Robert Dean Stethem – SW-2 (Diver), United States Navy

This young Navy diver was returning from an assignment in the Middle East when the commercial jet on which he was a passenger was hijacked by terrorists. He was shot to death, after being tortured, by the terrorists on June 15, 1985.

He is buried in Section 59 of Arlington National Cemtery, near a number of other Americans who were victims of worldwide terrorism.

Long before Osama bin Laden burst onto the scene and President Bush declared war on terrorism, there was the elusive Imad Mughniyah. One of the world's most wanted — and accomplished — alleged terrorists, he has been accused of playing a leading role in killing more than 250 Americans, taking a half-dozen others hostage and driving the United States out of Lebanon.

The hunt for Mughniyah has waned in the past decade as the memory of his bloody record in the Beirut of the mid-1980s faded and diplomatic imperatives shifted elsewhere. But now the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign has revived interest in the Shiite shadow warrior whom Lebanese and U.S. officials blame for pioneering suicide bombing, destroying a large Marine encampment and taking out the entire CIA station in Beirut.

Although Mughniyah has not been implicated in the recent attacks in the United States, his whereabouts since September 11 have provoked intense speculation centering on reports that he has returned from Iran to his native Lebanon in an effort to escape a U.S. manhunt. How seriously the United States pursues its old nemesis may be one measure of the breadth of U.S. intentions to wage a global war beyond the search for bin Laden and the bombing of Afghanistan.

The FBI included Mughniyah and two fellow Lebanese, Hasan Izz-Al-Din and Ali Atwa, on a list issued October 10 of 22 people wanted for terrorist acts. It cited an indictment handed up in Washington for the June 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in which a 23-year-old U.S. Navy diver, Robert Dean Stethem, of Waldorf, Md., was shot and dumped on the tarmac of Beirut International Airport. The U.S. government also has asked the Lebanese and other governments to freeze any assets belonging to Mughniyah, Izz-Al-Din and Atwa, citing their alleged links to terrorist attacks. Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri said in an interview that the Bank of Lebanon has conducted a search and found no accounts or other assets in the three men's names.

FDriday November 23, 2001
Ship May Be Deployed to Persian Gulf

SAN DIEGO (AP) – A guided-missile destroyer named for a naval petty officer killed in a 1985 terrorist hijacking may soon assist in the war on terrorism.

The new commanding officer of the USS Stethem said Wednesday the ship may soon depart for the Persian Gulf.

The ship was named after Petty Officer Robert Dean Stethem, who was killed as he was planning to return home from Greece aboard TWA Flight 847. The flight was hijacked to Beirut, Lebanon, and Stethem was shot in the head, his body dumped on the tarmac. The Lebanese hijackers held 39 other people hostage for 17 days, demanding that Israel release several hundred Shiite Muslim prisoners.

Stethem was targeted because he was part of the U.S. military. He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. In 1995, the newly commissioned destroyer was named for him.

Stethem's family and friends watched the destroyer's change of command Wednesday, hoping the ship and another named for Marine Corps Lt. Col. William Higgins, kidnapped by terrorists in 1988 and later killed, will play a role in the current military campaign.

“We would like it very much if both the Stethem and the Higgins get to shoot Tomahawks and deliver some justice,” said Richard Stethem, a retired Navy senior chief petty officer.

The victim's brother said he remembers the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery and can't help but think about the flag-draped coffin.

“Every time I look at the flag now and for the rest of my life,” said Kenneth Stethem, “the red will represent the blood he spilled, the blue the beating and bruises he endured, and the white the purity and integrity he demonstrated in sacrificing his life.”

October 22, 1995:


The USS Stethem is one of the world's most advanced warships. The newly built guided missile destroyer, named after Petty Officer Robert Stethem, was  commissioned during an emotional ceremony Saturday.

Stethem, a former Navy Seabee, was killed in June 1985 during the hijacking of a TWA jet in Lebanon. Stethem, a passenger on the flight, was singled out by the terrorists because of his military status. He was badly beaten and ultimately executed after the terrorists' demands were not met.

“Throughout his ordeal, Petty Officer Stethem did not yield, instead he acted with fortitude and courage and helped his fellow passengers to endure by his example,” said U.S. Navy Vice Admiral David Robinson, who spoke at the commissioning ceremony.

Both of Stethem's parents took part in the ceremony to officially make the sleek ship part of the U.S. fleet.

“I pray that Robby up above is enjoying it as much as we are,” said his mother, Patricia Stethem. “We're very proud of him.”

His father, Robert Stethem, said the ceremony was “an honor for us and an honor for him, but for Rob, it would have been almost embarrassing because he would have really been humbled by it.”

