An Innocent Bystander

The Killing of Leon Klinghoffer


By Julie Salamon

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The definitive story of one American family at the center of a single, shocking act of international terrorism that “manages to capture the essence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” (Dan Ephron).

On October 3, 1985, Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish New Yorker, and his wife boarded the Achille Lauro to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary with a Mediterranean cruise. Four days later, four Palestinian fedayeen hijacked the Italian luxury liner and took the passengers and crew hostage. Leon Klinghoffer was shot in the head, his body and wheelchair thrown overboard. His murder became a flashpoint in the intractable struggle between Israelis and Arabs and gave Americans a horrifying preview of what it means when terrorism hits home.

In this richly reported book, drawing on multiple perspectives, Julie Salamon dispels the mythology that has grown around that shattering moment. What transpired on the Achille Lauro left the Klinghoffer family in the grip of irredeemable sorrow, while precipitating tragic reverberations for the wives and sons of Abu al-Abbas, the Palestinian mastermind behind the hijacking, and the family of Alex Odeh, a Palestinian-American murdered in Los Angeles in a brutal act of retaliation.

Through intimate interviews with almost all living participants, including one of the hijackers, Julie Salamon brings alive the moment-by-moment saga of the hijacking and the ensuing U.S.-led international manhunt; the diplomatic wrangling between the United States, Egypt, Italy, and Israel; the long agonizing search for justice; and the inside story of the controversial opera about the Klinghoffer tragedy that provoked a culture war.

An Innocent Bystander is a masterful work of journalism that moves between the personal and the global with the pace of a geopolitical thriller and the depth of a psychological drama. Throughout lies the tension wrought by terrorism and its repercussions today.


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Principal Characters

Leon Klinghoffer

Leon Klinghoffer, New York entrepreneur

Marilyn Klinghoffer, human resources director; Leon’s wife

Lisa Klinghoffer, older daughter of Marilyn and Leon

Ilsa Klinghoffer, younger daughter of Marilyn and Leon

Jerry Arbittier, Lisa’s husband

Paul Dworin, Ilsa’s husband

Letty Simon, family friend who handled public relations

Charlotte Spiegel, Klinghoffer friend and fellow passenger on the Achille Lauro

Maura Spiegel, professor; Charlotte’s daughter

Seymour Meskin, family friend and fellow passenger on the Achille Lauro

Abraham Foxman, national director of Anti-Defamation League, 1987–2015

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, 1984–1988; prime minister of Israel, 1996–1999 and 2009–

Abu al-Abbas

Abu al-Abbas, commander of the Palestinian Liberation Front

Samia Costandi, professor; first wife of Abu al-Abbas

Reem al-Nimer, heiress and revolutionary; second wife of Abu al-Abbas

Khaled Abbas, first son of Samia Costandi and Abu al-Abbas

Omar Abbas, second son of Samia Costandi and Abu al-Abbas

Loaye al-Ghadban, first son of Reem al-Nimer and Mohammad al-Ghadban

Reef Ghadban, second son of Reem al-Nimer and Mohammad al-Ghadban

Ali Abbas, son of Reem al-Nimer and Abu al-Abbas

Bassam al-Ashker, the youngest hijacker

Majid al-Molqi, leader of the four hijackers

Ahmad Maruf “Omar” al-Assadi, hijacker

Abdellatif Ibrahim Fataier, hijacker the passengers nicknamed Rambo

Monzer al-Kassar, international arms dealer; old friend of Abu al-Abbas

Yasser Arafat, chairman, Palestine Liberation Organization

Alex Odeh

Alex Odeh, West Coast regional director, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 1983–1985

Norma Odeh, Alex’s wife

Helena Odeh, oldest daughter of Alex and Norma

James Abourezk, United States senator (South Dakota), 1973–1979; founder of American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 1980

Meir Kahane, founder, Jewish Defense League, 1968

Irv Rubin, head of Jewish Defense League, 1985

U.S. Government

Ronald Reagan, president, 1981–1989

George Shultz, secretary of state, 1982–1989

Caspar Weinberger, secretary of defense, 1982–1987

Oliver North, chair, White House counterterrorism task force, 1985–1986

Carl Stiner, major general; commanding general of Joint Special Operations, 1984–1987

