Terror on Flight 847
"Terror on Flight 847"
By: Ron Eschmann
Date: October, 2003
Source: "Terror on Flight 847," as published in The Officer, a publication providing news and analysis of military science.
About the Author: Major Ron Eschmann is an Army staff officer assigned to the Office of the Chief Army Reserve.
Since the overthrow of their biggest ally in the region, the Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in January 1979, United States policy in the Middle East has lurched from one crisis to the next. The Iranian hostage crisis, the burning of the Tripoli Embassy, several skirmishes with Libyan forces, the assassination of the pro-American Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and devastating terrorist attacks on U.S. peacekeepers in Lebanon each made disastrous reading for the Reagan administration and the American people in the 1980s. Unflinching support for Israel also bred deep resentment throughout the Arab World.
Another problem increasingly facing the United States in the early-1980s was the apparent sponsorship of terrorist groups by rogue governments, who were expected to do their bidding for them. Libya and Iran were two states strongly considered to have sponsored terrorism and a third, Syria, was also often accused of involvement.
The two most notorious of these groups were both pro-Shi'ite: Hizbollah (also known as Hezbollah), which had gained notoriety during the Lebanese Civil War for its suicide bomb attacks; and Islamic Jihad, which had bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut in April 1983, killing sixty-three people. The former was allegedly sponsored by Ayatollah Khomeni's Iranian government; the latter was based in Syria, but with alleged links to several regimes.
On Friday, June 14, 1985, TWA flight 847, a Boeing 727 flight from Cairo, landed at Athens to take on more passengers before heading on to Rome. Here it would be met by a connection that would take the flight's sizeable American contingent back home to San Diego via Boston and Los Angeles.
Twenty minutes into the flight to Rome, two terrorists brandishing grenades and a pistol and claiming to be from Islamic Jihad, seized control of the aircraft. They ordered the pilot, Captain John Testrake, to fly to Beirut. The Lebanese authorities, however, were not interested in a hostage situation on their soil and ordered Christian Druze militia men to block the runway (at the same time their Shi'ite Amal rivals battled with them to keep it clear). Eventually the plane was allowed to land after Testrake warned the Lebanese that the hostage-takers were ready to blow up the jet over Beirut.
There they refueled and released nineteen women and children. A request to speak to Shi'ite officials was turned down by the Amal leadership.
The hijacked aircraft then proceeded to Algiers, where twenty-one more hostages were released. It then crossed back to Beirut, where the Lebanese authorities again only allowed the plane to land at the very last minute, this time after the terrorists threatened to crash the fuel-depleted aircraft into the airport control tower.
On the tarmac, the hijackers dumped the body of a young U.S. Marine they had murdered (the Marines had made up the bulk of the U.S. peacekeeping operation, but had been accused by Shi'ite extremists of aiding their opponents). Demands that the airport lights be switched off were met and six Jewish passengers dispatched (the hijackers were apparently fearful of the involvement of Israeli special forces). A further twelve terrorist reinforcements then joined the flight, which again returned to Algiers.
Here negotiations stepped up. The principle demand of the hijackers was the release of Shi'ite prisoners from Israeli jails. A further sixty-five hostages were also released. The flight then returned to Lebanon for a third time, where it stayed.
On Monday, June 17, most of the remaining hostages were removed from the plane and placed in secure Shi'ite locations throughout Beirut. Negotiations carried on over the following fortnight until a breakthrough apparently came on June 30, when the hostages were driven to Syria. From there they were taken on a U.S. Air Force plane and flown to safety in West Germany.
On 14 June 1985, following a temporary tour of duty in Egypt, an Army Reserve civil engineering support planning officer boarded TWA Flight 847 bound from Athens, Greece to Rome. He was eager to get back to spend his first Father's Day with his wife and newborn child. On the same flight were two armed Hizbollah members with other plans. Soon after takeoff, the soldier wasn't sure if he would be alive the next day. Here is his story of extreme adversity, death, and redemption.
Filled mainly with American tourists, the TWA aircraft had 145 passengers and eight crewmembers. They finally took off midmorning on 14 June, about an hour and half late. As the aircraft gained altitude, all appeared normal as passengers settled in for the flight.
The sense of normalcy immediately changed when the flight engineer turned off the "fasten seatbelt" sign. Almost instantaneously, two well-dressed men in white suits with black shirts waving weapons rushed the cockpit door. One of them had a fragmentation grenade in his hand and was frantically pulling at the pin. They both screamed repeatedly, "Come to die! Americans die!"