The Navy considers the commissioning of a ship to be among its most important ceremonies. The USS Stethem is the first ship to be commissioned at Port Hueneme and only the second to be named after a Seabee, a member of the Navy's construction

The Stethem carries some of the Navy's most advanced equipment, including lasers, computers, radar-defeating stealth technology and sophisticated missiles. Its crew of 330 knows it is taking over one of the world's most formidable warships.

They also know destroyers are traditionally named after heroes. And they're proud to say this one is no exception.

Wednesday November 21, 2001

Navy Honors Sailor Killed In 1985 Terrorist Attack

A sailor killed in a terrorist hijacking in 1985 was honored again Wednesday morning during a change of command ceremony in San Diego.

The ceremony was aboard the destroyer “Robert D. Stethem,” named for the young petty officer (pictured, right) executed by the hijackers of TWA flight 847 16 years ago.

The hijackers killed Stethem in cold blood and dumped his body on an airport runway in Beirut, because he was an American serviceman, according to 10News.

Stethem's brother, Kenneth, a retired Navy SEAL, was the guest speaker.

Stethem's parents, who are also U.S. Navy veterans, also attended the ceremony.

The USS Stethem is now under the command David Melin, replacing commander Craig Faller.

June 14, 2005

Just 10 minutes after TWA Flight 847 took off from Athens on June 14, 1985, two men with guns stormed the cockpit. The pilot radioed that one had explosives, saying, “He has pulled a hand grenade pin, and he is ready to blow up the aircraft if he has to. We must, I repeat, we must land at Beirut.”

After brutally attacking several of those on board, the hijackers — Hezbollah terrorists — discovered that one passenger was enlisted in the U.S. Navy: Robert Dean Stethem, 23, a steelworker and diver.


Stethem, too, was severely beaten, then shot and killed — his body shoved out of the plane to the tarmac below. He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery as his parents, Richard and Patricia, grieved.

Tuesday, two decades later, they were in Washington, pushing to keep the hunt alive for the terrorists who killed their son.

“It's been 20 years, but to us, it seems like it was yesterday,” says Robert Stethem.

One of the hijackers, Mohammed Hamadei, was caught in Germany, convicted, and sentened to life. But he could be out on parole in six months. The U.S. wants him brought to this country for trial.

The other hijacker, Hasan Izz-al-din, remains at large, and so do two others accused of helping to plan the attack.

FBI investigators believe the three men have moved back and forth between Iran and Lebanon.

“We track the intelligence, both from the U.S. community and from our counterparts overseas, all in an effort to find that window when we can actually apprehend these individuals and bring them to the Unites States so that justice will be served in this case,” says FBI Agent Michael Rolince.

FBI agents have been overseas repeatedly on their trail — once, they say, coming very close to making arrests.

The Stethems believe the U.S. must push Lebanon harder to cooperate; especially now with political changes there.

“Unless Lebanon will come forth and help us apprehend these criminals, I believe they should be considered a terrorist nation,” says Patricia Stethem.

Tuesday, Richard and Patricia Stethem visited their son's gravesite, resolving to keep pushing until his killers are behind bars.

Germany paroles hijacker who killed Md. man
Navy diver shot in 1985 hostage-taking incident; Victim's kin express anger
20 December 2005

Robert Stethem's family was never satisfied that hijacker Mohammed Ali Hamadi received a life sentence in Germany for the 1985 murder of the Navy diver from Maryland on a TWA airplane. Fearing that Hamadi could eventually be let go, the Stethem family pushed unsuccessfully for his extradition to the United State for trial.

Their fears were realized Friday when Hamadi was granted parole by a German court after 19 years in prison. Hamadi was allowed to fly to Lebanon that day on a commercial flight from Berlin.

His release has left the Stethems angry and dealt a potential blow to their hope that he would someday be brought before a U.S. court for Robert Stethem's murder.

“I think it is absolutely disturbing,” said Kenneth Stethem of California, Robert Stethem's brother. “He wasn't only released, he was given passage out of Germany.”

This past summer marked the 20-year anniversary of Waldorf native Robert Stethem's June 1985 murder on board the hijacked TWA jet as it sat parked on the tarmac of Beirut International Airport.

TWA flight 847 was headed from Athens to Rome when it was seized by two armed men and eventually forced to land in Beirut. Stethem, 23, was singled out because he was an American serviceman. He was beaten and shot, and his body was dumped from the plane.

The hijackers later took 39 Americans hostage for 17 days and badly beat several, but Stethem was the only fatality. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and the Navy named a guided missile destroyer after him.

Hamadi and the other hijacker, Hasan Izz-Al-Din, were able to escape, along with two accomplices. The men were allegedly acting on behalf of the Iranian-backed Shiite group Hezbollah, although Hezbollah has denied involvement.

