Analysis of the Hijackings on 11 Sep
Suggested Measures for Prevention
Air Cmde (Dr) C N Ghosh
Terrorism continues to haunt the world. The trends
in new international terrorism have taken a different turn since the
1990s, a development which points a finger towards some group of Islamic
militants who have been mutating into a far more potentially dangerous
threat to international security than the groups that dominated the
international scene in the 1970s or 1980s. The direct fallout has been
the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993 by Ramzi Yousef and now
the hijacking of four American airliners on 11 September, 2001. Hijacking
four airliners almost simultaneously from different locations and crashing
them into multiple targets within a matter of about 90 minutes surpasses
every imagined scenario of hijacking known so far. The attacks were
amazing in their diabolicalness. The United Nations International Day
of Peace was shattered watching the twin towers of the World Trade Centre
(WTC) collapse, killing thousands of innocent civilians. Osama bin Laden
expressed his happiness, but even he had not known that the heat from
thousands of litres of aviation fuel would melt down the steel supports
and cause the collapse of the twin towers. Mainland America had never
faced such an attack before and its peace was broken by the rudest shock
of a most heinous kind. No airline pilot could have been forced to fly
into a skyscraper even at gunpoint. But a few educated and well-informed
Islamic radicals learnt to fly these aircraft and flew them into these
obstacles. The World Trade Centre collapsed and the Pentagon became
a victim to this batch of carefully groomed neo-terrorists who perished
along with hundreds of ill-fated innocent passengers of the aircraft.
Thousands of Americans died under the rubble of WTC and the Pentagon.
Completely brainwashed by bin Laden and his infamous Al Qaida organisation,
these young men believed in their martyrdom and a place in heaven.
While the number of international terrorist attacks
has decreased, the lethality of the attacks has increased considerably.
Suicide and car bomb attacks are preferred methods to achieve the goal.
Palestinian attacks in Israel, the truck-bombs used in Nairobi and Dar-e-Salaam
against the American embassies in August 1998, the 12 October 2000 naval
suicide bombing against the USS Cole in the harbour of Aden are glaring
examples of such kinds of atrocities. On the other hand, the hijacking
of airplanes, which was the principal modus operandi of terrorist organisations
in the 1970s and 1980s, has reduced. These changes may be due to strict
security measures taken by most countries at the airport and prior to
boarding an aircraft. But the 11 September incident shook up the entire
world. Terrorism has been a tool in political or ethnic conflicts and
has spread to unknown areas. The radical Islamic terrorism threat has
grown, and we now see countries like India, China and Russia confronting
this kind of terrorism. The number of states sponsoring or supporting
terrorism has also diminished. Yet, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and, to a
lesser degree, Sudan, continue to present a threat to the international
community. Lately, Pakistan and Afghanistan became the biggest perpetrators
of radical Islamic terrorism, fostered by personalities like the ill
famed Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaida network.
The first real non-conventional terrorist event,
the Sarin gas attack by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in March 1995
in a Tokyo subway, had broken the taboo on the use of Weapons of Mass
Destruction (WMD), followed by the 11 September attack on the twin towers
of WTC. No one could ever imagine that a passenger airliner filled with
JP (Jet Propulsion) fuel could be used as a WMD to kill a mass of population
by commiting harakiri These have been very significant events in the
history of modern terrorism. If we take into consideration the number
of very serious incidents that have occurred till date, we get an indication
that despite all their efforts, security and intelligence services failed
to find answers to all such challenges posed by the new terrorists.
Careful and meticulous planning, religious grooming, technological assistance,
powerful motivation to embrace martyrdom took the intelligence agencies
by complete surprise on 11 September 2001.
Secret Plans for Hijacking
There have been numerous incidents of hijacking by
small but well prepared groups of people, backed by the right kind of
logistics. But hijacking four aircraft on a well coordinated time schedule
from different airports and crashing them into multiple targets within
a matter of 90 minutes of each other is a different kind of operation.
This act required logistic support, coordination involving hundreds
of people, and months of secret preparation. A strange kind of motivation
made Mohammed Atta and his compatriots commit suicide with thousands
of litres of JP fuel on board the flying airliners. This leads to the
fact that the perpetrators of this act had to find five pilots, train
them to fly aircraft like the Boeing 757 / 767 airplanes and indoctrinate
them to die for a cause. The attackers selected airline planes on routine
flights to avoid any early detection. Targets were selected carefully;
destruction of which would send the right kind of message to the most
powerful country of the world. From the attackers’ point of view, the
entire plan was hatched in total secrecy, planned in careful detail
and well executed. It definitely required access to a significant amount
of information resources. How an attack like this could have been prevented
or countered is the question being raised now. Suppose there were certain
surface to air missile sites near New York or Washington and it was
detected that airplanes had been hijacked and were heading towards the
present targets; could the air defence commander have shot down the
planes over a crowded city like New York?
