The well-armed men, who belonged to the Popular Front for the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), the terrorist wing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Abu Abbas, easily took control of the vessel since there was no security force on board. Abbas had been responsible for many attacks on Israel and its citizens in the early 1980s. On multiple occasions, he sent men on hang gliders and in hot air balloons on bombing missions to Israel, all of which turned out to be miserable failures. In an attempt to salvage his reputation, Abbas ordered the hijacking of the Achille Lauro. Yet there were no specific goals or demands set forth in the mission.
At first, the terrorists demanded that Israel release imprisoned PLF members and sought entry to a Syrian port. But when Syria denied the request, the terrorists lost control of the situation. Gathering the American tourists on board, the terrorists randomly chose to kill 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer. The wheelchair-bound American was shot in the head and thrown overboard. Klinghoffer's cold-blooded murder backfired on the terrorists. The world's outrage forced PLO chief Yassir Arafat to cut PLO ties with the terrorists and to demand that Abbas end the situation. On October 9, Abbas contacted the terrorists, ordered them not to kill any more passengers, and arranged for the ship to land in Egypt.
Meanwhile, the elite U.S. Navy SEALs were dispatched to raid the Achille Lauro. But by the time they arrived, the terrorists had already gotten off the ship in Egypt and boarded a plane to Libya. The United States then sent out two F-14 fighter jets, which intercepted the plane and forced it to land in Italy. A three-way standoff between the PFLP terrorists, the Americans, and the Italian Army on the runway in Sicily ended with the Italians taking Abbas and the other terrorists into custody. Despite intense American pressure, the Italians allowed Abbas to leave the country, and then prosecute the four who were on board. All were convicted, but only one received a sentence of 30 years; the others got off with lighter prison terms. Italy tried and convicted Abbas in absentia, but did not seek extradition until 2003. He was captured by U.S. Special Forces in Baghdad that year and died in American custody in 2004.