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Hijackings offered signal of terror to come

In a 1994 incident, Algerian hijackers reportedly aimed to explode a plane over Paris or crash it into the Eiffel Tower.

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 5, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Over and over since Sept. 11, aviation and security officials have said they were shocked that terrorists had hijacked airliners and crashed them into landmark buildings.

"This is a whole new world for us," Jane Garvey, the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said before a House subcommittee Sept. 20.

But the record shows that for her and others, there were numerous warnings.

In 1994, two jetliners were hijacked by people who wanted to crash them into buildings, one of them by an Islamic militant group. And the 2000 edition of the FAA's annual report on Criminal Acts Against Aviation, published this year, said that although Osama bin Laden "is not known to have attacked civil aviation, he has both the motivation and the wherewithal to do so," adding, "Bin Laden's anti-Western and anti-American attitudes make him and his followers a significant threat to civil aviation, particularly to U.S. civil aviation."

The previous year's edition of that report said that an exiled Islamic leader in Britain proclaimed in August 1998 that bin Laden would "bring down an airliner, or hijack an airliner to humiliate the United States." The report did not identify the leader.

The failure to heed these signs is "an indication of failure to put the pieces together," said Gerald Kauvar, who was the staff director of the commission headed by Vice President Al Gore on aviation security and safety after the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island in July 1996.

The authorities appeared to draw no lessons from the two attacks in 1994. But one of them, in hindsight, had striking similarities to those of Sept. 11.

That was the December 1994 hijacking of an Air France flight in Algiers. The sponsor of the hijacking was an organization called the Armed Islamic Group, which said it was trying to rid Muslim Algeria of Western influence, specifically from France. Four young Algerians commandeered the plane at the airport and ordered it to fly to Marseille, from which they said they wanted to fly to Paris.

But they demanded that it be loaded with 27 tons of fuel -- about three times as much as required for the flight to Paris. The plane was an Airbus A300, which is nearly as large as the Boeing 767s that struck the World Trade Center. The French authorities determined from hostages who had been released and from other sources that the group planned to explode the plane over Paris or crash it into the Eiffel Tower.

After French troops stormed the plane and killed the hijackers, they found 20 sticks of dynamite.

Eight months earlier, in April 1994, a flight engineer at Federal Express who was facing a disciplinary hearing that could have ended his career, boarded a DC-10 as a passenger and stormed into the cockpit with a hammer, hitting each of the three members of the cockpit crew in the head and severely injuring all of them. They wrestled him to the deck and regained control of the plane. Prosecutors said only that the man wanted to crash the plane, but company employees have said he was trying to hit the building in Memphis where the company sorts packages.

In between those two incidents, in September 1994, a lone pilot crashed a stolen single-engine Cessna into a tree on the White House grounds just short of the president's bedroom.

But aviation security officials never extrapolated any sort of pattern from those incidents.

Aviation security "is a threat-based system," said David Fuscus, president of Xenophon Strategies, which advises airlines on crisis communications. Actions are taken "based on the threat as perceived and interpreted by the U.S. government."

But the government, by all accounts, was focused on threats like the one to Pan Am Flight 103, destroyed by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, and TWA Flight 847, a plane taken to Beirut in June 1985 with passengers as hostages.

Despite the history and precedents, some security experts say the possibility of an airliner attack like those of Sept. 11 was too outlandish to have been believed in advance.

"Someone expressing that view probably would have gotten short shrift, because it was generally considered just sort of outlandish, not feasible, not real," said Richard Lally, who was the top security official at the FAA until 1981 and spent the next 10 years doing the same work at the Air Transport Association, the big carriers' trade group.

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