Achille Lauro hijacking

Achille Lauro hijacking

The Achille Lauro ca. 1987
Location MS Achille Lauro off the Egyptian coast
Date 7 October 1985 (1985-10-07)-
10 October 1985 (1985-10-10)
Attack type
Hijacking and hostage crisis
Weapons Firearms and hand grenades
Deaths 1
Perpetrators Palestine Liberation Front
Motive Publicity of Palestinian issues and release of Palestinian prisoners

On October 7, 1985, four men representing the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) hijacked the Italian MS Achille Lauro liner off the coast of Egypt, as she was sailing from Alexandria to Ashdod, Israel. The hijacking was organized by Muhammad Zaidan, leader of the PLF. One 69-year-old Jewish American man in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered by the hijackers and thrown overboard.


Throughout the 1980s, the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) and other members of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) launched attacks on both civilian and military targets in the north of Israel, across the Lebanese border. In response to one such attack by the PLO's Force 17 on an Israeli yacht, the PLO headquarters in Tunis were bombed by the Israeli Air Force (Operation Wooden Leg) on October 1, 1985. The headquarters were completely destroyed in this attack, and sixty PLO members were killed. The hijacking of Achille Lauro was thought to have been an act of retaliation for the bombing. However, this claim was disputed in 2013 by Zaidan's widow, Reem al-Nimer. According to al-Nimer, the hijacking had been planned 11 months in advance, and the hijackers already been on two 'dummy' training runs on Achille Lauro. The plan was to open fire on Israeli soldiers when the ship reached Ashdod – a suicide mission.[1]


On October 7, 1985, four PLF militants hijacked Achille Lauro off Egypt. The hijackers had been surprised by a crew member and acted prematurely. Holding the passengers and crew hostage, they directed the vessel to sail to Tartus, Syria, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons.

As many of the hostages were American tourists, U.S. President Ronald Reagan deployed the Navy's SEAL Team Six and Delta Force to stand-by and prepare for a possible rescue attempt to free the vessel from its hijackers.[2]

On October 8, after being refused permission by the Syrian government to dock at Tartus, the hijackers murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a retired, wheelchair-bound Jewish American businessman, shooting him multiple times. They then had the ship's barber and a waiter throw his body and wheelchair overboard. Klinghoffer's wife, Marilyn, who did not witness the shooting, was told by the hijackers that he had been moved to the infirmary. She only learned the truth after the hijackers left the ship at Port Said. PLO Foreign Secretary Farouq Qaddumi later denied that the hijackers were responsible for the murder, and suggested that Marilyn had killed her husband for insurance money.[3] Over a decade later, in April 1996, PLF leader Muhammad Zaidan accepted responsibility, and in 1997, the PLO reached a financial settlement with the Klinghoffer family.[4][5][6]

Achille Lauro headed back towards Port Said, and after two days of negotiations, the hijackers agreed to abandon the liner in exchange for safe conduct. They were flown towards Tunisia aboard an Egyptian commercial airliner.


The Egyptian airliner carrying the hijackers was intercepted by F-14 Tomcats from the VF-74 "BeDevilers" and the VF-103 "Sluggers" of Carrier Air Wing 17, based on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga,[7] and directed to land at Naval Air Station Sigonella (a NATO air base in Sicily) under the orders of U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger; there, the hijackers were arrested by the Italian Carabinieri[8] after a disagreement between American and Italian authorities.[Note 1] The other passengers on the plane (including Zaidan) were allowed to continue on to their destination,[10] despite protests by the United States. Egypt demanded an apology from the U.S. for forcing the airplane off course.


The fate of those convicted of the hijacking is varied:


Following the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, the Klinghoffer family founded the Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation, in cooperation with the Anti-Defamation League.[5]

The Achille Lauro hijacking has inspired a number of dramatic retellings:


  1. Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi claimed Italian territorial rights over the NATO base. Italian Air Force personnel and Carabinieri lined up facing the United States Navy SEALs which had arrived with two C-141s. Other Carabinieri were sent from Catania to reinforce the Italians. The US eventually allowed the hijackers to be taken into Italian custody, after receiving assurances that the hijackers would be tried for murder.[9]
  2. Although according to most sources this occurred during 1992 while al-Assadi was still in prison, according to Bohn's The Achille Lauro Hijacking,[11] al-Assadi was convinced to testify in the Spanish court against the Syrian billionaire arms dealer el-Kassar, but later recanted and refused to travel to Spain.


  1. Fisk, Robert (5 May 2013). "How Achille Lauro hijackers were seduced by high life". The Independent.
  2. Bohn, Michael K. (2004). The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics And Prejudice of Terrorism. Potomac Books, Inc. pp. 6–7. ISBN 978-1-574-88779-2.
  3. (subscription required)"P.L.O. Aide in a Charge Against Mrs. Klinghoffer". The New York Times. December 5, 1985. p. 9.
  4. "U.S. rejects terrorist's apology for Klinghoffer murder". CNN. April 24, 1996.
  5. 1 2 Berman, Daphna (May 9, 2008). "Klinghoffer daughters recall personal tragedy at commemoration of terror victims outside Israel". Haaretz.
  6. "PLO settles with family of Achille Lauro victim". CNN. August 11, 1997. Archived from the original on February 3, 1999.
  7. "The 1985 Achille Lauro affair". F-14 Tomcat in Combat. Retrieved March 21, 2013.
  8. Heymann, Philip B. (2001). Terrorism and America: A Commonsense Strategy for a Democratic Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
  9. Snyder, William P.; Brown, James (2004). Defense Policy In The Reagan Administration. DIANE Publishing. p. 141. ISBN 0-7881-4146-5.
  10. Bosiljevac, T.L. (1990). SEALS: UDT/SEAL Operations in Vietnam. Ballantine Books. p. 200. ISBN 0-8041-0722-X.
  11. Bohn, The Achille Lauro Hijacking, p. 174.
  12. "Achille-Lauro hijacker plays a new game". The Daily Star (Lebanon). May 28, 2007.
  13. "Achille Lauro Murderer Released in Italy". Israel National News. April 30, 2009.
  14. "Italy expels Palestinian hijacker to Syria". The Guardian. June 27, 2009.
  15. Cettl, Robert (2009). Terrorism in American Cinema: An Analytical Filmography, 1960–2008. McFarland. pp. 280–81. ISBN 978-0-786-45442-6.

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