Laurence Neal, lieutenant commander; naval aviator, 1975–1995

Nicholas A. Veliotes, ambassador to Egypt, 1984–1986


Bettino Craxi, prime minister, 1983–1987

Antonio Badini, chief foreign affairs adviser to Prime Minister Craxi, 1983–1987

Fulvio Martini, Italian Navy admiral; head of military security and intelligence, 1984–1991

Gianfranco Pagano, defense attorney representing two of the Achille Lauro hijackers

Luigi Carli, prosecutor


Peter Sellars, creator-director of The Death of Klinghoffer

John Adams, composer

Alice Goodman, librettist

My friends, I must insist upon this rule. For it is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are.

—J. T. Rogers, Oslo

Part One

The Achille Lauro

October 7, 1985–October 22, 1985


This was the moment that the Achille Lauro entered the consciousness of five-year-old Omar Abbas, younger son of Samia Costandi, first wife of Mohammed Zaidan, better known as Abu al-Abbas, commander of the Palestinian Liberation Front.

The telephone in their apartment rang and Omar heard his grandmother say, “Hello, Nabeel, did you finish your PhD?” And then his mother, Samia, told him and his older brother, Khaled, to come say hello to Baba, their father, but to pretend he was their uncle, Samia’s brother, Nabeel. Omar could tell from his mother’s face that this was very serious.

“Hello, Uncle Baba,” he said.

The five-year-old’s failure at subterfuge would become part of family lore. For Samia, the call signaled that her ex-husband, Abu al-Abbas, was safe. For Omar, the conversation was merged into the mythology that would always surround his father, a towering figure who instilled in his sons a permanent sense of longing.

The divorce had been modern, granting custody to Samia with visiting rights for their father. During the year Omar and Khaled lived with their mother in Beirut, close to their maternal grandparents, in Hamra, a lively neighborhood full of cafés where intellectuals and activists mingled to discuss poetry and philosophy and politics amid the chaos of a decade’s ongoing sectarian violence. Samia taught English as a second language close by, at Beirut University College, her alma mater.

Omar felt safe and protected, even though he knew there was a civil war and he remembered times when there would be explosions sounding like fireworks that meant his family had to hide in the stairwell with neighbors. His mom brought a blanket and snacks; for the kids, it was an indoor picnic, even though they knew the fireworks were bombs.

Hearing Baba’s voice carried Omar’s imagination to happy summers in Tunisia, where he spent vacations with his older brother, Khaled. That’s when they saw their father and were taken care of by their Auntie Reem, their stepmother, who treated them even nicer than her own kids. Omar and Khaled considered Loaye and Reef, Reem’s sons from her first marriage, as brothers.

Tunisia provided a haven for the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had been driven from Beirut in 1982, but for young Omar, it simply meant the hot chocolate Reem gave them at breakfast and a dog he loved, though it had so many fleas Auntie gave it away to a friend who had a farm. Tunisia meant watching cartoons on television when the three older boys left Omar, the youngest, behind. They told him he couldn’t come because they were going to help the dwarfs fight giants, battles in which they always claimed victory. In Tunisia Omar saw the way grown-ups spoke to his Baba, like his dad was a Jedi knight. Even the cracked dry soil of the garden produced watermelons from seeds planted by his father, another sign of his strength.

In Omar’s eyes, Abu al-Abbas was a hero, like Robin Hood the fox in the animated Disney film he loved to watch, always having to hide from the sheriff. Tunisia was his Baba’s refuge, his Forest of Nottingham.

Back in Beirut, Omar understood that here his father had to be kept a secret—not easy for a little boy who wanted to brag about his important dad.

One day in kindergarten the teacher went around the room asking the kids what their fathers did.

Omar listened as Mahmoud said his father was a dentist and Sara said her dad was a doctor.

What does your dad do, Omar?

I can’t say.

What do you mean, you can’t say?

