Curse of the Achille Lauro, a Great Book in the Worst of Times

At this time of year exactly thirty years ago, a Palestinian militant named Abu al-Abbas sat behind his office desk in Tunis, laying the final touches on an operation scheduled for October 1985. A top lieutenant working closely with Yasser Arafat, Abu al-Abbas was planning to send four of his men on board an Italian luxury liner called the Achille Lauro, as it set sail on a ten-day journey from Genoa, Italy, to the Israeli port of Ashdod. The original plan was for them to disembark and open fire on Israeli officials. "Abu al-Abbas was very excited" recalls his wife Reem al-Nimer, author of a new book about his life and times, Curse of the Achille Lauro.

Little did she know that not only would this operation fail but it would actually become one of the least successful in the history of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. It would also curse their lives and haunt both Abu al-Abbas and Al-Nimer for years to come, earning him the international label of an A-Class Terrorist. In her new memoir published by Cune Press in Seattle, Reem al-Nimer goes to great length in defending her husband's name and humanizing Abu al-Abbas; he had a green thumb, a golden retriever named Rocky, and he loved children. Not only that, he browsed the Internet before anybody did in Baghdad, and suffered from fear of water although he was most famous for sea-bond operations that involved plenty of swimming and boat-driving.

Writing about the event three decades later from her present home in Beirut, Lebanon, Reem al-Nimer claims that she knew nothing about the Achille Lauro Operation and that it was planned in utmost secrecy by her husband and Arafat, challenging a long-held claim by the Palestinian President, who always denied any connection to the flawed military operation. The objective back in 1985, she claims was to inflict maximal pain on the Israelis and to attract international attention to the plight of the Palestinians. "From the perspective of 2014, our actions seem callous and cruel. At the time, we felt there was no alternative." She adds, "Military and official targets were a fair game; we were at war."

The operation went horribly wrong, adds Al-Nimer, when the four gunmen were forced to take the ship hostage in Port Said, Egypt, and kill a sixty-nine year old wheelchair-bound New York Jew named Leon Klinghoffer. They didn't just kill him but threw him overboard, sparking an international crisis that eventually toppled then-Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi and led to Abu al-Abbas' expulsion from Tunis. President Husni Mubarak intervened personally to liberate the ship, and the hijackers were taken into Egyptian custody and allowed safe exit on board an Egyptian Presidential Plane, supposedly to Tunis. The details were hammered out by the world-famous Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who rose to fame in 2011 when he became Mubarak's vice during the 25 January Revolution and announced Mubarak's resignation to the world. The minute they took off, with Abu al-Abbas on board, four US warplanes from the Delta Force--part of the US Army's counter-terrorism unit--met them in the skies, forcing them to land at Sigonella, a NATO military base in Sicily. The orders to seize the plane were given by President Ronald Reagan, traveling on Air Force One from Chicago to Washington DC. Prime Minister Craxi refused to let American troops on board the ship and instead, mediated arrest of the hijackers and a safe exit for Abu al-Abbas, first to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport and then to Yugoslavia. He was declared persona non grata in Tunis and was given sanctuary, with his wife and children, in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, where he remained from 1985 until the US-led invasion of 2003. He died at a US prison in Baghdad in March 2004.

Curse of the Achille Lauro is riddled with trivia and historical anecdotes that make it an enjoyable read, both for specialists and casual readers of Middle East literature. Al-Nimer ultimately apologizes for the Achille Lauro Operation, saying that peace is the only way forward for Palestinians and Israelis. Times have changed since the days of Abu al-Abbas, she adds, and future generations simply cannot continue to live at each other's throats. She highlights a very interesting point vis-à-vis the four hijackers, explaining why they took the Achille Lauro. All of them were from poor backgrounds who had never seen anything as lavish as what they saw on board the luxury liner--and never imagined that anything of the sort existed. Her take is that they cowered when it came time to take the ship, or when it was time for them to die. Al-Nimer explains:

"They had received no proper education, were raised in painstakingly small dwellings clustered tightly together, and grew up on the streets. Suddenly these street boys were sipping champagne at pool parties aboard the Achille Lauro, surrounded by beautiful Italian women in bikinis. Before the Achille Lauro, they had always embraced death, as they never seen a day of comfort in their lives. Simply put, they had nothing to lose if they were killed in combat. After traveling twice aboard the luxury liner, they quickly began to understand that there were indulgencies in life that they previously knew nothing about. Life, they learned, could have a new sweet meaning to it."

Curse of the Achille Lauro is an action-filled non-fiction love story that deserves high acclaim. The timing of the book's release, however, could not have been worse, coming at the height of the so-called Arab Spring, which dwarfed pre-2011 Arab politics and completely overshadowed any interest in Palestinian history. Precisely because of what is happening today in the Middle East, however, Curse of the Achille Lauro is a must read. First, it traces the origins of how Arab terrorists were depicted in the international media, always with an Islamic overtone despite their cult worship of Che Guevara and trumpeting of leftist secularism and revolutionary Marxism. The author's husband was a secular officer who didn't pray until much later in his life, during his prison year in Iraq. He also was not a mosque-goer, and never got along with Palestinian Islamic groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Yet when an American movie appeared in the late 1980s about the Achille Lauro hijacking, it showed Abu al-Abbas talking to one of his aides, with the sound of a mosque athan in the background, or call to prayer in Islam. Reem al-Nimer says that this "character slaughter" was the director's way of tracing a fine line between terrorism and Islam, years before 9-11 and ISIS. It was like saying "Abu al-Abbas was a Muslim and all Muslims are terrorists."

The book also goes into fascinating detail about then-powerful Arab leaders and their relationship with Abu al-Abbas. Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi funded one of his operations in 1989, and toyed with the idea of creating a Libyan nuclear bomb. Iraq's Saddam Hussein welcomed him to Baghdad and yet, always suspicious of the Palestinians, kept him under 24-hour surveillance, tapping his home and recording his every move. His prison inmate in Baghdad was a long-time associate of Uday Hussein, and has now reportedly joined ISIS. Syria's Hafez al-Assad invited Abu al-Abbas briefly to Damascus and asked him to train his son Basel in paragliding, shortly before the young Republican Guard officer died in a car accident on the Damascus International Airport Highway in 1994.

Arafat, however, was Abu al-Abbas and Reem's comrade-in-arms and friend. After finalizing Oslo with the Israelis, he invited them to his home in Tunis, where he took out maps, spread them across the table, and started to explain: "This is going to become ours once again! That is going to be given to us by the Israelis. See that point over there? It too will be with the Palestinians. All of this section will be ours." She added: "Arafat was very excited, and he believed every single word he was saying. I have never seen him so worked up in my entire life. Abu al-Abbas just nodded his head and said nothing. In his eyes, I saw disbelief. When driving home later that evening, Abu al-Abbas said to me, "Either he is lying, or they [the Americans and Israelis] are lying to him.‖ He quickly added, ―Can it be true Reem? Can it be true that they are going to be giving us all of that? I don't trust them. I never did.? The Palestinian National Authority (PNA), he believed, and all the trappings of nationhood--the flag, the national police, and the government in truncated Palestine--were nothing but an optical illusion."