On Sept. 11, the president of the United States said, “We can – and we will – deal effectively with piracy in the skies.” If you don’t remember that, don’t worry: not many people do, because I’m not referring to Sept. 11, 2001, but to Sept. 11, 1970, and the president who said it was Richard Millhouse Nixon.
The date itself would not hold any significance for Americans for another 31 years, but that coincidence is just one of many.
On Sept. 6, 1970, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked four passenger airliners almost simultaneously – each from a different airline and departing from three separate airports (multiple passenger aircraft simultaneously hijacked from different airports, sounds familiar): TWA Flight 741 departing Frankfurt, Germany (hijacked over Belgium); SwissAir Flight 100 departing Zurich, Switzerland (hijacked over France); and El Al Flight 219 and Pan Am Flight 93 both departing Amsterdam. TWA 741 and SwissAir 100 were flown to Dawson’s Field, a remote former Royal Air Force Base in the Jordanian Desert that the terrorists had claimed as their own – even going so far as renaming the airstrip Revolution Field.
It’s worth taking a moment here to recount the incredible (even by today’s standards) odysseys of El Al 219 and Pan Am 93 – both of which had also been destined for the Jordanian desert had the hijackings gone as planned. They did not.
As passengers were boarding El Al 219, the Captain (Uri Bar Lev) became aware of four people who aroused his suspicions (and who were, in fact, terrorists) and notified the on-board security agent. Captain Bar Lev interacted with two of the would-be hijackers and deemed their behavior and credentials suspicious enough to warrant having them removed from the aircraft before takeoff. On his way back to the flight deck, Captain Bar Lev asked his security agent to accompany him to the cockpit (a practice that was frowned upon at the time). Once in the air, the other two terrorists made their move – grabbing a flight attendant and showing the flight crew (through the peephole in their locked, steel-reinforced door) that they would shoot her and blow up the aircraft with the grenades they carried unless the aircraft was flown to Dawson’s Field.
But Captain Bar Lev had no intention of acceding to the terrorists’ demands, even though compliance was standard practice at the time to help ensure the safety of the passengers and crew. He told the security agent that he wanted to put the aircraft into a negative-G dive, which would throw everyone not buckled into a seat off their feet. Instructing the agent to make sure he was strapped in, the captain raised a wing, pushed the yoke forward, and put the aircraft into as steep a dive as he felt the airframe could withstand. About 60 seconds later (and about 10,000 feet lower), as the aircraft began to pull out of the dive, the security agent left the cockpit and engaged and shot one of the terrorists. He, along with some of the passengers, then subdued the other terrorist, who was turned over to British authorities when the aircraft arrived in London.
Meanwhile, the two terrorists who had not been allowed to board El Al 219 in the first place did not simply give up and go home. They calmly walked back into the terminal at Amsterdam, purchased tickets for Pan Am 93, and hijacked that aircraft once it was in the air. Having also been instructed to fly the aircraft to Dawson’s Field, the Pan Am captain convinced the hijackers that the runway there was simply not long enough to land the 747 they were flying. The terrorists decided to fly to Cairo instead, which they did, but only after a stop in Beirut to pick up another terrorist and some explosives. Once the aircraft was on the ground in Cairo, the last passenger barely had time to deplane before it was destroyed with those explosives, after which the terrorists were immediately arrested by Egyptian authorities.
Three days later, on Sept. 9, 1970, a PFLP sympathizer boarded BOAC Flight 775 in Bahrain, hijacked it after takeoff, and forced the crew to fly it to Dawson’s Field as well. The intent here was to force British authorities to release the hijacker who had tried unsuccessfully to commandeer El Al Flight 219 three days earlier, and who had been in their custody since.
Fearing an attempt by the Jordanian military to recapture the aircraft that were now sitting openly in the middle of the desert, the terrorists freed the majority of their 310 hostages on Sept. 11 and then, as both a symbolic gesture and to prevent them from being retaken, blew up the empty aircraft on Sept. 12. The remaining 56 hostages were kept in custody until Sept. 30 then exchanged for one of the hijackers and three PFLP members being held in a Swiss prison.
