September 19, 1988: Downing of French UTA Flight 772 over Sahara

Libya is beleved to have been behind the 1988 downing of a French flight from Congo to Paris in which all 156 passengers and 14 crew were killed.

In an era of suicide bombings and IEDs we forget that civil aviation was once the target of choice.

SAHARA DESERT – Here is a poser for you: do you remember getting on an airplane prior to 9/11? If you don’t here is a primer:

  • security was a breeze;
  • you did not have to try to keep your pants up while your belt went through the X-ray machine;
  • you did not have to show your ID 300 times before boarding; and
  • the online meals were still shitty.

A lot has obviously changed over the past 20 years, including one aspect of terrorism. In a somewhat contradictory fashion, aircraft have proven to be LESS, not MORE, of a terrorist target. Maybe the security measures cited above are a factor, who knows. Or maybe terrorists did a risk analysis and concluded that there are easier attack venues that will garner as much attention as bringing a plane out of the sky.

In the olden times the opposite was true. Airplanes were hijacked, bombed, shot up and attacked in other ways so often that it almost became a joke (“I’ve got a bomb: take this plane to Cuba!”). Not that terrorism is a joking matter of course but incidents occurring at 37,000 feet did happen with disturbing regularity! The period 1967-1972 has been called the ‘heyday’ of skyjackings.

But these acts of terrorism were not limited to that half decade only.

On this day in 1988

Today’s attack is a case in point. A French UTA flight (772) was travelling from Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo to Paris when it was blown up over the Sahara desert. All 156 passengers and 14 crew members were killed.

In 1999, a French court found six Libyans guilty in their absence and sentenced them to life imprisonment. Libya did not admit responsibility, but paid £20.7 million in compensation. This process had taken 10 years, and not all of the bereaved were compensated (only the 500 represented during the trial). Some speculated that Libya targeted the aircraft to punish France for siding with Chad during that country’s territorial dispute with Libya.

Conspiracy to commit murder, destruction of property with explosives, violation of laws regarding explosives and taking part in a terrorist enterprise.

Charges against Libyan terrorists

It does not need to be said that the passengers on that flight had nothing to do with France, or Chad or Libya. But terrorists rarely go to the trouble of having those considerations. Indiscriminate killing is what makes them terrorists after all.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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