The life and unexplained death of an old terrorist

When 55-year-old Mohamed Aboul Abbas died mysteriously in a US prison camp in Iraq on Tuesday, nobody bothered to call his family.
His American captors had given no indication to the International Red Cross that he had been unwell and his wife Reem first heard that he was dead when she watched an Arab television news show.

Yet in his last letter to his family, written just seven weeks ago and shown to The Independent in Baghdad yesterday, the Palestinian militant wrote that, “I am in good form and in good health”, adding that he hoped to be freed soon. So what happened to Mohamed Aboul Abbas?

Although a prominent colleague of Yasser Arafat for more than three decades, the world will forever link his name with the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985, when members of his small “Palestine Liberation Front” commandeered the vessel in the Mediterranean and, in a cruel killing that was to cause international outrage, shot dead Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly American Jew in a wheelchair, and tipped his corpse into the sea.
The other passengers were eventually released in Egypt after Aboul Abbas negotiated with the authorities in Cairo to allow the hijackers to go free.

In vain did he point out that the hijackers’ plan was to stow away on the Italian liner – not harm the passengers – then storm ashore in Israel when the ship made port at Haifa. It was only their discovery by a crew member that prompted them to take over the vessel. “The media didn’t tell the world that I saved 600 passengers, only that a disabled man was killed,” he was to complain later.

Yet, in a newspaper interview, he was also reported to have said that Mr Klinghoffer “was handicapped but he was inciting and provoking the other passengers. So the decision was made to kill him”.

But within 10 years, the Israelis themselves would allow Aboul Abbas, now a member of the Palestine National Council, to enter the occupied territories to participate in elections in the Gaza Strip. He even visited his old family home in Haifa in Israel.

He supported Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements and favoured the annulment of the anti-Israeli articles in the PLO’s charter. Like so many of Mr Arafat’s colleagues, he had undergone that mystical Middle East transformation from “super-terrorist” to peacenik. So why was he ever incarcerated in the harsh confines of America’s airport prison camp outside Baghdad? He was never charged with any crime, never offered a lawyer, never allowed direct contact with his wife and family, allowed to communicate with the outside world only via the Red Cross. They were the ones who telephoned his wife Reem in Beirut more than 24 hours ago to tell her that her husband was dead.

“I know nothing about this, nothing,” she wailed down the telephone to The Independent from Beirut yesterday. “How did he die? Why were we told nothing? When I first heard this terrible news on television I thought it had to be a rumour; this happens a lot out here. But then the Red Cross called at midnight and told me it was true.” Mohamed Aboul Abbas is the most prominent prisoner to die in US custody in Iraq ,and joins a growing list of unexplained deaths among the 15,000 Iraqis and Palestinians held by US military forces.

The occupation authorities in Iraq would only say yesterday that they were to hold a post-mortem examination on Aboul Abbas’s remains.
The “Palestinian Liberation Front” has long had offices in Baghdad, along with Mr Arafat’s PLO. The head of the PLF’s “political bureau”, Mohamed Sobhi, said yesterday that Mohamed Aboul Abbas’s arrest by US troops on 14 April last year had “no reason in law other than the need of the American soldiers at that time to look for false victories”. He added: “We all knew that Aboul Abbas had been to Palestine in 1995 for the PNC elections in Gaza and that the United States and Israel both allowed this. After that, he travelled to Palestinian areas and to other Arab states many times. We had told all this to the Americans here and demanded that he be released. In his last letter home, he said he hoped to be freed soon. So what happened to him?”

Reem Aboul Abbas, who has a child by her husband and two by an earlier marriage, says he was still living in Baghdad when American troops entered the city on 9 April last year.

“He was trying to keep away from them because many people – Iraqis and Palestinians – were being arrested, people who had done nothing. Then American troops raided our home. Mohamed wasn’t there but I saw it all on Fox Television.

“Would you believe I saw my own home on television and they had moved things around and draped a Palestinian flag over a mirror and then invited Fox Television to film it. On the evening of 14 April, Mohamed called me from a friend’s home. It was a big mistake. I think that’s how they tracked him down and found him. Not long afterwards, American soldiers came up the stairs.”

The US occupation authorities initially announced the capture of the “important terrorist Aboul Abbas”, making no mention of his return to the occupied territories or that the Israelis themselves – who might have been more anxious than the Americans to see him in prison – had freely allowed the PLF leader to enter their territory as a peace negotiator.

“First he was a ‘terrorist’,” his wife Reem says. “Then he was a man of peace. Then when the Americans arrested him, they made him a ‘terrorist’ again. What is this nonsense?”

Two years ago, Mr Sobhi said, Aboul Abbas had suffered an attack of angina and spent 12 days undergoing treatment at the Abu Nafis Hospital in Baghdad with Reem at his side.

