Episode 23



Vanessa Kirby follows CIA veteran Bob Dougherty as he seeks justice for the kidnap and killing of an American war veteran aboard a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. Bob had to wait nearly 20 years for his chance to capture Palestinian Liberation Front leader Abu Abbas.
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True Spies Episode 23: Justice For Leon Klinghoffer

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?

This is True Spies Episode 23: Justice For Leon Klinghoffer. Our spy in this episode has been waiting a long time to get his man. 

BOB DOUGHERTY: The people in the government, the CIA and the FBI, weren't even on the job when the Achille Lauro [highjacking] happened. By the time we got up to 2003, we wanted to bring justice to the Klinghoffer family. And we wanted to fulfill that wish of that one family and bring justice to him and his wife. And most people didn't care about that, quite frankly.

NARRATOR: Justice. It means different things to different people. To spies, it can mean waiting - sometimes hours, sometimes years.

BOB DOUGHERTY: So you can imagine a very cold, Central European train station in the middle of winter. It’s gloomy. It's gray. It's raining. It's cold. We've got our overcoats on. We don't know what this guy looks like. We have a basic physical description from the source in L.A. and we do know he's getting off a train at a certain time at this train station.

NARRATOR: It’s late 2002. The location? Classified, I’m afraid. Perched outside the station’s cafe, two men watch closely as train after train disgorges its human cargo. Eventually, the first man - blond, square-jawed - signals to his companion. The second man’s dark eyes flash in recognition. Their guest has arrived, finally.

BOB DOUGHERTY: Based on his bearing and a little bit of the physical description, we saw him. We saw him walk past us. He didn't know what we looked like either. And so we simply started walking behind him and quietly came up on either side of him. And Ali, who had language capabilities, said something to him in one of the languages he understood. He also spoke some pretty good English and said: ‘We're the friends from L.A. Our friend there says hi.’ And he immediately jerked his head. And then we said: ‘Please come follow us. We were going to take you to a meeting site where we can sit down and talk.’

NARRATOR: The USA was preparing to invade Iraq but it needed justification. We’ve been here before on True Spies. Weapons of mass destruction - real or imagined - were one line of attack. Another was to prove that Saddam Hussein was harboring America’s enemies. On that gloomy October afternoon in Central Europe, one of the most decorated pairings on America’s Joint Terrorism Task Force were working towards the latter.

BOB DOUGHERTY: My name is Bob Dougherty. I'm an operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. I'm retired now, but I spent 26 years doing that job undercover. One of the most significant parts of my career, I spent on an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force where I worked with many great special agents, including one who became a very close professional colleague of mine, Ali Ahmadi.

NARRATOR: In the middle of a crowded terminal, Bob Dougherty, CIA, and Ali Ahmadi, FBI, had just made contact with a valuable informant.

We didn't know if this guy was going to come out of Iraq. We had traveled thousands of miles to meet with him.

NARRATOR: Both parties had taken a risk on the meeting. Even today, Bob can’t share the identity of his tipster. What we do know is that he had access to the inner sanctum of Saddam Hussein’s government. In other words, he was gold-dust. But it’s not as if he had nothing to lose. If Saddam’s notoriously brutal regime caught wind of this well-respected Iraqi’s betrayal, he would almost certainly be executed. So, how do you get a man with secrets like that to open up?

BOB DOUGHERTY: It's about rapport. And, if you talk to anybody, you've got to develop that rapport first. And so, you talk about family. You talk about his trip. And maybe at the very end of that very first meeting, you talk a little business - but maybe even not. Maybe that's just to get to know the guy.

NARRATOR: But it’s hard to make friends with total strangers. It always helps if someone can put a good word in for you.

BOB DOUGHERTY: Our source in L.A. had told him: ‘You're going to meet two guys from the US government.’ That's all they told them. And that was enough to fit that situation since he trusted that man, our source in L.A., and they had known each other previously and developed a relationship. And then, that gave us bona fides to meet with him cold, without having met with him before. Obviously, once we started meeting him and talking to him, at the right time, we would reveal exactly who we worked for in the US government. And we were upfront about it. Obviously, we use the alias names. That's pretty standard. The more authentic and legitimate you are, usually, that is the best course of action.