For the sake of perspective, back in 1970 we had multiple commercial aircraft hijacked almost simultaneously by members of a single foreign terrorist organization – a scenario frighteningly similar to what we would see 31 years later on Sept. 11, 2001. In 1970 we saw a foreign terrorist organization claim a portion of a sovereign nation as their own, and operate with almost complete autonomy within that area. That’s another scenario we would see again, this time more than 40 years in the future with the rise of ISIS and their self-proclaimed caliphate. Steel reinforced cockpit doors were already fairly standard on El Al aircraft in 1970, but it would take us another 30-plus years to see the wisdom in making that investment on American aircraft.
And there are other examples throughout the intervening decades. On Oct. 23, 1983, a massive truck bomb was used to attack the barracks of the United State Marine Corps in Beirut, Lebanon. About 10 minutes later, a second truck bomb was used to attack the barracks of the French peacekeeping force also stationed in Beirut. Truck bombs were again the weapon of choice in the almost simultaneous attacks of the United States embassies in Dar es Salam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, on Aug. 7, 1998, and of course there are the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But there has been a subtle shift. The difference between what we have dealt with in the past, even the recent past, and what we are faced with today lies in the capabilities of those who wish to commit an attack. Intelligence operations have traditionally been focused on intentions and capabilities, with the common wisdom being that intentions can’t hurt you but capabilities can. Someone who wishes to do you harm, for example, cannot do so unless that person either possesses, acquires, or develops the capability. And it has been, up until very recently, that very element of either acquiring or developing a capability that we have focused on because the act of development or acquisition is detectable and describable. A potential terrorist purchasing a weapon, conducting online research on constructing an IED, or trying to recruit others to take part in his or her plan are all kinetic – they happen in the real world where they can be seen, perceived, and reported.
Where once our enemies developed capabilities to match their intentions, today many of them dovetail their intentions to match the capabilities they already possess. If today’s terrorist actor had a motto it would be “Do it now!” Do it now, while the effect of the slickly produced terrorist propaganda still has you in its grasp. Do it now, while you’re still angry over the purported injustices that you hope to somehow rectify. Do it now. Don’t tell anyone about it and don’t try to recruit anyone to join you because you never know who might say something that tips off the authorities. Don’t try to purchase or acquire weapons or other materials – those actions will only draw attention to you. If you don’t have a bomb, don’t try to make one; use a gun instead. If you don’t have a gun, don’t try to buy one; use a knife instead – and if you don’t have a knife, use a car. If you want to kill 20 or 30 people but don’t think you can do it unless you have other people or materials, that’s OK: use what you have on hand to kill one or two. Do it now – you already have the capability.
And while this new threat landscape has not necessarily changed the intelligence cycle, it has certainly called for the acceleration thereof. Think of all the possible points of interdiction for a terrorist group trying to develop, for example, the capability to successfully commit an attack with multiple IEDs detonating simultaneously. First, one terrorist has to recruit others; the more people there are in that group, and the longer that group remains together, the better the chances are that someone leaks information or quits and reports the activity to the authorities. Then there is the search for information about how to assemble the device and the materials needed, the acquisition of those components, the storage of those materials, the target surveillance being conducted, actual assembly of the devices, the transportation of the devices to their designated target areas – all possibly observed and reported. Now, take that same group of potential attackers, but replace their goal of deploying IEDs with that of going out the next morning, getting into their cars, and driving at high speed into three school bus stops, or the lines of voters outside three polling places on election day. There are substantially fewer points of possible interdiction, necessitating not only a fast-tracked intelligence cycle but a fast-tracked response component as well. Developing intelligence without also developing the response component necessary to act on that intelligence is nothing more than an exercise in data collection.
It sounds oversimplified, but the collection and analysis of intelligence is akin to Legos. One can go to a store and buy a box of Legos, and with only the pieces contained in the kit, build one of three individual projects shown on the box. Open the box and dump out the pieces, organize them by color, size, shape. They represent your capability, but what are you going to build with them? Maybe you’ll build one of the projects shown on the box, or, if you feel those projects are too complicated, or might take too long, or you’re just frustrated and want a more immediate result, maybe you’ll build something completely different. What is your intention? Taking that analogy a step further, the capability came ready-made; your box of Legos showed you what you could build with them. If you had to develop your capability by acquiring one block at a time, someone would probably notice.