Originally named Mohammed Abbas, Abu Abbas was born in 1948 in Syria’s Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. In 1964 he joined Yasser Arafat‘s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), but soon grew disillusioned by what he saw as the group’s excessive dependence on assistance from Arab states. Thus he became a member of George Habash‘s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1967, adopted the nom de guerre Abu Abbas, and fought alongside National Liberation Front guerrillas who were battling U.S. troops in Vietnam in 1968. Soon thereafter Abbas earned a degree in Arab literature from Damascus University.
In May 1970, Abbas commanded a PFLP bombing raid that killed eleven schoolchildren and three teachers aboard an Israeli bus.
After 1973, Abbas became a spokesman for the PFLP-General Command, a breakaway faction that, like its parent group, was dedicated to committing acts of terror against Israel. In April 1977 Abbas and a number of his followers, most notably Talat Yaqub, split off entirely from PFLP and formed a new entity, the Tunisia-based Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), which received strong support from both the PLO and Arafat’s Fatah movement. PLF was later designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization and eventually moved its base of operations to Iraq.
In the spring of 1981, PLF tried to attack Israeli targets by flying armed hang-gliders and a hot-air balloon over the Israel-Lebanon border, but both attempts were thwarted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
In 1983, PLF, which at that time consisted of perhaps 500 active cadres, supported Yasser Arafat against Syrian-backed forces during a violent anti-Arafat rebellion in Lebanon. Not long thereafter, PLF split into three factions.
In 1984 Abbas was named a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee, a post he held for seven years.
In early October 1985, Abbas infamously dispatched four PLF terrorists to board the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro; they planned to travel incognito to the vessel’s scheduled destination, the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, with the intention of perpetrating spectacular acts of terror to avenge Israel’s recent bombing of PLO headquarters in Tunisia. But when Abbas on October 7th learned that a ship steward had spotted his four operatives cleaning their AK-47 machine guns in their cabins, he ordered the men to hijack the vessel, hold its crew members and passengers hostage, and demand the release of more than 50 Palestinian prisoners who at the time were incarcerated in Israeli jails on terrorism charges. When Israel did not yield to this demand, the hijackers forced the Achille Lauro to sail toward Tartus, Syria. But Syrian authorities, at the request of the American and Italian governments, refused to allow the ship to dock when it arrived there the following day.
At that point, the PLF hijackers directed the Achille Lauro to Port Said in northeast Egypt. At about 3 pm on October 8th, they shot and killed passenger Leon Klinghoffer—a 69-year-old, wheelchair-bound American Jew who was vacationing with his wife—and threw him into the Mediterranean Sea. PLO chairman Arafat quickly sent Abbas to Cairo to help mediate an agreement between the hijackers and Egyptian authorities. The incident ended with a negotiated deal that allowed for the release of all remaining passengers and crew, and for the safe passage of the hijackers to Tunisia. While Abbas and his four operatives were aboard an Egyptian Boeing 737 bound for Tunis, U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered American Navy fighter jets to intercept the plane and force it to land at a NATO air base in Italy. Italian Premier Bettino Craxi, however, had the PLFers released.
Under subsequent pressure from the United States, the Italian government eventually made an effort to bring Abbas and his accomplices to justice, but by then they were well beyond the reach of the law. In 1986 an Italian court tried and convicted Abbas in absentia and sentenced him to life-in-prison, but Abbas would never serve even a day of that term.
Following the Achille Lauro incident, Abbas lived successively in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and—from 1994-96—Iraq (under the protection of Saddam Hussein‘s government). During his years in Iraq, Abbas remained PLF’s General Director. One of his official duties in that post was to deliver cash payments from Saddam to the families of deceased Palestinian suicide bombers.
In 1990 Abbas dispatched a number of Palestinian terrorists on speedboats to raid an Israeli beach south of Ashdod, but Israeli commandos intercepted them before they could inflict harm on anyone. That same year, PLF sent 17 armed men on hang gliders to carry out attacks on Israeli beaches, but again the IDF stopped them.
Abbas reportedly renounced terrorism after the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, and in 1996 Israel granted him amnesty under an Oslo-related deal which stipulated that no one could be arrested or tried for any crime committed prior to September 13, 1993, the day the first Oslo agreement was signed. Protected by this amnesty, Abbas left his Baghdad home in April 1996 and took up residence in the Gaza Strip. There, he publicly apologized for the killing of Klinghoffer, calling it “a mistake” for which “we are sorry.”
In 1998 Abbas attended a session of the Palestinian National Council, in order to be present for a crucial vote on whether or not to abrogate chapters of the PLO founding charter which called for Israel’s destruction. In the end, however, Abbas did not participate in the vote.
In late 2000, apparently in reaction to the start of the Second Palestinian Intifada, Abbas returned to his home in Baghdad.
In a raid of Abbas’ Iraqi home in early 2003, U.S. Special Forces found Lebanese and Yemeni passports, thousands of dollars worth of cash, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and a number of documents. But they did not find Abbas, who had fled the premises and attempted, unsuccessfully, to enter Syria.
Abbas was eventually apprehended by American troops in Baghdad on April 14, 2003. Arafat aide Saeb Erekat and the Palestinian Authority promptly demanded, to no avail, that the U.S. release Abbas in accordance with the Oslo amnesty provision.
On March 8, 2004, Abbas died in Iraq of natural causes while awaiting prosecution.
Further Reading: “Terrorist Abu Abbas Dies in Iraq” (Fox News, 3-9-2004); “Abu Abbas” (The Guardian, 3-10-2004); “Terrorist Leader [Abu Abbas Dies]” (Jewish Journal, 3-11-2004); “Abu Abbas” (The Telegraph, 3-11-2004); “Palestinian Terrorist Abu Abbas Arrested” (Fox News, 4-26-2003); “Palestine Liberation Front” (GlobalSecurity.org); “Palestine Liberation Front” (Encyclopedia.com).