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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

The El Al Hijacking, 50 Years On: Israel Sets the Gold Standard for Aviation Security


“Terrorism went global on July 23, 1968, the day [the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)] hijacked an El Al flight en route from Rome to Tel Aviv. That set off a wave of hijackings and airport shootouts. 'When we hijack a plane it has more effect than if we killed a hundred Israelis in battle,’ said [PFLP leader] George Habash. 'At least the world is talking about us now.'”


—Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, quoted in The New York Times, Nov. 1, 1998


“No one understands security as the Israelis do, and this is why some of the world’s best new innovative airport security technologies are being developed in Israel; since the foiled Christmas Day attempt on a Detroit-bound plane, airport authorities around the world are in a race to find novel solutions to fight terror, and the strategies and technical tactics Israel has adopted feature high on their lists.”


—Homeland Security News Wire, March 19, 2010


On July 23, 1968, PFLP terrorists hijacked Flight 426 of Israel’s national airline, El Al, which was heading from Rome to Tel Aviv with 51 passengers on board. The Boeing 707 was diverted to Algiers, where Israeli and non-Israeli passengers were separated. The 23 non-Israelis were soon flown back to Rome, followed by the Israeli women and children, who were released four days later. The 12 Israeli men, both passengers and crew members, remained hostage after all other passengers were released.


Initially, the PFLP, with Algerian backing, demanded that Israel release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Eventually, after the international pilots' federation imposed a global boycott of Algeria and when Israel concluded that a planned military rescue operation was infeasible, the Israelis released 16 Palestinian prisoners. On Sept. 1, the 12 remaining Israeli hostages and the plane were returned to Israel. Lasting 40 days, it was the longest hijacking of a commercial flight to date.


The era of political airline hijackings had begun. But, despite ongoing threats, this incident was the only successful hijacking of an El Al airliner.


Israel immediately put in place stringent airport security measures that were constantly upgraded and refined, soon becoming universally recognized as the most effective airport security system in the world. Indeed, all 28 subsequent attempts to hijack an El Al airliner or place a bomb on it have been foiled; and this doesn’t account for the potential attacks that were deterred as a result of this impressive security.


Airliner Hijackings and Bombings Multiply


While El Al has succeeded in protecting its planes and passengers, other airlines have sometimes failed to do so. Many dozens of American and other commercial flights have been hijacked or bombed since 1968, resulting in thousands of fatalities and highlighting the need for all countries to implement those elements of Israel’s airport security system that are relevant to their own specific conditions. Below is a sample of some of the most heinous airline hijackings and bombings since 1968:


•Feb. 21, 1970: Swissair Flight 330 from Zurich to Tel Aviv was bombed, killing all 47 passengers and crew on board. The PFLP-General Command claimed responsibility.

•Sept. 6-9, 1970: In a brazen series of hijackings, two PFLP terrorists first tried on Sept. 6 to take El Al Flight 219 from Amsterdam to New York. An Israeli air marshal killed one of the terrorists and overpowered the second, Leila Khaled, who was then detained in London. On the same day, the PFLP hijacked Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight 741, Swissair Flight 100 and Pan American Flight 93, and forced their captains to land at Dawson’s Field in Jordan. On Sept. 9, the PFLP hijacked British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) Flight 775, diverted it to Dawson’s Field, and took its passengers hostage to force the British government to release Khaled. On Sept. 12, the PFLP blew up the four airliners it held at Dawson’s Field. All the hostages were freed in return for the release of Khaled and other PFLP terrorists.

•May 8, 1972: Sabena Flight 571 with 101 passengers and crew from Vienna to Tel Aviv was hijacked by four Black September terrorists and landed in Tel Aviv. They demanded the release of 315 Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel. On May 9, an elite Sayeret Matkal (Israeli commando) team with future Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the lead and Benjamin Netanyahu—also a future prime minister—disguised as aircraft mechanics, stormed the plane, killing two hijackers and capturing the other two. Three passengers were wounded, one of whom later died. Netanyahu was also wounded during the rescue. The passengers and crew were freed.

•Sept. 8, 1974: TWA Flight 841 from Tel Aviv to New York via Athens and Rome crashed into the Ionian Sea after departing Athens, killing all 88 persons aboard—the largest number of passengers killed in an airplane bombing to date. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the plane had been destroyed by a bomb hidden in the cargo hold. The Palestinian terrorist group Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) was held responsible for the bombing.


•June 27, 1976: The hijacking of Air France Flight 139 by members of the terrorist organizations Revolutionary Cells and the PFLP-External Operations ended on July 4—America’s bicentennial—at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Israeli commandos stormed the building holding the hijackers and hostages, killing all the Palestinian hijackers and rescuing 105 people, almost all of them Israeli hostages. Three passengers and one commando—Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yoni—were killed.


