Bomb Aboard TWA Flight 840
Bomb Aboard TWA Flight 840
Italian Officials Say Arab Terrorist Was on TWA Plane
By: Philip Dopoulos
Date: April 3, 1986
Source: The Associated Press.
About the Author: At the time the article was written, Philip Dopoulos was a writer for The Associated Press (AP). Since then, Dopoulos retired from AP but continues to write for such publications as the Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper in Russia.
On April 2, 1986, at about 1:25 p.m. (local Athens time), Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight 840 was on its descent to Ellinikon International Airport in Athens, Greece, having come from Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport (Rome, Italy). Suddenly, an explosion was heard throughout the cabin as the airplane flew over Peloponnesus, a peninsular region that forms southern Greece. Four American citizens, who were sitting around seat 10-F of the stricken Boeing 727 airplane were sucked out of a hole that formed by the blast under a passenger compartment window at floor level on the fuselage near the right wing.
The airplane with the remaining 111 passengers and seven crew members was able to land safely at the Athens airport. The formal investigation was conducted by Greece's Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority, with help from officials of the United States Federal Aviation Administration and Italian and Egyptian authorities.
On the day of the incident, an anonymous telephone caller declared to a news agency that the pro-Libyan Palestinian splinter group Izzeddin Al-Kassam, a part of the Arab Revolutionary Cells that is run by Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal, was responsible for the explosion. The Arabic-speaking caller stated that the bombing was in response to American activities to defeat the Arab people; specifically, due to U.S. missile attacks on Libyan targets over the use of disputed waters from the Gulf of Sidra, located in the Mediterranean Sea off the northern coast of Libya.
The investigation centered around May (or Mai) Elias Mansur (or Monsour), a Lebanese-born Palestinian woman, who had flown from Beirut, Lebanon to Cairo on March 25th, and then had flown on the same TWA 840 airplane from Cairo to Athens on April 2nd. Seven hours after arriving at the Athens airport, the woman left on a Middle East flight for Beirut, shortly before the crippled TWA 840 airplane landed.
Mansur became the prime bombing suspect when it was determined from airline records that she sat in the same seat (10-F) during its route from Cairo to Athens, which later that day was the seat at the center of the explosion. Through the investigation, Mansur was found to have possible connections with several terrorist groups including the Lebanese Revolutionary Brigades, an organization with links to European Communist groups; Abu Nidal Organization; and Hawari Apparatus, a Palestinian terrorist group led by Colonel Hawari, which was operated secretly under Yasser Arafat.
After being interviewed by law enforcement authorities, Mansur denied any involvement in the crime.
During the multi-national investigation, explosive experts determined that the plastic explosive device weighed between 0.11 and 0.23 kilograms (0.25 and 0.50 pounds), and could have been as small as two bars of soap. The plastic material was likely made from (1) C-4, a high quality compound that is 91% RDX (Royal Demolition Explosive) or (2) Semtex, a dark orange-colored compound that is 44.5% RDX, 44.5% PETN (penthrite), and 11% vegetable oil. The detonator was likely a simple plastic timer. During the 1980s, security screening devices were unable to detect such explosive devices.
Greek police sources said today they are hunting for a suspected woman terrorist they say was on a TWA jet hours before a bomb exploded on the aircraft, tearing open the cabin and killing four Americans.
Earlier, Italian officials said a known Arab terrorist occupied the seat of the TWA jet where the bomb exploded.
Italian Interior Minister Oscar Luigi Scalfaro told reporters in Rome, "It is certain that a suspect person, who is on file as a terrorist, got on in Cairo and got off in Athens occupying in the airplane the exact seat where the explosion occurred."
The Boeing 727 flew Wednesday from Cairo, Egypt, to Athens, Greece, and then to Rome. There it picked up 112 passengers and headed back to Athens as TWA Flight 840, ultimately bound for Cairo.
The bomb exploded as the jetliner approached Athens airport from Rome, and the four victims were sucked out of the plane, flying at about 15,000 feet.
Greek police sources identified the suspect as a woman, May Elias Mansur, who may have passed through Greece previously.
"We have launched a search around Athens and other cities and also put out a signal to trace this person through Interpol," one source said.
In Rome, the Italian news agency ANSA tonight quoted unidentified Italian investigators as saying the woman sought was believed to have boarded with a Lebanese passport.
ANSA said the woman may have boarded a Beirut-bound Middle East Airlines flight from Athens Airport shortly after arriving there.
An Egyptian security official at Cairo International Airport said that after the explosion, Egyptian authorities checked the names of passengers who boarded in Cairo and "we had no suspicion about anyone on the list." The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
The blast blew a 9-by-3-foot hole in the side of the plane in front of the right wing. TWA President Richard D. Pearson said in New York the explosion occurred on the cabin floor at row 10 or 11 of the passenger seats.
Officials at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport said the terrorist was an Arab who sat in seat 10F on the Cairo-to-Athens flight.
ANSA said an Arab named Mansur or Monsour was sitting in the 10th row on that flight.
An anonymous caller to Western news agencies in Beirut claimed responsibility for the TWA attack on behalf of the Arab Revolutionary Cells. He said it was in response to last week's clash between U.S. and Libyan forces in the disputed Gulf of Sidra.
The Palestinian sources in Beirut, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Abu Nidal had used the name Arab Revolutionary Cells in previous terrorist attacks.
