SWAT Teams: aircraft hijack response23 Apr 2012
SWAT teams are called in to deal with various high pressure situations such as aircraft hijackings, incidents involving hostages in buildings and law enforcement raids. They are highly trained and often have links with counterparts in other countries and regions of the world. Einar Haraldsson provides an overview of the work of these specialised units.
What is a SWAT Team?
A Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit is a specially trained law enforcement team which responds to critical events, such as situations which may involve hostages. These teams also go by a number of alternate names but, regardless of their official name, they are known colloquially as SWAT. Generally, this term is officially used only within the United States, with special response units from other countries having their own colourful acronyms.
The origin of SWAT teams can be found in Los Angeles in the 1960s, when the Police Department recognised a growing need for an elite, highly-trained response team which could handle emergency situations. The first SWAT team was established there in 1967, and the concept quickly spread across the US to other Police Departments. Today, most major US Police Departments have SWAT capability, as do other law enforcements agencies. As well as police SWAT teams, there are military units that carry out similar functions, for example the Navy Seals in the US, and Special Forces units around the world, such as the UK’s Special Air Service and Israel’s Sayeret Matkal. Such units are ready to travel internationally for assignments where required, with the authority from the country where they are to carry out an operation….and sometimes, as in the case of the famous Entebbe raid, even without it!
Hijackings of Aircraft, Resulting in SWAT Team Deployment
The following are some of the more notable examples of SWAT team involvement in the resolution of aircraft hijackings:
Sabena Flight 571: Vienna to Tel Aviv
Hijacked by four members of Black September on 8th May 1972. On 9th May a team of 16 Sayeret Matkal commandos, led by Ehud Barak and including Benjamin Netanyahu, both to become future Israeli Prime Ministers, approached the plane disguised as airplane technicians and convinced the hijackers that the aircraft needed repair. The commandos stormed the aircraft and took control in ten minutes, killing both male hijackers and capturing the two female terrorists. All the passengers were rescued. Three of the passengers were wounded with one female passenger eventually dying from her wounds. Netanyahu was also wounded during the rescue.
Air France Flight 139: Athens to Paris (originating in Tel Aviv)
Hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the German Revolutionary Cells on 27th June 1976 and diverted, via Libya, to Entebbe, Uganda. Many Israeli and Jewish passengers were aboard the flight. The hostages were held in Entebbe airport. On 4th July, over 100 Israeli commandos took part in Operation Thunderbolt. All the hijackers, four hostages (including one passenger killed later in retaliation for the Israeli assault), 45 Ugandan soldiers (who resisted) and the leader of the assault element of the team, Jonathan Netanyahu, older brother of future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were killed. 102 hostages were rescued. The assault had taken a week of planning and lasted 90 minutes.
Lufthansa Flight 181: Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt
Hijacked by four members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine on 13th October 1977. On 17th October, having stopped at various other airports, including Aden where the Captain was executed, the plane landed in Mogadishu, Somalia.
German GSG 9 commandoes, supported by colleagues from the British SAS, who had flown into Somalia, started their assault at 0200 hours on 18th October. They approached from the rear of the aircraft in its blind spot in six teams using black-painted aluminium ladders to gain access through the escape hatches under the fuselage and through the doors over the wings. Several minutes before the rescue, Somali commandos, who had established a perimeter around the plane, lit a fire 200 feet in front of it, which acted as a diversion, resulting in two of the three hijackers rushing to the cockpit, isolating them from the hostages in the cabin. At 0207, the GSG 9 commandos silently climbed up the blackened aluminium ladders and opened the emergency doors and stormed the aircraft. Shouting in German for the hostages to hit the floor, the commandos shot and killed two of the terrorists and wounded two more, one of whom died hours later. Four hostages and one commando received minor injuries.
Garuda Indonesia Flight 206: Palembang to Medan
Hijacked by a group called Komando Jihad on 28th March 1981. The hijackers ordered the pilot to fly them to Colombo, Sri Lanka. The plane landed in Penang, Malaysia, to refuel, then flew to Don Muang airport in Thailand. Royal Thai Air Force commandos and Indonesia’s Kopassus commandos stormed the plane. The Kopassus commandos had trained for only three days with new weapons. One of the Kopassus commandos was shot, probably by his comrades, as was the pilot. The rest of the hostages were released unharmed. Two of the hijackers surrendered to the Thai commandos, but were killed by the Kopassus commandos on the plane taking them back to Indonesia.
Egyptair Flight 648: Athens to Cairo
Hijacked by the Abu Nidal Organisation on 23rd November 1985 and flown to Malta. On 25th November, after the hijackers had started executing passengers one by one, Egyptian commandos from the country’s Task Force 777 elite unit stormed the aircraft. As explosives were detonated in an attempt to blow a hole on the top of the airframe, the explosion ripped through the cabin, killing 20 passengers. Using the same hole, commandos gained entry to the plane but in the confusion opened fire indiscriminately and killed and injured more passengers. In the ensuing chaos, passengers that managed to flee the plane were shot by snipers in positions around the airport who mistook them for terrorists attempting to escape. The total number of passengers killed was 58, out of a total of 90.
Singapore Airlines Flight 117: Kuala Lumpur to Singapore
Hijacked on 26th March 1991 by four Pakistanis claiming to be from the Pakistan People’s Party. The plane landed at Singapore Changi Airport, where the hijackers threatened to kill the hostages if their demands were not met. On 27th March, Singapore Armed Forces Commando Formation stormed the plane in a 30-second sweep, killing all four hijackers.
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