The Russian security services confirm that the crash of the Russian passenger airline in Egypt is a result of a terrorist attack. To what extent will this be successful in intimidating the Kremlin?

A Russian investigator walks near wreckage a day after a passenger jet bound for St. Petersburg, Russia, crashed in Hassana, Egypt. Photo: AP

The biggest plane crash in the history of Russia that claimed the lives of 224 people was a result of a terrorist attack, Director of the Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov said on Nov. 17. Yet a review of significant terrorism events involving civilian airliners over the past 85 years indicates that hijackers and terrorists have rarely been successful in intimidating national governments.

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A short history of explosions in the sky

The first-ever terrorist attack against aviation occurred on October 10, 1933 in the United States. A Boeing 247 exploded in the air and fell to the ground near the town of Chesterton, Indiana and 10 people were killed. The investigation concluded that the cause of the accident was the explosion of a nitroglycerin time bomb, located in the luggage of the passengers.

Twenty-two years later, on November 1, 1955, also in the United States, a DC-6 airliner with 44 people on board exploded near Longmont, Colorado. There were no survivors. This was the first major aviation incident investigated by the FBI. The perpetrator was found. He was the son of one of the passengers, who wanted to cash in on the life insurance policy of his mother.

A similar accident occurred on May 22, 1962, when an explosion in a Boeing 707-124 killed 45 people near the city of Centerville, Iowa. This time, a bomb was deliberately carried in the luggage of a passenger who had taken out a large life insurance policy.

Arthur Hailey used these cases at the bases for his famous novel called Airport, which tells the story of the everyday life of an American airport in the early 1970s. Hailey, a social novelist, in his work pays attention to how easily a terrorist with explosives or a stowaway could get on board an international flight; after all, preflight inspections at the time were carried out only by customs officials.

Hijacking planes

At the same time, even before the Second World War, another type of aviation terrorism appeared – the hijacking of airliners. There is information that the first hijacking was carried out in Peru on February 10, 1931, when rebels seized an airliner and demanded that its pilot fly them to the republic’s capital, so they could join other terrorists.

Some hijackings also occurred in the U.S.S.R. and other Soviet bloc countries, where the development of small aircraft took off due to the vast expanses of the Soviet Union. Most of these, such as the first hijacking in 1954 in Novosibirsk, were unsuccessful, and the hijackers themselves were caught and received long prison terms, or were even sentenced to death.  

At the same time, there were a few successful cases, such as the hijacking by terrorists of an AN-24 airplane to Turkey. Ankara refused to extradite them to the U.S.S.R., and after spending four years in a Turkish prison, they moved to the United States, the ultimate motive for their hijacking.

In May 1973 there occurred a black day in the history of Soviet aviation. Trying to steal a Tu-104 airliner and fly it to China, the hijacker, while trying to defuse the bomb he was carrying, accidently set it off – killing more than 80 people.

The role of extreme terrorist groups

At the same time, until the end of the 1960s, hijackings and bombings in aircraft were not carried out for political reasons. The goals of the hijackers were to steal the aircraft, destroy competitors, or collect on insurance policies.

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This situation changed with the emergence of radical extremist groups, both nationalist and from the extreme left. The most famous of these was the massive seizure of aircraft and passengers as hostages by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in September 1970. The terrorists seized 3 of the 4 aircrafts with passengers that they were planning to hijack, and were able to get, in exchange for the release of hostages, a number of their demands met.

However, any concession to terrorists demonstrates the weakness of the state that makes it. Therefore, already in 1976, Israel demonstrated how one had to talk with terrorists. On June 27, 1976, members of two Palestinian militant groups seized an Air France airliner flying from Tel Aviv to Paris, with 260 passengers and crew.

The plane was then flown to Uganda, where the country’s dictator, Idi Amin, allowed a base to be organized for the terrorists at a military airport near the country’s capital city. On July 4, 1976, during an unprecedented assault – Operation Entebbe, Israeli commandos killed all the terrorists guarding the airport and most of the Ugandan Air Force.

They failed to rescue only four hostages. Although Israel was condemned by several countries for violation of the sovereignty of an independent state, in the future, all states adopted the policy of “no talks on political issues with terrorists.”