He had suffered no other health problems and in a last request to his family via the Red Cross, he had asked them to send him two boxes of Marlboro cigarettes, running shorts, a track suit and a dishtash robe. The Independent has seen his request and its acknowledgment by US detention authorities; it does not read like the list of a sick man.

For months after the announcement of his arrest, Reem Aboul Abbas pleaded with family friends and the Red Cross to discover his whereabouts. After she asked The Independent for help, I discovered that he was being held in a special security wing at Baghdad international airport along with former prominent Baath party officials. He was in a sealed room with Saadoun Shakr, one of Saddam’s former interior ministers.

This was reconfirmed yesterday by Issa Milhem, Aboul Abbas’s 40-year-old nephew who was born in Baghdad, the city to which the family fled from their home village of at-Tira near Haifa in 1949. Mr Milhem holds hundreds of snapshots of his uncle, some with Iraqi ministers – Tariq Aziz prominent among them – and one with Saadoun Shakr, the man with whom Aboul Abbas was later to be imprisoned.
His last letter to his family, dated 19 January and written in neat Arabic on one side of a Red Cross sheet of paper, gives no indication of his fate. Addressed to his brother Khaled in the Netherlands, it is a prisoner’s familiar appeal for letters and news, of expressions of affection and hope.

“Dear Khaled,” it begins, “I received your letter on 17 January and on the same day I received three letters from my wife in Beirut after a period in which I got no letters for three months. I was very happy because of your letter and it was a surprise because I didn’t expect it. Thank you so much for this and for your kindness in writing to me.

“Dear Khaled, first I present my kisses to the head of your dear mother and I hope she’s ready to prepare the ‘dolma’ and the red chicken that I love for my first lunch (in freedom) will be at her home. What is the news about my family and my dearest Issa? … Very special greetings to him, his wife and children and for your brothers and sisters and their families because they are my family, too, and my dearest ones.”

In the same letter, Aboul Abbas complains that he has received no replies to letters he sent to Mohamed Sobhi – he uses Sobhi’s patronymic “Abu Khodr” – and urges his brother to call Reem in Beirut.

“Tell her that I received her letters and that I have sent new letters to her,” Aboul Abbas writes in the most important section of his message. “I hope you can send me a dishtash … I am in good form and in good health and I really need to know news of my family and friends. I have great hopes of being released soon – with God’s will.”

Signing himself “Aboul Abbas”, he includes his wife’s Beirut telephone number so Khaled can call her immediately. The letter bears the US detention authority coding US-0039C1.

Mr Sobhi holds the United States responsible for Aboul Abbas’s death and is asking the Palestinian Authority to institute its own inquiry into the PLF leader’s demise. “We blame the Americans for this,” he says. “We put the responsibility of his death on the US troops. No one ever said his health was declining. I’ve been told the Americans want to send the body to Palestine although his wife may want him to be buried in Lebanon.”

Issa Milhem’s archive of photographs holds the fullest record of Mohamed Aboul Abbas’s life. Black and white snapshots show him in Lebanon, Kalashnikov AK-47 in hand, standing amid a group of gunmen in West Beirut, another early coloured photo in the Lebanese mountains.

Many dozens of pictures show him in Gaza, listening to interminable lectures and speeches by ageing Palestinian nationalists. In one, two Palestinian officials have fallen asleep and Aboul Abbas is only just able to stay awake.

It was in the nature of the Palestinian revolution that ideology should become as tiresome as it was repetitive. Then there is the diplomat Aboul Abbas, dining at the Kremlin, standing to attention as Yugoslav troops formally welcome Arafat to Belgrade, Aboul Abbas walking past an Iraqi swimming pool with Arafat.

On just one occasion, he met Saddam Hussein. He salutes, in many snapshots, the armed Palestinian soldiers of the “Palestine Liberation Army” and you can see, to the left of the picture, the pot-bellied Baath party officials who gave succour to the Palestinian cause at that time.

One photo shows Aboul Abbas with Abu Jihad, Mr Arafat’s deputy, shortly before his murder by Israelis in Tunis. Abu Jihad might have proved to be Mr Arafat’s rightful successor, a man who might have been able to control Hamas and the other Islamic groups which Israel originally encouraged – as a balance to the PLO – and now so bitterly hates.

Perhaps Aboul Abbas will always be on the margins of Palestinian history. But he will be the first Palestinian leader to die in US custody, and thus is assured his place in “Palestine’s” history.
Mohamed Aboul Abbas appears to have had no premonition of his imminent death. But 49 days after he wrote his letter of hope, he was dead.

Middle East correspondent for London's Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media