Airplane Terrorism Twenty Years Ago


Here’s a scenario:

Middle Eastern terrorists hijack a U.S. jetliner bound for Italy. A two-week drama ensues in which the plane’s occupants are split into groups and held hostage in secret locations in Lebanon and Syria.

While this drama is unfolding, another group of terrorists detonates a bomb in the luggage hold of a 747 over the North Atlantic, killing more than 300 people.

Not long afterward, terrorists kill 19 people and wound more than a hundred others in coordinated attacks at European airport ticket counters.

A few months later, a U.S. airliner is bombed over Greece, killing four passengers.

Five months after that, another U.S. airliner is stormed by heavily armed terrorists at the airport in Karachi, Pakistan, killing at least 20 people and wounding 150 more.

Things are quiet for a while, until two years later when a 747 bound for New York is blown up over Europe killing 270 passengers and crew.

Nine months from then, a French airliner en route to Paris is bombed over Africa, killing 170 people from 17 countries.

That’s a pretty macabre fantasy, no? A worst-case war-game scenario for the CIA? A script for the End Times? Except, of course, that everything above actually happened, in a four-year span between 1985 and 1989.

Refuse to be terrorized, everyone.

Posted on November 18, 2010 at 12:19 PM49 Comments


V November 18, 2010 12:39 PM

Wow. I like how, although those terrorist attacks listed in your source have been perpetrated by practically every ethnic group/nationality/religion, and yet you only singled-out Middle Eastern.

Brent November 18, 2010 12:43 PM

You won’t have to dig far to find news reports from that era about Americans being so afraid to fly to Europe that it was significantly hurting the tourism industry.

RE: V November 18, 2010 12:46 PM


Wow. I like how, although it was quoted to give an indication of the number of attacks and their outcome, and yet you think it’s discriminatory.

GreenSquirrel November 18, 2010 12:50 PM

It just goes to show that nothing really changes. 🙂

The 1980s were a terrible time for flying, but some basic measures (eg stopping people taking guns onto planes) pretty much put a halt to all that madness.

In 1984 I flew on a plan from Sao Paulo to Heathrow with a bow and 20 arrows as my carry-on luggage. Can you imagine that now?

Its a good job that modern terrorists are no where near as skilled & committed as they were in the 1980s.

@V – I suspect the reference to “middle eastern” in the opening sentence was to set the scene and make it more like a “modern day script.”

ygjb November 18, 2010 12:50 PM


Have you read the whole article? If you read past the snippet that Schneier pulled out you will find that most of the terrorist groups that were responsible for or claimed responsibility for the attacks are “middle eastern”. The author also calls out two of the incidents that were not terrorist attacks.

mikepo November 18, 2010 1:03 PM

Relevant: the pre-9/11 “Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y” documentary/art project is full of real footage of airplane hijackings from the 60′-70’s.

AlanS November 18, 2010 1:13 PM

I saw that one too. Why the difference in response?

Frederick Forsyth, back in 2005, makes a similar point here about the UK response to 9/11 compared to what happened before:

“There is a mortal danger aimed at the heart of Britain. Or so says Home Secretary Charles Clarke. My reaction? So what?…in the 66 years that I have been alive, there has not been one hour, of one day, of one month, of one year, when there has not been a threat aimed at us. My point is, the British have always coped without becoming a dictatorship.We have coped with fear without becoming a state based on fear; we have coped with threat without turning our country into a land of state threat….To be protected from terror the government says, we must become a tyranny. But a tyranny is based on the citizen’s terror. This is not victory; this is defeat before a shot is fired.”

Shiny November 18, 2010 1:17 PM

Interesting. One of the primary differences I see here, from a completely USA-centric vantage point, is that all of the flights listed above are international ones. If it’s the 1980s and I’m only going to travel domestically, these situations wouldn’t affect me.

Then again — I wore parachute pants in the 80s, so my judgment wasn’t always proven to be sound…

kashmarek November 18, 2010 1:21 PM

One has to remember that all the alternatives prior to 9/11, did not terrorize people. People died, but the objective, if even desired by the governments of the countries where the attacks occurred, did not achieve terror. It wasn’t until GW had the opportunity to terrorize U.S. citizens (after 9/11) that governments found what it took get their own citizens under control. All the travel restrictions (more to come in more areas) are an attempt to control the populations within countries. Mostly, they have little to do with eliminating terrorism.

AlanS November 18, 2010 1:42 PM

Pre-9/11 terrorism wasn’t restricted to Middle Eastern groups, although they tended to be associated with most hijackings. There were lots of home-grown terrorist groups in various European countries. The UK had the IRA, a group fueled by money from from a certain country that isn’t in the Middle East.