NARRATOR: Bob and Ali’s softly-softly approach was a crucial first step in gaining their informant’s trust. But, as it turned out, they wouldn’t have to work too hard. After all, the fear of loss is the most unforgiving interrogator.

BOB DOUGHERTY: He was an intelligent man and he saw the writing on the wall. And what he did was, he said to himself: ‘What's the best move for me to protect my wife and my family given what's going to happen?’ And he told us: ‘You guys are going to invade Iraq. I know it's coming.’ And we said: ‘Yeah, look, we don't know that we're going to invade. Why do you say that?’ He's like: ‘Look, I know you guys are going to invade. You may not know, but I know it. And that's one of the reasons I'm talking to you.’

NARRATOR: Over the next few months, Bob and Ali flew out to Europe to meet with the Iraqi on a semi-regular basis.

Well, he gave us a ton of great information. I think he helped deliver two or three people on the Iraqi deck of cards, the high-value targets. He delivered a bio-weapons scientist to us. He did a lot of great things that saved American lives as the invasion was progressing.

NARRATOR: The rapport that Bob and Ali had built with the informant had produced some invaluable intelligence. Their ‘deck of cards’ was looking flush. But the Iraqi still had an ace in the hole.

BOB DOUGHERTY: We were literally having a break, having some tea, having some biscuits in the room that we were in - the safe room, the safe house - and we had been talking all day. And we just started talking about what he did on his days and what his pattern of life was… and he mentioned that on the weekends, sometimes he goes to dinner at this guy's house outside of Baghdad. And the guy's name is Abu Abbas.

NARRATOR: Something jolted simultaneously in the brains of the two agents. For almost 20 years, they’d lived with that name on their lips: Abu Abbas. The name that started everything.

BOB DOUGHERTY: And I said: ‘Wait a second, the Abu Abbas from the Palestinian Liberation Front back in the mid-1980s?’

NARRATOR: ‘That’s him,’ the Iraqi replied. Quick intelligence briefing: Abu Abbas was the founder of the most dangerous faction of the Palestinian Liberation Front. That’s the military wing of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization - the PLO, for short. Since the 1960s, the PLO and its various paramilitary offshoots had mounted an armed resistance to the expanding nation of Israel and its international allies.

BOB DOUGHERTY: In the mid-1980s, we saw a lot of terrorism in the Middle East. The Marine Corps barracks had been bombed in Beirut, Lebanon. The US embassy had been bombed. There had been attacks around the Middle East and in Europe by different Middle Eastern terrorist groups. But America was a little bit insulated. And, obviously, our US Marines were attacked, but that was kind of the military, right, and they were deployed forward.

NARRATOR: Before 9/11, the idea of American civilians falling victim to Middle Eastern terrorists had been an unlikely one - until it happened. Bob and Ali shared a glance. They both knew the significance of the name Abu Abbas and so should you. Let’s take a trip to the Mediterranean Sea, to 1985.

BOB DOUGHERTY: It's a fairly large cruise ship, the Achille Lauro.

On the 7th of October, 1985, Bob and Ali were strangers to each other. They would remain so until the early 90s. But by the end of that day, a series of events thousands of miles away would form the foundations of a lasting bond between them. Maybe you remember that day too. The MS Achille Lauro offered luxurious cruises around Mediterranean beauty spots. Alexandria, Egypt. Genoa, Italy. Ashdod, Israel. It was the second month of Autumn, and the ship was floating ponderously through the Strait of Messina, off Sicily’s eastern tip. The boats’ guests - a genial bunch of Europeans and Americans - were getting along famously, except for four young men. They were incongruous for a number of reasons. Their age, for a start. Men in their early 20s aren’t exactly a cruise ships’ usual demographic. But they had paid their fare and checked their passports with security. Nobody checked their bags. It wasn’t policy, at the time.