In earlier cases, it has always been a matter of
negotiation with the hijackers once the hijacked aircraft landed on
the ground. The idea is now dead. Al Qaida has invented a new brand
of terrorists who could die easily. The most difficult part of any hijacking
had been getting away once the task was accomplished. But the 11 September
attack resolved that difficult part of hijacking. The Al Qaida goons
got away to heaven along with the airplanes and many others. Perhaps
in future they wouldn’t mind flying into other skyscrapers. Generally,
suicide bombers have been young, single, and fanatical and had nothing
to lose. The 11 September hijackers to the contrary, were older, well
educated and more experienced. The FBI has revealed that 50 of them
planned and 19 were willing to die.
Hijackings Carried Out on 11 Sep 2001
American Airlines Flight 11. The flight
departed from Logan-Boston for Los Angeles at 07:59 hrs. Five Arab terrorists
hijacked the aircraft, switched off the transponders and changed its
course to New York. The area controllers saw the movement and tried
to contact the aircraft and also to warn other reciprocal traffic. The
aircraft was seen to descend rapidly increasing its speed and finally
crashed into the side of the 110-storey New York WTC North Tower at
08:45 hrs. The tower caught fire following an explosion and collapsed
at 10:29 hrs. A member of the flight crew presumably pressed a switch,
which permitted the air traffic controllers to overhear at 08:28 hrs
"don’t do anything foolish. You are not going to get hurt. We have
more planes. We have other planes."
Details of the flight are:
- Type of aircraft: Boeing 757-223 ER
- Year built: 1987
- Total fuel carried: 43,402 ltrs
- Operator: American Airlines
- Flight no: 11
- Time of take off: 07:59 hrs
- Time of crash: 08:45 hrs
- Crew on board: 11
- Passengers on board: 81
- Total casualties: 92
- Flight no: 11 Boston-Logan, MA to Los Angeles CA
United Airlines Flight 175. Flight
175 departed again from Logan-Boston for Los Angeles at 08:14 hrs exactly
15 minutes after the American Airlines flight 11. Five Arab terrorists
hijacked the aircraft, switched off the transponder and headed for New
York. Peter Hanson called his father from the plane and told him that
the hijackers were stabbing the attendants in order to force the pilots
to open the cockpit doors. At 09:03 hrs the aircraft was flown into
the side of the New York WTC South Tower, exactly 18 minutes after the
time the North Tower was hit. The tower caught fire and collapsed at
09:50 hrs. Details of the flight are:
- Type of aircraft: Boeing 767-222
- Operator: United Airlines
- Year of manufacture: 1983
- Total fuel capacity1 : 91,379 ltrs
- Time of take off: 08:14 hrs
- Time of crash: 09:03 hrs
- Crew: 9
- Passengers: 56
- Total casualties: 65
- Flight no: 175. Boston-Logan to Los Angeles,CA
American Airlines Flight 77. The
flight departed Washington-Dallas at 08:10 hrs for Los Angeles. The
aircraft was hijacked in flight by the terrorists who took over control
and after switching off the transponder changed course to Washington.
