Nowadays, despite being fairly rare occurrences, hijackings are still one of the main threats to civil aviation, and have become particularly concerning following the attacks of 11 September 2001. The seizure of aircraft, especially of national flag carriers, has long been viewed as an attack against the state in which they are registered. December 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the Air France flight 8969 hijacking, perpetrated by four members of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA). To mark this, Massimo Catusi and Daniela Tardo present a reconstruction of the event and provide a close-up on the intervention by France’s National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN), an elite police tactical unit established in 1974 following the Munich Olympics massacre.
This is the story of one of the greatest and quickest interventions ever made by Special Forces. This is the story of a group of soldiers, members of an elite unit called GIGN, who saved more than 200 civilians during one of the scariest hijackings from the pre-9/11 era.
If you work in the aviation industry or are passionate about aviation security, you will surely remember this incident from security courses as it still regarded as one of the top case studies illustrating intervention by Special Forces.
Hijackings were originally considered to be financially or politically motivated acts of interference, where civilians were seized by lone hijackers, using the aircraft and their passengers as a means of ransom where demands could be made without any real intention to hurt those on board. But, in 1994, we had maybe the first real attempt to use a civilian airliner to target the national symbol of a country – the Eiffel Tower in Paris. This was seven years before 9/11, but the idea of using hijacked aircraft as weapons of mass destruction, targeting population centres and iconic buildings, was at the forefront of the minds of those following extremist ideologies.
This article preserves the memory of the incident and pays tribute to the GIGN unit for their successful intervention.
Following correspondence with the ‘Gendarmerie Nationale’, France’s national Police, we had the honour to fly to Versailles to meet one of the last two GIGN operatives still in service who took part to the raid on flight AF8969 on 26 December 1994 – the action which brought to an end the hijacking, perpetrated by four armed members of the GIA.
1994 was the third year of the civil war in Algeria, where some Islamic rebel groups, including the Islamic Salvation Front, also known as the ‘FIS’, and the GIA, were fighting against the Algerian government with their main purpose being the establishment of an Islamic state in Algeria. This was the reason why all crews operating in and out from Algeria were made aware, through NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen), of the risks of flying there and where being shot at low altitude was a possibility to take into consideration.
Air France management was extremely worried about these risks and while only asking its crewmembers to volunteer to operate flight to Algiers, they raised the question to the French government as to whether it was strictly necessary to continue flying to the North African country. But continue they did.
On 24 December 1994, the Airbus 300B2-1C F-GBEC was almost ready to depart from Houari Boumedienne Airport in Algiers for Orly Airport, Paris, operating as AF8969. Captain Bernard Delhemme, supported by First Officer Jean-Paul Borderie and Flight Engineer Alain Bossuat were completing their departure checks when four men boarded the aircraft, following the last of the embarking passengers, informing the cabin crew that they were Algerian Presidential policemen and were boarding to perform a passport control inspection of all the passengers on board. Initially, their presence did not cause any alarm as they were dressed in official blue uniforms with Air Algerie logos.
However, suspicions began to grow amongst the crew when a flight attendant, Claude Burgnard, noticed that the policemen were armed; she thought it was unusual as the Algerian police officers were not normally carrying weapons while carrying out such checks.
The flight was due to depart at 11:15. The control tower, along with the Algerian military, called the Algerian Special Intervention Group (GIS) when they did not receive any departure clearance request from the aircraft, nor any delay information. Seeing the aircraft stationary at the parking stand after its scheduled departure time, the GIS surrounded the aircraft. However, after having caught sight of the GIS, the four armed ‘policemen’ immediately revealed their true identities and officially took control of the airplane: the A300 had been commandeered.
The hijackers’ leader, Abdul Abdullah Yahia, immediately ordered his men to place two blocks of dynamite on the plane and take control of the aircraft’s doors and stand guard while he moved to the cockpit.
“…women who did not have a hijab used aircraft blankets as head coverings…”
The cockpit is the fulcrum of most hijackings, where the perpetrators, apart from having the obvious access to flight controls, can also establish contact with air traffic control personnel and/or negotiators. Captain Delhemme, unwillingly, was obliged to be an active participant in the radio communication due to the poor knowledge of French by Yahia.
The request made by the GIA members was to release Abbassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, two members of the FIS who had been under arrest by the Algerian government since 1992. They also demanded to be allowed to fly to Paris. In choosing an Air France flight for their mission, they had selected a symbol of France – the former colonising state with a culture that opposed the institution of an Islamic state. France was, in one word, an infidel.
All the women on board were obliged to cover themselves with hijabs (the veil) as part of Islamic tradition. This was part of the psychological terror that the hijackers were using in order to demonstrate their strength of their convictions to all the passengers and the authorities. Those women who did not have a hijab used aircraft blankets as head coverings.
The news of the hijacking immediately reached Paris and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alain Juppé, immediately convened a crisis room awaiting the arrival of the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, who was already away on Christmas leave.
Meanwhile, in Algiers, the Minister of Interior, Abderrahmane Cherif, was trying to negotiate the release of women and children, yet rejecting any request made by Yahia. As a result, and in order to give an unequivocal signal to the authorities, the hijackers brutally executed one of the passengers who had been previously identified, during the passport controls, as a local policeman. He was shot dead on the steps of the aircraft.
