BEIRUT (AP) — Ali Atwa, a senior Hezbollah operative who was on the FBI’s most wanted list for his role in in the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 that led to the death of a U.S. Navy diver, has died, the Lebanese militant group said Saturday.
Navy Steelworker 2nd Class Robert D. Stethem was a 23-year-old passenger on the flight. He was tortured, shot, and killed.
Stethem’s family said if the reports of Atwa’s death are true, 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,” Kenneth Stethem in a statement to Military Times.
“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.”
The FBI had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Atwa’s arrest. He was accused of conspiring to take hostages, committing air piracy that led to the slaying of an American, and placing explosives aboard an aircraft.
The flight, with 153 passengers and crew members, including 85 Americans, was commandeered by the hijackers after taking off from Athens bound for Rome.
The hijackers demanded the release of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons.
The plane was allowed to land in Beirut, where the hijackers freed 19 American women and children. They then flew to Algeria, where more hostages were released, before returning to Beirut.
There, the hijackers shot and killed Robert Stethem, after beating him unconscious. They again returned to Algeria, released more passengers and were joined by Atwa, who had failed to get a seat on the flight and was arrested at Athens airport.
Greek authorities let him go after his co-accomplices threatened to kill more hostages. Atwa was filmed during his release in Athens covering his face with a bag.
Among those on the flight was Greek singer Demis Roussos, who was released in Beirut. On June 30, the last 39 passengers were freed in Damascus, Syria.
Days later, hundreds of Lebanese prisoners were released from Israeli prisons.
One of the hijackers, Mohammed Ali Hammadi, was arrested in Frankfurt in then-West Germany in 1987 and was convicted of the hijacking and Stethem’s slaying. Hammadi was sentenced to life in prison but was paroled in 2005 and returned to Lebanon.
“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,” wrote Kenneth Stethem in a statement on behalf of the family.
A Hezbollah funeral was organized for Atwa on Saturday in Beirut.