Terrorism Update
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Analysis of the Hijackings on 11 Sep 2001
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 are:

  • 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 Suqami.

United Airlines Flight 175: Marawan Alshehri; Fayez Banihammad; Mohd Alshehri; Hamza al Ghamdi; Ahmed al Ghamdi.

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 Pentagon

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 another state.
  • 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 Aircraft, 1970.19 
  • 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 board.
  • 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 committed.
  • 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 in arms.

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 flight.

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 p 625

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 < >p1

7. Ibid

8. Ibid

9. Ibid p 2

10. <>

11. <>

12. Kenneth L. Woodward, A Peaceful Faith, A Fanatic Few, Newsweek, 24 September 2001, pp 64-65

13. <>

14. <>

15. < Trade Center

16. America Under Seige, Issue 1, 2001 (Multimedia International, LLC, New York) p 64

17. <> pp 1-4

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. <> 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






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