For discussion see another Forysth piece published in the WSJ on 9/21/2001:
Let’s Target Irish Terrorists Too

Math November 18, 2010 1:52 PM

Can we get a comparison of that with the number of non-passengers that were kidnapped or killed during those years?

Tangerine Blue November 18, 2010 2:34 PM

@UK Visa
1) What evidence is there that whatever attacks did not happen in London were thwarted by any post 9/11 measures?

2) Do you find it ironic that although terrorist attacks “stopped”, terrorists have detonated bombs in London post 9/11?

Davi Ottenheimer November 18, 2010 2:38 PM

The difference from then versus 9/11:

1) Need to stop use of a plane as a missile. Armoring the cockpit has solved this threat. If that fails, detection would lead to interceptor jets or other typical anti-aircraft measures, which removes the residual risk. Wost-case is casualties same as past attacks, instead of higher (critical infrastructure)

2) Need to find terrorists. This is harder than 1 because risk is left to the imagination. Anyone, anywhere, etc. could be in danger instead of just those on a hijacked plane, in the Olympics, stationed at an embassy in Africa, or mid-East or Asia…or, well it still wasn’t an attack “inside” a border.

I say the body scanners are stupid (because of how they are managed) but they do bring a few good ideas and the beginning of technology that could help solve 2. The real solution to 2 is smarter intelligence gathering, which actually has been working remarkably well and not just at home. Recent littoral combat operations in Somalia have been amazingly quiet yet effective, just like arrests of Somalis in Los Angeles that most people probably never heard about.

The author misses these differentiation points.

Gus November 18, 2010 2:39 PM

One thing that irks me is that the US insists on demanding that the rest of the world follow them off the cliff. I hate how my country, Canada, is being strong-armed into adopting TSA-style security at its airports only because the Americans are demanding it since some Canadian domestic flights dip into US airspace.

Everything's Eventual November 18, 2010 4:01 PM

I’ve watched things in the US descend into what appears to be either poorly thought out/reactionary decision-making or perhaps is a carefully calculated plan to limit liberty. It is quite concerning.

I read the above article and thought, hmm about a thousand people from all over the world died in a four year period in aircraft related terror/violence. Wow, that’s a lot. But, to put it into perspective, the alcohol-impaired driving deaths during the same period were just over 118,000 people (just in the US, where the driver had a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or greater — the number increases to almost 229,000 if the blood alcohol concentration is lowered to .01). It’s quite obvious that people are fearing the wrong thing.

I recently heard someone say that if given a choice of long lines and invasive screening to ensure that a flight was safe or no lines where it was unsure whether or not the flight would be safe, that people would choose to undergo the invasive examinations. I completely disagree, if the people are properly educated about the risk.

The risk/odds that a terrorist is on any given flight at any given time are so low as to be almost irrelevant. Is there risk? Sure there is, but it’s more likely that one will be killed by a drunk driver on the way home from the airport.

The risk that someone will figure out a way to steal images from AIT machines that aren’t supposed to save them or that there will be other violations/inappropriate contact from “enhanced” pat downs is considerably greater. If current practices are allowed to continue under the name of security, how long before we begin seeing AIT machines in other public places? The broader the usage, the larger the risk for abuse.

There’s also the problem of escalation. The current AIT scanners stop at skin level (at least sometimes — some of the pictures clearly show skeletal structure, which is a bit worrying from a radiation exposure standpoint). So the first time someone decides to smuggle an improvised explosive device in a body cavity, are we to submit to body cavity searches? The scene that first comes to mind is from the movie Con Air where the guy pulls out a small, plastic-wrapped bottle of flammable liquid and match that he’d swallowed and then sets the guy next to him on fire. It won’t take long before someone gives that one a try.

[I wonder if perhaps I should invest in one of the companies that produces rubber gloves. Soon to be heard from a TSA agent near you: “Excuse me sir, for the protection and the peace of mind of everyone else, please bend over and assume the position….”]

Steve Pinkham November 18, 2010 4:12 PM

Remember, in the 80s the generation that fought WWII was running the show. We were still in the cold war. We as a society new that the world was perilous, and life was often nasty, brutish, and short.

Americans haven’t really been affected by a war since then. We have basically come to think that the world is by and large a safe place, and that we are invulnerable. We are not. Our irrational desire to return to that belief is what gives us out irrational security policy. Well, at least what lets the public put up with it until too now, much of our policy is simply political butt-covering.

