Back at the White House, we drafted a strong personal message for President Reagan to send to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, asking him to turn the terrorists over to us -- or at least to the Italians, as we learned that Arafat and Abbas had struck a deal with Mubarak that if the terrorists surrendered to the Egyptians they would be given safe passage out of the country.
While that information was true, it was the timing of their exit that was in question. In the Situation Room on Thursday morning, I found a cable informing us that the Egyptians allowed the four terrorists to leave the country. Mubarak claimed ignorance to the validity of the report, the terrorists' whereabouts and the murder of Klinghoffer.
After checking with numerous sources in Washington and around the world, we learned that not only were the terrorists still in Egypt, but that they would be flying out that night, with the help of the Egyptians, and Abul Abbas would be on the plane with them.
We devised a plan for F-14 Tomcats flying off the Sixth Fleet's USS Saratoga to intercept the plane and force it down at a base in Sigonella, Sicily, so we could take the terrorists into custody and fly them back to the United States to stand trial. A team of Special Operations Forces had been dispatched overseas days earlier, believing that they would have to board the Achille Lauro and take out the terrorists on the ship.
It was a difficult, dangerous mission, but Navy pilots and Special Ops Forces executed it to the letter. The problem began when the Italian national police involved themselves and demanded custody of Abbas and his terrorists. Since a shoot-out with the Italians would have been a political disaster, we had to entrust them with custody of Abbas and his henchmen. Abbas was separated from the others and eventually was put on a plane in Rome where he made his way to Yugoslavia to Tunisia to Damascus to Baghdad.
In the years that he was given safe haven in Iraq, Abbas was believed to be a key conduit between Saddam Hussein and Palestinian terrorists whose families were rewarded by Saddam based on the number of Israelis they were able to murder.
While I was in Iraq as an embedded correspondent for Fox News, U.S. Special Forces found Abul Abbas in Baghdad and took him into custody, proving what Ronald Reagan said 18 years earlier: "You can run, but you can't hide." Abbas and Abu Nidal, who was found dead in Iraq, were just two of numerous terrorists who were granted safe haven by Saddam.
While it is unfortunate that Abbas avoided having to stand trial and answer for his crimes, the American public can take comfort in the fact that he was in American custody, and there is one less terrorist in the world today.
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.