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Black September History Lesson Might Have Prevented 9-11

(April 22, 2002)

When it comes to random searches at the airport, reader Judy Egner isn't so random. The 57-year-old, fair-haired Dallas native was perplexed as to why in the six times she's flown since September 11 she has been wanded, been padded down, and had her bags dissected. Egner isn't alone. Fruitless random searches of elderly women, toddlers, and uniformed airline pilots have become mainstream in U.S. airports as more and more innocent passengers are treated like suspects rather than customers.

There's no doubt about it, multiple failures on multiple levels led to the security lapses of September 11. However, if government and aviation officials had heeded the important findings from historic hijackings 31 years prior, the events of September 11 may never have happened.

History Neglected

September 11 wasn't the first time four airplanes were hijacked in one day. On September 6, 1970, the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked four aircraft in Europe bound for New York City:

  • TWA flight 741, a Boeing 707 from Frankfurt: Forced to fly to Amman, Jordan.
  • El Al flight 217, a Boeing 707 from Amsterdam: Hijack thwarted; lands in London.
  • Swissair flight 100, a DC-8 from Zurich: Forced to fly to Amman, Jordan.
  • Pan Am flight 93, a Boeing 747 from Amsterdam: Forced to fly to Cairo.
Three days later, the PFLP hijacked another plane, BOAC (now known as British Airways) flight 775, a Vickers VC-10 aircraft from Bahrain that was forced to fly to Amman. Overall, 600 passengers and crew were involved with many held for weeks as prisoners. Thankfully, none lost their lives. The terrorist event was dubbed "Black September."

The El Al hijacking failed because the aircraft had a re-enforced cockpit door, and armed sky marshals onboard were able to thwart the terrorists. The similarities between September 6, 1970, and September 11, 2001, are too strong to ignore. Now, although U.S. airlines have imitated El Al by installing re-enforced cockpit doors and placing sky marshals on some flights, there's another El Al tactic that should no longer be pushed aside: Profiling.

Profiling

After the foiled hijacking, El Al officials developed an extensive passenger profiling system, and there hasn't been a hijack attempt since. Currently, U.S. airlines use a computerized profiling software program called CAPPS to pick out the high-risk passengers. Yet, it's not enough according to security expert Charlie LeBlanc, managing director of Air Security International, a Houston-based international security and intelligence company. "We need to have trained security officers profile and ask questions of passengers. Officers trained to listen to how passengers answer questions and to watch body language. Flushing out a potential terrorist or individual that may pose a security threat is something trained security officers should do and no machine is capable of doing that," says LeBlanc.

Case in point, suspected terrorist Richard Reed, who tried to blow up an American Airlines plane with a shoe bomb this past December, was closely scrutinized last June on his El Al flight to Israel. Prior to boarding the aircraft, he was immediately identified as "suspicious" and taken for a thorough security check, which included checking his shoes. He was cleared and allowed to board; however, two sky marshals sat next to him the entire time.

Today's Realities

Some say El Al's security system would be difficult to incorporate fully, given that El Al is much smaller and runs fewer routes than the major U.S. carriers. Nevertheless, although re-enforced cockpit doors, sky marshals, bomb-detection machines, and positive bag matching are steps in the right direction, random searches are not. The current random search procedures don't work because security officers spend most of their time scrutinizing people like Judy Egner who do not pose a threat. It's time to focus all resources and efforts into systems with proven track records that are able to ferret out the real terrorists. If we don't, history will surely repeat itself.

Related Sources:

Read more about "Black September" at BBC News


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