Yes, we must all accept some risk. It’s an imperfect universe, and the sooner we learn to deal with acceptable risk we will be better off.

spaceman spiff November 18, 2010 4:28 PM

I’m glad my niece and nephew travel on their Mexican passports when they go places other than the US (they have dual US/Mexican citizenship and passports). The only place Mexicans are disliked is in the US… :rolleyes: So, when they come here, they travel on their US passports.

kingsnake November 18, 2010 4:43 PM

Good thing the TSA’s scanners and probers are bunching everyone up for another Rome/Vienna massacre. Certainly makes me feel more secure …

Roy November 18, 2010 5:04 PM


Actually, it was I think 1963 when they banned bringing guns aboard. Before that, hunters brought rifles and shotguns aboard, and many people carried concealed pistols.

In 1971, D B Cooper showed the world how stupid that policy was, but the powers-that-be never admit to being wrong. They only add more stupid rules.

I’m not suggesting we drop the gun policy. I would prefer issuing every passenger an aluminum baseball bat (durable, no splinters, easy to clean, hard to steal as hard to conceal). Probably only a quarter of the passengers will step up to the plate, so to speak, but fifty bats is a lot of bats.

Gus November 18, 2010 6:03 PM

Another thing that concerns me is this belief that only airports matter. Does no one remember Bali? London? Mumbai? Why aren’t we rushing to install this level of security on nightclubs and bars and hotels and subways and bus stops? Those have been legitimate targets of terrorism since 9/11. Why the double standard? Oh yeah, it’s because the TSA has no jurisdiction there, so sane, rational people make the decisions.

Clive Robinson November 18, 2010 6:05 PM

@ Davi Ottenheimer,

“The difference from then versus 9/11”

Also on everyone forgets….

International communications.

Back 20 years ago the Internet as we know it today did not exist (who remembers gopher and archie?), Mobile phones well they where around but finally comming out of the “half a house brick” size. And international telephone calls where pricy thus low by todays number. Oh and telex was still to be seen in many businesses.

For the intel boys 20 years ago saw the comming of the end for being able to sniff a significant portion of International comms into and out of Northern Ireland etc.

Oh and the US started it’s secret briefings of various European nations about law enforcment and crypto etc…

Jay from BKK November 18, 2010 8:31 PM

@Everything’s Eventual

Thank you for raising this point. I would (and do) more gladly accept the risks of getting on a plane knowing that bags were merely X-rayed and pax sent through simple metal detectors, versus being on the highways of any locality where alcohol is sold between 22:00 and 03:00 on a weekend night.

The question is unanswered: who are we supposed to call when the terrorists are wearing badges?

joensuu November 19, 2010 12:06 AM

I wonder how much the reason for what we call “international terrorism” lies in the same source as the reasons for gang violence in USA: poverty and the (most commonly male) desire to “be someone”.

With this a big difference between “international terrorism” and US gang violence is that the gang members do not see a foreign country as a cause of their problems (as USA has not really ever been overtaken by any foreign armies).

SpamBomber November 19, 2010 1:48 AM

@ Bruce Schneier: “UK Visa”‘s signature is a link to a site offering a commercial service, which is not related to the topic of this thread. At most forums and blogs, this type of spam-link signature is forbidden. For one thing, it artificially boosts that site’s rankings in search engines. Do you allow this?

@ Everybody:
Am I the only one who noticed this, while you all were distracted by the nonsensical content of that post? If we give up our vigilance, then the spammers have already won!

GreenSquirrel November 19, 2010 2:28 AM


UK Visa has posted here on quite a regular basis, normally in a fairly on-topic way. The fact the signature goes to a commercial site is something I have never noticed previously and now you draw my attention to it I actually dont care. Amazing, huh.

Now, you on the other hand, dont appear to have added much in the way of value – or have I missed your previous posts?

@UK Visa

It appears your slightly whimsical quip about the reduction in IRA attacks since 2001 has hit quite a few nerves.

I find that very entertaining.

Winter November 19, 2010 2:29 AM

“Why aren’t we rushing to install this level of security on nightclubs and bars and hotels and subways and bus stops?”

There is some logic in this. Distance of travel.

It seems governments feel they should control aviation and the movement of people over long distances. Most importantly, control the influx of foreigners.

Now, what government would feel people have no right to travel abroad and visits foreign/your country?

I found it telling that a opposition politician was one of the early names on the no-fly list.

GreenSquirrel November 19, 2010 5:28 AM


I agree, and it is interesting that Irish terrorism (which has led to the death of two of my close friends and the loss of the legs of a third, vs Islamic Terrorism which has only killed 1 close friend) has such a different response – not just in the US, but in most places.

There are probably many, many reasons for this but I am fairly convinced that the difficulty to single out an Irish Catholic in the street is one of the reasons. (If the IRA work Burkas it would be a different matter…)

Interesting link – although I was under the impression that the (P/R/C etc)IRA and various Loyalist paramilitary groups were now proscribed organisations in the US.

Is that not the case?

BF Skinner November 19, 2010 6:31 AM


I agree with the GreenSquirrel.

