In the 1980s more of the world's populace than ever before lived in fear of a terrorist act. There were in excess of 600 international terrorist incidents in 1984, a 20 percent increase over the previous five years' averages. Between 1982 and 1985, terrorist acts in the Mideast doubled annually. This sharp rise in assassinations, bombings, hijackings and kidnappings was attributable in part to improved technology -- better communications, more rapid transportation, and weapons that were both more compact and more deadly. Another factor was the rise in state-supported terrorism, with Iran, Syria, Libya, Cuba and Nicaragua actively promoting terrorist acts. Terrorists usually targeted civilians; innocent people were routinely blown up in discos and buses or gunned down on street corners and airport concourses. Kidnapping businessmen brought terrorist cells tens of millions of dollars in ransom, while attacks on diplomatic personnel and facilities rose by 60 percent in 1980-81 over the previous two years. In the mid-Eighties, $300-400 million was spent by the United States each year to enhance security at U.S. diplomatic posts, while the number of security personnel was doubled.
On Monday, 7 October 1985, Palestinian terrorists seized control of the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship carrying over 400 passengers and crew, of whom 19 were Americans. Communicating by ship-to-shore radio, the hijackers demanded the release of fifty of their Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF) comrades imprisoned in Israel. The Reagan administration responded by urging Israel to make no deals with the terrorists. It also called on all Mediterranean nations to forbid the Achille Lauro from docking at their ports. Three months earlier, Shi'ite terrorists had hijacked TWA Flight 847 and landed the plane at Beirut Airport, where the 37 hostages were dispersed throughout the city, and the crisis dragged on for two and a half weeks as a result. This time the administration hoped to contain the situation aboard the Achille Lauro.
While the vessel was shadowed by American and Italian ships using "over the horizon" surveillance, British and Italian commandos made preparations at the Royal Air Force base at Akrotiri, Cyprus. U.S. Navy SEALs also arrived at Akrotiri, but by Wednesday, when the commandos were ready to attempt a rescue mission, the terrorists were no longer aboard theAchille Lauro. On Tuesday the hijackers had steered for Egypt's Port Said and requested a deal -- they would surrender if they were immunized from prosecution and released into the custody of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Much to the chagrin of U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, Egypt agreed to a deal negotiated with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who posed during the crisis as a peace-loving statesman in an interview with ABC Nightline's Ted Koppel. "Arafat," said Secretary Shultz, "wanted a medal for helping to put out the fire he had set." Israeli intelligence learned that Arafat's right-hand man, Abul Abbas -- co-founder of the PLF, commander of a 1500-man Palestinian army based in Tunis, and one of the world's most wanted terrorists -- had masterminded the hijacking and was now with Arafat negotiating for the escape of his men. Apparently the four hijackers had intended to remain incognito until the cruise ship docked at Ashdod, Israel, but were discovered by a ship's steward -- only then did they seize the ship. (This was later confirmed by Abbas himself.)
On Wednesday the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Nick Veliotes, reported that the terrorists had executed an American tourist named Leon Klinghoffer, a retired appliance manufacturer from Manhattan. The victim of two strokes, Klinghoffer had been wheelchair-bound. He was shot in the chest and head and his body tossed into the sea. Americans relived a nightmare; U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem had been murdered by the Hezbollah Shi'ites who hijacked TWA Flight 847. The world had watched, horrified, as Stethem's corpse was thrown out of the plane onto the Beirut Airport tarmac. Those criminals had escaped justice. Would the murderers of Leon Klinghoffer also get off scot-free? At first it seemed so. Ignoring U.S. protests, the Egyptian government rushed Abul Abbas and the Achille Lauro hijackers into an EgyptAir 737 charter plane bound for Tunis.
At 5:30 P.M. on Thursday, October 10, President Reagan was aboard Air Force One, returning to Washington, D.C. from a speaking engagement in the Chicago area, when word reached him that the terrorists were getting away. He authorized the carrier USS Saratoga, patrolling the Adriatic Sea, to put seven F-14 Tomcats into the air. Their orders: divert the Egyptian aircraft to a NATO base at Sigonella, Sicily. The appearance of the Tomcats unnerved the EgyptAir pilot, who compliantly altered course for Sicily. He had no way of knowing that the American "top guns" had orders to refrain from shooting down the 737 without direct instructions from the president.
Initially the Italians were not disposed to cooperate, scrambling their own warplanes to prevent a landing at Sigonella, but after a call from Reagan, Italy's Prime Minister Bettino Craxi gave permission to land. The American plan was to load the Palestinians onto a U.S. military aircraft and transport them to the States. But when American troops encircled the 737 they found themselves surrounded in turn by Italian soldiers. Italy had decided that since the Achille Laurowas an Italian vessel, the hijackers should be tried in Italian courts. The terrorists faced charges of premeditated murder, kidnapping and hijacking. When Reagan called Craxi this time, the Italian leader wouldn't budge -- Abul Abbas and his cronies would remain in Italian hands. After Arafat threatened *uncontrollable reactions" if the Italians turned Abbas over to the Americans, Italy refused a U.S. request to extradite the terrorist leader. Abbas was soon freed. In 1986 the four hijackers were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms,
The American public emphatically approved of the bold mid-flight interception of the Achille Lauroterrorists. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak decorated the 737 pilot and demanded an apology from the United States. Reagan vowed he would never apologize, and Cairo University students staged several anti-American demonstrations. The Craxi coalition government in Italy collapsed as crucial members abandoned it to protest what they deemed to be an anti-Israel, pro-PLO stance. And, bowing to U.S. pressure, the United Nations General Assembly shelved a proposal to invite Yasser Arafat to speak at an event celebrating the UN's fortieth anniversary. Having himself condoned the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, Arafat accused Reagan of an "act of piracy" by intercepting the EgyptAir 737.