Remember, this is well before 9/11. When fellow passengers made friendly overtures, they were met with shrugs. The men were Argentinian, they said. No English. Curiously, they didn’t speak Spanish either. But on a cruise ship, hospitality is king. And no matter how unusual the guest, everyone is entitled to their complimentary fruit bowl. On the morning of the 7th of October, a steward made his way to the young mens’ cabin. A healthy breakfast was not on their itinerary. A nauseating waft of gasoline assaulted the steward’s nostrils. The four mysterious passengers, each wielding a hairdryer, stood huddled around a pile of recently re-assembled weaponry. Later, authorities would learn that the AK-47s had been smuggled through Italy in the gas tank of a car. Ideally, the four men - fighters for the Palestinian Liberation Front - would have had time to dry their weapons properly. They would have kept a low profile until the ship docked on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, and opened fire on Israeli soldiers. They would have been martyrs. Change of plan. The element of surprise was gone, but the Achille Lauro provided a new and equally useful resource for the terrorists - hostages.

These four Palestinian men separate out the passengers on the cruise ship, mainly Europeans, a lot of Italians, but there were some Westerners on there, including several Americans. And one of the Americans is this couple... Marilyn and Leon Klinghoffer.

NARRATOR: Leon Klinghoffer had married Marilyn in 1949. She had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. This was their farewell tour, celebrating 36 happy years of marriage. Leon himself had been confined to a wheelchair by two strokes. 

He was this old guy. Jewish heritage had grown up in Brooklyn, in New York. He was just a tough old guy and he wasn't going to take crap from anybody. And I'm betting that he probably didn't take a lot of crap from these young Palestinian guys that were shouting epithets at him and so forth and so on.

NARRATOR: The terrorists were young, hot-headed, and completely radicalized.

BOB DOUGHERTY: They make demands. They want to release prisoners from jail. They want their usual set of demands.

NARRATOR: The ship arrived off the coast of Tartus, Syria, at 11 am the next day. Using the captain’s radio, the Palestinians called ashore to demand the release of Palestinian prisoners held captive in Israel. If they had not heard back by 3 pm, they would start executing hostages. The Syrians consulted with the US and Italy, where the Achille Lauro was registered. A decision was made: ‘We do not negotiate with terrorists.’ The men from the PLF flipped through the passports they had seized from the passengers. America was Israel’s most prominent supporter. An American had to be first to die.

I think certainly the symbolism of the American and the Jewish American played into it.

NARRATOR: Leon Klinghoffer was brought out on deck.

BOB DOUGHERTY: So one of them shoots Leon Klinghoffer in the chest in his wheelchair, kills him, murders him, and then they push the wheelchair over the side of the ship into the Mediterranean with his body in it, which washes ashore a couple of days later.

NARRATOR: From inside the ship, Marilyn Klinghoffer heard two shots ring out. By killing Mr Klinghoffer, the terrorists had overplayed their hands. A hijacking could be walked back - explained away as a political statement. The murder of an American citizen? This would have serious consequences. Panic set in. The leader of the four terrorists, who had fired the shots, radioed the Syrians again. The PLF needed asylum - a hostage was dead. The Syrians refused. In Egypt, the terrorists would find a warmer reception. Bobbing outside Port Said on the Suez Canal, the ships’ captain radioed ashore. His crew and the passengers were alive and well, he claimed. Through the crackle of the static, no one could tell that the barrel of a Kalashnikov was pressed to his temple. The Egyptian government under President Hosni Mubarak was well-disposed to the aims of the PLF. In the early hours of October the 10th, a tugboat brought the four men back to land. News of Leon’s death reached the Americans quickly. They petitioned the Egyptians to hand over the terrorists. President Mubarak said they had already been allowed to leave the country. Mubarak was between a rock and a hard place. He either jeopardized a recent treaty with Israel - and millions in American foreign aid - or risked alienating his Arab allies in the Middle East. It was best for him to be rid of the Palestinians. The only problem was, he’d lied to the media. They hadn’t left the country at all. Instead, Mubarak’s government had allowed the terrorists to reconnect with the mastermind behind the hijacking: Abu Abbas.

And they were able to arrange... or convince Egyptian authorities to put them on a commercial airliner. I think they were flying to Tunisia if my memory serves correctly.

NARRATOR: Thanks to President Mubarak’s eagerness to avoid blame, Abu Abbas was smuggled aboard a commercial EGYPTAIR flight to Tunisia - reunited with the men he had personally shaped for violence. And now, airborne and halfway to Tunis, he might have felt safe. If he had, he was seriously underestimating the lengths that a wounded USA would go to.