•Sept. 23, 1983: On approach to Abu Dhabi, a bomb exploded on Gulf Air Flight 771, killing all 112 people aboard. The bomb was planted by the ANO to convince Saudi Arabia to pay protection money.


•June 14, 1985: Hijackers from the Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah diverted TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Beirut with 153 people aboard. The 17-day standoff ended after Israel freed 31 Lebanese prisoners. The hijackers tortured and murdered U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem.


•April 17, 1986: At Heathrow Airport in London, El Al security guards found Semtex explosives in the bag of a five-month-pregnant Irishwoman attempting to board El Al Flight 16 to Tel Aviv with 375 passengers aboard. She had been given the bag by her fiancé, Nezar Hindawi, a Palestinian from Jordan, who told her he would join her later for a meeting with his parents before marriage. Hindawi was arrested on April 18 and sentenced to 45 years in prison.


•Dec. 21, 1988: En route from London to New York, Pan American Flight 103 was destroyed by a bomb, killing all 259 people aboard and 11 people on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland. Two Libyan officials were convicted of the crime.


•Sept. 11, 2001: American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77 and United Airlines Flight 93 were hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists. Flights 11 and 175 were slammed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, flight 77 was smashed into the Pentagon, and Flight 93 was crashed into a field in Pennsylvania by the hijacker following a revolt by passengers. Both towers of the World Trade Center collapsed, and the Pentagon was severely damaged; in total, 2,996 people—including the 19 hijackers—were killed and over 6,000 were injured.


•Oct. 31, 2015: Russian airliner Metrojet Flight 9268 from Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, to Saint Petersburg, Russia, was blown up above the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board, making it the deadliest air disaster in Russian history. ISIS claimed responsibility, and authorities confirmed it was a terrorist act.


Israel’s Airport and Aviation Security System


Following the successful hijacking of the El Al airliner in 1968, Israel set up a sophisticated security system at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, its only international airport, and at El Al terminals elsewhere around the world. Unlike the numerous successful hijackings and bombings of American and European airliners listed above, not a single post-1968 attempted hijacking or bombing originating at Ben-Gurion or of an El Al plane anywhere in the world has been successful, despite heightened threats against Israeli targets. In 2017, El Al was named the world's most secure airline for the eleventh consecutive year by Global Traveler magazine. This unmatched safety record has likely saved countless lives and contributed to El Al passengers’ sense of security.


Rafi Sela, former chief security officer at the Israel Airport Authority, revealed in 2010 the “secret” of Israel’s success: “Israel concentrates on the passengers and not their luggage, so we have a real edge over the rest of the world in protecting travelers. This is in addition to us protecting the whole airport, while the others merely try to achieve aviation security.” Based on open-source material, Israel’s multilayered aviation security system had adopted this general structure


•First layer—advance screening. Passenger lists are screened before passengers even arrive at the airport, based on electronic records and intelligence sources; watchlists are then created.


•Second layer—airport entrance screening. At a checkpoint several miles from the terminal, trained security personnel scan all incoming vehicles and their passengers; if needed, hi-tech scans are employed. Just outside and inside the terminal, armed security personnel patrol the premises, aided by video surveillance and other technologies, scanning for explosives, odd behavior and other potential threats. Armed security personnel also patrol El Al terminals overseas.


•Third layer—screening inside the terminal. Prior to check-in, every passenger is interviewed face-to-face by highly trained security personnel. Passengers may be asked about their place of origin, the reason for their trip, their profession, and who packed their bags. The interviewers have been specially trained to spot signs of nervousness or other suspicious behavior. Only about two percent of passengers are referred to more intensive scrutiny following the initial interview. At passport control, passports and tickets are checked against information from various intelligence services. Luggage is then screened and sometimes hand-searched. Each security lane is operated by two security officers: one looking for contraband and the other for potentially dangerous passengers.All checked bags are put through a decompression chamber simulating pressure during flight that could trigger explosives.


•Fourth layer—screening and protection on board the aircraft. Immediately after the hijacking, El Al became the world’s first airliner to deploy air marshals. Armed, plainclothes personnel board every El Al flight to scan for suspicious behavior patterns. El Al was also the first to install reinforced steel cockpit doors with locks. Steel floors also separate the passenger compartment from the baggage hold.


International Adoption of Israeli Security Methods


The Israeli model was developed and refined for Israeli needs and tailored for Israel’s unique circumstances: a small country; only one, relatively small international airport; a population that’s keenly aware of severe security threats and is therefore willing to invest in security more than others and tolerate stringent security measures that other nations may find unacceptable; and a large pool of competent veterans of Israel’s compulsory military service. Hence, no other country has adopted the entire Israeli security package.

