A Brief History of Suicide Hijackings Part III
22nd May 2012
The third part of this series looks at two separate terrorist plots, one by the Algerian GIA in hijacking a plane they intended to crash into the Eiffel Tower, the other the Bojinka plot in the Philippines that was inspired, in part, by the GIA. Contrasting parts I and II of this series, these hijacking plots did actually involve Islamic militants, whereas the previous suicidal hijacking attempts all involved Americans.
In December 1991 the first round of the Algerian elections indicated that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party was going to win. Among the party's policies were the ending of elections, ironically enough. Voting was seen by the FIS as an affront by man to Allah, of man placing himself over God as an authority. The Algerian army seized control of the government, cancelling the elections and banning the FIS.
This led to the more extreme elements within the FIS forming a series of Islamic militant splinter groups, among them the Groupe Islamique Arm or GIA. They carried out attacks, including the assassinations of officials and journalists, but it was in 1994 when their new leader, Djamel Zitouni, outlined a new target. He extended the 'war' to include French civilians, who he apparently blamed for supporting the French government, who in turn supported the Algerian military's coup.
Under Zitouni's leadership, the GIA hatched a hijacking plot that was intended to culminate in crashing a commercial passenger airliner into the Eiffel Tower. An alternative plan was to blow it up while in the air over Paris.
The plot was hatched on Christmas Eve 1994. The hijacking lasted for two days, initially on the ground in Algeria. Meanwhile, a mole within the GIA informed the Algerian secret services about the ultimate target. They tricked the GIA hijackers into landing at Marseille for refuelling, then kept them on the ground while the GIGN French counter-terrorist special forces moved in. There was a shootout on the plane, resulting in all of the terrorists being killed and aside from a few injuries the passengers survived unharmed.
The GIA suicide hijacking served as inspiration for yet another Hollywood film. In 1996, Executive Decision was released. The film, which had a lot of Pentagon involvement in its productionstars Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal as leaders of an elite counter-terrorist commando team who are tasked with stopping Islamic terrorist hijackers. The hijackers have taken control of a transatlantic plane bound for America that is loaded with a chemical poison. Their intention is to detonate the plane over a major city as a means of speading the poison, in a variation on the suicide hijacking considered by the GIA. The 'executive decision' is that of the President, who has to decide how long to give the commandos, who sneak onto the airliner while it is in the air, before he orders the Air Force to shoot down the incoming plane.
On the other side of the world, World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef was putting into motion a terrorist plot that also involved airlines. Having escaped the US on the evening of the WTC bombing back in February 1993, Yousef spent nearly two years freelancing his was round Asia, carrying out bombings, plotting attacks, nearly blowing himself up on more than one occasion. Exactly why it took two years for US authorities to catch up with him is not entirely clear.
He ended up in Philippines, assembling people and equipment for a plot he dubbed 'Operation Bojinka'. The plan was to bomb a series of airliners, both American and Asian, in the trans-Pacific region. The idea was that each bomber would get onto a plane, leave a bomb on a timer under the seat above the fuel tank, get off at the next airport, get on another plane, set another bomb, and so on. Thus one bomber could carry out multiple airline bombings in a single day, leading a small team to bomb as many as a dozen planes simultaneously. The idea was that if all the planes could be brought down that as many as 4000 people could be killed.
Yousef worked out of an apartment in Manila, with his friend Hakim Murad and others that included Osama Bin Laden's brother-in-law Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Afghan war veteran Wali Khan Amin Shah and Yousef's uncle the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM). On December 11th 2004, Ramzi decided to test out his innovative bomb in a dry run on a plane. He caught Philippines Airlines flight 434 from Manila, which went to Narita International Airport near Tokyo, stopping off at Mactan-Cebu International Airport. He left the bomb on a timer under his seat, and got off at Cebu. The bomb then detonated, but failed to ignite the fuel tank.
Due to quick thinking and pilot skill, the plane was landed at Naha Airport an hour after the explosion. One person, a young Japanese businessman named Haruki Ikegami, was killed, but everyone else survived.
Yousef went back to Manila and continued to plot. On his laptop he recorded flight times, routes and destinations, figuring out how to ensure that all the planes could be blown up at the same time, while they were all in the air on a leg of their journies. He also liaised with the Abu Sayyaf Group, as Islamist militant group in the Philippines throughout the 1990s.
In the midst of making the bombs and getting up to no good with local bar girls (despite being married), Yousef heard about the GIA hijacking. A copy of a Time magazine article found in the Dona Josefa apartment where he and Hakim Murad were staying detailed the hijacking, including the suicidal element of the plot. On the evening of January 6th 1995 a fire broke out in their hotel room, though there are wildly different stories about how the fire got started.
