September 23, 1986: Gulf Air Flight 771 tragedy

Do you remember when airplane hijackings were all the rage? They seemed to happen all the time way back then such that they even became a joke of sorts (albeit not for those on the plane!). Even Airplane!, the 1980 movie, made fun of them.

Most incidents ended more or less peacefully I seem to recall. Some group took control, threatened to blow up the plane if the pilot did not fly it to Cuba, and in the end all’s well that ended well and the passengers were released safely, if a bit ornery. Until 9/11 of course. I think most of us in the intelligence world, and in wider society too, had a hard time accepting that the hijackers would fly the aircraft into a building, killing themselves in the process. To say that flying has hence changed since 2001 would be putting it mildly. Does ANYONE enjoy the ordeal now?

On this day in 1983  Gulf Air Flight 771, a regularly scheduled flight from Karachi to Abu Dhabi, crashed 30 miles north-east of the latter’s airport killing all 110 people on board, including 5 crew members. And who was behind this act of terrorism? None other than the Abu Nidal Organisation or ANO (remember them??).

The ANO was an offshoot of the PLO – the Palestinian Liberation Organisation – a terrorist group that dominated the headlines for decades. Abu Nidal himself was a Palestinian who later relocated to Baghdad and died in 2002. The group may not be that well known today but during its active period in the 1980s and early 1990s it was responsible for terrorist attacks in 20 countries – including the US, UK, France and Israel – in which almost 900 people were killed. Other major targets included the Rome and Vienna airports in December 1985 and the City of Poros day-excursion ship attack in Greece in July 1988.

What I find most relevant today are two things. First that by 1986 airplanes were seen as legitimate vectors for destruction and not just things to divert off course to make a point or gain a concession. Second that the Palestinian ‘issue’ is as unresolved today as it was 33 years ago: if anything it is more unresolved (is that even a concept?) what with ?former” Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu threatening to annex the entire West Bank. This does not bode well for the future of peace in the Middle East.

But, seriously, ANO? Now THAT brings back memories of my days in intelligence!

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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