The wife of the Solicitor General, Barbara K Olson called her husband,
at the Justice Department at 09:25 hrs from the ‘plane to tell him about
the hijacking and to report that the passengers and pilots were being
held towards the rear of the plane. Last reported data (08:50 hrs) was
that the aircraft was flying at Flight Level 350 at 458 knots. The aircraft
descended to circuit height approaching from the north. The aircraft
reported passing over the White House and entered a tight 270-degree
turn, heading for the US Department of Defence (The Pentagon). It clipped
trees and light posts before crashing into the southwest face of the
Pentagon. Following an explosion the building caught fire. Details of
the flight are:
- Type of aircraft: Boeing 757-23
- Operator: American Airlines
- Year of manufacture: 1991
- Total fuel capacity: 43,402 ltrs
- Time of take off: 08:10 hrs
- Time of crash: 09:40 hrs
- Crew: 6
- Passengers: 58
- Total casualties: 64
- Flight no: AA 77 Washington-Dulles, NY–Los Angeles, CA
United Airlines Flight 93. The flight
departed New York-Newark for San Francisco at 08:10 hrs. Four Arab hijackers
hijacked the aircraft. In the passenger cabin, three hijackers wearing
red bandannas herded the passengers to the back of the plane. Passenger
Tom Burnett called his wife to tell her about the hijacking, she in
turn alerted the FBI and when he was connected again, he was connected
to the FBI and described the hijackers. Jeremy Greek, another passenger
called his wife in New York and reported that three Iranian looking
men, one of whom had a red box around his waist, which they claimed
to be a bomb, had hijacked the plane. Jeremy asked his wife whether
the WTC bombing was a fact as he had heard from other passengers. Todd
Beamer, another passenger tried to place a credit card call but was
routed to a customer service representative, who passed him on to his
supervisor Lisa Jefferson. She called the FBI. Beamer reported that
one passenger was dead. Later he reported that the men were planning
"to jump" the hijackers. The last words from Jeffersen were
heard as, "Are you ready guys? Let’s roll." The cockpit sound
recorder recovered later contained screams, presumably of the hijackers,
"get out of here," then screaming and other sounds and silence.
The aircraft changed course probably for Washington.
At 09:35 hrs near Cleveland, the aircraft changed course to the south
and later at 09:45 to the southwest at Fight Level 350. At 10:10 hrs
the aircraft crashed out of control southwest of Pittsburgh in Somerset
county. There is speculation that the passengers’ resistance as described
above, must have led to the crash before it could reach the intended
target. There was every indication that the aircraft could have been
flown into Air Force One or the White House itself. Details of the flight
- Flight no: 93. New York-Newark, NJ to San Francisco, CA
- Type of Aircraft: Boeing 757-222
- Operator: United Airlines
- Total fuel capacity :2 43,402 ltrs
- Time of take off: 08:10 hrs
- Time of crash: 10:10 hrs
- Crew: 7
- Passengers: 37
- Total casualties: 44
Know the Hijackers
Islamic extremists wish to turn back history and fight
the Western modernity, which threatens their medieval theocracy .3
They blend easily into the Western society and await their instructions
to move. Bin Laden’s cohorts learnt about America’s openness and technological
superiority and discovered the effectiveness of turning flying airliners
laden with thousands of litres of Jet Propulsion fuel into Weapons of
Mass Destruction. Cell phones and encrypted E-mails only assisted them
to keep in touch with their masters in Afghanistan and receive instructions
without raising any suspicion. They were not poor or desperate men who
were indoctrinated by a false promise of heaven through martyrdom. They
were well educated, lived comfortably with sufficient money to rent
cars, go to school and learn to fly at different US facilities. Two
of the alleged hijackers of Flight 93, Ahmed Alhjaznawi and Ziad Jarrah
drove a Ford Ranger.4 They used both the Naval and Air Force facilities
to learn flying. 33 year old Mohammed Atta, the mastermind behind the
attacks could issue a cheque for $ 10,000/- to learn flying at one of
Florida’s flying training establishments. And as reported, he along
with another person went on to fly a Boeing 757 simulator. They paid
$ 1,500 each for six hours of flying training. But it was most surprising
that they only wanted to learn to turn the aircraft. They were not interested
to learn to take off or land, which is the primary requirement for flying
an aircraft. This was unusual but no one took it seriously, and no one
thought of raising any report. Bin Laden had been careful while planning
his moves. Al Qaida had been dispatching the operators well in advance
before an operation. These people took time to blend themselves into
the system and wait for the opportune moment to strike. In this case
also, the idea of using suicide pilots to hurt USA must have been carefully
planned a long time ago. The activating agents of Al Qaida must have
arrived in USA just about a week or two before the final act. It is
not easy for an open society like America to protect itself against
such terrorists who are educated, smart, patient and ready to die. The
evil genius of bin Laden and his Al Qaida has successfully created these
ogres. And it is not known how many of them are roaming about freely,
ready to strike despite being flushed out of Afghanistan. Federal Aviation
Agency (FAA) the controller of all civil aviation was dismayed at the
erratic behaviour of the hijacked airliners for about 15 minutes. The
controllers were at a loss. They tried to raise the aircraft on R/T
but failed to do so. They noticed the collision course of the hijacked
aircraft and warned the others flying on that route. They noticed the
aircraft taking sharp evasive action to avoid air-to-air collision.