One of the hijackers viciously kicked a flight attendant in the chest and held a chrome-plated 9mm pistol up to her ear. The hijackers were later identified as Mohammad Ali Hamadei and Hasan Izz Al Din, both members of a Lebanese Hizbollah faction. Hamadei, who was fluent in German, brandished the pistol and shouted at the attendant while pounding on the pilot's compartment door.
"They're on a suicide mission," thought Carlson. "My first reaction was to want to try to overpower them." He unfastened his seatbelt, stood up, but noticed that no other passenger contemplated the same action. Carlson did note that sheer terror filled their frozen faces. Realizing he couldn't take on two armed fanatics who could blow the aircraft out of the sky, he sat back down. There may even be others on the plane he reasoned. [Note: In fact there was a third hijacker, Ali Atwa, who was arrested by Greek police at the airport just before boarding. Later released by the Greek authorities, Atwa is still listed by the FBI as one of the most wanted terrorists for his role.]
By this time, Izz-Al-Din, who held the fragmentation grenade, had forced his way into the cockpit. Soon after, the pilot announced over the aircraft address system that their new destination was Beirut, Lebanon. Following the pistol-whipping of some of the flight crew, the hijackers went from row to row collecting passports.
Carlson hid his military ID in the airline seat cushion and worried about his passport and other official papers in his briefcase located in a different section of the aircraft. "I figured that if they searched me and found the ID card, I wouldn't have any opportunity to jump them at some future point because they would have either separated me from the rest of the passengers or killed me right there. I figured I would try to buy some time in order to help at any opportunity."
Hamadei kept waving his pistol and barking orders in German to the flight attendant, while Izz-Al-Din kept jumping up and down, making threatening gestures. The flight attendant spoke to the passengers, "Please no talking. Put your heads down and clasp your hands over your heads. We must do exactly as we are told." The aircraft became deathly quiet. As the hours went by, muscles in this contorted face-down position began to cramp and ache. Passengers who mistakenly made a noise or complained were severely beaten.
In what became a macabre game of musical chairs at gunpoint, men were placed in window seats and women and children were forced to sit in aisle seats to limit the threat to the hijackers. Passengers in the forward area of the aircraft were moved to the rear, armrests were removed from the rows and four people were crammed in the three seat row.
Major Carlson's luck ran out when the hijackers finally discovered his official passport, which he used on military travel. Maniacally screaming "CIA, FBI!" the pistol-carrying Hamadei pointed his weapon in the major's face. "Tell him I'm in the Army Reserve and am only on a one-week tour of duty," he told the flight attendant. Temporarily satisfied that he was not a CIA or FBI operative, the hijacker moved on to intimidate and bludgeon other passengers.
Beirut International Airport officials wanted no part of this escalating international incident, so with the assistance of local militia, they decided to block the runways with barricades. The control tower subsequently told the pilots that the airport was closed. As if matters couldn't get worse on the ground, a rival militia had engaged the militia putting up the runway obstacles in a firefight. The attacking militia, called the Muslim Amal, ultimately cleared the runway for the aircraft with no time to spare.
As the 727 was taking on fuel, the hijackers singled out a Navy diver, SW-2 Robert Stethem. They grabbed the sailor from his seat and pushed him to the forward compartment.
After refueling, Hamadei and Izz-Al-Din demanded to be flown to Algiers. The aircraft reeked at this point—nearly five hours from the initial takeover—and it became difficult to breathe. The stench became worse after landing in Algiers as the aircraft sat on the runway in sweltering heat. Some of the passengers—children and some of their mothers—were released. But Major Carlson's troubles hadn't started.
He felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around. He again faced the agitated Hamadei and his pistol. Carlson was forced to the forward compartment just inside the aircrew cabin area. He remembered that this was the same thing that had happened to the young Navy diver, who now remained unaccounted for.
Carlson was blindfolded with a bandana smelling of vomit, and his hands were bound tightly behind his back with a silk tie so firmly that it cut into his wrists and numbed his hands and arms. One of the hijackers pushed him just inside the pilot's compartment and then proceeded to severely beat him with a steel pipe. He heard the chief pilot talking to the Algiers control tower: "They're killing people and beating them." At the same time both Hamadei and Izz-Al-Din began kicking him, trying to make him scream in order to get the aircraft refueled. Carlson, although badly injured, could not feel the kicks as his body was going numb.
The hijackers also started making demands to free Shi'ite prisoners in Kuwait and Israel. The situation got even worse when they began screaming over and over, "One American must die!"