My own signature links to organizations that I have an interest some commercial some non-sensical.

If the URL or it’s contents aren’t cited during the post discussion to my mind it becomes clearly an issue linked to personal concerns and not spam.

snallabloget posts his blog link, GreenSquirrel just posted microsoft but he has an dry wit…Clive might post a link but it would likely be so long and detailed that it wouldn’t fit into the field.

JDB November 19, 2010 11:42 AM

The big difference from then and now is that our Gen X whiny babies think technology can solve everything while they bury their face in their facebook enabled phone and cry for the government on its white horse to solve their bully problem for them.
Airline issued .45 with the peanuts would put a stop to this problem in 1 day.

Mark November 19, 2010 1:46 PM

@GUS – +1 on your comment. Thanks for that America.

Well, everybody knows the terrists came from Canada, right?

When after 10 years the freakin’ head of the DHS is still repeating that lie, after god knows how many attempts we have made to correct it, then no amount of stupidity and ignorance that comes out of the US Government surprises me.

The fact that someone at that level is unable or unwilling to separate fact (the terrorists were all in the US legally and had no connection to Canada) from fantasy is both pathetic and shocking. No wonder they are in the state they are.

uk visa November 20, 2010 7:26 AM

I’ve asked various bloggers if they mind me using a name that may be slightly useful; all of them have said that they don’t mind because they know I’m a real person with a real point of view.

And because I have a business partner who sees this aspect mitigating otherwise fruitless (in his opinion) time spent debating things!

I mean no disrespect in my nomme de plume but please let me know if you’d prefer me to talk as Victoria.

@kashmarek and TangerineBlue
They did in terms of the IRA; funding dried up overnight.

@Green Squirrell
Thank you, and yes, whilst I’m whimsical about it now I was close enough to some of the explosions to smell (funnily enough it’s the smell of them that lingers; you’d think it would be the noise) them and would probably have lost a dear friend if it weren’t for the fact he skipped work to enjoy a hangover one morning!

I’m no supporter of terrorism and 911 was an appalling event but few can argue that one of the repercussions of it was reduced funding for the IRA and a greater interest in negotiation rather than detonation as a path to peace… however much Tony Blair would like us to believe it was his personal achievement.

Clive Robinson November 20, 2010 8:30 AM

@ Victoria (UK-Visa),

“… however much Tony Blair would like us to believe it was his personal achievement.”

Tont Blair did nothing towards the peace process other than steal the work of others much of which was carried out in the Bill Clinton era. In fact there is sufficient evidence that he was responsible for derailing the process a couple of times.

One of the people who did most for the process is sadly nolonger with us and thus cannot defend her work and achievment over many months and dangerous meetings. She quietly got on with the job keeping much of the process secret just to enable the sides to meet and fight it out in words as opposed to bullets and bombs.

Phoney Tony as many call him is a person who appears to have little contact with reality. For instance no sooner had he become an envoy to the middle east than he declared himself to be a Catholic very publicaly thus managing to alienate himself to both sides…

Moderator November 20, 2010 12:50 PM

UK Visa, if you started calling yourself Victoria now, nobody would know who you were.

Generally, new commenters with commercial links get some extra scrutiny, and if they appear not to have read past the first paragraph of the post, or are emitting vague platitudes loosely related to the subject, or otherwise look like they’re cooking up a comment just for the sake of the link, they’ll wind up in the spam bucket. But as long as you act like a human being participating in a conversation, you’re welcome to link your name to your website, commercial or not.

jon banquer November 21, 2010 3:29 AM

I remembered a lot of hijackings in the seventies : given the figures above I am amazed that after 9/11 anyone in government had the nerve to squall, “How could we have anticipated this terrible event !”

The fact is, they were responsible for it. Whatever happened to the sky marshall plan ? And locking the doors on the cockpit ? 9/11 was totally preventable with a nickel’s worth of common sense.

Matt Healy November 21, 2010 2:29 PM

I landed at Athens airport just after a plane that had taken off from there was hijacked in the mid 1980s. I have never seen so many armed people in uniforms outside a military base as I saw dashing around the Athens airport that day. And of course they were accomplishing absolutely nothing because the hijackers were no longer in the Athens airport.

elegie November 27, 2010 12:16 PM

The science fiction story “A Fall of Moondust,” which was authored by Arthur C. Clarke and which dates back to 1961, is set in a future where tourists travel on the surface of the moon. Of particular interest, there is a statement in Chapter 3 (on page 22 in the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (New York) edition) of the story that might be of interest. The statement reads: “The Commissioner paled; there was always the chance of sabotage, and no one could ever guard against that. Because of their vulnerability, space vehicles, like aircraft before them, were an irresistible attraction to a certain type of criminal.”

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