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History Of Aviation Terrorism History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The act of terrorism is not a new concept. The use of this type of asymmetrical warfare has been used since the beginning of recorded time. The United States Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” Just as terrorism itself is not a new concept, using aviation as a tool of terrorism is not new either. The use of aviation as this tool began in 1931, when Peruvian Revolutionaries tried to force a pilot to fly where he was ordered. This event happened 17 years after the first commercial flight. There have been hundreds of these types of acts since and to this day aviation is being used as a tool of terror. Searching through the annals of the history of aviation terrorism history there were three major events where terrorist groups tried to pursue their political, religious, and ideological goals against the citizens of the United States.

On June 14, 1985, two well dressed Shiite Muslims boarded TWA flight 847 in Athens, Greece, en route to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport in Rome. Unbeknownst to security and the aircraft crew the two passengers smuggled two hand grenades and a 9-mm handgun onto the aircraft. Flight 847 hand 153 passengers and crew on board, out of which, 120 were American. Approximately 20 minutes after takeoff, the two terrorists rose from the rear of the aircraft and ran down the aisle screaming their demands. At the top of the list, was diverting the aircraft to Beirut, Lebanon. With a gun in the face of the pilot he complied and the plane was diverted. They then moved all of the male passengers to the window seats where they were threatened and beaten upon. Passengers were forced to keep their heads between their knees and ordered not to look at the terrorists.

After the terrorists had taken control of the situation they ordered ex-German national to collect passports and identification from all of the passengers. While sorting through the passenger’s identification one of the terrorists noticed two US Navy military identification cards. After being denied landing in Beirut, twice, the terrorists saw the Navy personnel as a way to convince the ground tower to change their minds. The terrorists brought one of the military members into the first class section of the aircraft and began beating him with an armrest taken from one of the seats. Given the situation onboard flight 847 ground authorities finally gave the pilot permission to land. While on the ground the terrorists negotiated an exchange of passengers for fuel. A total of 17 women and two children were allowed to leave the aircraft in the exchange.

To avoid the build-up of US military forces the aircraft was flown back and forth from Beirut to Algiers. In exchange for each landing the terrorists would allow hostages to be released from the aircraft. During the second stop in Beirut, the terrorist wanted to show how serious they were. They opened the door of the aircraft, put a gun to the head of Robert Stetham, the US Navy diver pulled the trigger, and pushed his lifeless body onto the tarmac. Later that night the terrorists demanded that the airport lights to be turned off. During this time, several more terrorists boarded the aircraft. They took all of the people with Jewish sounding names and drove them to a different location where they were held hostage.

Finally, on June 30, 1985 day 17 of the hostage crisis, the remaining hostages were released. In exchange for the release of the release of the hostages, the terrorists demanded the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon, the release of Lebanese Shiites from Israeli prisons, and the condemnation of the actions of the US and Israeli forces in the Middle East. “The Jewish passengers that were taken off the aircraft and held by Islamic Jihad were rescued by Delta Forces. After several threats, the hijackers freed the remaining hostages, blew up the aircraft and fled into the Shiite neighborhoods (AVSTOP, 2010).”

TWA flight 847 is a textbook example of the use of aviation as a terrorist tool. This type of asymmetrical warfare pitted this small group against larger entities such as the United States and Israel. A TWA aircraft was picked because it was successful American air carrier. For 17 days this group had media outlets from all over the world at their fingertips. Politically the terrorists achieved their goals. Israel released Lebanese prisoners. They later stated that the release of the prisoners was unrelated to the terrorist activities.


Four days before Christmas in 1988, 258 passengers boarded Pan Am Flight 103 in London, England headed for New York City. After only 38 minutes of flight time the aircraft exploded over the skies of Lockerbie, Scotland. When the aircraft exploded it left a debris field of over 2,000 square kilometers and killed 11 people on the ground.

Initially investigators thought the crash was due to structural failure. Three days after the crash on Christmas Eve, while looking at pieces of the wreckage noticed that the seat rails had signs of explosive residue on them. Now the investigation could turn from accidental causes to a terrorist plot. “The Lockerbie investigation was the largest murder inquiry in British history, involving local police, Scotland Yard, the FBI and a host of other agencies from around the world (National Geographic, 2008, para. 8).” Shortly after finding the seat rails they found the suitcase which housed the explosive device. This was a huge turn in the investigation. This type of Samsonite luggage was only sold in the Middle East. In the suit case were a few articles of clothing that were only sold in a small retail store in Malta Spain. The Federal Bureau of Investigators interviewed the shop owner and found out that it was a Libyan man who had bought the clothing. With these clues and a few other tips investigators were able to pinpoint Abdel Baset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah as being the terrorist who checked a bag on Pan Am Flight 103 and walked away.

In the year 2000, the trial of Abdel Baset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah took place in the Netherlands. “In total there were 230 witnesses and 85 days of evidence covering 10,000 pages of transcript (National Geographic, 2008, para 12).” “In January 2001 a decision was reached under Scottish Law: Abdel baset ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was jailed for life in January 2001, while his alleged accomplice, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was found not guilty” (National Geographic, 2008, para 12).

