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World: Expert Says Indian Airline Hijacking Could Spawn More

The ongoing hijack drama involving the Indian Airlines plane now in Afghanistan is only the latest in a long line of hijackings for political purposes. RFE/RL correspondent Brent McCann talks with an expert about this type of air piracy and where it might lead in future.

Prague, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The idea of hijacking an airplane to force authorities to make concessions, mostly of a political nature, has been around since the late 1960s.

Experts say that during that time, the practice of hijacking seems to have followed a cyclical pattern, increasing after a hijack incident in which the perpetrators have won their demands, and decreasing when they have failed.

The latest hijacking began almost a week ago (Friday, Dec. 24) when five men armed with grenades, pistols and knives hijacked a plane, carrying 178 passengers and 11 crew, soon after it left Katmandu, in Nepal, for New Delhi. The hijackers diverted the plane first to Amritsar in India, then to Lahore in Pakistan. From there it flew to the United Arab Emirates, where the hijackers released 27 passengers and the body of a man they'd stabbed to death, apparently after initially being denied a landing in Pakistan.

The plane now sits at the Kandahar airport in Afghanistan where the hijackers are holding the remaining 160 people hostage. The hijackers are demanding the release of 35 Kashmiri militants and a Kashmiri activist from Indian jails. Negotiations between the hijackers and Indian officials continue.

Tony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies is an expert on hijacking. He tells RFE/RL that besides the passengers now at peril, how the drama ends will affect whether there are more hijackings in the near future:

"If a hijacking is successful, in other words, if they get their demands and the terrorists survive, then there are copycats that follow, and you get a surge of them until something goes wrong and the hijacking alienates world opinion, in which case they tend to stop fairly quickly. If hijacking goes sour, if women and children die, if hostages suffer as a result, then there probably won't be copycat patterns."

Cordesman says most people don't realize that hijackings occur as frequently as they do, because many end without injury and thus receive little attention. But publicity, he says, is exactly what terrorists need to achieve their goals.

There is general agreement that the first hijacking of this type, involving the taking of hostages to achieve a political aim, occurred in 1968 when three members of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the PFLP, diverted an El Al plane to Algiers. After 40 days of negotiations, the hijackers let the passengers and crew go when Israel agreed to free 16 imprisoned Palestinians.

This hijacking succeeded in two ways for the hijackers: it made the outside world pay attention to the Palestinians cause and brought about concessions from the Israeli government.

It also brought on a rash of other hijackings. The PFLP hijacked another plane in 1969 and exchanged two Israeli passengers for 14 Syrian prisoners in Israel. In September 1970, the PFLP hijacked four more planes and gained the release of a number of Palestinian prisoners.

But Cordesman says that the history of hijacking for political purposes shows few successes beyond this early period.

"The whole history of hijackings has been that once people commit to the hijacking, only a few cases have involved highly sophisticated plans to escape, highly sophisticated scenarios for creating negotiable demands and public relations. Most hijackings go sour."

Cordesman describes the Indian Airlines' hijacking as a relatively well-planned operation. The hijackers were able to get their weapons -- grenades, pistols and knives -- on the airplane when it was in Katmandu airport. And they proved to have backup plans when denied landing permissions after declaring that they'd hijacked the plane.

But he also points to the mistakes the terrorists have made. They have already killed one passenger, which will make people unsympathetic to their cause. And for a time, they escalated their demands, asking for 200 million dollars and the body a dead militant, besides the release of the Kashmiri prisoners. Although they later abandoned these other demands, Cordesman says asking for money and that a body be exhumed will be looked down upon, especially by Muslims.

Cordesman is not critical of India's approach to the hijacking, but does say they are in an extraordinarily difficult situation because the plane sits in Afghanistan where they have no opportunity to take the terrorists by force. So, they are forced to negotiate with an unpredictable group.

Cordesman says that sometimes hijackings are, in his words, "an exercise in martyrdom," where someone might deliberately make impossible demands. Other hijackings are truly meant to influence world opinion. He isn't sure yet where this particular hijacking fits. What comes out of this hijacking depends on the behavior of the terrorists and that of the negotiators. Cordesman speaks of the worst case scenario that has played out in past hijackings:

"If it's the hijackers that end up doing the killing, the hijackers get the blame. If a government attempts a rescue and fails and people are killed, or a government is too rigid, refuses to negotiate and people are killed, then the government gets the blame. But it's something that always evolves in a crisis."

Cordesman says hijackings will continue to persist because security cannot be absolutely guaranteed. As he puts it, "There is no way you can create a leak proof, [hijack] proof system. There will always be someplace [hijackers] can find that is vulnerable."