German authorities arrested Hamadi two years later at the Frankfurt airport when liquid explosives were found in his luggage. Germany, which has no capital punishment, refused to extradite him to the United States because he could have faced the death penalty.

Stethem's mother, Patricia, attended every day of Hamadi's trial in Frankfurt, a case that stretched nearly a year from 1988 to 1989. Hamadi claimed he was not the killer, but witnesses said he beat the Navy diver and bragged about killing him. Patricia Stethem recalls Hamadi from the trial as “a coward who can only do something if he's got a gun in his hand.”

“I stared at him all the time,” she said. “He knows how much I hate him.”

When Hamadi was sentenced to life in prison in 1989, the Stethems fretted he could eventually be released, either for political reasons or by some legal quirk. Stethem's father, Richard, said at the time that commutation of the sentence would be “a pure mockery of justice.”

Patricia Stethem thought Hamadi wouldn't be eligible for a parole hearing until January. The family was shocked when they learned Friday night from federal investigators who had worked on the case that Hamadi had been set free. The Stethems have not received any official notification from the U.S. government of Hamadi's release.

Kenneth Stethem faulted the government for not doing enough to ensure that Hamadi remained in prison. Citing President Bush's recent speeches to gather support for the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism, Kenneth Stethem said the administration has shown a double standard.

“He needs American support for the war against terrorism, but a convicted terrorist goes free, the U.S. government knows it is coming, and they don't do anything to prevent it and afterward they don't say anything about it,” Kenneth Stethem said.

In 2002, a federal judge in Washington ordered Iran to pay the family $321 million for its role in the case of supporting Hezbollah. The Stethems have yet to receive any money.

Despite Hamadi's release, the family has not given up on the case. Patricia Stethem hopes to meet with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to ask her to pressure Lebanon to extradite Hamadi. A State Department spokesman said today that the United States wants Lebanon to turn him over.

Patricia and Richard Stethem have moved from their home in Port Tobacco, but declined to say where they live now since several people involved with their son's murder are still at large. Patricia Stethem said when she returns to her son's grave at Arlington National Cemetery this Christmas, she will give him a message.

“I'll say, ‘We'll be after him. We won't let it rest,'” she said.

German Trade-off Suspected in Release of Terrorist Killer
22 December 2005

Germany freed the murderer of a U.S. Navy diver despite personal intervention by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the State Department has confirmed, amid speculation that Berlin let the Hizballah terrorist go as part of a deal to free a German hostage in Iraq.

Mohammed Ali Hamadi flew to Lebanon after being released last week, 18 years after he was sentenced to “life” imprisonment for hijacking a U.S. airliner in 1985 and killing 23-year-old Petty Officer Robert Stethem.

Lebanon does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora appeared unmoved Wednesday by American requests that Hamadi be handed over.

“They could have asked Germany to hand him over to the United States,” Lebanon's Daily Star quoted him as telling reporters. “Why are they asking us?”

In fact, the U.S. applied for Hamadi's extradition from Germany when he was first arrested in 1987, and State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday it had repeatedly “over the years” since made it clear that it would like to see him stand trial in a U.S. court.

“At this point, I think what I can assure anybody who's listening, including Mr. Hamadi, is that we will track him down,” McCormack said. “We will find him, and we will bring him to justice in the United States for what he's done.”

TWA Flight 847 was seized in June 1985 during an Athens-Rome flight and diverted to Lebanon with its 153 passengers and crew. The terrorists badly beat Stethem over a period of time before shooting him and dumping his body onto the Beirut runway.

“Let the American pig suffer,” Hamadi declared of the 23-year-old, according to eyewitness testimony given during an Oct. 2001 District Court case in Washington, D.C.

The hijacking crisis dragged on for 17 days, during which the remaining hostages were freed in stages.

Hamadi was arrested in Germany two years later, after he flew into a Frankfurt airport in possession of explosives. Three other men indicted for the crimes remain on the FBI's “most wanted terrorists” list, each of them “believed to be in Lebanon” and the subject of a $5 million U.S. reward.

One of the three is Imad Fayez Mugniyah, the notorious head of the security apparatus of Hizballah, the Lebanon-based terror group sponsored by Syria and Iran. Mugniyah's deputy during the 1980s hostage crisis in Lebanon was Abdul-Hadi Hamadi, Mohammed's brother. He remains a top figure: The Daily Star on Wednesday described Abdul-Hadi Hamadi as “a senior special security official within Hizballah.”

McCormack said the attorney-general had personally asked the German Justice Ministry “within the last month or so” to ensure that Hamadi serve out his full term.

“We thought it was important that he serve out his entire term, which in this case would have been 25 years. That didn't happen.”

McCormack conceded that the Germans had acted according to their legal system.

