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Personal Background

Muhammed Zaidan, nicknamed Abu Abbas, was born in Saifed, Israel in 1948. However, he did not live long there; his parents fled the country that same year because of the formation of Israel and the partition of Palestine that year. Probably driven by feelings of anger over the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, he joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a Palestinian terrorist group in 1968, thus beginning what turned out to be a long career in terrorism at the age of 20.

However, the relationship between Mr. Abbas and PFLP-GC leader Ahmad Jibril was anything but harmonious; Mr. Abbas disagreed with Mr. Jibril's pro-Syrian leanings. Finally, in April 1977, the tension between the two terrorist figures reached a breaking point and Mr. Abbas left the PFLP-GC, forming the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF) with several of his followers. That organization again split into three smaller between 1983 and 1984. The three groups, one pro-Palestinian Liberation Organization (the one Mr. Abbas led), one pro-Syrian, and one pro-Libyan, each carried the name PLF and claimed to represent the entire body. Finally, in November 1989, Mr. Abbas's faction reunited with the one that was led by the newly dead Tal'at Ya'akub (Mr. Ya'akub's death due to a heart attack caused his former followers to rejoin with Mr. Abbas) and the present-day PLF was born, with Abu Abbas as its general secretary.

The Achille Lauro Hijacking

Mr. Abbas and his faction of the PLF are responsible for numerous terrorist attacks over the years, but none as infamous as the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in October 1985. Mr. Abbas, along with four other terrorists, seized the Italian cruise ship, demanding the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel at the time. To prove his sincerity, Mr. Abbas ordered the execution of an invalid, the Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. After his followers shot him, they threw his body and wheelchair overboard into the Mediterranean.

When Israel refused to capitulate to his demands, Mr. Abbas accepted an Egyptian offer and surrendered to Egyptian authorities. However, the plane carrying Mr. Abbas and his followers was forced to land in a NATO base in Sicily by United States jet fighter-planes. To further complicate matters, the Italian government claimed jurisdiction over the hijackers and, though they arrested the four henchmen, allowed Mr. Abbas to walk away because he was carrying Iraqi diplomatic papers. Finally, after US pressure, the Italian government tried him in absentia for the hijacking and sentenced him to five life sentences. The United States Justice Department has also filed charges against him over the incident, though they have expired without indictment.

Other Terrorist Actions

Mr. Abbas and the PLF are also responsible for many other terrorist attacks, most of them against Israel. The most important of these was an attempt in 1990 by the PLF to send 17 terrorists using inflatable rubber boats to land on Israeli beaches and open fire on Israeli civilians. Fortunately for Israel, Israeli security forces intercepted the terrorists before they could injure any civilians. This action temporarily disrupted the peace process between Israel and the PLO.

Related Organizations and People

Mr. Abbas's pro-PLO leanings caused him to guide his faction, and later the reunited PLF, into a close alliance with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. Mr. Arafat and his organization directly and indirectly provided Mr. Abbas and the PLF with both logistical and monetary support to carry out terrorist attacks. In the end, the union between the two men and their respective organizations grew until the PLF became a virtual satellite organization of the PLO with Mr. Abbas becoming member of the PLO's Executive Committee in 1984. The close relationship between Mr. Arafat and Mr. Abbas did not last forever, though. The PLO, increasingly pushing for a peaceful solution to the conflict with Israel, saw Mr. Abbas's terrorist attacks as an embarrassment. The break culminated in 1991 when Mr. Abbas left the PLO's Executive Council. However, the PLO continued to exert considerable authority over Mr. Abbas's organization; when the PLO signed the Oslo Accords with Israel, the PLO was able to persuade it to renounce violence as a way of ensuring the creation of a Palestinian state.

Mr. Abbas also had close ties to the Tunisian government. It allowed the PLF to use its territory as a base of operations. Alas, this alliance also did not last: Tunisia, under international pressure over the Achille Lauro hijacking, ejected Mr. Abbas and the PLF from its territory.

Abu Abbas had extraordinarily close ties to the former Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein. Mr. Hussein was an ardent supporter and financer of Mr. Abbas's terrorist operations. Mr. Abbas was also believed to have been used as a conduit by which the former Iraqi regime was able to pay the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. The relationship between Mr. Abbas and the former Ba'athist regime were so close that Mr. Abbas moved to Baghdad in 2002 after leaving his former home in the West Bank because of the new Palestinian uprising there.

Apprehension by United States Special Forces

Mr. Abbas was apprehended this week by US Special Forces outside of Baghdad. According to United States Central Command (CENTCOM) for the War in Iraq, Mr. Abbas had attempted to flee the country after the Ba'ath Party fell to US, British, and Australian forces. However, he was stopped at the border between Iraq and Syria by Syrian border guards and forbidden to enter the country; his presence is seen as a liability by Damascus, which is also fending off the Bush Administration's claims that it is harboring other terrorist leaders. His capture by the United States' coalition in Iraq is being seen by President Bush as proof that Saddam Hussein had been supporting terrorists, a key justification in his decision to topple Mr. Hussein's regime.

A debate has now begun over the fate of Mr. Abbas. The PLO wants him released, arguing that he was given amnesty under the Oslo Accords for any terrorist acts he committed. However, neither the United States nor Iraq are bound by the Accords and that possibility seems remote. More realistic contenders for the right to decide Mr. Abbas's fate are the United States, which could indict him on murder and hijacking charges, Italy, which has already convicted him to life sentences, and Israel, which claims that Mr. Abbas violated the terms of the Oslo Accords by continuing to carry out terrorist acts against Israel and should not be afforded any protection. One thing is certain however, no matter which country ends up with jurisdiction over him, Abu Abbas's eventful days as a terrorist are over.


Note: Mr. Abbas died of natural causes in American custody on March 8, 2004.


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