originally published February 18, 2014
When the doctrine of reason is flushed in favor of instinct and terror, the inevitable contusion of blood and debris is fairly predictable. Terrorists, who have been at their game for millennia in some form or another, simply don’t win. That is to say, while they can notch a namesake victory in having successfully hurled a dollop of terror at their target populace, their larger-scale goals are doomed from the outset.
The atrocities of 9/11 failed to draw a collective shrug of defeat from the scores of American infidels – no one converted to Islam, and no one was inspired to forsake their western ways because a bunch of nutjobs opted for mass-murder as a means of communication. Large-scale political or societal goals aren’t easy to conquer, and steering a plane of innocents to a fiery demise has roughly a zero percent rate of efficacy.
But still they try. And when Flight 8969 from Algiers to Paris was selected by an armed group of Islamic militants as a terror target, I’m sure the guys with the guns thought they’d be scoring a huge win for their radical cause. As it is, all they scored was a political mess.
On Christmas Eve, 1994, Algeria was halfway through a bloody civil war. On one side was the Algerian government, on the other a gaggle of hardcore Islamic rebels. Trying their best to steer fully clear of the mess was France, the country who had owned and pulled all the political strings in the northern African nation just a few decades earlier. Air France had asked their government if they could perhaps yank their flights to and from Algiers, as the risk of getting caught in missile cross-fire was taking a bit of steam out of employee morale. The government hadn’t gotten back to them.
220 passengers and twelve crewmembers were settling in for the 11:15am flight that was scheduled to land at Orly Airport in Paris. Most of the passenger list was made up of Algerians, with a number of French, German, Irish, British and Americans speckled around the roster. A group of four Algerian police officers boarded the plane and began inspecting passports. Not particularly unusual during this time, though some members of the crew noted it was odd that the four men were heavily armed.
Kalashnikov rifles, Uzi submachine guns, grenades, pistols and dynamite… a bit of overkill for a routine inspection.
In an act that showed poor planning right from the outset, the hijackers tossed their police disguises then began issuing demands and declaring their mission before the flight had left the tarmac. They were four members of the GIA, or the uncreatively-named Armed Islamic Group. Their ultimate goal was to establish an Islamic state in Algeria. In the short-term, they wanted to hijack this aircraft in particular because it was a symbol of France. How these ultra-violent yokels connected the dots between hijacking a plane and establishing an internationally-recognized nation-state, I can’t even fathom. But there they were, and they had demands – prisoners they wanted released, and passage to Paris so they could hold a press conference.
The terrorists were already in trouble; the boarding stairs were still attached to the exterior of the plane and they couldn’t take off (which is why it’s best to wait until you’ve reached cruising altitude before you get all terroristy). When they demanded the stairs to be removed, Algerian officials said no – they weren’t giving in to demands. This led to an actual Algerian police officer, who had been travelling as a passenger, to be executed in plain view of airport officials, right on the controversial stairs. These guys weren’t playing around.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes a political game of chicken was taking place.
The French government wanted to scoot their military across the Mediterranean Sea to take care of the situation. The Algerian government insisted they’d handle it – this was their turf. France told them to let the hijackers steer the plane into the air, that they’d resolve things from there. Algeria wouldn’t budge. The French military sent a team to southern Spain instead, and began practicing their raid on an empty Airbus A300 identical to Flight 8969. They knew they’d get involved eventually.
By Christmas morning, a second passenger – a Vietnamese dignitary – had been executed. The terrorists were getting restless. A few passengers were released over the course of the day, but the stalemate persisted. The Algerian police, who had identified Abdul Abdullah Yahia as the leader of the terrorist group, brought the guy’s mother in to plead with her son to let everyone go. Maybe not the best idea.
Yahia announced that one passenger would be murdered every 30 minutes until they were allowed to leave. To emphasize this, embassy chef Yannick Beugnet was executed on the stairs. The Algerian police relented; the plane took off.
Around this time, the French authorities had figured out the terrorists’ real plan. They didn’t care about a press conference; the idea was that the dynamite on board the plane would detonate and send a massive fireball through the sky over – or better still, into – the Eiffel Tower. Fortunately, a day and a half on the tarmac in Algiers meant that the plane didn’t have enough fuel to make it to Paris. They were diverted to Marseille to refuel. There was no way in hell the French would let the plane leave the ground in Marseille.
They landed at 3:33am on December 26, with the pilot following the tower’s instructions and steering the plane far away from the terminal and other aircraft. The terrorists demanded 27 tonnes of fuel (more than double what they’d need). As the sun came up, additional food and supplies were brought aboard by undercover GIGN troops (think of them as the France equivalent of a federal SWAT team), who dropped eavesdropping devices discreetly around the cabin. Authorities offered to stage the press conference right there in Marseille, and the hijackers – who probably felt this would be a good opportunity to spout off some rhetoric before igniting over Paris – agreed.
It didn’t take long for the terrorists to wonder why there was no members of the press gathering. The GIGN wanted to wait until the sun went down for a tactical edge, but the bad guys were growing restless. They had the pilot move the plane closer to the tower, at which point they opened fire at the window where they felt the French negotiators would be. They picked the right window, but not only didn’t they hit anyone, they merely set their own demise in motion.
The raid was swift and bloody. Well, it was swift and bloody eventually. The GIGN was slowed down when the stairs they brought in to board the plane were too high – the empty Airbus A300 sat a little higher than one weighted down by a couple hundred people.
One of the terrorists’ homemade grenades detonated, but did very little damage. Everyone was blinded and deafened by concussion grenades, allowing the GIGN to sweep through the cabin, take down three of the terrorists while steering the bewildered passengers to an exit at the back of the plane, and seize control of the aircraft. The last of the terrorists was taken out in the cockpit after a desperate 20 minutes of holding the captain and flight engineer hostage.
In the end, the only civilian casualties were those who were executed while the Algerian forces tried to contain the plane on the ground. A few passengers and crew suffered minor wounds during the raid and one of the GIGN forces took a nasty hit, but the only deaths in Marseille that morning were the terrorists.
Even had they succeeded, landing a bloody place in the gruesome history of terrorist evil, it would have done little to influence their overall goal. Sometimes the most short-sighted can be the most dangerous.