Omar knew he wasn’t supposed to tell anyone that his dad was a fighter, but he was bursting to say something. Everyone was looking at him. So, he made noises like a machine gun, pretending to hold an imaginary weapon in his hands.

They didn’t understand. One kid thought the sputtering sounds indicated a jackhammer and asked him if his father was a “digger.”

Omar felt compelled to try again.

“My dad,” he said, “when Israelis see him, they say, ‘Catch that guy!’”


A Week Earlier…

The Achille Lauro had a tendency to tilt toward disaster.

A disturbing sign appeared at the very beginning, before the ship was even built. Known simply as Construction 214, the luxury vessel was going to be the pride of Rotterdam Lloyd, a major Dutch nautical line. The project began in 1939 but was delayed for years by Dutch workers resisting the German occupiers of Rotterdam during World War II. Finally launched in 1946, the ship was originally named for a martyr, the great-grandson of the company founder, Willem Ruys, who was taken hostage and killed by the Nazis in 1942. A few good years followed and then air travel sent the ocean liner business into a steep decline. In January 1965, the Willem Ruys was sold to Lauro Lines, a Neapolitan shipping company.

The Italians replaced the name on the ship’s bow with Achille Lauro, after its new owner, a wealthy industrialist and political force in Naples. Nothing unusual about that, except there was something unseemly about replacing an homage to a victim of fascism with the name of a Mussolini supporter who remained committed to right-wing politics. Eight months after the exchange, in the midst of a major overhaul, the Achille Lauro experienced a massive explosion and fire. Once again, it survived.

During the next twenty years, the Achille Lauro endured business troubles, fires, collisions, and a brush or two with war. In 1982, the ship’s namesake died at age ninety-five, leaving Lauro Lines heavily in debt; the company went bankrupt and the vessel was seized by creditors. Early in 1985, the Achille Lauro, repossessed by the Italian government, was leased for three years to Chandris Shipping Lines, a substantial Greek maritime company, which agreed to charter the ship for twenty cruises each year, all leaving from Genoa.

Advertising was pitched at people who wanted to indulge in the fantasy of unattainable luxury at affordable prices. Once on board, passengers were handed a glossy brochure, decorated with photographs of sexy men and women, written in giddy prose.

“Whilst at sea you will savour the delights of the gourmet’s table—with no less than six meals daily,” including a midnight buffet!

“Your only problem—a happy one—will be to choose from the extravagant array of tempting dishes!”

Captain Gerardo De Rosa was at the helm when the Achille Lauro left Genoa early Thursday evening, October 3, 1985. The ship docked in Naples the next day, and was then bound for ports in Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and Greece, eleven days in all.

De Rosa was well qualified. A graduate of the Nautical Institute in Piano di Sorrento, a municipality of Naples, he’d worked his way up through the ranks from cabin boy, gaining experience on freight ships for the Lauro Lines. Now, at age fifty-one, after more than thirty years at sea, he was on his eighteenth outing as a cruise ship commander.

Captain De Rosa oversaw the complex technical and safety requirements of moving the massive vessel, which was 23,629 tons, 643 feet long (almost two soccer fields), and 82 feet high (eight stories). She was powered by eight diesel engines putting out 32,000 horsepower to twin propellers.

On a luxury liner, however, seafaring expertise was merely the baseline competency. The Achille Lauro was both tourist resort and cargo vessel because of the sheer amount of food, drink, and linens required to accommodate guests. A sampling of job descriptions for the 383-member staff and crew reflects these needs, a mix of quotidian and indulgent: engine room and deck hand, quartermaster, cabin boy, laundry worker and cook, as well as hairdresser, photographer, barber, hostess, barboy, and cocktail waitress.

For the 673 passengers, the captain had an additional, picturesque part to play. He had to fulfill the romantic notion inherent in this kind of travel, one that required him to wear a tuxedo as comfortably as a uniform, to embrace the packaged glamour with an aura of sincerity and flirtatious good humor.

