, Capt. Bill Spearman, who coolly kept the situation from becoming a confrontation.
Bohn tells us about the Italians subsequently released the mastermind behind the operation, Mohammed “Abu” Abbas, the trial of the terrorists in the Italian courts, and how the Klinghoffer family steadfastly pressed for justice. Bohn also tells about Alex Odeh, an outspoken Palestinian living in America, who was killed allegedly by the Jewish Defense League.
I asked Bohn how is the Odeh case and Klinghoffer’s situation were similar.
“The Palestinian hijackers killed Klinghoffer because he was a Jew,” Bohn said. The Jewish Defense League killed Odeh, an American living in California, because he was of Palestinian decent. “Both died unnecessarily and were innocent bystanders to the senseless violence surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Attention to the two murders varied widely because of ethnic and religious stereotyping in America. The news media, politicians, and law enforcement agencies worked hard on the Klinghoffer story, but paid no attention to who killed Odeh, a Catholic father of three.”
Are there lessons for us todaythat we should take from Achille Lauro affair in 1985?
Bohn says the hijacking teaches us that America’s war today with radical Islamic extremists is not just a battle between good and evil. “Many have attempted to reduce international terrorism to simplistic terms, with President George W. Bush leading the pack. The reasons that Americans increasingly have become subjects of terrorism in the last twenty-five years are far too complex to be described by oversimplified jingoisms or bumper sticker sound bites. The Achille Lauro incident revealed that terrorism is about violence, power politics, prejudice, hatred, land, religion, greed, money, and a host of venal factors that all influence human society. All of these forces were present in the Achille Lauro hijacking and its aftermath.,” Bohn says. “We should learn from the past.”
“Lastly,” Bohn says, “terror is not the enemy. It’s simply a tactic used by groups like al Qaeda that are opposed to U.S. foreign policy.”
Edward Lundquist is a senior technical director with Anteon Corporation.