BOB DOUGHERTY: President Reagan at the time orders Navy F-14 Tomcats off an aircraft carrier to intercept this commercial airline flight in flight. And they force it down into Sigonella, Italy.

NARRATOR: Literally flying in the face of international law, the American fighter pilots used their particular powers of persuasion to ground the commercial jet at a NATO airbase in Sicily. 

BOB DOUGHERTY: And there it is, surrounded by what would become the precursor to SEAL Team, six US commandos take these guys into custody. The Italian police, the Carabinieri - the kind of paramilitary police - show up as well because it's their country. And there's kind of this tense standoff between the Italians and the Americans.

NARRATOR: Neither side - and the Americans in particular - wanted this to get ugly. Both the hijacking and the grounding of the jet had taken place on Italian territory. The US had no jurisdiction and certainly hadn’t asked the Italians permission before grounding the plane. A firefight, especially with an ally, would be hard to justify on the world stage, even in the wake of a murder. The Americans backed off.

BOB DOUGHERTY: And finally, the Italians went out and took control of the situation. And eventually, Abu Abbas is let go. He's let free by the Italians. The four hijackers themselves are actually arrested by the Italians. And all of them are prosecuted and convicted and do long jail terms. I think the last one was just released a year or two ago. But you have a situation where his four men carry out this hijacking and this murder at his behest. He joins them at the end of it and he walks away scot-free. And they pay the price for him masterminding this whole operation.

NARRATOR: Even though it happened over 30 years ago, you can still hear that undertone of outrage in Bob’s voice. Before long, Abbas was on a flight to Yugoslavia. Still an internationally wanted man, he evaded capture for years before eventually resurfacing in Gaza in 1996. By then, Israel had granted amnesty to several PLF fighters. He was a free man. Back in the USA, a young Bob Dougherty watched events unfold on TV news. As a student at the University of California, he worked odd jobs - stacking shelves, washing dishes - anything that paid the bills. Now he saw a path unfolding in front of him. After all, this was Ronald Reagan’s America. Patriotism was the order of the day.

BOB DOUGHERTY: And so I knew that all the guys I hung around with in college, we were all going to do something of service. I knew I wanted to serve somehow. And so I applied to a bunch of different agencies, in fact. The DEA, the FBI, the CIA... I probably would have gone into the military if I hadn't had done one of those things.

NARRATOR: The events that took place on the MS Achille Lauro - the murder of an elderly, disabled World War II veteran - hardened his resolve.

BOB DOUGHERTY: It definitely struck me, at the very beginning of my career, that this was one of the motivating factors of why I wanted to do this job.

NARRATOR: Within a year, he’d achieved his goal.

I was a little bit of an anomaly when I joined the CIA in 1986. In fact, out of my class of maybe 40 or 50 young officers, I was the only one that came, geographically, from west of the Mississippi River in the US. But since I was the only one from the West, of course, I became known as ‘California Bob’, because that's where I was born and raised.

Suffice to say, California Bob - an avid surfer with a laidback attitude - was not a natural fit for the buttoned-down, Ivy League world of the CIA. But the agency must have seen something in him. 

BOB DOUGHERTY: Every CIA officer goes through a psychological profile, it's pretty extensive, right, as part of your hiring process. And at some point, they kind of tell you once you get hired, how you came out. And it's always interesting to me. We do a Myers Briggs one, which measures people on four scales. And the first one is either introvert or extrovert. And what's interesting is [that] most CIA case officers are introverts. We're not extroverts. And certainly, I was one.

NARRATOR: That’s right - it’s the quiet ones you need to look out for. You see, the thing about quiet people is that they tend to listen more than they speak.

BOB DOUGHERTY: You have to be a very good listener and you have to be a very good assessor of people, not only what they're saying, but what they're doing and what that might mean. So they probably saw those things in me.

NARRATOR: If you’re a long-time listener, you’ll know that much of a CIA field agent’s work revolves around recruitment - turning potential enemies into friends. Most of the time, that involves working under an assumed identity. Surely it takes some of an extrovert’s confidence to pull that off?

