A spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department said in Washington that Abbas had died on 8 March, apparently of natural causes, while in U.S. detention in Iraq. Abbas, who was in his late fifties, had a heart condition. There are no details so far regarding the circumstances of his death. But a Pentagon spokesman said an autopsy will be held.
Abu Abbas had been in U.S. custody since he was found in the Iraqi capital Baghdad in April of last year, shortly after U.S. forces had overthrown the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
As a leading figure for a radical Palestinian splinter group, the Palestine Liberation Front, Abbas organized the 1985 seizure in the eastern Mediterranean of an Italian cruise liner, the "Achille Lauro." In the course of the hijacking, a disabled American Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was shot and thrown into the sea while still in his wheelchair.
The hijackers were demanding the release of 50 Palestinians held by Israel. But after negotiations, they dropped that demand and agreed to leave the ship in exchange for a flight to Tunisia. U.S. fighter jets intercepted the plane and forced it to land in Sicily, where four hijackers and Abbas were arrested by Italian authorities. The Italians freed Abbas on the grounds that they lacked sufficient evidence against him. This assertion stemmed from the fact that he was not on the ship when it was hijacked. Later, however, an Italian court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment.
Given the spectacular act of piracy he masterminded, and given the fact that he died in U.S. custody, will Abu Abbas now become a martyr for the cause of Islamic extremism? Palestinian Liberation Front spokesman Wasel Abu Yousif suggested as much in remarks today.
"We hold the American administration responsible for the martyrdom of Abu Abbas, as he was martyred within the prisons of American occupation forces in Baghdad. This [death of Abbas] sends alarm bells for all the Palestinian prisoners. It is also a message to the world about what is happening to our people and also shows that the world is silent on the crimes that happen against our people and leadership," Yousif said.
However, French-based Islamic studies expert Olivier Roy says he does not anticipate a big impact on Arab public opinion from the death of Abbas. He says the world has moved on since the "Achille Lauro" hijacking. "I would say it is old history; this kind of Palestinian terrorism is dead; it is not an Islamic terrorism, and [in addition] he took refuge with [then Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein, who is not a very popular figure among the Islamic groups," he said. "So I think that for many people, Abu Abbas is from the past, he is a man from the past."
Years after the "Achille Lauro" incident, Abbas apologized for the death of Klinghoffer, and said he had turned away from violence. He denounced the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington.
His death in custody may release the United States from an awkward legal situation, in that the grounds for continuing to hold him without charge were unclear.
The Palestinian Authority had demanded his release, saying he could not be prosecuted because the United States had in effect agreed along with Israel not to press charges against Palestinians who committed acts of violence against Israel prior to the signing of interim Israeli-Palestinian peace accords in 1995. The United States rejects the interpretation that it is bound by that agreement. Abbas was also covered by an Israeli amnesty, and he had revisited Gaza from 1996 onwards without being molested.
The Abbas affair comes at a time when the United States is under criticism for continuing to hold hundreds of terrorist suspects without charge or trial at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Speaking about the release of some British detainees from Guantanamo yesterday, American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero called for that policy to change. "The release of some of the individuals in Guantanamo is, of course, welcome news for their family members," he said. "But the fact is that more than 600 individuals still remain in Guantanamo, who are being held indefinitely and without charge and we still raise many of the same questions we've raised with you today about this fundamentally lawless policy, about holding individuals indefinitely and without charge."
At any rate, one family that never forgave Abu Abbas is that of the victim of the "Achille Lauro" takeover. Leon Klinghoffer's two daughters, on hearing of Abu Abbas's death, say the fact that he never stood trial means they feel cheated out of justice for their father.
Raanan Gissin, adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that, in his view, at least poetic justice has been done. In comments today, he also referred to an earlier terrorist incident alleged to have involved Abbas. "Poetic justice was done in the sense that Abu Abbas, who was responsible for the murder and death of Smadar Haran's husband and family in 1979 and then the 'Achille Lauro' in  -- he was on the most-wanted list of United States' terrorist list -- finally dies in a prison in Iraq under the control of the American forces there, which shows you that the terrorists, at the end, are brought to justice," he said.