But the United States and other countries have hired Israeli aviation security experts. Here are a few examples:


•2001: A month after 9/11, Logan International Airport in Boston hires the former director of security for Ben Gurion Airport, Raphael Ron, to begin a three-month consulting stint. Along with two American security experts, he becomes responsible for finding the weaknesses in the security system of Logan—from which two of the four hijacked planes had originated on 9/11—and training airport employees in new procedures.


•2006: Nahum Liss, head of security planning for Ben Gurion Airport, holds a briefing for 40 California airport security and law enforcement personnel in Oakland, CA. Steven Grossman, director of aviation at the Port of Oakland, says he was so impressed that he suggested a trip to Israel for the U.S. branch of Airports Council International, which represents local, regional and state governing bodies that operate commercial airports in the United States and Canada.


2007: Six American airport directors—from California, Washington, Florida, Texas and Nevada—spend several days in Israel studying airport security techniques, viewing the latest technology and listening to briefings by Israel's top counterterrorism experts. “The Israelis are legendary for their security, and this is an opportunity to see firsthand what they do, how they do it and, as importantly, the theory behind it,” said Grossman.


•2008: Israeli officials tour Los Angeles Airport (LAX) in November to re-evaluate the airport after making security upgrade recommendations in 2006. Calling Ben Gurion “the world's safest airport,” Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles, implements the Israeli review in order to incorporate state-of-the-art technology and other tactical measures to help secure LAX, considered the state's primary terrorist target.


Below is a partial list of Israeli aviation security methods adopted by the United States; Europeans and others have taken similar measures.


•1969: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) develops a hijacker psychological profile to be used along with metal detectors to screen passengers and their bags. Several airlines begin using this system.


•1972: The FAA issues an emergency rule requiring all passengers and carry-on luggage to be either screened by metal detectors or searched by hand and requiring airports to deploy armed guards at boarding areas.


•1974: The 1974 Air Transportation Security Act sanctions the FAA's universal screening rule, which spurs U.S. airports to adopt metal-detection screening portals for passengers and X-ray inspection systems for carry-on bags.


•1985: Federal air marshals become a permanent part of the FAA workforce on international flights.


•1988: U.S. carriers at European and Mideast airports begin to require X-rays or searches of all checked baggage and to match passengers and their baggage.


•1998: The FAA requires air carriers to implement a program called the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS). It identifies passengers who might be a security risk, based on suspicious behavior such as buying one-way tickets or paying with cash. CAPPS also randomly assigns some passengers to receive additional security scrutiny.


•2001: CAPPS is revised after it failed to identify several 9/11 hijackers and due to flaws in the system—for example, no action was taken against those whom the system had identified. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act gives the federal government direct responsibility for airport screening. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), part of the Department of Homeland Security, is formed to oversee security for all modes of travel, deploying federal employees only. Prior to this post-9/11 legislation, private companies often employed underpaid and underqualified personnel. In Israel, the Ben Gurion Airport’s Security Division—a branch of the Israeli government—has always been responsible for all matters regarding the security of passenger and air traffic at the airport. The Israeli-invented “screening passengers by observation techniques” (SPOT) program begins operating at some U.S. airports.


•2008: At a conference in May, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff tells Reutersthat the United States will seek to adopt some of Israel’s security measures at domestic airports.

•2010: Following the Israeli model, federal air marshals begin quietly monitoring U.S. air passengers and reporting on in-flight behavior considered suspicious, even if those individuals have no known terrorism links. The TSA discloses this innovation only in July 2018.


•2017: New security measures, including stricter passenger screening, take effect on all U.S.-bound flights to comply with government requirements aimed at responding to threats of hidden explosives, airlines say. The new measures could include short security interviews with passengers at check-in or at the boarding gate—a measure that has long been used by Israeli airport security both at Ben Gurion Airport and by El Al internationally.


Conclusion


Following the only successful hijacking of an El Al airliner 50 years ago, Israel has developed an airport and aviation security structure that is universally recognized as the world’s most effective system of its kind.


The United States and other countries have improved their aviation security by adopting some of these measures. The catastrophic events of 9/11 spurred massive, often Israeli-inspired upgrades of American and Western European security measures, resulting in 17 years without a single successful hijacking or bombing of any of their airliners. Of course, no system is foolproof; but thanks to the Israeli model, air travel is safer today. Future American-Israeli cooperation should enable both nations to enjoy a safer, more secure air-travel future.


Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report