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Profile: Leila Khaled
Leila Khaled was a participant or observer in the following events:
Three hijacked aircraft at Dawson’s Field in Jordan. [Source: Jordanian National Archive]Terrorists try to simultaneously hijack three airliners heading to the United States from Europe in a series of events that culminate in two of the airliners, along with another plane, being blown up at an airfield in Jordan. The hijackers are members of a group called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who want to gain the release of Palestinian militants held in Europe and Israel.
Hijackers Carry Hidden Weapons onto the Planes - The series of events begins on September 6, 1970, when the PFLP members board three commercial aircraft at various European airports: Swissair Flight 100 from Zurich, TWA Flight 74 from Frankfurt, and El Al Flight 219 from Amsterdam. All three planes are bound for New York. The terrorists are able to carry concealed guns and grenades onto them.
Pilot Manages to Prevent One Hijacking - The pilot of one of the planes, Flight 219, is alerted to four suspicious passengers—actually the PFLP members—before he takes off and has two of them removed from the plane. However, the other suspicious passengers, Leila Khaled and Patrick Arguello, are allowed to stay on board. Once the plane is airborne, they go to the front of it carrying hand grenades and demand to be let into the cockpit. But, to prevent the hijacking, the pilot puts the plane into a steep dive, thereby throwing the two terrorists off their feet. Arguello is shot dead by an air marshal in the ensuing struggle while Khaled is disarmed and held captive. The plane makes an emergency landing at Heathrow Airport, near London, and Khaled is then arrested by British authorities.
Two Hijacked Planes Land in Jordan - Flight 100 and Flight 74, unlike Flight 219, are easily hijacked and, on the instruction of the hijackers, head to Jordan. They land at Dawson’s Field, a disused airstrip in the desert. Dozens of PFLP members are waiting there to assist the hijackers. The planes’ passengers are held at the airstrip for days. The terrorists demand the release of PFLP prisoners in Israel and Europe, and threaten to kill the hostages if their demands are refused. Meanwhile, reporters and television cameramen assemble around the airstrip, and the events taking place there are broadcast to the world.
Fourth Plane Is Flown to Egypt and Blown Up - Remarkably, one of the PFLP members forced to get off Flight 219 in Amsterdam is able to get on another plane bound for New York, Pan Am Flight 93, with a hand grenade hidden in his groin area. He hijacks the flight once it is airborne and asks to be flown to Dawson’s Field. The pilot tells him the plane is too large to land there and so he instead flies to Cairo, Egypt. [Jewish Journal, 2/23/2006; Wall Street Journal, 2/24/2006; PBS, 2/27/2006; Jerusalem Post, 9/16/2011; Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 8/19/2016] On the way, the plane stops in Beirut, Lebanon, where it is laced with explosives. [9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003 ] After it lands in Cairo, the passengers are able to get off just before it blows up.
Fifth Plane Is Hijacked and Flown to Jordan - On September 9, PFLP sympathizers hijack another plane, BOAC Flight 775 bound from Bombay, India, to Beirut. On their direction, the plane is flown to Dawson’s Field, where it joins Flight 100 and Flight 74. The PFLP thus has three planes and 310 hostages, the majority of them Americans, under its control at the airstrip. The group sets a deadline of September 12 for its demands to be met. On September 11, 200 of the hostages are taken to Amman, the Jordanian capital, for release. However, Jewish passengers and the planes’ flight crews remain as hostages at the airstrip.
Three Planes Are Blown Up but No One Is Killed - On September 12, the PFLP blows up the three planes at Dawson’s Field. Fortunately, no one is on them when it does this, but the dramatic scene is filmed and broadcast around the world. Despite the approach of Jordanian troops, the PFLP members at the airstrip are then able to get away, taking the remaining hostages with them. [Trento and Trento, 2006, pp. 59; Jerusalem Post, 9/16/2011] On September 29, the PFLP will release these hostages. The following day, Khaled, along with six Arab prisoners held in European jails, will be released and flown to Cairo. [Daily Telegraph, 1/1/2001] However, the hijackings will fail to result in the freedom of most of the prisoners whose release the PFLP demanded.
Day of the Hijackings Is the 'Blackest Day in Aviation History' - The series of events will become known as “Black September.” [Jerusalem Post, 9/16/2011] Until 9/11, September 6, 1970, when the first hijackings occur, will be known as “the blackest day in aviation history.” [Jewish Journal, 2/23/2006; PBS, 2/27/2006] The events will lead the international aviation community to finally take coordinated action to prevent hijackings. Additionally, they are “the first major terrorist hijacking attempt that captured the media’s attention,” according to Norman Shanks, the security manager at Heathrow Airport from 1986 to 1991. [New York Times, 3/29/2016]
Hijackings Have Similarities with the 9/11 Attacks - Mary Schiavo, inspector general of the Department of Transportation from 1990 to 1996, will later note the similarities between the Black September hijackings and the events of September 11, 2001, when she criticizes the failure of authorities to prevent the 9/11 attacks. While the events of September 11 were “astonishing in the numbers of casualties and the enormity of the devastation,” she will comment, “the modus operandi of the terrorists” was not new. “Almost 31 years after four planes were hijacked and blown up in an Islamic jihad staged in Jordan, four US planes were hijacked in what Osama bin Laden would call, in congratulatory messages, a jihad,” she will state. “Astonishingly,” she will add, “we heard, even from the FAA and the Department of Transportation, that ‘nothing like this ever happened before.’” [9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003 ]
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