They did not suspect a hijacking till such time the aircraft crashed
into the WTC. US fighter planes did not arrive on the nation’s capital
for another 15 minutes.5 Bin Laden activists, Mohammed Atta and
his 19 trained compatriots had shattered the myth that "America
is safe and it cannot happen here."
Names of Mohammed Atta and his men:
American Airlines Flight 11: Waleed
Alshehri; Wail M Alsheri; Mohammed Atta; Abdul Aziz Alomari; Satam al
United Airlines Flight 175: Marawan
Alshehri; Fayez Banihammad; Mohd Alshehri; Hamza al Ghamdi; Ahmed al
American Airlines Flight 77: Kahlid
al-Mindhar; Majed Moqued; Nawaf al Hazmi; Salem al Hazmi; Hani Hanjour.
United Airlines Flight 93: Ahmed
al Haznawi; Ahmed Alnami; Ziad Jarrah; Saeed Alghamdi.
Mohammed Atta. As identified by
the US Justice Department, Mohammed Atta had been the mastermind behind
the entire episode. On 11 Sep 2001 he was the one who led the first
attack and crashed into the World Trade Centre. His skill in turning
a Boeing, learnt in a Florida simulator came handy. He could avoid reciprocal
traffic and guide the aircraft successfully to this target. His identity
was initially confused with another Mahmoud Atta6 involved in
a bus bombing in 1986 in the Israeli controlled West Bank. This Mahmoud
Atta was a naturalised citizen of USA but much older than the Mohammed
Atta in question. The hijacker Mohammed Atta was born in Egypt in 1967
or 1968 and carried a Saudi passport also. After graduating in Architecture
from Cairo University, he went to Germany as a student of Urban Planning
at the Technical University of Hamburg from 1993-1996 .7 His German
friends describe him as an intelligent man with religious beliefs. He
became more and more religious after a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1995.
He began a religious prayer group in 1999 in the University and could
have used it to recruit fundamentalists. In July 2000 he enrolled himself
at Huffman Aviation International in Venice, Florida after paying $
10,000. Following this flying training he enrolled himself with the
Boeing simulator to learn to turn a Boeing. Marwan Alshehhi, a hijacker
of United Airlines 175, had always accompanied him. Atta came back to
Germany in May 2001 briefly and returned to Florida via Spain.
US investigators found out that on 4 Sep 2001
Atta sent a package to Mustafa Ahmed in UAE, the central contact point
for all money transactions of Al Qaida. He was seen drinking and playing
video games in a Florida sports bar a week before the attack. He spent
some time with another hijacker, Abdul Alomari, in South Portland and
Scarborough, Maine.8 On the morning of 11 Sep, they went to Portland
airport, flew to Logan, Boston and boarded American Airlines 11.
One of Atta’s items of baggage could not be loaded
onto Flight 11 and fell into the hands of the investigators. The bag
contained an airline uniform, and a four-page document in Arabic. A
similar document was found with the other terrorists of the hijacked
aircraft. It contained a list of instructions like, "make an oath
to die and renew your intentions. You should feel complete tranquility,
because the time between you and your marriage in heaven is very short."
It also instructed, "check your weapon before you leave and long
before you leave. You must make your knife sharp and you must not cause
discomfort to your animal during the slaughter.9"
Ziad Jarrah.10 27 year
old Ziad Jarrah was born in 1974, and is suspected to be one of the
hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93. He like Atta, also studied in
Germany until the year 2000. He also left for Florida to attend a flying
training school. His girl friend in Bochum filed a missing person report.
From Florida he wrote to his girl friend but due to a wrong address,
the letter was returned to USA and became a clue for the investigators.
He wrote, "I have done what I have to do. You should be very proud,
it is an honour, and you will see the result, and everyone will be happy.
Hold on to what you have until we meet each other again." However,
his family in Lebanon claims that he was an innocent passenger on the
plane or that possibly his is a case of mistaken identity. But he has
not been seen after the attack.
Khalid al-Midhar.11 He was
one of the five men identified by the US Justice Department as a hijacker
of the American Airlines flight 77. For the first time, the CIA got
a video of the suspect in a meeting of terrorists in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
His connections with Osama bin Laden were established when it was known
that he attended a meeting with a top bin Laden security official probably
connected with the USS Cole bombing. The US Emigration was advised to
look out for him and his close associate Nawaf al-Hazmi and prevent
their entry into the US. But it was discovered later that both of them
had entered USA through Los Angeles National Airport in 2000 and then
gone to New York area in 2001. Al-Midhar rented rooms in San Diego from
Abdus Sattar Sheikh.
