February 21, 1970 | Bombing of SwissAir Flight 330

Today it is really hard to get a bomb on an airplane: this was not always the case.

Today it is really hard to get a bomb on an airplane: this was not always the case.

TODAY IN TERRORISM — Hands up anyone who likes to fly these days. Hmm, I am not seeing a lot of fans, am I? Whether it is the substandard food, the battle between seat recliners and non-seat recliners, fights over the middle armrest, poor air quality, etc., etc., etc., I assume that most people are not happy fliers (except those in business class of course where few of the ills just cited apply). We fly because we have to. Sure, we could take a boat from Vancouver to Tokyo but who has that kind of time?

Another painful experience is of course airport security. Hands up anyone who likes to stand in line, shuffle slowly forward, take off your shoes, coats, and belts, wait for your carry-on luggage to be scanned only to have it flagged for secondary inspection AND walk to your gate where you wait to board the aforementioned cramped aircraft. Again, not a lot of takers.

The reasons for all this are of course tied to security. Airplanes are very vulnerable machines. Once you are 37,000 feet above the ground and something goes awry you are in a heap of trouble. It is not like driving a car and a warning light comes on: you can’t pull to the side of the road as there are no ‘roads’ up there. No, if something really bad occurs you are screwed.

Terrorists realise this: that is why they keep on plotting to attack airliners. We have all heard of liquid plots, underwear plots, cartridge toner plots – the list goes on and on. This is the ultimate game of oneupmanship, with deadly results if the bad guys win.

Years ago the main attack vector was to get a bomb on an airliner. The number of occasions on which this succeeded is too big to list. May I remind my readers that the single greatest act of terrorism prior to 9/11 was the downing of Air India flight 182 by a bomb placed in the luggage hold by Canadian Sikh terrorists?

Swissair Flight 330

On this day another bunch of terrorists succeeded in bringing down SwissAir flight 330 traveling from Zurich to Tel Aviv, killing all 47 passengers and crew. The pilot tried to return his plane to Zurich after an altitude-sensitive bomb had exploded in the rear cargo compartment but smoke in the cockpit made that impossible.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC – remember them?) claimed the attack. Recall that in the 1960s and 1970s there were a lot of plots attributed to Palestinian terrorist groups, usually targeting Israel or Israelis.

Thankfully bombs seldom are responsible for airplane crashes these days (there are other ways to bring these machines down as we will undoubtedly see in later posts). That does not mean that terrorists have stopped trying.

Keep that in mind next time you are grousing about airport security.

PS I had a very hard time settling on one attack on this day in history. My research came up with dozens of incidents in which a total of 468 people died. To cite US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, truly a day of infamy across the decades.

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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