At the time of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, this was the most significant aviation terrorist attack committed against the United States. Out of the 259 people onboard the aircraft 179 were American. This attack showed that Americans were vulnerable anytime and anywhere. Abdel baset ali Mohmed al-Megrahi used this form of asymmetrical warfare to bring down Pan Am, a huge symbol of the American capitalist society.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

To date the events of September 11, 2001 were the deadliest attacks ever committed by a foreign enemy on American soil. 19 Al Qaeda terrorists accomplished more death and destruction than the Japanese Navy during their attacks on Pearl Harbor. “More than 2,600 people died at the World Trade Center; 125 died at the Pentagon; 256 died on the four planes (9/11 Commission Report, 2004, p.1).” This coordinated attack by 19 terrorists targeted major landmarks on American soil. Their objective was not only to kill innocent people it was also put in place to hinder the economy, impair the federal government and strike fear with the American public. On that day two planes brought down the World Trade Centers, one crashed into the Pentagon, and one attack was foiled before the aircraft could reach the Capital building.


When the World Trade Center was completed in 1971, they were the two tallest buildings in the world, both standing 110 stories high above the New York skyline. Nearly a quarter of a million people passed through the doors of the two buildings every day. These buildings were a symbol of the great American economy and that is why they were chosen by the Al Qaeda terrorist group

FLIGHTS 11 and 175

On the morning of September 11, 2001 Mohamed Atta, a US trained pilot, and four other accomplices boarded American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles. Fifteen minutes into the flight the five men overpowered the crew and breached the flight deck of the aircraft. The trained pilot, Mohamed Atta, took controls of the aircraft and turned off the transponder so it would be difficult for air traffic controllers to spot the aircraft. He also directed the passengers that the aircraft was returning the aircraft to the airport and to stay calm. He then redirected the aircraft south and headed for New York City. During this time Betty Ong, an American Airlines flight attendant, called American Airlines headquarters to tell them the flight had been hijacked. At 8:46 am Atta, deliberately flew the American Airlines’ 767 aircraft into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The aircraft traveling at over 450 miles per hour and carrying more than 10,000 gallons of fuel penetrated the building between the 93rd and 99th floors trapping everyone above those levels. This was only the first level of the this collaborated attack on the United States

United Airlines Flight 175 had many of the same characteristics as American Airlines Flight 11. They both departed Boston headed for Los Angeles. Both flights had five Al Qaeda associated terrorists aboard. Most of all, they had the same destructive plans. They wanted to bring Jihad to the Americans. At 9:03 am nearly twenty minutes after the first tower was struck tower two of the World Trade Center was struck between the 77th and the 85th floor. The Boeing 767 was traveling at over 500 miles per hour and carrying over 10,000 pounds of fuel. Most of the people above the 77th floor were trapped. Tower two was the first of the two to collapse. It fell 56 minutes after the initial impact of flight 175.


The Pentagon is a one of a kind building that symbolizes the strength of the United States Military. Situated in Arlington Virginia, this building houses the department heads of all of each military department. Al Qaeda terrorists damaged one of the world’s most secure buildings through the use of asymmetrical warfare. On this day Al Qaeda proved to the world that they could brutally wound the world’s strongest military.

American Airlines flight 77 from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles was taken over in the same manner as the previous two that crashed into the World Trade Center buildings. Just as the other two, five men boarded the flight and overpowered the crew with box knifes and small pocket knives. One trained pilot entered the flight deck turned off the transponder and redirected the aircraft to their intended target. At 9:37 am the American Airlines 757 loaded to fuel capacity slammed into the west side of the Pentagon building, killing 125 on the ground and 59 people on the aircraft, excluding the terrorists.


United Flight 93 took off from New Jersey headed for San Francisco. The crew members or the thirty-two passengers on board had not heard that any commercial aircraft had been hijacked earlier in the morning. The flight was taken over just as the other three about 40 minutes after takeoff. As the terrorists redirected the plane the passengers made phone calls from cell and passenger phones. The passengers found out that three other times the same type of hijacking had happened and concluded that the hijackers of their plane had similar intentions. Some of the passengers decided that they would not allow this to happen. They waited until the aircraft was over a rural area and stormed the flight deck and overpowered the terrorists. Shortly afterwards, the airliner crashed into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania killing all on board. The passengers of United Flight 93 sacrificed their lives but saved the lives of many through their heroic actions.


The hijacking of TWA Flight 847, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, and the events of September 11, 2001 are three great examples of terrorist groups using aviation as a tool of terrorism. These terror groups fully accomplished their political, religious, and ideological goals through this type of asymmetrical warfare. Not only were their goals accomplished the lives of the United States citizen has forever changed.

Until the past couple of decades we as citizens have been shielded from acts of terrorism. Now with the use of aviation as tool of terrorism, the American public can be touched at anytime and anyplace in the world. The United States is forced to become more proactive instead of reactive to the threat of terror. The government can no longer sit back and implement rules after an event of terrorism takes place.

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