BOB DOUGHERTY: You had the case officers that could become the other people, could become the chameleons. And a lot of times they did very well in what we do, spotting, assessing, developing, and recruiting other human beings to be sources for us, right? Convincing them to commit espionage for us, to spy for us. But I also found I could never be that guy. I could never be other than who I was.

NARRATOR: Well, I suppose there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

BOB DOUGHERTY: Just being yourself and being authentic and legitimate and honest, carried through. And I was very successful at recruiting very good human sources and assets. And when you talk about the recruitment process of convincing anybody in any field to do something, whether you're convincing a girl to go on a date, whether you're convincing some other corporate guy to accept your deal, whether you're convincing someone to trade secrets with you... you have to appeal to that that human emotion, that rapport with them. And that is universal. That crosses linguistic boundaries, cultural boundaries, ethnic boundaries, and religious boundaries…

NARRATOR: ‘Be yourself.’ It’s not a mantra we usually associate with spycraft. But if it works, it works. And Bob’s ability to form strong, real relationships would turn out to be incredibly valuable. In the years to come, FBI officer Ali Ahmadi - and no, that’s not his real name - would be the most important of those relationships.

BOB DOUGHERTY: He got into the FBI a little after I had gone into the CIA. So he's a little bit younger than I am.

NARRATOR: In the early 1990s, Bob and Ali were thrown together on a Joint Terrorism Task Force between the CIA and the FBI. From the moment Ali walked into the room, something about him stood out. Bob was sure they hadn’t worked together in the past. An FBI agent of Middle Eastern descent was a rare thing at the time - there was no way he wouldn’t remember. As the first meeting of the Task Force began, Bob cast his mind back. Bingo.

BOB DOUGHERTY: His name had come up and in a kind of a worldwide terrorist investigation. We were looking at a group that had been targeting CIA officers worldwide. And Ali's name, kind of a name similar to Ali's, popped up. And since I was from L.A., I kind of came to L.A. to investigate it.

NARRATOR: As the memory flooded back, the color drained from Bob’s face. This could be about to get very awkward indeed. It had been a dark night in the mid-80s. Already working for the CIA, Bob had approached Ali on his college campus, suspecting the innocent student of involvement in a terrorist plot against the agency.

BOB DOUGHERTY: And I was a little bit - probably a little bit - aggressive because one of my really close colleagues in the CIA had actually been threatened in this terrorism plot that was evolving worldwide. And I thought Ali might be a part of it, so... I was probably a little too aggressive. And he remembers that story because he told me to F-off and went and had a beer at his local campus pub. But then, five years later, I see him walk into a room where we're having a meeting on the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and now he's got an FBI badge and a gun on his hip, and our eyes kind of locked across the rooms. I'm like: ‘Is that the same kid that I saw on his college campus?’

NARRATOR: It was a remarkable coincidence that could have easily led to friction between the two when they next met as colleagues. For someone like Ali, who had faced suspicion and prejudice his entire life, it must have been hard to see the funny side. Fortunately, enough time had passed that he was able to put his first encounter with Bob Dougherty behind him. In fact, when they got to talking, they found that they had a lot in common. For a start, both their careers had been shaped by the Achille Lauro hijacking. Both had an axe to grind with Abu Abbas.

BOB DOUGHERTY: He was still in school at the time. And of course, he was getting a lot of flak for being from the Middle East. He always got into a lot of fights in school, he used to say. And so this also hit him as: ‘Oh, here we go again, kind of Middle Eastern terrorist groups harming and murdering an American in this case. And the retribution is going to come down on me as someone of Middle Eastern descent here in the US, even though I'm an American citizen, I'm going to school. I'm a citizen of this country.’ And I think he would say it spurred him on, even more, to want to join the FBI and kind of show that: ‘Hey, this is the good side of my people. We're not like a lot of these radicals who only represent the very thin minority of who we are.’ So I think it was a seminal event in his life as well.

NARRATOR: Before long, Bob and Ali were fast friends.

BOB DOUGHERTY: I think it was kind of two outsiders thrown together, a little bit rebellious, a little bit disdainful of the system and the organization as we grew in our careers, not willing to put up with any B.S. or bureaucracy. So that's what really kind of threw us together.