Selection of Targets by these Terrorists
The men who commandeered the airliners that struck
the symbols of American power, the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon
are the neo-terrorists created by Osama bin Laden for whom the glory
of martyrdom inspired suicide attacks. Indoctrination of these young
educated men led to establish their belief that one who dies a martyr
for the faith goes directly to heaven and enjoys its rewards. They declared
Jihad (the holy war). The word has many meanings. It includes the fight
to control one’s passions, to convert non-believers and improve Muslim
society’s moralistic views. Hence Gilles Kepel stated, "Once you
say you are in a state of Jihad, then all the usual rules of society
are suspended and the danger is that social structure will end in ruins.12"
This Jihad is against American capitalist power.
To curb the ever-increasing American influence, Al Qaida under the guidance
of Osama bin Laden carefully planned the attacks on the US mainland,
so far considered invincible. The targets were selected carefully and
the means of attack have been novel. Why did Al Qaida select these targets?
New York and World Trade Centre.
New York is the world’s largest financial capital, and the World Trade
Centre stood like the proud representative of the capitalist world.
This is the largest city of the United States and perhaps the most important
city of the world. United Nations Headquarters is in New York City,
which may confer to it the title of global capital. This city is the
most densely populated in the whole of USA, with an eight million population
in the City of New York and 20 million in the entire metropolitan area.13
The city began with a Dutch settlement in 1624 and was called Niew Amsterdam.
It became the main city of the Dutch colony of Niew Netherland. In 1664,
the British captured the city and renamed it as the city of "New
York". For a brief period in 1789 and 1790 it was the capital of
USA. The modern city of New York was created in 1898.14
World Trade Centre. WTC consisted
of 7 buildings with the twin towers in their centre. The Centre was
designed by American architect Minoru Yamasaki.15 Both the towers had
110 stories each. The height of the towers was 417 metres (1,368 feet)
(North), and 415 metres (1,362 feet, South) respectively. The towers
were completed in 1972 and 1973. At that time these were the tallest
buildings on earth and remained as such till such time Chicago’s Sears
Tower was built with a height of 1,450 feet. Each tower contained 240
vertical steel columns outside the building, called Vierendeel Trusses,
and these were bound to each other using ordinary steel trusses. There
were dampers in the structure. This strong shell made it easy to build
the floors with light steel and concrete with internal walls not needed
for structural integrity. The tower was extremely light despite its
size. A six level basement was built in the foundations. One of the
world’s largest gold depositories, owned by a group of commercial banks,
was situated underneath the World Trade Centre. The estimated 1993 value
of this gold was one billion dollars. Even the earlier WTC bomb detonation
near the vaults could not break them open.
Pentagon.16 Designed by George Edwin
Bergstrom, this pentagon shaped building houses the Department of Defence
of the United States. It houses approximately 23,000 military and civilian
personnel. It was built during the Second World War mostly with concrete
and structural steel and has five floors. This is one of the world’s
largest office buildings with three times the floor space of the Empire
State Building. It has 17.5 miles of corridors but it takes only seven
minutes to walk between any two points in the building. American Airlines
Flight 77 crashed into the building on 11 September 2001 causing one
part of the building to collapse.
Pittsburgh.17 Though Pittsburgh
was not a chosen target by the terrorists yet a word about the same
would round off this chapter. Pittsburgh has been an industrial town
at the confluence of the Monongahela, the Allegheny and the Ohio rivers.
It is the largest inland port of USA. Industrialists like Andrew Carnegie
and Andrew Mellon built their fortunes in this town. Pittsburgh was
one of the largest steel producers in the world in the 20th century.
The city now houses industries for robotics, computer software, biotechnology
and environmental engineering in place of iron and steel. The population
of great Pittsburgh is over 2.3 million. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed
southeast of Pittsburgh in Somerset county.
