Saturday, 13 March 2021

How I Snapped Terrorist Abu Abbas in Belgrade After 1985 Achille Lauro Hijack

March 13, 2021 - The inside story of how a Split photographer photographed wanted terrorist Abu Abbas in Belgrade after the hijacking of Achille Lauro in 1985, a photograph that made the cover of Time Magazine.

One of the things that I adored during my 13 years on Hvar was just how egalitarian things were. 

Nobody cared if celebrities were famous, and the paparazzi that hound celebs elsewhere tend to leave them alone. Because it is a holiday destination, people also dress informally, and I have lost count of the number of interesting people I have met over the years over a cold one at The Office on the main square in Jelsa, only to be nudged by a friend when they leave:

"You DO know who that was, don't you?"

One of my favourite snippets of useless information on this subject is that the BBC's official football blogger, Phil McNulty, always does his big Premier League season prediction at the next table to me in the cafe. And so I couldn't even claim that I was the top British blogger in in my local in the third biggest town of a Dalmatian island... I digress. 


One of the other regulars on the square is the man on the left of the photo above. Jadran Lazic probably has the closest things to a perfect life, splitting it between his celebrity photography lifestyle in L.A. and his lavender fields on the top of Hvar. Having started his photography career taking photos as a kid at Hajduk Split, he has had an unbelievable career, which has taken him all over the world, including some amazing exclusives. He was, for instance, the only photographer accredited to a Western photo agency (SIPA in Paris) to snap the body of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev lying in state in Moscow, and he was the man who brought a young Jodie Foster to holiday on Hvar back in the 1970s.

One of the guaranteed things in my calendar each year (7 years out of the last 8) has been to accompany Jadran to the top of the island at 04:30 in the morning to help him pick his beloved lavender harvest. If you have never seen a lavender harvest, check out the video above - an idyllic lavender field on the top of the most beautiful island in the world. 

Over the years, Jadran and I have spent quite some time together, and I have taught him all I know about photography. I have heard some of his incredible stories, which are soon to be published in a special monograph to commemorate his glittering 50-year career. He kindly agreed to share some of his photos and stories so that I could retell them in my own words. 

We begin with the incredible and (I think) yet untold story of how a Dalmatian photographer managed to get a world-exclusive photograph of the world's most wanted man at the time. A photograph that made it to the front cover of Time Magazine, for which Jadran received $50,000. A very tidy sum, but nothing compared to the $2,500,000 bounty on the head of Abu Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Front and mastermind of the hijacking of the Italian ship Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt back in 1985.  


I was 16 when the hijack took place, and I remember the horror of it all. The threat to start shooting American hostages if their demands were not met at 15:00 that day. And then the brutal assassination of an elderly Jewish American tourist. Leon Klinghoffer was 69 years old and in a wheelchair. After he was shot, he was thrown into the sea, along with his wheelchair. 

Abu Abbas was not among the four hijackers on the ship, but he came to negotiate the end of the hijack he himself had orchestrated. What followed was quite extraordinary. The hijack was ended with condition that the hijackers and Abbas were allowed to leave on a commercial Egypt Air flight to the PLO stronghold of Tunis. American planes intercepted the plane and forced it to divert to an airbase in Italy. The Americans wanted the terrorists, but then things got complicated. The Italians had an agreement with the PLO already in place, whereby Italians would not be targeted by their terror activities in return for certain guarantees. Handing Abu Abbas to the Americans would be a violation of that, with potentially grave consequences if the PLO chose to take revenge. 


Much to the Americans' dismay, the Italians allowed the Palestinians to leave for Iraq via Belgrade. As Yugoslavia and the PLO had diplomatic relations, Abu Abbas was relatively safe in Belgrade before his onward journey. 

Almost nobody knew that Abu Abbas was in Belgrade, including the man whose photograph of Abu Abbas would soon circulate around the world. Indeed, Jadran Lazic was not even sure he knew exactly who Abu Abbas was. Besides, he had more pressing things to worry about, as he boarded a flight from Belgrade to Zagreb then car to Vienna - he had to buy diapers and other baby supplies unavailable in Yugoslavia in preparation for the imminent birth of his second child. 


Arriving back at Zagreb Airport overladen with baby equipment for the return flight home to Belgrade, he was surprised to bump into a colleague from a rival agency trying to get a ticket to Belgrade. The colleague was nervous when he saw Jadran, and Jadran's immediate instinct was that something - or someone - big was in the Serbian capital. 

