Airborne terrorism: from traditional to catastrophic

It is 1:40 in the afternoon on Saturday 27 August, 1983. An Austrian businessman and his French wife, their three small children and US nanny are sitting in a crowded Vienna waiting room as Air France Flight 781 is called to board. The flight to Paris is full and spaces are limited. The Air France staff struggle to check all the boarding cards and make the necessary seat rearrangements for families and small children.

The doors are closed and all the passengers are seated. The Austrian businessman has one daughter sitting at his side, while his wife is seated the next row up with his son and other daughter. A Middle Eastern man is across the aisle from the boy and begins to play games to distract the child during take-off. The young US nanny has been given a seat several rows away. Half an hour into the flight, the air staff pass out the lunch trays and begin to serve drinks to the passengers.

Three men are seated in a row across the aisle. They are restless and keep peering across and out the window, while simultaneously looking back to watch the progress of the air stewardess with her drinks cart. Suddenly one of the men leaps up, his tray spilling to the ground. The two other men get abruptly to their feet and all three disappear towards the front of the plane. The man seated next to the small boy is now standing with a revolver in his hand.

The sound of voices slowly subsides as the other passengers begin to understand the situation. The air stewardess stands quietly watching. The hijacker with the revolver makes a quick announcement in German, demanding that no one move and that everyone should keep their heads down. Some passengers begin to cry quietly.

The stewardess starts to collect the lunch trays. She quietly tells passengers to keep their water because it is unclear how long everyone will be held in the plane. The man with the revolver keeps a sharp eye on all the passengers, slowly sweeping his firearm from left to right. Two of the other hijackers return from the front of the aircraft and begin collecting passports. Some passports will be returned while others are kept by the terrorists.

The plane begins its descent into Geneva, where demands will be made and the plane will be refuelled. The plane lands and comes to a halt at the very end of the runway. A Palestine Liberation Organisation conference is being held in Geneva and tanks are lining the runway for security.

An hour passes and the tanks begin to roll down the runway, away from the stationary plane. No information is communicated to the passengers and the hijackers intermittently remind everyone to stay still in broken English or German.

Finally, the pilot makes an announcement that some of the hostages will be freed shortly. The hijacker holding the revolver begins moving down the aisles motioning for certain passengers to get up and walk towards the exit at the rear of the plane.

Designated passengers get up quickly and silently, anxious to be released. As the gunman nears the Austrian and his family, he points at the wife and three children. The wife scrambles up, grabs her children and pushes them quickly towards the exit, without looking back. She carries her children down the stairs and joins the group of released hostages on the tarmac. More passengers continue to trickle out of the plane. She watches as the plane door is closed. Her husband is still inside.

Only women and children, a very overweight man and men who obviously come from non-Western countries have been released, 37 passengers in total. A bus drives the runway towards the group of passengers standing on the asphalt and transports them all to the main terminal of Geneva airport, where police and security await them for questioning.

The plane takes off again towards the east. On departing Geneva the aircraft heads for Sofia, Athens and Tripoli but all three airports refuse it permission to land.

The Austrian businessman is relieved that his family has been released but he must now worry about his responsibility for the US nanny seated a few rows behind him. He watches anxiously as hundreds of miles of Mediterranean coastline pass below him and envisages days of hostage negotiations.

At one point he rises to use the bathroom, taking his briefcase with him. He rips up several of his documents that allude to significant financial transactions, concerned that the terrorists may resort to ransom demands. This takes time and a hijacker begins banging on the toilet door with his gun. After hours in flight, the terrorists finally force the pilot to land in Catania, Sicily, where radio and television reports announce that a passenger will be shot every 15 minutes until the tanks are fully refuelled.

In Catania, the hijackers demand that all passengers except those carrying US, UN, UK or French passports stand up and exit the plane. The Austrian refuses to leave without taking the US nanny with him. His request to leave the plane with her is denied repeatedly. The hijackers grow impatient, ordering him to disembark three times but he stays put. Finally he stands up, takes the nanny by the hand and marches her in front of him towards the exit. They are the last two hostages to leave the plane in Catania and are now standing alone on the tarmac in the dark. The other 58 hostages had been liberated hours earlier. The airliner taxies away and takes off.

The remaining hostages are flown to Damascus where an ill stewardess is released. The plane then continues on to Tehran where negotiations are conducted by a Lebanese and an Iraqi cleric. Three days later, the 10 remaining passengers and seven Air France staff are finally set free.