Terrorist Attacks (Prior to 11 Sep)
In the past there were also terrorist attacks, which
rocked the contemporary world. But the 11 September attack has surpassed
every other attack in its diabolicalness and novelty. The number of
casualties has been overwhelming. The economic impact has been nearly
insurmountable. That is why it is said that bin Laden has scored a point
over America. A list of incidents given below will prove the point discussed:
1972 Munich Olympics massacre
1972 Bloody Friday Bombing by IRA
1976 Orlando Letlier assassinated in Washington
by Chilean Government
1985 TWA 847 hijacking
1988 Pan Am 103 blown up
1993 World Trade Centre bombing
1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas attack
1997 Khobar Towers bombing
1998 US Embassy bombing
2000 USS Cole bombing
2001 11 Sep Terrorists attack on WTC and the
2001 13 Dec attack on the Indian Parliament
Hijacking Cases (Prior to 11 Sep)
Hijacking had always been the handiwork of a few disparate
groups, with the intention of using the passengers as hostages to gain
certain advantages from a particular government. What followed was a
pattern of negotiations and settlements if at all. 11 September incidents
have changed the meaning of hijacking. The attackers of the WTC and
Pentagon rewrote the hijackers’ behavioural pattern. Al Qaida created
this new brand of hijackers who were not so young, but well educated
and ready to die to usher in the medieval theocracy. Previously, the
biggest problem of the hijackers was to get away without getting hurt
once the mission was accomplished. But the current Al Qaida terrorists
had solved the problem very neatly. They found morons to fly into skyscrapers.
The plan was perfect, the operation was a complete success, there was
no leakage of information. These attacks have changed the world’s conception
of hijacking. During the last 30 years there were many cases of hijacking,
but these were child’s play in comparison. This can be understood once
we study the other hijacking cases:
- 1968. Three members of the Popular Front for the Liberation
of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked an Israeli El-Al plane to Rome. The aircraft
was then flown to Algiers. Negotiations extended over a period of
40 days. Both the hijackers and passengers went free.
- 1970. PFLP attempted hijack of four aircraft. They
succeeded with three planes to fly to the Jordanian desert. The hijackers
blew up the aircraft after releasing most of the hostages. The last
of the group of hostages were released once the seven Palestinian
prisoners were released.
- 1977. A Palestinian hijacked a Lufthansa airliner
to Mogadishu. German (or Israeli?) commandos stormed the aircraft.
Three hijackers were killed and 86 hostages were freed.
- 1981. A Pakistan International Airlines plane was
hijacked to Kabul. One passenger was killed and the plane was flown
to Damascus. After 13 days of negotiations, hostages were freed in
exchange for the release of fifty political prisoners.
- 1982. Palestinians hijacked an Egypt Air aircraft
to Malta. Egyptian commandos stormed the aircraft and 59 people got
killed in the gun battle.
- 1985. TWA flight hijacked by Lebanese Shi’a gunmen
to Beirut with 153 people on board. Israelis freed 31 Lebanese prisoners
in exchange for the hostages.
- 1986. Pan Am flight carrying 400 passengers landed
at Karachi with hijackers on board. Pakistani security forces stormed
the aircraft killing twenty-two people.
- 1990. Chinese airliner was hijacked and crashed while
trying to land in Canton killing 128 people.
- 1994. Air France airplane was hijacked by four Islamic
terrorists to Algiers. It was flown to Marseilles where the French
commandos killed the hijackers and freed the 170 passengers.
- 1996. Ethiopian airline crashed into the Indian Ocean
after the hijackers forced a crash landing. 50 passengers survived
but 125 died.
- 1999. Indian Airlines aircraft was hijacked by Kashmiri
militants and was diverted to Kandahar. Indian Government agreed to
release three top Pakistani militants in exchange for the hostages.
Hijacking and International Law
The hijacking of an international flight of a civilian
aircraft is covered by principles of both international customary law
and treaty law. General norms are:
- That every state has an obligation to ensure that its territory
is not being used by any person in any manner to the detriment of
- That state owes an obligation to the international community to
ensure protection of human rights.
- Contemporary international law underscores the duty of every state:
— Prevent perpetration of terrorist acts
against another state or innocent individuals.
— Consequently to cooperate with other states
in preventing and combating terrorism and in punishing terrorists.
There are four multilateral treaties directly relevant
to aerial hijacking. The first three were evolved under the aegis of
ICAO. The UN General Assembly adopted the fourth. These are:
- Tokyo Convention on Offences and certain other Acts Committed on
Board the Aircraft, 1963.18
- The Hague Convention for the suppression of Unlawful Seizure of
- The Montreal Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against
the Safety of Civil Aviation, 1971.20
- The International Convention against the Taking of Hostages, 1979.21
The Hague and Montreal Conventions defined the
offence of hijacking and stipulate that an attempt to commit that offence
or to aid and abet its commission also amounts to hijacking. The Conventions
like any other anti-terrorism conventions recognize explicitly or by
necessary implications the jurisdictional claims of at least seven categories
of states.22 These are:
- The state where the aircraft is registered.