Yousef and Murad escaped, but then Yousef sent Murad back in to retrieve his laptop. In the meantime, the authorities had arrived, seen enough suspicious objects and material lying around to realise something was up, and managed to arrest Murad on the spot. Murad was then interrogated for weeks by the PNP, during which time he claims he was tortured. It is highly likely that he was at least mistreated if not worse. Yousef fled the country, but was picked up in Pakistan weeks later.
There are two particularly interesting strands to this story, the first connecting the Bojinka plot to 9/11 and the second involving two spies. According to the 9/11 Commission, the 9/11 plot was hatched in the late 1990s, only really getting going after the August 1998 African embassy bombings. According to authors like Peter Lance, this is a cover-up that ignores the suicide hijacking element to the Bojinka plot. The alleged 9/11 mastermind KSM was Yousef's uncle and was deeply involved in Bojinka.
Peter Lance claims in all three of his books on the subject that there was a 9/11 style plan in place back in 1994-95, a 'second act' to the Bojinka plane bombing plot. He says that Yousef conceived of hijacking multiple passenger airliners and crashing them into US targets, essentially the official story of 9/11. Lance goes on to claim that the PNP discovered all this and told the FBI, but that the FBI didn't do anything about it at the time, which Lance labels a major intelligence failure.
The problem is that it isn't true. There is no evidence that Murad and Yousef had conceived of a plan for multiple suicide hijackings. In Lance's book he cites an interview with a Colonel Rodolfo Mendoza of the PNP, who apparently got the whole 9/11 blueprint out of Murad during his weeks of interrogation. Yet the records of Murad's interrogation by the PNP, and his interrogation by the FBI, and Yousef's interrogation by the FBI, show no record of this.
What they do show is that Yousef and Murad chatted a lot about possible terrorist attacks, and that Yousef had expressed his view that Muslims make the best terrorists because they are willing to become martyrs. Murad responded by suggesting that he, who had some degree of pilot training, could hijack a plane and fly it into CIA headquarters. There was no proper plot, no plan for getting potential hijackers into the US, getting them trained at US flight schools, having them hijack several planes simultaneously.
In fact, aside from a brief conversation where Murad suggested this idea, there is no indication that the Bojinka plot included a suicide hijacking element at all. The element of this story that is largely ignored in favour of this non-existent intelligence failure, is the presence of several spies in this story.
Yousef himself appears to have been protected, at least for a time, by the Pakistani ISI. His associate in the Philippines Mohammed Jamal Khalifa flew to the US at the end of 1994, where he was arrested. It is likely, given his subsequent release and the mystery over how long he was in US custody, that he was a co-operator for the Bojinka bust. Indeed, his story is very similar to Mohammed Junaid Babar's. Also in the Philippines was Edwin Angeles, who was very high up in the Abu Sayyaf Group but was also a deep cover spy for the PNP and possibly military intelligence. His handler in the PNP was none other than Colonel Rodolfo Mendoza, the man who told Peter Lance that Bojinka was a 'blueprint for 9/11'.
To help people understand the Bojinka plot, how it relates to 9/11 (or doesn't) and what was known about it and when, I have assembled a dossier of documents from the interrogations of Ramzi Yousef and Hakim Murad, and a secret CIA report from 2004 on the interrogation of KSM.
You can dowload the dossier via the link beneath the image above, or directly via this link (PDF, 10.3MB).
What this part of the history of suicide hijackings shows us is that while the idea largely originated in the US, by the 1990s it was spreading, possibly due to novels like Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor and films like Black Sunday and Escape from New York. Specifically, what we find in the two pre-9/11 suicide hijacking plots by Islamists is that they involved spies, agents and assets of the intelligence agencies. In the Philippines there was Khalifa, Angeles and possibly Yousef himself, and the leader of the GIA when they carried out their hijacking, Djamel Zitouni, was a spy for Algerian intelligence.
Indeed, the whole of the FIS/GIA Algerian Islamist movement was heavily infiltrated, to the extent that the military even carried out false flag massacres, wiping out entire villages, under the guise of being terrorists. The purpose of this strategy appears to have been counter-insurgency in the sense it was used in the Gladio operations - to put down a domestic political rebellion through a strategy of tension.
Through infiltration and false flag attacks the Algerian military and security services split the Islamists, forcing them against each other so they would splinter even further and eventually kill each other off. By the end of this process, hundreds of thousands lay dead. Among them, Djamel Zitouni, assassinated by another Islamist faction during the infighting. The best resource on the strategy of tension in Algeria is Dr. Abbas Aroua's book An Inquiry into the Algerian Massacres available as a free PDF courtesy of the Hoggar Institute.