This essay will present a brief history of aviation terrorism, including the events of Lockerbie and 9/11. It will then look in more depth as what the response of authorities has been to this; and consider what the criticisms have been of these efforts. The first case of hijacking recorded involved a Cathay Pacific flight from Macau to Hong Kong in July 1948. In this event the four Chinese hijackers struggled with the plane’s crew, resulting in the plane crashing and the death of all aboard. From that date to the late 50’s there were relatively few cases of hijacking compared with what was to come later. On average only one per year between 1948 and 1957. In the next ten years this increased to an average of about 5 a year. But from 1968 onwards there was a very large increase in the amount of hijacking carried out. In that year there was 38 hijacks, and 1969 saw the largest amount so far- an amazing 82 cases. Thankfully, this decreased over the next ten years, and went down to a, still high level, of 41 per year.
According to B. Raman (2000) there are a number of reasons for this pattern. Firstly, there is the involvement of the CIA in sponsoring hijackings as a way of disrupting Fidel Castro’s Cuba. This occurred from 1959 onwards, and was soon also carried out by Cubans themselves against the USA. Secondly in China the Taiwanese security services used a similar ploy in their struggle against mainland Communist China. Later China continued to be troubled by Chinese hijacking planes in order to escape to Taiwan. Also Palestinian groups began using hijacking as a method of fighting against Israel. One of the heights of this conflict was the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, so perhaps a large increase in hijacking was to be expected after that war. Other such groups have followed suit and used hijacking in a similar way, which adds to the total i.
The increased political use of hijack is a significant feature. One that has reached new levels of significance of course recently with the 9/11 hijacking and subsequent related bombings in Madrid, London etc. The use of hijacking by the PLO highlights a significant trend – that terrorists equate airlines with countries rather than just companies. The symbol for that country which they have a grievous against. Therefore the PLO targeted Israel airways. As Jeff Jacoby noted the PLO’s hijacking efforts could in one way be seen as successful: “ :In the 1970s, the PLO’s hijackings and mass-murders won it international recognition and attention. The mayhem of the first intifada yielded the Oslo agreement, which legitimized the PLO ii… :”
The Lockerbie bombing disaster of Dec 1988 in Scotland was, until 9/11, probably the most significant example of this against the USA. 189 of the 270 on board were American. A plastic explosive blew the plane up and scattered the remains and people on board over an 845 square mile area, killing 11 people on the ground in the process. Dealing with this event proved to be a very long and politicized process, due to the involvement of the Scottish police, FBI and the Libyan government. But eventually in the trial Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer and the head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines was sentenced to 27 years imprisonment in Scotland.
The events of 9/11 have, of course, superseded all hijacking before in terms of the impact it has had, and will continue to have in many areas. The huge amount of investigation and analysis of those hijackings have painted a confused picture, but many shortcomings in aviation security have come out. For instance, it has been noted that pilots have complained about the aviation authorities unwillingness to issues them arms, and that they did not take up the chance of giving the pilots special training offered by the FAA in America . Jon Dougherty comments: “ :… if it had been implemented by the airlines, they say, the Sept. 11 hijackings – which led to the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. – may never have occurred. :” iii In addition there have been accusations that authorities have deliberately covered up important information about 9/11.
However, despite these criticisms in terms of aviation security, 9/11 has kicked started a period of increased effort. A meeting of 20 transport ministers in Jan 2002 planned to have an international conference on aviation security organized by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The main aim of this was to increase the level of aviation security across the world, and to establish an audit program that would check if countries were reaching that level. Special emphasis was placed on helping developing countries come up to par iv.
Much was done to improve aviation security before 9/11 though. Important international conventions and legislation include v:
- 1963 Tokyo Convention on Offenses and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft;
- 1970 Hague Convention for the Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft;
- 1971 Montreal Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation;
- 1979 Convention Against the Taking of Hostages;
- 1991 Convention on the Marking of Plastic Explosives for the Purpose of Detection;
- 1997 Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings;
- 1999 Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism;
In the mid 90’s the USA instigated several improvements. President Clinton recognized aviation security as a major element of their strategy against terrorism. Therefore, funding was sought for improving security equipment. Two laws were passed that helped in this process: the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act and the Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act. and by the end of that year a team had been formed of security experts from several fields, including the govt. and the air carriers themselves, to begin installing types of security equipment in US airports, for example explosives detection devices. In general one of the policies of the US government had been to recognize the need for more international cooperation. This is reflected in the G8 summit of 2002, which stated the desire to:
” Take strong measures, including relevant legislative measures if necessary, in cooperation with other countries, to prevent terrorist acts and the international movement of terrorists by strengthening, inter alia, border, immigration, and travel document control and information sharing vi. ”
Also, there are now aspects of combating terrorism considered in many University courses, especially in the USA. Clint Oster Jr., a professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs runs a course in which:
“The focus is on understanding the inherent difficulties in protecting the commercial aviation system from terrorism and looking at the effectiveness of policies such as passenger bag matching; passenger screening and the potential role for passenger profiling; explosives detection in the cabin, checked baggage, mail and cargo; and onboard security, including sky marshals and arming flight and cabin crews vii,”
However, there are many that criticize what has been done so far to improve aviation security and to combat terrorism in general. Daniel Benjamin commented that after 9/11: “…international cooperation in the fight against terrorism improved dramatically. Unfortunately, however, this cooperation has been limited. It has not extended beyond the tactical level, and it has not been anchored in international institutions.” (Benjamin, 2004:1)
This point indicates the basic situation – that recent changes have been made but not enough. Raman indicates that in his research he saw that in the 1970’s: “…the enactment of stringent laws against hijackings and the further strengthening of the security measures at airports led to only an additional 10 per cent decline in hijackings viii.”
Raman also mentions that the Indian govt has been negligent in several ways: they did not detect the activity of HUM hijackers; they did not create sufficient security measures at Kathmandu airport even though they knew there was a security risk; and he also criticized them in the recent hijacking episode ending in Kandahar because they did not manage to persuade the United Arab Emirates (UAE) authorities to have the plane detained at Dubai. This last point is a clear case of lack of international cooperation.
Recently, Daniel Benjamin of the Open Society Institute and the Security and Peace Institute insisted that President Bush should carry out considerable further efforts to combat aviation terrorism. Including the creation of a new multilateral counter-terrorism organization, and to increase money available to developing countries in order to help them build up their ability to combat terrorism. He also urged Bush to use the 2005 G8 summit to increase such international collaboration. It is perhaps exactly the timing of the London terrorist incident during that event in which so many leaders were altogether in the one place that may indeed be the push needed to better international co-operation.
Therefore these criticisms and the need to make further efforts indicate, as Benjamin noted, that more needs to be done in aviation security, despite the considerable improvements that have been made. However all these points are perhaps not reaching the deeper issue. It is essentially discussing coping strategies rather than prevention. Philip C. Wilcox Jr has noted: “The most important deficiency in US counter-terrorism policy has been the failure to address the root causes of terrorism ix…”It is felt by some that no amount of increased aviation security and international cooperation will solve the problem of hijacking if there is still a fanatical will to use it as a tool. Only a change in what fuels that fanaticism will provide a lasting security, for the skies and for all of us.
Benjamin, D (2004:1) Work to Institutionalize the International Fight Against Terrorism. Open Society Institute and the Security and Peace Institute.
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National terrorism center (2005) A chronology of significant international terrorism for 2004. USA.
South Asia Analysis Group. At Internet URL:http://www.saag.org/papers2/paper103.html Accessed 3/7/05
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