In a surreal world of pain and peace, Carlson heard a strange sound. Click-click, click-click. It took him a moment to realize what it was—it was the aircraft pilot, keying his handheld mike nearby. He now realized his part in this brutal radio script. The pilot wanted to let the airport control tower hear Carlson's screams to let them know the hijackers were ruthlessly serious. The tower officials were just part of the audience.
"Where is the fuel," demanded the agitated pilot. "Your fuel is coming," said the non-committal voice in the tower. At this perceived delay, Hamadei and Izz-Al-Din began kicking Carlson in the head and spine. The ordeal continued for more than an hour and a half. The pistol was then put to the Reservist's head. "One American must die!" they repeatedly screamed and then gave a 10-minute deadline.
"I see the fuel truck," said the pilot. For the time being, the major was spared.
"Though I had been beaten very badly for over two hours, I had survived. It was a miracle that the fuel had come just before the hijacker was going to shoot me—an answer to a lot of prayer? He added that, "physically, several discs in my back were injured. I had broken ribs and fingers, internal and external bleeding and had lost a lot of blood. There was also head swelling and injuries, blurred vision, mouth and tooth damage, welts on my shoulders, and I had difficulty using my hands and arms."
The aircraft again headed late that night to Beirut Airport. The Beirut controllers had once again refused permission to land, but then gave in to the hijackers' demands and the pleading of the pilot, who matter-of-factly stated that they had only five minutes of fuel left. After a very rough landing, the hijackers made further demands. At this point, they dragged the Navy diver, Robert Stethem, to the door of the aircraft, shot him in the head and dumped his lifeless body on to the Beirut airport runway.
The pilot began screaming to the tower over his radio, "He just killed a passenger! He just killed a passenger!"
"There will be another in five minutes," exclaimed one of the hijackers. Beirut airport officials soon complied with their demands.
After some additional heated radio discussions with the tower, the tail door opened and on rushed a number of shouting and heavily armed militia members who ran up to and hugged Hamadei and Izz-Al-Din. With the militia weapons pointing at them, Carlson and four of the other Navy divers were taken off the aircraft to an awaiting truck and sped off to face another nightmare. Following refueling, fresh water and food, the aircraft departed for Algiers.
The military hostages were taken into a battle-scarred building located near a Palestinian refugee camp and forced into a 12 by 20-ft. basement cell with a steel door and bars on the window.
The hijacking of Flight 847 marked the third airline hijacking in as many days by Arab extremists. Although the other two had been carried out by Palestinians, the root cause was the same: protest at Israeli conduct in the region, and America's perceived support for it.
Israel released more than 700 Shi'ite prisoners within a month of the end of the hijacking of Flight 847. Most had been captured following Israel's intervention in Lebanon's Civil War in June 1982. Despite repeated promises that Israel would withdraw from South Lebanon, and despite the Lebanese Civil War effectively ending in 1990, Israel continued to occupy a 15km strip of South Lebanon until May 2000. From here it would launch sporadic attacks, and also launch sting operations to capture or assassinate militant leaders.
The United States Government was convinced of Islamic Jihad's links with both the regimes of Qaddafi's Libya and Ayatollah Khomeni's Iran. As part of its longstanding commitment against this state-sponsored terrorism, it continued to back Iraq's war against Iran and its antagonistic campaign towards Qaddaffi.
On April 14, 1986, U.S. jets attacked Tripoli, blowing up one of Qaddafi's Palaces and a number of other strategic targets. More than 100 Libyans were killed in the attacks and hundreds more were injured. These included two of Qaddafi's children, as well as an adopted baby daughter who died from her injuries.
The irony was that Qaddafi probably had nothing to do with the hijacking of Flight 847, but was so incensed by the death of his adopted child that he gave the green light to a further atrocity, the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988, killing 259 people plus eleven on the ground.
The U.S., which already had sanctions in place against Qaddaffi, had no dealings with the Libyan regime until 2004, when rapprochement initiated by the European Union saw diplomatic links tentatively resumed.
On October 10, 2001, three of Flight 847's hijackers, Imad Mugniyah, Ali Atwa and Hassan Izz-Al-Din, were placed on the FBI's most wanted list. Despite rewards of $25 million being offered for information leading to their arrests, as of 2005 all three remain at large.
Testrake, John, and David J. Wimbish, Triumph. Over Terror on Flight 847. New Jersey: Old Tappan, 1987.
Fisk, Robert. Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War. Oxford Paperbacks, 2001.
Sadar, Ziauddin, and Mervyn Wynn Davies. Why Do People Hate America? London: Icon Books, 2003.
Audio and Visual Media
Time Magazine.com. "Hijacked: TWA Flight 847." <http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,1101850624,00.html> (accessed July 6, 2005).