Seif Eldin Mustafa, the 59-year-old lovelorn individual who hijacked Egypt Air flight MS181 from Alexandria to Cairo early this week, may have provided a rare comical interlude to the bloody history of aircraft hijacking, which enjoys disproportionate global attention.
Terrorists, political activists, and even pilots themselves have used acts of air piracy to grab global attention, ensure the release of dreaded terrorists and get their other demands met.
However, the growing trend in recent years — of terrorists crashing the plane — has resulted in a new level of threat that cannot be countered fully through metal detectors and body scanners alone. The popularity of suicide terrorism among extremist movements has ensured that air travel is no longer what it once was.
On September 11, 2001 when 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked American Airlines flights 11 and 77, and United Airlines flights 175 and 93, airline hijacking entered this new deadly era. The hijacking was different from the earlier ones for several reasons. One, the terrorists took control of the flights and flew them, unlike most other incidents in which pilots are forced to fly according to the hijackers’ demands. Two, unlike in the past when hijackers used passengers as hostages to make demands, the four planes were used as flying missiles. Only one missed the target — flight 93 that crashed to the ground when passengers and crew resisted the terrorists who probably were flying to the While House or the Capitol Hill. With the death of around 3,000 people, it was not just the deadliest hijacking episode since airplanes took to the skies more than a century ago, but also changed the nature of hijacking itself, giving it a deadly twist.
Within years of the birth of aviation, sinister minds figured out that the act of hijacking in the air has great impact, far more than such acts anywhere else. A couple of hundred people dying in an air crash will grab more media and public attention than same number dying on ground. This could well be linked to human fascination with air travel.
Starting in 1931, there have been innumerable hijackings, some of them attributed to purely personal reasons. In one of the biggest mysteries, in 1971 a hijacker of a Boeing 727 flight collected a ransom of $200,000 and parachuted out of the plane, never to be arrested.
Many of the hijackings were for political reasons. Of all those incidents, the memory of one endures in public imagination — that of the hijacking of an Air France plane flying from Tel Aviv to Paris in 1976. The plane was taken to the Entebbe airport in Uganda, with the hijackers demanding the release of a total of 53 pro-Palestinian prisoners. Israel began negotiations but ended it with a daring commando raid.
The Israel Defence Force sent 190 commandos and 10 vehicles in four transport aircrafts, under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, a veteran of many commando raids. He became a national hero following his death in the raid, and ultimately, his heroism helped his brother Benjamin, who is now the Israeli Prime Minister, to build a flourishing political career.
Palestine militants have struck closer home, when they hijacked Pan AM flight 73 at Karachi on September 5, 1986. The hijacking ended in the death of 22 people, including Neerja Bhanot.
South Asia has seen its fair share of hijacking for political reasons. One of the most bewildering of them took place on August 20, 1971, when Flight Lieutenant Matiur Rahman, attempting to escape Pakistan to join Bangladesh’s Liberation War, hijacked a T-33 trainer aircraft, after knocking down Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas, still under training, on the front seat.
Rahman flew towards India. Minhas regained conscious soon and fought back. The plane crashed very close the Indian border. Minhas was awarded Nishan-e-Haider, the highest military gallantry award of Pakistan and remains its only Air Force winner of the honour till date. Rahman was given Bir Sreshtha, the highest gallantry award of Bangladesh, and his remains were brought back to Dhaka in 2006 to a heroic welcome.
Hijackings, however, do not always produce heroes. In 1999, Indian Airlines flight IC 814 was hijacked on December 24 and taken to Kandahar, where on December 31, India had to release three dreaded militants in exchange for the safe release of passengers. No one at that time could have imagined how long the ghost of that New Year’s Eve would haunt Indian politics. Many terror attacks — including the one the one on Pathankot airbase on January 2 — have been executed by the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a terror group that Maulana Masood Azhar founded after his release. Azhar was one of the three militants released following the IC 814 hijacking. Of the other two, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh went on to kill journalist Daniel Pearl and others.
Despite India’s many encounters with hijacking, airlines and airports here have recorded an impressive track record of late. There has not been a single hijacking incident in recent years.
In the wake of the 1999 incident, India has taken a very tough anti-hijacking stance, averring that it will not negotiate with hijackers and making provision for the death penalty.
However, given the fact that airplanes remain a crucial element of human progress and travel, and given the penchant of a new generation of terrorists to give up their lives so easily, it is time to discuss better ways of ensuring safer air travel. After all, those who want to make trouble do not even need to smuggle in weapons onboard.