Ali Atwa, a senior Hezbollah operative who was on the FBI’s most-wanted list for his role in a much-publicized plane hijacking back in 1985, has died, the Lebanese terror group said Saturday.

According to reports released by Hezbollah, the terrorist, reportedly in his 60s died from complications after a long battle with cancer. 

Atwa was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in 2001 with two other terrorists of the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847. The hijacking, which began in Athens, Greece, on June 14, lasted 16 days and took the plane between Beirut and Algiers.

Of the 147 people on board, 85 were American citizens, including several members of the crew including pilot John Testrake. While stopped in Beirut, the terrorists singled out U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem and murdered him.

The hijackers demanded the release of more than 700 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons. 

Flight 847 originated in Cairo on the morning of June 14 en route to San Diego with stops planned in Athens, Rome, Boston, and Los Angeles. After landing in Athens, a new crew boarded Flight 847. 

Lebanese Hezbollah hijacker during the 1985 incident with TWA 847. (AP)

At 10:10, Flight 847 departed Athens for Rome. It was hijacked shortly after takeoff by two Arabic-speaking Lebanese men who had smuggled a pistol and two grenades through the Athens airport security. One was later identified as Mohammed Ali Hamadi, a Hezbollah terrorist who was eventually captured and sentenced to life imprisonment in Germany. He was paroled in 2005. Germany denied a U.S. request to extradite Hamadi after Hezbollah kidnapped two German citizens in Beirut and threatened to kill them if Hamadi was turned over to the Americans.

Ali Atwa was supposed to board the flight in Athens but was bumped off due to overbooking. After making violent threats to the TWA gate agent he was arrested by Greek authorities. He was later released by the Greek government and rejoined the hijackers in Algiers, in return for the release of seven Greek hostages including pop singer Demis Roussos. 


The World Is a Better Place

Kenneth Stethem, Robert’s older brother, in a statement to Military Times, said that if Atwa’s death is indeed true, then the world is a better place 

“Ali Atwa will always be remembered, even by the family and friends that celebrated his death, as an incompetent fool that couldn’t even make it onto the flight he was supposed to hijack,” Stethem said.

“Ali Atwa spent the final 36 years of his life running like a scared rabbit, hiding out in Lebanon and fearful that even those close to him would turn him in for the FBI reward,” he added.

The hijacked aircraft was flown to Beirut and after a brief stop, flew on to Algiers, where the terrorists allowed 20 women and children to be released after a five-hour stopover. The aircraft then flew back to Beirut, where the terrorists after beating U.S. servicemen, singled out Stethem, beat him unconscious, and then shot him in the temple, dumping his body on the tarmac and shooting him again. 

Mohamad Ali Hamadi was one of the TWA hijackers convicted of the murder of a U.S. Navy diver. (AP)

The terrorists then forced seven passengers with Jewish-sounding names off the aircraft and had them taken to a Shia prison in Beirut. While in Beirut, a dozen heavily armed men joined the hijackers and then the aircraft flew back to Algiers where an additional 65 passengers and the five female members of the aircrew were released. 

Flying back to Beirut the remaining 40 hostages were removed from the aircraft and held in various locations around Beirut by Hezbollah. Negotiations between President Reagan and Lebanese officials eventually resulted in the release of the remaining hostages. 

The FBI had offered a five million dollars reward for information leading to Atwa’s arrest. Ali Atwa was accused of conspiring to take hostages, committing air piracy that led to the slaying of an American, and placing explosives aboard an aircraft. Hezbollah. at the time, denied that any of the hijackers were part of its organization.

“Ali Atwa might not have been held accountable on earth for his role in the TWA 847 hijacking and the death of U.S. Navy sailor, Seabee diver, son, and brother Robert D. Stethem, but our family takes great solace in the fact that he is being held accountable now,” Kenneth Stethem said in a statement by the Stethem family.

Hezbollah held a funeral for him on Saturday in Beirut.