Deeply tanned with large, expressive eyes and an engaging smile, Gerardo De Rosa was born to assume just such a role. Growing up in Gragnano, a hillside town in southern Italy advertised for its excellent pasta, De Rosa was such a charming, exuberant child his mother ironically dubbed him Tristone (Sad Sack), perhaps to ward off evil spirits. De Rosa appreciated the desire of passengers to briefly experience the fiction of a carefree childhood. He described the Achille Lauro as “this enormous plaything, this ‘Land of Toys’ where everything was imagined and reimagined continuously for comfort and for entertainment.”

He claimed to enjoy watching and rewatching the ritual of discovery, as passengers explored the ship’s labyrinthine byways, coming upon the swimming pools (heated, both indoor and outdoor), massage spa, boutiques, movie theater, beauty parlor, gymnasium, and nightclubs, where dancers, magicians, and singers performed every evening. He liked being part of the fantasy. “A passenger expects from a cruise everything that he has ever dreamed of and even something more,” he would write, “not even he knows what, but we have to try to guess what it is, so that in the end the reality exceeds the expectation.”

On Sunday evening, October 6, De Rosa prepared himself for the official onboard welcome ceremony, timed to allow passengers to settle in. The ship had already been in motion for three days, having made passage through the strong tidal currents of the Strait of Messina, the narrow strip of water separating Sicily and Calabria. They were now at open sea, heading across the Mediterranean toward Alexandria, Egypt, where passengers who chose could disembark the next morning for a day excursion by bus to Cairo and the Pyramids. They would reboard the ship that same evening at Port Said.

The captain always tried to shake hands with each and every passenger. After the handshakes, he mingled some more in the ornate Salon Arazzi (Tapestry Hall) on the Promenade Deck, the second highest on the ship, where guests sipped cocktails at tables set with red tablecloths and napkins. De Rosa sought to wish everyone an enjoyable cruise, introduce his top officers, and then open up the dancing, with “The Drinking Song” from La Traviata. It was corny yet effective. De Rosa never deviated from the script, repeating the ritual in Italian, French, English, and Spanish. There were almost two hundred Austrians, seventy-eight Germans, seventy-one Americans, and twenty British; the rest were mainly from South America, Italy and other European countries, plus two Israelis.

On this voyage, as always, De Rosa’s enjoyment was tempered by the weight of responsibility. He knew that in a group of hundreds of people, it took only one unhappy, rude, or belligerent person to create a multiplying effect of dissatisfaction.

That evening he had been distracted briefly by one passenger moving through the receiving line, a middle-aged man with thick glasses and oddly showy clothes: shirt collar too big, an out-of-style necktie. De Rosa noticed this man had been watching him with unusual attention.

The man grasped the captain’s outstretched hand in both of his, then turned the captain’s palm upward, and mumbled a few words. De Rosa could understand only one, the word “Allah.” In the moment, this didn’t strike the captain as unusual. They were moving toward Islamic countries. When he pulled his hand away, De Rosa saw the man had deposited a gift in his palm: a komboloi, a string of Greek worry beads. The captain interpreted the beads as a prayer object, like a rosary, or maybe an expression of affection and friendship. He slipped the beads in his coat pocket without much thought; he often received business cards or notes from people during this moment of introduction. Though he didn’t catch the man’s name, he would not forget their meeting.

After an evening of socializing, De Rosa was tired. Back in his cabin, as he took off his jacket, he pulled the little chain he’d been given from his pocket. He glanced at the komboloi, then dropped it on his bedside table, along with his cigarettes and lighter.

Normally he had no trouble falling asleep. That night was different. He had been feeling uneasy all evening—not sick exactly but filled with dread. This was not an unfamiliar feeling. De Rosa had experienced this anxiety before, during long hours he’d spent on oil tankers and freighters, always when heartache was on the horizon. It was a feeling he had the night he learned his mother had died years before, in 1978, when he was crossing an ocean. He’d had the same emotion just a few months earlier, in February 1985, a premonition about Paolo, one of his brothers. He called home to Gragnano from a stop in Trinidad, something he had never done, to discover that Paolo had died, without warning.