The four hijackers had been Iraqi mujahideen, opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein. Their objectives were clear and political: to stop France's military aid to Lebanon, Iraq and Chad and to demand the release of two Lebanese prisoners held by the French (Anis Naccache and one of the Abdallah brothers). The Air France pilot claimed afterwards that the terrorists only had two grenades and two handguns with them and could not have blown up the aircraft as they had threatened.

Traditional versus catastrophic airborne terrorism

This sequence of events is a far cry from the form of catastrophic terrorism experienced by four US flights on 11 September 2001. While the underlying motivations create striking parallels between this case study and 11 September, the potential outcome of airborne terrorism today has evolved dramatically.

Traditional hijacking uses both terror and the promise of hostage release as a tool to control both hostages and law enforcement. It was understood that if demands were met, lives could be saved.

The advent of catastrophic terrorism and suicide attackers has changed the rules. In fact, there are now no more rules. While the psychological effect of suicide attackers hijacking a plane is more widespread and has a greater impact among the surviving population, catastrophic hijackers have undermined the effectiveness of hostage-taking as a terrorist strategy. If hostages believe that they will die anyway, there is nothing to prevent them from fighting back immediately or trying to salvage the situation to the best of their abilities.

Desperation will override terror, making potential victims more resistant and determined. This very phenomenon occurred on United Airlines Flight 93, the last of the four planes to be hijacked on 11 September 2001. The 40 passengers, realising that their lives were already forfeited, decided to fight back in the hope of saving others.

Security solutions

As incidences of global terrorism continue to increase, the possibility of catastrophic hijacking remains very real. Strategies for ensuring safe air travel are fundamental to both passenger security and peace of mind. Among possible security initiatives, the following are considered the most effective and realistic onboard solutions to counteract the threat of airborne terrorism:

·Sky marshals: the US has maintained a fleet of armed sky marshals since the hijacking of a TWA flight in 1985. After 11 September 2001 the number of sky marshals increased exponentially. The estimate of currently deployable sky marshals in the US is approximately 12,000, or two per flight. Unfortunately negative attention has been directed towards airborne law enforcers over the last 18 months, mostly due to in-flight incidents, and USA Today reported in August that up to 250 sky marshals had resigned from their posts. Elsewhere, Australia is currently strongly considering placing sky marshals on their overseas flights and the Israeli carrier El Al has been using sky marshals carrying small-calibre handguns for years. The question of implementing a European sky marshal programme was considered by European Union (EU) governments in the wake of 11 September but then discarded. The current success of sky marshals in the US, Israel and Jordan has caused the EU to reconsider and re-evaluate the benefits of the measure for European airlines. The UK secretary of state for transport made a written statement on 19 December 2002, outlining the capability the UK has developed to place special trained armed policemen aboard civil aircraft.

·Cockpit security: most airlines, including United, American Airlines, Air France, and British Airways, have undertaken measures to reinforce the cockpit doors. Lufthansa has installed secure cockpit doors in its long-haul aircraft, but has yet to take the appropriate action for its mid- and short-haul flights.

El Al Airlines is the pioneer of cockpit security, having installed armoured doors in its aircraft many years ago. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has declared that as of 1 November 2003, all planes with a capacity for 60 passengers or more should be fitted with armoured cockpit doors. In the US, all passenger planes should have installed explosive-resistant and bulletproof cockpit doors since April 2002. While almost all airlines worldwide have remained reluctant to arm their pilots, United Airlines has supplied all their cockpits with electric shock devices for use as a last resort.

·Air staff training: on 10 September 2003, a statement was issued by leading figures in US flight attendant unions deploring the fact that two years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, no meaningful anti-terrorist security training had been provided "to help protect their lives or the lives of their passengers in case of another deadly attack on board an aircraft". This highlights a glaring need for training which has yet to be addressed. The ICAO offers training packages which include security training at the airline level and other private organisations offer similar courses, but it is often difficult to gauge the quality of these services when so many players are trying to cash in on the homeland security initiative.

·Satellite and video feed: Boeing and Lufthansa have teamed up to explore onboard Internet technologies for in-flight security. This would be achieved using satellite link Internet capabilities, enabling passengers to surf the net while travelling, and would have the added advantage of providing a live video stream from both the cockpit and passenger cabin to ground stations or air control towers. Initial technology trials began at the end of 2002. British Airways has also run tests on the use of live video surveillance of the cockpit and cabin.

Valerie Seefried is programme co-ordinator for the RUSI Homeland Security and Resilience Programme, and was a passenger on Air France Flight 781


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