U.S. troops near Baghdad have captured Abu Abbas, the mastermind of the 1985 Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking in Italy.
The Palestinian Liberation Front leader is wanted for the murder of U.S. citizen Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled man whose body was pushed overboard with his wheelchair.
Defense sources told NBC News that Abbas was taken into U.S. custody last night. Initially, U.S. special operations forces raided his home on the outskirts of Baghdad, on the Tigris River, but did not find him. Later, Abbas was apprehended at another location.
He tried to flee to Syria, according to sources, but had difficulty making it past coalition checkpoints and turned back. He was tracked, in part, through phone intercepts.
“This is just extraordinary, how in a substantial country with over 20 million people, they located him,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia. “It’s one more indication of the staggering intelligence capabilities made possible by real preparation and extraordinary technology that we’ve seen throughout this war.”
Abbas was a top member of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization until 1991 and was known to have been in Baghdad off and on for many years.
He was never indicted in the United States for the hijacking of the Italian liner Achille Lauro, which was sailing from Egypt to Israel. But he was convicted in abstentia in Italy where there is an outstanding warrant for him. The 1985 ordeal ended when Egypt organized safe passage for the hijackers and the release of the surviving passengers.
“It’s a good thing he can be held accountable for that, but we should not stop there,” said Iraq observer Laurie Mylroie, noting other wanted terrorists are also believed to be in Iraq. “We’ve got a lot more work to do.”
Abdul Rahman Yasin, indicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, also has been known to be in Baghdad, said Mylroie, publisher of Iraq News, adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America.”
The arrest of Abbas came after Marines discovered a PLF training camp east of Baghdad, Agence France-Presse reported. The troops seized photos of Abbas with senior figures from Saddam’s elite Republican Guard, chemicals used in bomb making and documents.