These memories kept him awake. Finally, he left his bed to go up on the ship’s bridge, directly above his quarters, to make sure everything was in order. He was reluctant to go back to bed, so he remained in the solitary comfort of the balmy autumn night until one of his sailors approached him to see if anything was wrong. Not wanting to explain himself, the restless captain returned to his cabin.

Back in bed, he smoked one cigarette after another; this usually put him to sleep. Nothing worked, not even Halcion, the insomnia medication he rarely took but did that night. The captain dozed off at 3 a.m. only to be awakened at 5:30 by a knock at the door. A waiter was there with his morning coffee. The ship was ready to begin the docking process at Alexandria.

A few minutes later De Rosa was on deck, waiting with his crew members for a pilot, someone familiar with the local seabed, to arrive from shore to guide the ship in. The captain usually liked to start the day with a joke, something to set a sociable mood, but that morning he was out of sorts, tired from lack of sleep and a nagging feeling of disquiet.

During the hour or two it took to dock in Alexandria, he found himself looking for the passenger who gave him the worry beads. Instead, strolling on the bridge, he found a group of American passengers and began to talk to them. He had a fondness for Americans; his parents had lived in the United States for a few years before he was born; one of his brothers, born there, still lived in New York, on Long Island.

He was expecting a quiet day at sea. Most of the passengers, 600 out of 673, were scheduled to take the one-day land excursion to Cairo and the Pyramids. Once they were safely off the ship, the Achille Lauro would be on its way, headed for Port Said, about 150 miles east, at the mouth of the Suez Canal, where the day-trippers would arrive by bus that evening, in time to board the ship to spend the night. He watched a young couple exit; they left their children on the ship with their grandmothers. The ones who stayed behind tended to be old or very young, or not feeling well.

The exodus of sightseers began at 7:30. De Rosa stood by the railing and watched, making sure things went smoothly. There was always something to worry about. Would someone who had left the ship have an accident, or get lost, or be late for the boat when it left Port Said at the end of the day?

Shortly before the ship’s scheduled ten o’clock departure from Alexandria, De Rosa noticed several police officers gathered on the pier. Then he caught sight of a beautiful young woman, someone he didn’t recognize as a passenger, walking down the Achille Lauro gangplank, wearing a stylish black hat and a wraparound blue dress. De Rosa barely had time to absorb this elegant image, when a young man, also nattily dressed, darkly handsome, an Arab perhaps, came toward the woman, pulled out a pistol, and fired a shot. She collapsed.

Before De Rosa could react, the woman got up from the ground and began casually chatting with another man. The captain instantly understood this was a film shoot, probably a low-budget movie, because the group quickly left the area, as though escaping.

De Rosa noticed he was sharing this bizarre scene with someone else. A man the captain recognized had been watching down on the pier. Leon Klinghoffer, one of the Americans, was easy to remember because he was the only passenger on board in a wheelchair. Klinghoffer seemed annoyed that the filming was blocking him from getting back on the ship. The captain was about to offer help when someone began to push the wheelchair back aboard. De Rosa wondered if Klinghoffer had planned to take the excursion and then changed his mind, or if he just wanted to get off the ship for a while.

As the ship left the port, the uneasy feeling that had kept De Rosa awake the night before returned. This anxiety persisted even though he hadn’t yet been informed about a passenger who had abruptly decided to leave the cruise altogether in Alexandria. One of the cruise managers had dealt with the matter; she reported later that the passenger seemed agitated and confused, first saying he had to leave because of an important business matter, then he had to leave because his wife was ill. The manager took care of it, made sure the appropriate releases were signed, and watched the man depart.

No one was alarmed. “There are always a few strange people aboard every ship,” De Rosa observed.

When De Rosa was trying to put the pieces together later, he realized the passenger who fled the ship was the man who gave him the komboloi and invoked the name of Allah. De Rosa didn’t know it yet, but this man had many names—Petros Flores was one, Khaled Abdul Rahim was another.