Abu Nidal, whose real name is Sabry al-Banna, said in a statement issued in Damascus, Syria, last week that his group would strike at U.S. targets in retaliation for the U.S.-Libyan confrontation.
The Reagan administration also has accused Libya of backing Abu Nidal's group in the December airport attacks.
Libyan leader Col. Moammar Khadafy, however, distanced himself from the TWA attack, saying, "This is an act of terrorism against a civilian target, and I am totally against this," CBS News reported.
Reagan administration analysts believe Libya is not responsible for the explosion, a senior administration official in Washington said today. However, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, Michael Armacost, told a Washington news conference that possible involvement by Khadafy could not be ruled out until an investigation was completed.
After last week's confrontation in the Gulf of Sidra, during which the United States said at least two Libyan patrol boats were sunk and a missile site attacked, Khadafy threatened to attack U.S. interests worldwide.
The Greek government issued a statement saying it "condemns the barbarous terrorist action . . . and reiterates that terrorism undermines peace and democracy."
The statement said the blast was caused by an "explosive device," but it did not specify what kind. Greece's undersecretary for foreign affairs, Yiannis Kapsis, said the explosion was caused by a bomb in a piece of luggage.
Among the four Americans who died when they were sucked through the hole in the fuselage were a mother, daughter and baby granddaughter.
Reports from Greek officials, TWA, friends and relatives identified the victims as: Alberto Ospina, a Colombian-born American from Stratford, Conn.; Demetra Stylian, 52; her daughter, Maria Klug, 25, and 8-month-old granddaughter Demetra Klug, all from Annapolis, Md.
Seven other people, including four Americans, were injured aboard the plane, which landed safely in Athens 10 minutes after the explosion. Three of the injured were hospitalized overnight and released this morning, said the chief nurse at Voula Hospital near the Athens Airport.
Rome airport officials said 101 of the plane's passengers had transferred from a connecting flight from New York. A TWA official said they and their hand luggage had been checked in Rome but that their checked baggage, which was in sealed containers, was not.
The other 11 passengers began the flight in Rome. The airliner said besides the passengers, the plane carried seven crew members and three off-duty TWA employees.
After the TWA 840 bombing, leaders of Greece and the United States realized that technical means to assure the safety of air travelers from terrorist attacks was lacking. In fact, leaders of a London pilots' organization suggested that all airports with a history of inadequate security procedures be banned. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration considered that all airlines under their authority be forced to strengthen security measures. The International Airline Passengers Association issued a warning for all air travelers to avoid Mediterranean travel. After the attack, air travel around the Mediterranean dropped dramatically and the number of travelers going from North America to Europe declined. Tourism dropped for Italy, Greece, and other nearby countries. An economic crisis, which already affected Egypt, was lengthened by the attack.
Although the cities of Cairo, Athens, and Rome were well known terrorist areas in the 1980s, their international airports possessed some of the best security systems and trained personnel in the world. However, it was still possible for terrorists to sneak a primitive explosive device through these advanced security networks. In addition, only a small amount of explosive was necessary to damage the airplane. Thus, it could easily be carried and hidden anywhere onboard the airplane. Because either explosive could be set off with a small, inexpensive detonator and regulated by a simple timer, little technological knowledge was needed for the entire operation. The TWA 840 attack showed authorities that terrorists could effectively use low-technology devices against high-technology inspection systems.
Although investigators initially suspected that there was a link between Abu Nidal and TWA 840 due to similar terrorist activities in the past, in the end no connection was verified. Links to Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi were also initially suspected because he often dealt with subordinates, like Nidal, who were inexpensive to hire and difficult to link. However, no association between Gaddafi and TWA 840 were found.
May Elias Mansur was later arrested and admitted working for the May 15 Organization. However, after two years of investigation, little evidence was generated to prove Mansur had been directly involved in the crime or had been acting in conjunction with a terrorist organization.
In May 1988, Mohammed Rashid was captured and arrested at the Athens International Airport Greece for the bombing of several airplanes including TWA 840. Rashid was a veteran agent of May 15 Organization, having been involved in many attacks against American and Israeli airplanes. Rashid was also active in the Special Operations Group, one of the terrorist groups of Yassir Arafat's Fatah, under the command of Colonel Hawari. Rashid was later convicted in Greece, and served eight years of a fifteen-year sentence in prison.
In 2001, Rashid was indicted in a nine-count charge and tried before an American court for bombing, murder, sabotage, and other crimes involving the TWA bombings. He was convicted of conspiracy to kill American citizens, conspiracy to kill U.S. government personnel, first-degree murder, using weapons of mass destruction, and destroying U.S. government properties. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison.
TWA 840 was significant to anti-terrorist investigations because it showed the difficulty in proving which members of terrorist groups actually committed the crime. After years of intensive investigation, the principle planner of the TWA 840 bombing was finally convicted. However, the actual terrorist who planted the bomb was never convicted and the high-ranking terrorist leaders and organizations that authorized Rashid's plans were never held responsible.
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Yoram Schweitzer, International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. "The Arrest of Mohammed Rashid—Another Point for the Americans." <http://www.ict.org.il/articles/articledet.cfm?articleid=35> (June 13, 2005).
"Bomb Aboard TWA Flight 840." Terrorism: Essential Primary Sources. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/politics/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/bomb-aboard-twa-flight-840
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