NARRATOR: Both men had something to prove and a deeply ingrained sense of justice. And in the case of Abu Abbas and the Achille Lauro hijacking, justice had not been done. But as rookie agents, what could they do? Even by the early 90s, when they were working together on the Joint Terrorism Task Force, Abbas had slipped down the list of America’s most wanted and he wasn’t even in hiding. At various stages in the years between 1985 and 2003, Abbas was a public figure. 

BOB DOUGHERTY: The Oslo Accords happened between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority. And, in some views, people like Abu Abbas were pardoned of any crimes they had committed before the Oslo Accords. So he was not in hiding, per se.

NARRATOR: Since his mysterious departure from Italy, Abbas had bounced around the Middle East and North Africa throughout the 90s. By the turn of the millennium, he had all but vanished from the world stage. In the intervening years, he had publicly renounced terrorism. He had even made an apology to the family of Leon Klinghoffer. Leon’s daughters were not inclined to accept it. To Bob and Ali, it seemed like no one else cared about bringing down Abu Abbas. And as the 90s wore on, he was even relegated to the back of their minds.

BOB DOUGHERTY: He had faded slightly, if I'm to be honest.

NARRATOR: After all, there had been other work to do. One mission, in particular, stands out for Bob. The year was 1998. Bob and Ali had been deployed to a foreign city to gather intelligence on a dangerous group of terrorists. No, I’m afraid we can’t be more specific than that. In any case, the mission went wrong. Their cover was blown.

BOB DOUGHERTY: It looked like it was a trap, maybe even an ambush of some sort. We weren't armed at the time. We were in a Western country and we kind of had to use our wits to get out of harm's way in the middle of a city late at night.

NARRATOR: The agents would have to use every ounce of their training to get clear of their pursuers.

BOB DOUGHERTY: Just kind of running down alleys and ducking around corners and making sure we weren't being followed and jumping through this bar. And going out through the backdoor and then realizing that we were clean, right? We were in the black. No one was following us.

NARRATOR: In the alley behind the bar, the men stood panting. They looked at each other and laughed. 

BOB DOUGHERTY: And no words exchanged. And that was one of those moments where that kind of ultimate connection is made between two people. And literally, you don't have to say anything. We were in a dangerous situation. We relied on each other. We got through it. I can count on you 100 percent. You got my back and I got yours.

NARRATOR: On one humid L.A. morning in 2002, the trust between the two men would pay dividends.

BOB DOUGHERTY: We were working on the Joint Terrorism Task Force together in Los Angeles so we were physically working in the same building together. And Ali literally came by my desk with a torn scrap of paper that he had written a name down on. I don't know why it was torn. It was just a piece of scrap paper. He goes: ‘Hey, you know that source I told you about in the Valley? He knows this guy in Iraq.’

NARRATOR: Remember our Iraqi informant? It was his name on the scrap of paper.

BOB DOUGHERTY: And I take this little torn scrap of paper. I could've easily just shredded it, not done anything in it once Ali walked away. But because I knew that he was really good at what he did, and probably wouldn't bring me anything that was B.S. I ran the name and sure enough, I'm like: ‘Well, this is a legitimate guy. He may indeed have some access inside Iraq. That would be very useful to us. Let's run with this.’

NARRATOR: Ali’s source in the San Fernando Valley - an area with a large Middle Eastern community - might just have come up trumps. Over cups of tea and hunks of sugared watermelon, the L.A. connection began to describe his contact in Iraq.

BOB DOUGHERTY: And this source in Los Angeles had told Ali: ‘This is a good guy. You need to talk to him. He can help you out.’ And we ask how he knew the guy. And he says: ‘Look, we were once at war with this guy in his country. But of course, in the midst of that war, we were also doing business, right, selling goods.’ And he kind of tells us the story of the source and how it's kind of all played out.