Nevertheless, hijackings of aircraft continued, but most of these had nothing to do with political terrorism. However, various extremist organizations then turned to blowing up planes. The main purpose of such crimes was to intimidate citizens and governments by threatening to continue to blow up airplanes.

On Oct. 6, 1976, off the coast of Barbados, Cuban exiles/terrorists blew up a Cuban Airlines plane with 73 passengers and crew. On June 23, 1985, Sikh extremists blew up a Boeing 747 of Air India over the Atlantic Ocean, on board of which only the crew and three passengers were Indian nationals. This attack killed a total of 329 people.

In November 1987, a South Korean Boeing 707 blew up over the Andaman Sea. South and North Korea made mutual accusations against each other for committing this act of terrorism, but it was Seoul that presented irrefutable evidence in the form of an arrested female terrorist – an employee of the secret services of North Korea.

One of the most infamous terrorist attacks was the bombing of an aircraft flying over Lockerbie, Scotland. This destruction of a Boeing 747 led to the deaths of 270 people. The subsequent investigation showed that it was arranged by Libyan intelligence. Tellingly, no suicide bombers were involved in all these catastrophes. The bombs were placed into registered luggage of passengers, or placed into planes while they were at the airport.

Why did the terrorists choose planes?

Why did these terrorists specifically pick planes to attack? There are two reasons – the effectiveness of such an attack and the fear it causes. A small explosive device is all that is needed to destroy an airplane in flight. On the ground, a similar bomb, in the best case for the organizers of the attack, would kill just a few people. A large number of victims that cannot be saved from a crashing airliner creates panic in society.

Numerous hijackings and explosions gradually forced states and air carriers to increase security measures. Thus, the Soviet Union was the first to install metal detectors in airports in 1972, but the hijackings still kept taking place. Strengthening of inspection meant an increase in staff expenses for the airlines, and extra time for boarding of passengers onto aircraft. Therefore air carriers, airports, and law enforcement agencies worldwide, were naturally reluctant to implement tougher security measures.

The events of September 2001, when a group of suicide bombers with knives seized several airplanes and turned them, in fact, into guided missiles launched against the Twin Towers in New York, made it necessary to fundamentally review the rules.

Responding to terror attacks in the sky

Thus, in most airline companies, pilots, unless absolutely necessary, cannot leave the plane’s cabin, which is now closed with metal bulletproof doors. In case of an attempt at hostage taking, the pilots must try, despite the demands of terrorists, to land the plane immediately.

New security measures have appeared – X-ray inspection machines carefully check all passenger baggage. However, terrorists continue to take advantage of the human factor.

Thus, on Aug. 24, 2004 in Russia, just one minute apart, two female suicide bombers blew two planes up travelling on domestic flights, killing 89 people. The investigation showed that for small bribes, these criminals were able to buy tickets without a passport and go on board, bypassing the pre-flight inspection.

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This tragedy has forced Russian authorities to further tighten security at airports, which can now be considered as being among the safest in the world. Moreover, additional measures to protect Russian airports were taken after Jan. 24, 2011, when a suicide bomber, having lost hope of making it onto the airplane, blew himself up in a crowd at the arrivals section in Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport.

Defensive tactics admittedly are far from the best solution. Nevertheless, they are proving successful. Security measures at leading airports around the world are such that terrorists today do not have much of a chance to plant a bomb on a plane, or have a suicide bomber come onboard.

At the same time, unfortunately, airports in many developing countries are still rather vulnerable. Of course, the Egyptian government, being interested in maintaining a flow of tourists, tries to comply with all requirements set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in terms of security measures, when it comes to the inspection of passengers and their luggage, which have been tightened even more in 2013

However, the general poverty of the population, social and political problems of the country, and many other reasons, often hinder the carrying out of thorough background checks of all employees at Egyptian airports. The traditional Egyptian corruption, as well as the social importance of family ties, may well lead to the hiring at the airport of individuals associated with terrorist groups.

The Oct. 31 terrorist attack in the sky is a tragedy both for Russia and Egypt. Recognizing the crash as a terrorist attack means that Moscow has to admit the deaths of its citizens were linked with the Russian military operations in Syria. As for Cairo, it will lose tourists because radical Islamists are opposed not just to Russia, but also to almost all the countries of the West, as indicated by the terror attacks in Paris on Nov. 13

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.