‘Diplomatic gesture'

In Europe, however, media outlets commented on the timing of Hamadi's release, which came shortly after Iraqi terrorists set free the first German national taken hostage there.

Hamadi reportedly flew to Lebanon last Thursday. Three days later, Berlin announced that Susanne Osthoff, an archaeologist taken hostage in Iraq on Nov. 25, was safely in German hands.

Officials declined to provide details of the negotiations with the hostage-takers. Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler said Monday that doing so could benefit the perpetrators of future kidnappings.

ISN Security Watch, a resource of the Swiss-based Center for Security Studies, said the release followed negotiations by a German foreign ministry crisis group.

“Several officials have said Osthoff's release did not involve paying ransom money, but was rather a ‘diplomatic gesture.' It remains a source of speculation what that gesture was.”

The Deutsche Welle daily wondered whether there had been a “trade-off” involving Hamadi and Osthoff. It recalled that German authorities had in the past tried to use Hamadi as a bargaining chip to free German hostages held in Lebanon.

George Assaf, a lawyer specializing in international law, was quoted by Lebanon's Daily Star as also implying a link.

“Before the incident in Iraq involving the release of a German hostage, there were no procedures being taken in Germany for his [Hamadi's] release,” Assaf said.

If the allegation is true, the implications are significant.

“The swap of a hostage kidnapped by Iraqi guerrillas for a Lebanese Hizballah terrorist exposes for the first time the clandestine operational links between the Hizballah and Iraqi guerrillas and fellow terrorists,” commented the Israeli intelligence website

German foreign ministry spokesman Martin Jager was quoted by wire services as denying any link between the Hamadi and Osthoff releases. McCormack told a press briefing earlier this week that he was “not aware of anything that would indicate there was any quid pro quo there.”

Why did Germany refuse to extradite?

Reuters and several other media outlets asserted this week that Germany rejected Washington's 1987 U.S. request for Hamadi's extradition because he could have faced the death penalty in America.

But according to a detailed case study on the extradition request, prepared by David Kennedy for the Project for the Study and Analysis of Terrorism at Harvard in 1988, the formal U.S. request for Hamadi's extradition the previous year included a paper signed by a top legal official giving assurances that the U.S. would not request capital punishment for Hamadi.

Although the Justice Department was reluctant, Kennedy wrote: “There was no real debate in Washington about doing so, since German law absolutely forbade extradition for capital crimes unless such assurances were given.”

McCormack said this week he was not sure whether the issue of the death penalty had entered into the German decision at the time.

The real reason for Germany's refusal appears to have been more complicated.

The online version of Der Spiegel reported this week that the extradition request was turned down “out of concern for the safety of two German businessmen who had been kidnapped in Lebanon.”

ISN Security Watch, too, said Berlin refused to hand over Hamadi “partly because it wanted to protect two German citizens being held hostage in Lebanon at the time.”

Contemporaneous reports back that up.

According to data on the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT)'s Terrorism Knowledge Base, a week after Hamadi was arrested, Hizballah seized two German nationals in Beirut, Rudolf Cordes and Alfred Schmidt.

The group demanded that Germany not extradite Hamadi to the U.S. and that it release him.

Days later, German police arrested another brother of Hamadi, Abbas, as he flew into Germany from Beirut. He was charged with having organized the kidnappings of Cordes and Schmidt, and the terrorists still holding the two Germans added Abbas Hamadi's release to their growing list of demands.

Berlin didn't release either Hamadi brother but did refuse to extradite Mohammed to the U.S., putting him on trial in Germany instead — although the crimes had been committed against a U.S. sailor and an American airliner, carrying mostly American passengers.

Both brothers were subsequently convicted and jailed — Abbas for 13 years for arranging the kidnapping of Cordes and Schmidt, and Mohammed for the TWA hijacking, the killing of Stethem and possession of explosives.

Schmidt was released by his captors in Beirut in September 1987, and Cordes one year later.

Yet another German citizen, Rudolf Scharay, was kidnapped in Beirut in connection with the case, this time in January 1988.

An Institute for Counter Terrorism report says his captors demanded the release of both Hamadi brothers, but Scharay was released two months later, “after Iran and Syria put pressure on the kidnappers.”

Purple heart

After the hijacking, Stethem, who hailed from a Navy family in Waldorf, Maryland, was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star and buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.

The U.S. Navy later named an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer after him.

A federal judge in 2001 awarded the Stethem family more than $300 million in punitive damages from the Iranian regime because of Iran's sponsorship of Hizballah.

The National Law Journal said a family lawyer at the time expressed doubts that more than a fraction of that amount would be recovered because that would require the seizing of Iranian assets in the U.S.


Read our general and most popular articles

Leave a Comment