NARRATOR: Well, you know what happened next. We’re back to where we started - a gray passenger terminal on a rainy day in Central Europe. And then, those long, friendly chats. The informant’s casual mention of that infamous, faded name: Abu Abbas. Back in that safe house in the early weeks of 2003, Bob and Ali reflected on the years that lay behind them. They had been working together for over a decade. In that time, they’d shared a bond which had its roots in an event that took place before they’d even known each other's names. They’d spoken of it often. To these men, the Achille Lauro hijacking was more than a dusty cold case. The news that Abbas was still at large and living in Iraq was an unbelievable coup for Bob and Ali, who had always harbored a personal resentment toward the terrorist. But would anyone else give a damn?

BOB DOUGHERTY: That was a long time ago. I mean, literally, the people in the government - the CIA and the FBI - weren't even on the job when Achille Lauro happened. By the time we got up to 2003, we wanted to bring justice to the Klinghoffer family. They had always pushed for the hunt for Abu Abbas to bring them to justice, and so we wanted to fulfill that wish of that one family and bring justice to him and his wife. And most people didn't care about that, quite frankly.

NARRATOR: At any other time before those crucial months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, Bob and Ali’s windfall might have been dismissed out of hand. Old news. But it wasn’t any other time. The news of an old enemy being harbored at the bosom of the Iraqi establishment could be instrumental in garnering popular support for the invasion.

BOB DOUGHERTY: So the ostensible - and I'll say the ‘ostensible reason’ in quotes, right - that we invaded Iraq was to get rid of Saddam Hussein. He had weapons of mass destruction and he was harboring terrorists, right? However, as we found out, there really weren't weapons of mass destruction there. Whether he moved them out beforehand... they really weren't there. And he really wasn't sponsoring terrorism in the early 2000s leading up to the invasion in 2003. He had in the past, but he really wasn't modern day. So all of a sudden, Bob and Ali come along and they have this case of this old terrorist who's wanted for killing an American. And guess who's harboring him? Saddam Hussein, the guy who's the leader of the country.

NARRATOR: After years languishing in the doldrums of the intelligence community’s rapidly shifting priority list, Abu Abbas was suddenly the name to beat.

BOB DOUGHERTY: Suddenly our case drew a lot of high-level interest, and we had plenty of support for what we were doing and trying to hunt this guy down.

NARRATOR: Funny, that. Bob, Ali, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force got to work. Using satellite imagery to confirm the intelligence from their informant, they zeroed in on a compound on the outskirts of Baghdad. Abbas was finally within their grasp. If you were Bob and Ali, what would be your first instinct? This man was responsible for countless ruined lives - not just the Klinghoffers. Would you take him alive? Find out what he knew? Or make an example of him? Could you give the order to kill?

BOB DOUGHERTY: At first we kind of said: ‘Let's just strike this guy. US forces are moving towards Baghdad. Let's just order a strike on his compound.’

NARRATOR: A missile strike. It would have been a statement of intent. An appropriate opening salvo for the shock-and-awe invasion. For two agents with a no-nonsense, bureaucracy-lite approach to justice, it was an attractive option.

BOB DOUGHERTY: And that was turned down because, of course, in retrospect, I would say - my speculation again - the administration wanted us to capture a real-life terrorist who was being harbored by Saddam Hussein.

NARRATOR: The rejection stung. But, as you can imagine, the overarching aim of the Oval Office at this time - to justify the invasion of Iraq to the world - took precedence over Bob and Ali’s personal desire to see an end to Abu Abbas. Bob took some comfort in the thought that if Abbas couldn’t be removed outright, he could at least live to face the consequences of what he’d done, all those years ago.

BOB DOUGHERTY: Abu Abbas hadn't carried out or orchestrated any acts of terrorism in the past several years before his capture. But that does not take away from the horrific crimes he committed when he was active, including the killing of many innocent people - including kids. So I never forgot that fact. Like, you're not forgiven for your sins. They're not forgotten. And he had committed a lot of sins in his early life as a leader of the PLF.

NARRATOR: In April of 2003, as the first flush of violence tore through Iraq, the Americans made their move.

BOB DOUGHERTY: We fed the intelligence to Special Operations teams that raced up there ahead of the invasion.

NARRATOR: It was 4.30 am on a Tuesday morning when the helicopters roared over the residential compound in southern Baghdad. Moments later, its residents were awoken by the deafening rattle of machine-gun fire. With similar efficiency, the nasal yell of a public address system cut through the dawn.

