Achille Lauro by Tom Reynolds
Yesterday was 36th anniversary of the beginning of the Achille Lauro hijacking. The Italian MS Achille Lauro was hijacked by four men representing the Palestine Liberation Front off the coast of Egypt. During the hijacking, a 69-year-old Jewish American man in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered by the hijackers and thrown overboard.
Learning of the hijacking and that there were Americans on board, members of the Reagan administration in Washington, D.C. moved to take action. The Terrorist Incident Working Group (which included National Security Council staff member Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North) met in accord with predetermined counter-terrorist procedures. The Group recommended that the Pentagon dispatch a team of special operations forces to Europe in case the ship needed to be seized to rescue the hostages.
By October 9th, the Reagan administration had implemented a plan for the Achille Lauro to be liberated by the U.S. military. SEAL Team Six embarked on board the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship. It was decided that the raid would go ahead as long as the Achille Lauro was in international waters, but would be put on hold if it was found in Egyptian waters.
On the morning of Thursday, October 10, 1985, Oliver North had contacted Israeli Major General Uri Simhoni, the military attaché at the Israeli embassy in Washington. He relayed to North that the four hijackers were at the Al Maza airfield near Cairo. American sources confirmed that the Egyptians were planning to transport the men out of the country at night, presumably to Tunis, aboard a commercial EgyptAir jet. The four hijackers boarded an EgyptAir Boeing 737 accompanied by Abu Abbas (later discovered to be the mastermind behind the operation), Ozzuddin Badrakkan (a PLO official), and several members of Egypt's counterterrorism unit Force 777. The flight was set to fly to Tunisia.
Planes from the USS Saratoga intercepted the airliner and forced it down to Sigonella Italy where SEAL Team Six surrounded the plane. This led to an armed standoff between Seal team 6 and 300 Italian soldiers. The leader of SEAL Team 6 radioed, “I am not worried about our situation. We have the firepower to prevail. But I am concerned about the immaturity of the Italian troops. ... A backfire from a motorbike or a construction cart could precipitate a shooting incident that could lead to a lot of Italian casualties”.
Eventually, the diplomats worked something out.
Abbas and Badrakkan were allowed to escape by the Italian government but an Italian Court convicted the four hijackers of various charges.
This was not some Tom Clancy novel but a real-life incident and on October 16th, you will have the chance to meet and hear Oliver North at SCOPE’s annual banquet at breezes in Utica. It’s a chance to meet living history. A chance to hear someone who knows how military missions are supposed to be handled (as opposed to the recent debacle in Afghanistan). A chance to hear someone who worked in the Reagan White House.