WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It started on my 42nd birthday -- Monday, Oct. 7, 1985. No sooner had I arrived at my office in the White House that morning, than the senior watch officer in the Situation Room called. No hard intelligence was available yet, but something was amiss in the Mediterranean. What we did know was that it was an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, and it was about 30 miles from Port Said, Egypt where four Palestinian terrorists had embarked carrying grenades, guns and ammunition. Years before Sept. 11, most passenger cruise ships didn't have the security procedures they do today.
Urban legends to the contrary, more of my time in Ronald Reagan's White House was spent on counterterrorism than on any other issue. This particular incident was about to keep me and other members of the counterterrorism task force awake and working around the clock for the next several days. For the terrorist who planned the attack, the ultimate conclusion came this week, when Abul Abbas, a.k.a. Mohammed Abbas, died in American custody after being captured in Baghdad 11 months earlier by U.S. Special Forces.
The original goal of the hijackers was to attack Israeli interests after docking at the Israeli port of Ashdod. But their cover was blown by a cabin steward on board, and they resorted to taking over the ship, demanding the release of 50 Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails. To demonstrate their brutality, they murdered an American and later bragged about it. Leon Klinghoffer, who was confined to a wheelchair, was shot in the head and dumped into the sea.
After being denied asylum in Syria, the ship returned to Egypt. Charlie Allen, the CIA's expert on terrorism at the time, noticed that Abul Abbas -- the head of the Palestine Liberation Front, a terrorist organization, and a member of the PLO executive committee -- had been granted diplomatic clearance into Egypt. Abbas was a key ally of PLO leader Yasser Arafat and had a history of brutal, though poorly executed, attacks on Israeli citizens.
Abbas was dispatched to Egypt by Arafat to play the role of a "neutral peacemaker." Apparently, the terrorists on board the Achille Lauro didn't get the memo explaining the ruse that Abbas would pose as a neutral party, because when he came on the radio to "negotiate" with them, they greeted him with the words, "Commander, we are happy to hear your voice."
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.