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Are hijackings a returning threat?

A NEW THREAT, OR rather the resurgence of an old threat, faces commercial aviation--escape hijacking. These incidents have been far ranging, occurring most recently in Germany, Haiti, Russia, the United States, and Sweden.

Unlike past political hijackings by radical Palestinians and other terrorist groups, escape hijackings are carried out by the disenfranchised, disgruntled, and those seeking better economic conditions. A brief outbreak of similar hijackings occurred when homesick Cubans, having flooded into the United States during the 1970s, routinely boarded U.S. flights and demanded to be returned to Havana. Those short, unthreatening flights became common, the subject for late-night comedy routines, and provided hijacked passengers an opportunity to stock up on Cuban cigars before returning home. The current situation is different and vastly more dangerous.

Conditions creating escape hijacking can be directly attributed to the breakup of political institutions and deteriorating security and economic conditions in Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. Unlike the Cuban situation, the current problem includes tens of thousands of individuals enmeshed in environments of danger, privation, and hopelessness. Although sure to spend many years in jail for their efforts, people finding themselves and family members in desperate and threatening situations will consider any alternative an improvement.

Recent incidents have not resulted in passenger injuries. For that reason, decisions that permitted hijacked aircraft to land, refuel, and proceed on their way have not been criticized. The option of granting hijackers their goals, as opposed to attempting rescue operations, was the policy deliberately followed by the United States during the spate of Cuban hijackings.

If initial negotiations failed to dissuade the perpetrators, allowing the aircraft to depart under command of the hijackers was considered the safest option. The essential elements in these decisions were that the hijacked flights were short, had no history of on-board violence, and were known for a relaxed, almost party atmosphere among passengers and hijackers. The Cuban situation, with its limited number of disgruntled individuals on board and predictable flight time, is not a model for the future.

At the other extreme are those hijackings conducted by political terrorists to gain attention and publicize their cause. These are the hijackings the world is most familiar with and for which elaborate security and resolution techniques were developed and implemented. Among those techniques is a long-standing tacit agreement among nations that a country will not allow a passenger-filled, hijacked airplane to depart. Participating countries have not, however, always adhered to the policy when faced with a real-life crisis.

When different national airlines or airports are involved, the involved nations' security personnel must consult with each other to resolve the situation. Security professionals have long agreed that allowing a hijacked airplane to become airborne creates the most dangerous situation possible. Imagine the mental and physical condition of the passengers and crew members during a nine-hour flight 30,000 feet over the North Atlantic with a crazed, unpredictable hijacker holding a gun to the pilot's head.

No one knows what an armed hijacker's motive or intent is or what insignificant event might cause him or her to pull the trigger. Some passengers may attempt a rescue. This sets up the possibility of amateurs prompting a gunfight in a pressurized cabin thousands of feet in the air. These and other unpredictable circumstances are the reasons security professionals say it is madness to allow hijacked airplanes to become airborne.

Rescue operations for hijacked aircraft have been a mixed lot with spectacularly successful and disastrously unsuccessful results. Consider the following examples.

An Air France airliner with 105 passengers was hijacked in 1976 and forced to fly to Entebbe, Uganda. An Israeli counterterrorist team flew into Entebbe and conducted a rescue operation in which four people died, three terrorists and one rescue team member. The hostages were safe.

In 1977, a terrorist hijacked a Lufthansa airliner with eighty-six passengers and crew and forced it to fly to Mogadishu, Somalia. Germany's famed counterterrorist force, GSG-9, flew into Mogadishu and conducted a rescue operation that captured some terrorists but killed others. All rescue team members and passengers were safe.

In December 1985, a hijacked Egypt Air flight was ordered to land in Malta. After the hijackers shot and killed five passengers, the Egyptian president ordered a commando team to conduct rescue operations. In the rescue attempt, sixty-six of the remaining seventy-nine passengers on board died from bombs thrown by the hijackers or smoke inhalation from fires that the commando attack ignited.

In September 1986, passengers were boarding a Pan Am Flight at Karachi International Airport in Pakistan when hijackers seized control of the plane. The pilot and copilot, following company policy, rendered the plane immovable by escaping through an exit in the cockpit. At this time, communications between the terrorists and officials were lost. As night came, the generator providing light to the aircraft ran out of fuel, plunging the aircraft into darkness. The hijackers, thinking a rescue attempt was underway, opened fire, killing twenty passengers and wounding 120 of the 374 passengers.

Escape hijacking is not a new form of terrorism. The disgruntled and disenfranchised in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa have long used the tactic. Because their citizens are not involved, such information is seldom carried by the western media. Now that borders have crumpled, however, hijackers are demanding travel to and refugee status in western countries. Nations must start to negotiate on a standard method for dealing with the rising and violent phenomena of escape hijacking.

Colonel William T. Corbett, USA (retired), is vice president and general manager of Europe for International Security Management in Potomac, Maryland. Prior to this position, he was special assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (NATO) for terrorist matters. He is a member of ASIS.
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Author:Corbett, William T.
Publication:Security Management
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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