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Headline Archives

The Case of the Yachted Terrorist


Map of Middle East and FBI Seal.It was a bright, clear September day in the international waters of the eastern Mediterranean. A motorboat carrying a suspected terrorist -- who was distinctly hung over from too much partying the night before -- approached an 80-foot sailing yacht. From the yacht's deck, two women in shorts and halter tops beckoned him to come aboard. He eyed them appreciatively, thinking ahead to his imminent meeting with Joseph, an international drug dealer, who was promising him an opportunity to begin a lucrative new career.

Was he ever about to be surprised.

The women and Joseph were undercover FBI agents. Once on deck, he was arrested and taken aboard a U.S. Navy munitions ship, the USS Butte, where he was read his rights and interrogated. As the Butte steamed toward a rendezvous with the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, the suspect confessed to his involvement in several acts of terrorism. From the Saratoga, he was flown for a record-breaking thirteen hours in a Navy Viking S-3 jet to be arraigned in Washington, D.C., and ultimately was tried, convicted, and sentenced in a U.S. court. Case closed.

What's the significance of this remarkable operation? This was the first international terrorist to be apprehended overseas and brought back to the United States to stand trial.

When did it happen? Seventeen years ago this week, on September 13, 1987.

Who was the terrorist? Fawaz Younis, one of the individuals implicated in the 1985 hijacking of a Royal Jordanian airliner. After taking the passengers hostage – including two Americans – and making several demands that were not met, the hijackers ordered the airplane's crew to land first in Cyprus, then Sicily, and finally Beirut. There they released the hostages, held a press conference, blew up the plane on the tarmac, and fled.

What Younis did not know was that his actions triggered a law passed by Congress just the year before -- the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 -- that gave the FBI jurisdiction over terrorist acts in which Americans were taken hostage – no matter where the acts occurred. That authority was expanded in 1986 with the passage of the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act.

Thus "Operation Goldenrod"-- the first time those new authorities were used, sending a message to terrorists that we would pursue them no matter where they tried to hide.

What was the outcome? Younis was convicted of conspiracy, aircraft piracy, and hostage-taking. In October 1989, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

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