On 7 October 1985, four Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro as it was sailing from Alexandria, Egypt, to Ashdod, Israel. They murdered Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly, wheelchair-bound American Jew, and took some 320 crewmembers and 80 passengers hostage.
The heavily armed terrorists from the Popular Front for the Palestine Liberation (PLF), a minor group of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, demanded that Israel release imprisoned PLF members and sought access to a Syrian port. If their demands were not met, they threatened to blow up the ship and kill American and British passengers on board. At the request of the U.S. and Italian governments, Syria denied their demand for access to their port. The terrorists proceeded to shoot the 69-year-old Klinghoffer in the head and force the ship’s barber and a waiter to throw his body and wheelchair overboard.
While the PLO would later deny that the hijackers murdered Klinghoffer, suggesting instead that his wife, Marilyn, had murdered him for insurance money, over a decade later, it reached a financial settlement with his family.
On 9 October, the cruise ship traveled to Port Said, Egypt, where in exchange for a pledge of safe passage to an undisclosed destination, the terrorists freed the hostages. The terrorists proceeded to board an EgyptAir Boeing 737 airliner, along with PLF leader Muhammad Zaidan.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered American fighter jets to blockade the plane and forced it to land at a NATO air base in Sigonella, Sicily. A standoff between the United States and the Italian army ended with the Italian authorities taking Abbas and the other terrorists into custody. The standoff between the two NATO allies would become known as “the Sigonella Crisis.”
While the hijackers were arrested soon after, Abbas and the other Palestinians were released by Italian authorities, prompting strong criticism from the United States, which sought to investigate their possible involvement in the hijacking prior to their release.
While the remaining terrorists were convicted, only one received a sentence of 30 years; the others received lighter prison terms. Italy convicted Abbas in absentia, but did not seek extradition until 2003. Abbas was captured by American Special Forces in Baghdad that year and died in American custody in 2004.