- The state of operator of the aircraft.
- The state in whose territory the aircraft lands with offender on
- The state in whose territory the alleged offender is found.
- The state whose national is the alleged offender.
- The state in whose territory or in whose airspace the offence was
- The state whose security is directly affected by the offence.
As direct consequences of the possibility of competing
jurisdictional claims, the Conventions for the first time established
a general obligation on any party in whose territory the offender is
found either to take measures to prosecute him or to extradite him.
All states party to the Conventions have an obligation to render to
the prosecuting state the greatest measure of assistance in connection
with criminal proceedings, including handing over of any evidence or
other information in its possession.
The Conventions recognise the supervisory role
of the Council of the ICAO by requiring each party state to make a full
report to the Council at the earliest. The reporting obligations are
mandatory. It may be noted that the Chicago Convention of 1944 has given
special powers to ICAO.23 Under its constitution, it is to strive for
the safety of civil aviation the world over. The Convention also provides
for an optional settlement mechanism of arbitration or access to the
International Court of Justice.24
Prevention of Hijacking
Aviation Industry has grown by leaps and bounds, despite
impediments like occasional accidents and stray incidents of hijacking.
But the tragic incident of 11 September has made the international aviation
community sit down and think about how safe airlines are from hijackers.
In India there have been several measures in vogue prior to the departure
of any flight, both national and international. But no one knows how
to deal with the Al Qaida type of terrorists, who are taught to commit
harakiri. To date none of the measures provide adequate protection from
an attack like the one on 11 September. It may be an interesting point
to note that, there had been no incident of hijacking of Israeli aircraft
so far, despite their continuous operation in and out of a most sensitive
area of the world, apart from the only incident of El-Al hijacking mentioned
before. The Israelis, implemented certain measures like reinforced and
locked doors between cockpit and the passenger cabin; place all cargo
in decompression chambers before take off, to trigger bombs set to sense
altitudes. These may be expensive but has proved their worth.
Sky Marshals.25 Sky Marshals may
be an appropriate answer to hijacking by armed hijackers. But four or
five fanatic terrorists can overpower a single sky marshal. Moreover,
every flight, to have more than one Sky Marshall would be very expensive
both for the airlines and for the government. The operators cannot perceive
direct benefits of flying Sky Marshals. Airlines will definitely drop
the idea and try to cut costs unless they are forced to fly these men
Pilot and Cockpit Protection.26 The
doors connecting the cockpit and the passenger cabin must be totally
secured as done by the Israelis. It should be ensured that these doors
can resist small arms fire and cannot be broken down without considerable
force. But in case of sudden decompression there should be ways to release
cockpit pressure or else structural damage could take place. There will
be a certain cost for such modification to existing aircraft cockpits
but that cost would be much lower than flying Sky Marshals on every
The pilots may be armed with small arms to defend
themselves. The pilot need not carry arms with him in every flight like
a gun-toting marshal. The small arms can be hidden in the cockpit in
a locker known only to the pilot and the co-pilot. Proper selection
of ammunition could be made before such a step is taken. All the pilots
and co-pilots would need to undergo a minimum training to learn to use
these weapons effectively. The secured door should give sufficient time
for one of the pilots to gain access to this hidden weapon and be ready
for the terrorists trying to gain access to the cockpit.
It should be ensured that the pilots remain in
the cockpit throughout the flight. The cockpit may be redesigned with
necessary food and toilet facilities. If it is not feasible to keep
the entire flight crew in the cockpit throughout, then at least one
pilot must remain in the cockpit with doors secured, in case the other
member has to go to the passenger cabin to attend to some in-flight
emergency. In the case of a hostile takeover or any other medical emergencies,
the pilot must land the aircraft immediately. A closed circuit camera
system should be placed to monitor the happenings in the passenger cabin,
more so near the cockpit door. Any attempt of hijacking or breaking
open the door will alert the pilot to land immediately. In the case
of a hijacker threatening or actually killing hostages, the pilot must
land immediately. The local authorities would then deal with the hijackers.
Pilot Response. There must be some
standard operation procedure (SOP) for airline pilots.
- No sooner they come to know about the hijacking they must immediately
contact the ground station or the country’s air defence centre as
the case may be.
- Similar to anti-collision beacons, a hijacking indicator beacon
may be incorporated by the manufacturers of aircraft and the pilot
should switch it on along with other electronic indicators.
- 11 September hijacking cases brought out the importance of cell
phones. Cockpit crew should carry these and contact the intelligence
agency in addition to informing the ground station.