After a quick stroll around the deck, where the remaining passengers had begun to take their place on chaise longues on the sundeck, De Rosa returned to his cabin and stretched out on his bed. He tried to read a book but could not distract himself. When a waiter knocked on the door around noon, offering to bring him lunch, De Rosa declined. He remained on his bed, lost in his thoughts for almost an hour, until he was yanked out of his reveries by another, more insistent knock on the door.

Before De Rosa could respond, his second in command ran into the room. It was a quarter after one. “I know this with chronometric precision,” the captain would recall.


  • "[Salamon's] book's greatest contribution is the way that it humanizes the political ordeal...her book offers valuable insight. "—The New York Times Book Review
  • "Salamon provides a 360-degree view of the tragic, endless cycle of the killing of innocents."—Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • "Leon Klinghoffer's death became a symbol for many of the costs and fears of terrorism. Julie Salamon has written a book about that moment and the human threads that followed in a way that depicts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."—NPR
  • "An Innocent Bystander tells the awful story of Palestinian terrorists hijacking an Italian cruise ship. It also explains how competing governments, complicated treaties and outright lies kept the four attackers from ever facing American justice...Julie Salamon strives to be scrupulously fair. Her book focuses not only on the captives but also on the captors."—New York Daily News
  • "In a book that reads like a spy thriller and a closely-observed narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Julie Salamon asserts that Klinghoffer was shot not because he was a Jew but because he was an American. An Innocent Bystander: The Killing of Leon Klinghoffer is based on Salamon's access to newly-unclassified material and interviews with many of the key figures who are still alive - including several who hadn't spoken out previously.—Jewish Week
  • "Salamon succeeded in magnifying a deeper historical truth about the nature of anti-Semitism."—Canadian Jewish News
  • "By telling the story of the Klinghoffer murder richly and elegantly, Salamon manages to capture the essence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-the injustice, the desperation, the horror, and the folly. Her book sparkles with insight."—Dan Ephron, author of Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel
  • "A gripping, profoundly moving and insightful examination of the Achille Lauro tragedy from multiple perspectives."—Saul David, author of Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History
  • "Julie Salamon's An Innocent Bystander is an empathetic and deeply researched account of how families across the globe deal with the loss and pain borne out of the Israel-Palestine conflict."—Moustafa Bayoumi, author of How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America
  • "The wise and fearless Julie Salamon has once again used her astounding journalistic gifts to excavate an essential story. Her elegantly constructed account of the Achille Lauro hijacking and its bitter aftermath illuminates how the specter of modern terrorism has sown hostility throughout the world. Yet the book is at its most poignant when exploring the personal rather than political: Salamon's ingenious storytelling deepens our understanding of how human beings find the strength to cope with the incomprehensible."—-Brendan I. Koerner, author of The Skies Belong to Us and Now the Hell Will Start
  • "Salamon plucks the story of the killing of one man out of the rush of history and holds it up for nuanced consideration. In so doing, she shows us how the events around a single murder continue to ripple outward, through the families of both the murder victim and the man who set that murder in motion. An illuminating, necessary book."
    J T Rogers, Oslo
  • "Researching the events, repercussions and the search for justice, Salamon interviews most of the participants who are still living, including one of the hijackers, and creates a powerful and provocative narrative."—The Jewish News
  • "This moving story stands as the most in-depth look at the hijacking to date. Salamon reinforces her place as one of today's foremost chroniclers of American politics and culture."—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
  • "In this gripping account, former Wall Street Journal and New York Times reporter and critic Salamon adeptly reveals the parallel lives of the well-educated and privileged wife of the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Front and the successful, New York City-bred daughters of abductees Marilyn and Leon Klinghoffer. Salamon's account of the strategizing of Palestinian, Israeli, and American diplomats, followed by the soldiers' captures and subsequent escapes, are as engaging as a spy novel... An engrossing narrative of a notorious act of terror."—Kirkus

On Sale
Apr 21, 2020
Page Count
368 pages
Back Bay Books

Julie Salamon

About the Author

Author and journalist Julie Salamon has written notable nonfiction books about show business, philanthropy, the Holocaust, the insanity defense, and modern medical care. Her ten previous works include several bestsellers and two novels for children. She was a reporter and critic for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Learn more about this author