"Caution, caution, caution. Abu Abbas, surrender. Coalition Special Forces have surrounded the area. Follow the instructions and move forward toward the voice. Raise your hands up and walk slowly. We will not harm you. Think about your family."

Most of the compound’s residents had no idea that they were neighbors to Abu Abbas. The most anyone could tell was that he was an ordinary Arab fighter volunteering to resist the invasion. Those men were 10 a penny at the start of the invasion. And it would explain the guns. As commandos kicked down doors, broke locks, and searched each of the one-story buildings, they began to reassess their assumption. This kind of firepower was never deployed for a foot soldier. Two hours later, the shooting stopped.

BOB DOUGHERTY: And we’re able to grab him on the compound and bring him into US custody. So Ali and I kind of thought: ‘Hey, this is our case. We'll bring this guy to justice. Let's intervene. We want to interview him about Achille Lauro.’ Of course, we wanted to interview him about anything he knew about terrorism going on in the world right now. But of course, we were denied that. So we were quickly moved out of this case. And in fact, our source - [the one] we had been handling and [who had been] providing intelligence that led to Abu Abbas - he was being handled by other people now who were closer to the action, which was fine. That was the natural order of things.

NARRATOR: Understandably, Bob and Ali were disappointed. But that was nothing compared to what they were about to find out.

BOB DOUGHERTY: We really couldn't charge him with anything because all the laws that the US put on the books called Extraterritorial Laws on Terrorism, were put on after the Achille Lauro and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer. And so there was really no applicable US law that we could charge Abu Abbas with for the murder of Leon Klinghoffer or the orchestration of the murder of Leon Klinghoffer in 1985.

NARRATOR: Put yourself in Bob and Ali’s position. How would you feel? You have Abbas in custody, but you’ve been denied the opportunity to interview him. Everyone knows that he orchestrated the attack on the Achille Lauro, which led to the death of an American citizen. 

BOB DOUGHERTY: Yet we cannot bring him to the US and charge him with any applicable law. We cannot bring him to justice.

Imagine the frustration. Month after month, the legal wrangling wore on. Could it be that Abbas be about to be released? Would this be Italy all over again?

BOB DOUGHERTY: And then - fortunately for us, again, because this man had killed many people - he suffered a heart attack while in US custody and died.

NARRATOR: Almost a year after he had been captured, Abbas was dead. Chubby, chain-smoking, and pushing 60, he had hardly been a picture of health. His face was pockmarked with the shrapnel of a violent life. Whatever the cause of his death - and there have been questions…

BOB DOUGHERTY: I'm not going to comment on that.

NARRATOR: Very few tears were shed for Abu Abbas. Bob remembers when they first heard the news.

BOB DOUGHERTY: Yeah. I think we were actually working that day on the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and so we looked at it at the conclusion of a successful mission from 1985 on. We finally... someone had brought this guy to justice - it took all the way to 2003, but we finally did it. We felt good about the Klinghoffer family and the daughters.

NARRATOR: Sixteen years on, Bob still has the headline from that day's newspaper.

BOB DOUGHERTY: Planner of 85 Hijack, Captured. We got lucky, that's for sure. And we were happy. It was a very happy moment for us, actually.

NARRATOR: Eighteen years - two whole careers - had been shaped by the actions of Abu Abbas. Bob and Ali had, one way or another, achieved what they’d set out to do. Yes, the Klinghoffer daughters would have liked to see their fathers’ murderer stand trial. Bob and Ali, who despised red tape, would have liked a cleaner end to the life of Abu Abbas - perhaps at the end of a Predator missile. But in the grubby world of global geopolitics, justice is so rarely perfect. Sometimes it’s enough that it comes at all.

BOB DOUGHERTY: That's what gave Ali and me just a little bit of closure to the case, even though it was a little bit bittersweet that we never got to interview him.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another debrief with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

SPYEX consultant and trainer Bob Dougherty grew up in Los Angeles, California and worked as an undercover CIA officer recruiting spies. After 9/11, he was also part of the CIA-FBI team who tracked down the California connections to the hijackers.

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