Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy toward Terrorism
Source of the interview below: John F. Burns, "Threats and responses: An Old Terrorist; Ringleader of '85 Achille Lauro Hijacking Says Killing Wasn't His Fault," New York Times (November 8, 2002): 14.
Seventeen years after terrorists from 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, the man who calls himself Abu Abbas may be approaching the day when he will finally have to face a day of reckoning with American justice.
After years as a fugitive, interrupted for four years in the 1990's when the Oslo accords allowed him to live unhindered in Gaza, Mr. Abbas, 53, is back in Baghdad, living under the protection of President Saddam Hussein. But President Bush's threat to invade Iraq in pursuit of a "regime change" has now put even this refuge in doubt, and Mr. 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, Mr. Abbas is now eager to meet with American reporters and explain his past.
The killing of Mr. 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.
Mr. Abbas is keen to put distance between himself and the Muslim hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks last year, whom he describes as terrorists -- a term he rejects when applied to himself and the others involved in the killing of Mr. Klinghoffer.
In a two-hour interview at the modest two-story villa in the Baghdad suburb of Zeiyunia that serves as headquarters for his Palestine Liberation Front, an offshoot of Yasir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, Mr. Abbas spoke contemptuously of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
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 Qaeda, 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 Mr. bin Laden.
"That," he said, with emphasis, "is terrorism."
Asked if he was sorry for what happened to Mr. Klinghoffer, Mr. 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.
"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."
The difficulty, or impossibility, of making an ethical distinction between between the killing of the World Trade Center victims and the murder of Mr. Klinghoffer, who was a retired businessman, seemed lost on Mr. Abbas, as did the fact that an Italian court has convicted him of murder in the Klinghoffer case.
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 1990's, 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.
For the Klinghoffer family, no mollifying statements now seem likely to be of any value.
Reached for comment on Mr. Abbas's statements, Lisa Klinghoffer, one of Mr. Klinghoffer's two daughters, said: "Abu Abbas was found guilty by an Italian court for the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, and we still hope to see the day when he will be brought to justice. Nothing Abu Abbas says matters."
Over the years, Mr. Abbas, whose real name is Muhammad Abbas, has given a number of interviews about the case, always maintaining -- against the conclusions of American investigators, who called him the mastermind of the ship hijacking -- that he was innocent in the killing.
He noted that he was not aboard the Achille Lauro during the hijacking, but in Jordan, and that he negotiated the deal in which the hijackers surrendered the ship off the Egyptian coast in return for passage to Mr. Arafat's headquarters, then in Tunis.
The interview was arranged after a reporter for The New York Times had a chance encounter with Mr. Abbas in the lobby of the Rashid Hotel here; later, Mr. Arafat's embassy in Baghdad provided Mr. Abbas's telephone number.
After 24 hours of elusiveness from his Palestinian aides about the location, the interview was conducted behind a wall of security provided by Palestinian men with Kalashnikov rifles and holstered pistols and seemed, for long passages, to be tinged with surrealism.
Nowhere was that more evident than when Mr. Abbas, heavyset, in need of reading glasses and troubled in recent years by a heart ailment, sought to lay out a moral argument that made the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks terrorists, for killing innocent Americans, while sparing himself and his associates the same description.
But if he sensed that others might see him as offering latter-day rationalizations against the possibility that he might fall into American hands, he denied that he was seeking to soften American anger against him.
If the United States attacks Baghdad "and I am still here," he said, he will fight alongside Iraqi troops to defeat the Americans. But he added: "I really haven't spent a moment thinking about this. If the Americans want to attack, and destroy Saddam Hussein, they would be doing much, much more than the personal damage they will do to me."
The murder of Mr. Klinghoffer is by no means the only violent incident attributed to Mr. Abbas and his group, which attempted a number of terrorist acts in the 1980's. None of those, which included attacks by rubber boat, balloon and glider, were considered successful, and civilian casualties were minimal.
In 1990, in the group's most notorious action after the Klinghoffer murder, 17 terrorists on hang gliders were intercepted by Israeli forces before they could fulfill their mission of killing Israelis on vacation at beach resorts. Four of the 17 died; no Israelis were hurt.
In 1993, when the P.L.O. signed the first of the Oslo accords with Israel, Mr. Abbas and his group renounced terrorism and recognized Israel's right to exist. In 1996, under an amnesty decreed in the Oslo accords, he left his sanctuary in Baghdad and returned to Gaza.
While there, he traveled to Israel, visiting his birthplace at the village of Tiryat, near Mount Carmel. A few days before the Oslo accords collapsed in a new wave of violence in September 2000, he fled back to Baghdad.
More recently he has been quoted in Iraqi news reports as supporting Mr. Hussein's calls for a "new jihad" against Israel.
His group is currently included on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, and Israeli officials have said in recent weeks that men from Mr. Abbas's group have undergone terrorist training in Iraq, and that several of his loyalists were arrested this summer as they tried to enter Israel with plans to carry out attacks at Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv.
Against that background, some American officials predict that he may yet end up facing the death sentence in an American jail if charges in the Klinghoffer killing are revived.
Mr. Abbas insists that any action against him in the death of Mr. Klinghoffer would be deeply unjust. He said that his group's "military commanders" had planned to use the Achille Lauro as a means of sneaking into the Israel port of Ashdod, where they intended to attack naval installations, but that matters had gone awry.
After Mr. Klinghoffer's death, he said, he worked with the Egyptian government "to successfully liberate the ship and bring everybody to safety."
Once he met up with the hijackers, he said, he asked them why they had killed Mr. Klinghoffer.
"They told me there was an argument on board, Klinghoffer made some noises, so they shot him. And then" -- at this point he spread his arms wide open and paused, as if unwilling to recall in plain words that Mr. Klinghoffer had been thrown into the sea -- "and then something else happened, something bad."
In Egypt, Mr. Abbas was reunited with the hijackers and put aboard an aircraft with them for a flight to Tunis, then Mr. Arafat's headquarters. But the aircraft was intercepted on President Reagan's orders and forced to land at an American air base in Italy.
He was handed over to the Italian authorities, but they quickly freed him, saying they lacked evidence to charge him. Only later, under protests from Washington, was he indicted in an Italian court and later sentenced to life imprisonment.
But by then he had resumed his clandestine life. For much of the late 1980's and early 1990's he lived in Tunis, then Algeria and Libya and, since 1994, in Baghdad. He and his wife, Reem, have five sons: a 15-year-old boy who lives with them in Baghdad, two other sons who live in Canada, another in Austria and a fourth in Lebanon.
When it was put to him that few Americans would quibble if airstrikes were used to kill him and his associates, Mr. Abbas smiled uneasily and spread his hands.
"Of course they might try and kill me with a Tomahawk," he said, referring to the cruise missiles that have been used by the score in previous American air attacks on Iraq. "But whatever they do to me is nothing against what they have already done to the Palestinian cause."
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