Passenger Responses. The passengers
of United Airlines showed rare courage in confronting the hijackers
and foiling their attempt to crash the aircraft into another sensitive
place in USA. This plan was spontaneous and must have been coordinated
through body signals. Yet it was effective. It is a matter of ill luck
that the aircraft could not be saved, but such prevention plans can
be put into place by proper briefing. Getting more than one passenger
to act simultaneously to confront the armed hijackers would require
more coordination than is usually possible. But passengers are responsible
to act in a certain manner in case of an emergency. A plan to resist
hijacking can also be a part of the pre- flight briefing in addition
to other briefings on aircraft emergencies. Awareness among the passengers
will grow and they will understand the need to act together in case
of a crisis situation.
Terrorism is no more a low-tech phenomenon. It
has become high tech, and very lethal in the hands of well-educated
and motivated young men in their late twenties. This new trend brings
out the fact that they are part of an obscure network of militants operating
transnationally.27 They do not belong to an organised group with complete
chain of hierarchy. They are capable of operating autonomously, helped
by the global communication system and the Internet. They do not mind
engaging in mass murder of civilians and consider this as necessary
to strike a blow against their hated enemy. They are driven by religious
fanaticism and are young zealots ready to martyr themselves during the
course of the attack. Indiscriminate mass terror, causing massive casualties
by adopting innovative tactics and weaponry are their main area of interest.
Ramzi Yousef’s28 WTC bombing in 1993 in New York followed a similar
track. Following the WTC attack, it was revealed that he had been planning
to bomb dozens of US airliners over the Pacific region.
It is probable that the 11 September attack had
been a follow up of those plans. It didn’t conform to standard patterns
of hijacking but conformed to the emerging trend of international terrorism.
The aircraft were never intended to land. These were used as WMD. The
intelligence community should expect a repetition of such attacks. Spread
of globalisation, communication, electronic transfer of funds and the
growth of air travel will facilitate these desperate groups to operate
transnationally. Self destruction and willingness to achieve martyrdom
by the suicide bombers will complicate the situation further. Positive
identification of personal baggage before boarding a flight had been
a good deterrence against carrying bombs in the luggage. But this new
brand of terrorists in quest of a place in heaven could blow themselves
up along with others. Then how does one stop these Al Qaida type of
attackers? The measures at the airport to prevent carrying of weapons,
etc have to be very strict. Israeli experiences could be emulated all
over the aviation world.
Cockpit doors must be secured with necessary modifications.
Pilots are to be trained to handle small arms and the passenger cabin
should be continuously scanned with close circuit TV. In addition, the
frequent fliers will have to learn to resist these criminals from taking
over the control of the aircraft. Increased cockpit security and passenger
cooperation will definitely make life more bearable against the future
cohorts of Osama bin Laden and his ilk.
The author is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence
Studies & Analyses, New Delhi.
1. Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 2000-2001
2. Ibid p 623
3. Thomas and Mark Hosenball, "Bush: We’re
at War," Newsweek, 24 September 2001 pp 29-30
4. Ibid p 30
5. Ibid p 28
6. Wikipaedia: Mohammed Atta <www.wikipedia.com/wiki.fegi?action=browse&id=Mohammed_Atta
9. Ibid p 2
12. Kenneth L. Woodward, A Peaceful Faith, A Fanatic
Few, Newsweek, 24 September 2001, pp 64-65
15. <www.wikipedia.com/wiki/World Trade Center
16. America Under Seige, Issue 1, 2001 (Multimedia
International, LLC, New York) p 64
17. < www.wikipaedia.com/wiki/Pittsburgh>
18. Ruwantissa IR Abeyratine, Aviation Security,
Legal and Regulatory Aspects (Singapore, Sydney Ashgate, Brokefield
USA, 1998) p143-151
19. Ibid pp 156-163
20. Ibid pp 164-173
21. Ibid pp 131-136
22. Ibid pp 171-172
23. Ibid pp 136-138 "Convention on International
Civil Aviation, opened for signature at Chicago on 7 Dec 1944, entered
force on 4 April 1947 ICAO doc, 7300/6.
24. Ibid. pp14-16
25. <http://aspsmith.com> p 1
26. Ibid p 2-3
27. Paul Wilkinson, "Emerging Global Aviation
Security?", Paul Wilkinson and Brian M Jenkins, Aviation Terrorism
and Security (London and Portland, Franc Cass,1999) pp 151-152
28. Ibid p 152