His colleague/competitor could only fly the next day, and Jadran said he would pick him up from Belgrade Airport, no problem, and it would be great if he could carry some of Jadran's baby stuff. He really had bought half of the Viennese baby department. 

Jadran then checked in with the office in Paris, as he had not been in contact for a few days due to the trip to Vienna, asking if they any info about someone big in Belgrade. 


"Abu Abbas is apparently there," came the reply. 

Who? The name meant nothing to Jadran, until the hijacking was mentioned. Oh, THAT Abu Abbas. He was convinced that his competitor was coming to get the exclusive photo. With a bounty of $2.5 million on his head, there would be a nice earning from an exclusive photo. Especially as nobody knew where Abu Abbas was. 

But how to get the photo?

Fate, and a large helping of Jadran charm, came into play. As he waited at the arrival hall of Belgrade Airport for his rival and those baby supplies, Jadran bumped into Mirko Marinovic, the Federal Deputy Minister of Information, and his secretary Tatjana Lazarevic, who had arrived on the same flight. Their driver had not turned up, and so Jadran gave them a lift in his car. 


"So you are going to the Helmut Schmidt press conference?" asked the deputy minister who was sitting in the front next to Jadran. Jadran looked into the rear-view mirror to catch his rival's eye as he replied.

"No," he replied. "Something far more interesting. I hear Abu Abbas is in town." His rival's jaw hit the floor, and Jadran knew he was onto something. And then, Tatjana, who was married to Vjesnik reporter, Dobrica Pivnicki, uttered some quite incredible words:

"My husband interviewed Abu Abbas last night."

"Then let's drop your boss and go to your place and see if your husband can arrange a photoshoot. I know Dobrica loves hunting - tell him I will buy him the hunting rifle of his choice if he can do it."

Tatjana wondered what they should do with the rival photographer, but Jadran explained the code of conduct. In cases like this, they worked together and split the fee if they were both there until the end. 

Although the promise of a good hunting rifle was a wonderful enticement, Dobrila was not sure he could pull it off, but he promised he would try. This was an era before the mobile phone, and so Jadran and his former rival turned colleague had to sit and wait at his place for the phone to ring. 


They waited. The wife of the colleague back in Zagreb was getting increasingly mad at her husband, convinced he was just drinking and chasing Belgrade beauties with Lazic. On day 3, the pressure was too much, and the colleague promised his wife he was coming home. 

But there were no tickets! Jadran was even more keen for the guy to leave than he was himself. A favour at the airport miraculously produced a ticket, and the competition was dispensed with. If Tatjana could deliver, he would have a world exclusive!

And then... the phone rang. 

The Palestine Liberation Organization had its office in a private house. When they got there, Jadran gave a copy of his book, The Reporter, to Abu Abbas as a gift. He thanked him and said they could begin. The room was nondescript – a couch, a few armchairs, a coffee table and some pictures on the wall. Jadran took pictures of Abu Abbas on the couch, on an armchair, and then he saw that one of the pictures on the wall – a bit further to the side – was of a group of people with Yasser Arafat and Pope John Paul II in the centre.


Jadran asked Abbas if he could move the picture to a spot above the armchair, right over his head. He didn’t mind – on the contrary. When he saw Abu Abbas was totally relaxed, Jadran asked him something only someone from Split could ask. Could he, please, gesture as if he were shooting a Kalashnikov? He said yes again! In the end, they even took a picture together.

A wanted terrorist with a bounty of $2.5 million dollars on his head, and there they were, talking about the naked models in Jadran's book.

“Wow! Perhaps I could join you for a photo session like this one in the future?” asked Abu Abbas.

“Of course. Who could resist the two of us?”


Dobrica good his hunting rifle, Jadran got his $50,000 and photo on the cover of Time Magazine. But nobody ever read poor Dobrica's interview, as Yugoslavia denied for years that he had ever been there. 

You can follow the series categorising the exploits of Jadran Lazic and his camera, as well as his magnificent lavender field, in this dedicated TCN section

For more information on Jadran's forthcoming monograph, click here.

In next week's story, how Jadran became the only accredited photographer with a Western agency to photograph the body of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev lying in state, photos which earned him considerably more than this shot of Abu Abbas.