The Day a New Terrorism Was Born

The modern era of global terrorism was launched on Sept. 6, 1970, when Palestinian hijackers tried to seize four commercial airliners bound for New York and land them at a remote landing strip in the Jordanian desert.

Until Sept. 11, the date was known as “the blackest day in aviation history.”

Terror as a weapon, used by both states and enemies of the state, is as old as recorded history. The ancient Greek historian Xenophon wrote about it, Roman emperors Tiberius and Caligula practiced it and Robespierre institutionalized it during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, anarchists and other factions assassinated kings and prime ministers to further their ends. But the old-fashioned terror was mainly used to eliminate real and suspected opponents or to cow domestic and enemy populations.

What is new about the new terror, as the PBS documentary “Hijacked” demonstrates, is that now victims are chosen randomly among people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Such were the passengers on TWA flight 74, who, shortly after takeoff from Frankfurt, heard a startling announcement on the plane’s public address system.

“This is your new captain speaking. This flight has been taken over by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP].”

Minutes later, passengers on Swissair flight 100 from Zurich to New York, and on Pan Am flight 93 from Amsterdam to New York, heard the same ominous words.

The fourth target was El Al flight 219 from Tel Aviv to New York. At a stopover in Amsterdam, four hijackers were to board the plane, but suspicious security guards removed two of them.

The remaining two, the much-publicized Leila Khaled and a Nicaraguan terrorist, posing as a couple, attempted to take over the plane after it left Amsterdam, with Khaled pulling out a hand grenade hidden in her brassier.

However, the quick-witted El Al pilot put the plane into a steep dive, knocking the hijackers off balance. Khaled was overpowered by passengers and her accomplice was shot dead by an air marshal on board.

Unbelievably, one of the two men ejected by El Al security, a Senegalese, was allowed to board the Pan Am flight in Amsterdam an hour later, after being patted down by airport personnel.

They missed the grenade hidden in his groin area, which he put to use in commandeering the Pan Am flight. The plane was diverted to Cairo airport, where it was blown up seconds after the passengers were evacuated.

In light of present security measures, it is hard to fathom the complete lack of rudimentary precautions in those days. All the hijackers, carrying a veritable arsenal of guns and grenades on their bodies, were able to board their flights freely.

The TWA and Swissair planes landed at the desert airstrip, renamed Revolution Airport, and were joined two days later by a hijacked British passenger plane.

Over the following six days, nearly 600 thirsty and hungry passengers broiled under the desert sun and froze during the night. The outlook was particularly grim for 55 Jewish passengers after they and the flight crews were segregated from the others, “in case Israel tried to liberate them.”

Rivka Borkowitz of New York remembers that “the hijackers went around asking people their religion, and I said I was Jewish.”

Barbara Mensch, then 16, was also segregated: “I was told that I was now a political prisoner and that unless my country did something, I was going to be a political prisoner, I don’t know, forever.”

A new aspect helped usher in the new era of terrorism. During daytime, a ring of television cameras and reporters camped out at Revolution Airport, broadcasting the harangues and self-justifications of PFLP spokesman Bassan Abu Sharif to the world.

He threatened that unless Palestinian prisoners in Israel and European countries were released, the hostages would be killed.

Behind the scenes, American, British and Israeli officials argued about the course of action, with President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger personally calling the shots for Washington. In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Golda Meir argued strongly against the British proposal to appease the hijackers.

In contrast to today’s Middle East terrorists, the PFLP men were secular Marxists rather than religious fanatics, and none of the hostages was killed.

Veteran documentary filmmaker Ilan Ziv, a native of Israel, wrote, produced and directed the hour-long film, which combines historical footage with interviews of former hostages, crew members, hijackers and journalists to shape the complex story.

“Hijacked” will air on the American Experience program on Monday, Feb. 27 at 9 p.m. on KCET.

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