Ann-Marie Murphy and the Hindawi Affair: a 30th anniversary review

Security profiling has long been utilised by many operators in the aviation industry to identify suspicious passengers. It has been subject to constant debate, yet is a method that has brought about the successful interception of a number of potential perpetrators of criminal acts. On the 30th anniversary of the ‘Hindawi Affair’, Anthony Yung reviews how Ann-Marie Murphy was successfully intercepted by security agents using a profiling technique that is considered, by many, to be industry best practice, and identifies the lessons airlines and airport operators could learn thirty years after the incident.

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the ‘Hindawi Affair’, in which Nezar Hindawi attempted to bomb El Al Israeli Airlines flight 016 from London Heathrow to Tel Aviv on 17 April 1986, using his fiancé, Ann-Marie Murphy, as a dupe.

This incident has since become a classic case study on security profiling and one that triggered various airlines to begin using security questions to check the integrity of passengers and their baggage. Given the high profile nature of this incident and that the basic facts are well known to industry professionals, this article will focus rather on the lesser-known details, hopefully providing insight into how the case was successfully resolved by El Al security agents, and highlighting the continuing relevance of the case to aviation security today.

Why was Ann-Marie identified as suspicious?

Apart from the attacks at Rome Fiumicino and Vienna airports’ check-in counters by the Abu Nidal Organisation four months earlier, prior to 1986 most of the attacks on El Al were of a hijacking nature. It was difficult for the global community to imagine that terrorists would use a ‘mule’ to carry a bomb onto an aircraft; there was not much precedent for such type of attack. The only case suitable for comparison was the act of sabotage that took place on a Cathay Pacific Airways flight in June 1972, in which a bomb placed inside a cosmetic box, being sent as a gift to one of the cabin crew by her boyfriend in Thailand, exploded and killed everyone on board the aircraft. El Al, however, had encountered ‘mules’ before – in 1971 a Dutch girl had been duped into carrying a bomb onto a flight to Tel Aviv, as had a Peruvian girl, whilst, in 1972, two British women had also been conned.

Ann-Marie Murphy herself could not have imagined being ‘used’ by her fiancé, who had made her pregnant twice and who had proposed that they marry in his hometown in Jordan. All his arrangements, including his paying for her passport, ticket, new clothes and suitcases, and meticulously arranging the details of her travel itinerary, including helping her prepare answers to security questions, teaching her how to use a calculator, and, supposedly, arranging for her to be met at the airport in Tel Aviv, were all considered to be caring gestures by her future husband.

At the airport, everything initially went according to plan; Murphy made it through the airport’s screening checkpoint and reached the gate. The first few questions she was asked by El Al security were answered, but when she was asked about her accommodation she responded that she would be staying at the Hilton in Tel Aviv (since she was working as a chambermaid at the Hilton Hotel in London’ Park Lane). Granted the type of passenger the screeners had in front of them, they probed a little deeper and, gradually, their concerns increased. Additionally, Murphy’s tickets had been rebooked, she was traveling on her own despite being five months pregnant…and she had not packed her suitcase by herself. Furthermore, Murphy was unable to provide a means of payment for her hotel room and could only show a cheque guarantee card.

When her baggage was searched, once the contents had been removed, the security agent discovered that her cabin luggage was significantly heavier than normal. Upon further examination, a yellowish, oily substance weighing approximately 1.5kg was found under a false panel in the bottom of the bag; the Commodore scientific calculator, which Hindawi had taught Murphy to use in order to work out how much local currency she would need was placed above the false lining. The calculator was in fact a detonator.

Without detailed and careful examination and questioning by El Al security agents, Ann-Marie Murphy might have successfully boarded the aircraft, and the device in her luggage would have detonated while flying over Austria. The specific questions that the security agents used were key in identifying Ann-Marie Murphy as a suspicious person, providing us with a case study that demonstrates how an organisation may successfully deploy security questioning or ‘profiling’ to prevent a sabotage attempt.

Is the list of ‘state sponsors of terrorism’ still a useful indicator in profiling?

Following this incident, the UK government suspended its diplomatic relationship with Syria. The country was already included in the list of ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ established by the US government. The attack organised by the North Korean government on Korean Air flight 858 occurred one year after this incident, and the sabotage of Pan Am flight 103 by the Libyan government (albeit many question their guilt) took place the subsequent year, led to a widespread assumption that governments on the ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list, or persons coming from or having links to these countries, were highly suspicious of being associated with organisations intent on carrying out further attacks on airliners.

However, since the end of the Cold War, the above assumption has failed to predict correctly where perpetrators might come from. Instead of seeing people from Syria, North Korea and Libya planning or executing major aviation attacks, we are seeing more terrorists coming from countries that have cordial relationships with Western countries, such as Saudi Arabia (15 out of 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attack were from Saudi Arabia), or even home-grown terrorists from within Western countries themselves.

Some claim that this phenomenon has made profiling more difficult. However, many suggest that profiling itself should not be simply based on race or ethnicity, and focus instead on other relevant attributes, such as suspicious flight ticket details, passport, baggage and behaviour, which are more likely to reveal abnormalities. The case of Ann-Marie Murphy certainly seems to support the latter argument; if the El Al agent on duty had simply focused on Murphy’s racial profile, this innocent Irish lady would have boarded her flight to Tel Aviv with catastrophic consequences.