“…Cherif’s delayed response resulted in the killing of another passenger – Bui Giang To, an attaché at the Embassy of Vietnam in Algeria – and the issuance of a threat to detonate the dynamite…”
The situation became increasingly unstable as Abderrahmane Cherif showed zero flexibility, denying all requests made by the hijackers without appreciating the possible outcomes caused by his behaviour. In fact, following the hijackers request to fly to Paris, Abderrahmane Cherif’s delayed response resulted in the killing of another passenger – Bui Giang To, an attaché at the Embassy of Vietnam in Algeria – and the issuance of a threat to detonate the dynamite if their requests kept being denied.
This second loss of life forced the French government to rethink its stance. The quickest way to resolve the stand-off would be to immediately deploy French military to Algiers. So, the French government immediately sent its Special Force – the GIGN – to the Spanish Balaeric Islands in order to be as close as possible to Algeria, in the hope that they would receive authorisation by the Algerian government to enter the country. They arrived in Palma de Mallorca late at night on 24 December, on board an A300 similar to the hijacked one, so that they had the possibility to familiarise themselves with the aircraft.
But what country would sanction interference of its sovereignty by allowing another nation’s military forces to solve a crisis active on its territory? The Algerian Prime Minister, Mokdad Sifi, denied authorising the GIGN to enter Algeria, hence the need for France to think quickly about a new option, knowing that it was now impossible to intervene directly whilst the aircraft was on the ground in Algiers.
During Christmas Day, the hijackers were finally convinced to release some of the passengers – mainly women and children. Assuming that Yahia and his team were starting to tire, France, in conjunction with Algeria, tried to get Yahia to surrender by sending his mother to beg him to stop. The sentimental action attempted by the authorities backfired; another passenger became the victim of the hijackers’ rage – Yannick Beugnet, a French chef who was working at the embassy in Algiers was executed.
After the third murder, and to avoid further losses, the French authorities decided to take the control of the crisis and, through the Prime Minister, informed Algeria that it was ready to receive the airplane. There was concern about allowing the aircraft to take-off as intelligence sources were indicating that the terrorists plot was actually to crash the aircraft into Paris in a suicidal mission.
The aircraft’s APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) had been kept running the entire time in order to provide energy to all the main functions of the airplane, such as the cabin lights, so, in any case, there was insufficient fuel to reach Paris. Marseille was both reachable without refuelling and far enough away from the capital, whilst also easily reached by the GIGN.
Indeed, the GIGN deployed to Spain were immediately recalled to Marseille before the departure of the hijacked aircraft from Algiers. On their return flight, the GIGN were again able to practice in the passenger cabin and tried to study as many features and parts of the A300 as they could.
Having described the circumstances, we can now review the rest of the incident from the perspective of the GIGN. In order to do so, we travelled to France in September 2019 to meet the GIGN, who have their barracks in Satory, a military quartier inside the city of Versailles. We were welcomed by Marechal Y., Senior LT K. and Lieutenant P. After quick introductions and cup of coffee, we gathered in one of the meeting rooms called ‘Marignane’ (being the location of Marseille airport and named as a tribute to this event), where we were introduced to the history and traditions of the GIGN, from its constitution in 1974, reorganisation in 2001 and the ‘new era’ from 2007 with new targets and a consolidated structures.
There is a tradition in GIGN that gives one a thorough understanding and meaning of the words ‘group’ and ‘loyalty’. Once a member of the unit finishes their training, which takes approximately 12 months, s/he receives their own personal gun, which serves them forever. One of the traditions requires that, after having put on a bulletproof vest, each member must shoot his/her partner!
During the visit to the training centre, we were taken to the ‘airplane cabin reconstruction’ facility where, thanks to a partnership still active with Air France, GIGN has recreated a perfect section of a passenger cabin in which they can train for aviation hijacking interventions. Marechal Y. and Senior LT K. informed us that they had organised a 30-minute meeting for us with Major C., one of the last two member of the assault team still in service. We met him right next to the GIGN museum and in close proximity to the mausoleum which they have created inside the barracks to pay tribute to all those who lost their lives in missions or training.
Major C. said that his unit had been ready, even if they had never tried or experienced an assault of a hijacked aircraft before (having only experienced one or two partial simulations) because they knew that it would be tough. As well as being physically prepared, they were mentally prepared; their mission was (and is) to save the lives of others.
“…when they saw the first officer jumping out of the plane from the cockpit, they initially thought he was one of the hijackers…”
I am sure that most readers will have seen the real-time video of the intervention. The Major reported that their assault of the plane was even quicker from their perspective, as they immediately stormed the aircraft after its arrival on stand, connecting passenger stairs at the forward right-hand door (R1). As with any mission, there are lessons to be learned and opportunities to be able to enhance procedures for the future; this intervention was no exception. Whilst the storming of AF8969 was a resounding success, many of those who have seen video footage of the GIGN’s initial entry to the aircraft will be aware that the stairs did not connect with the aircraft at the correct height which resulted in a slight delay and left one of the GIGN members dangling as the stairs had to be pushed back to facilitate the door opening. The stairs had been connected higher than expected because they had just been rehearsing their entry using the empty A300; the hijacked aircraft was laden with passengers, baggage and cargo and was, therefore, sitting lower. But this unexpected challenge only further demonstrated the commitment and preparation of the GIGN members to manage dynamic situations and they successfully stormed the aircraft despite the two-metre gap between the bumper of the stairs and the aircraft’s door.
After the door had been, the GIGN using offensive smoke grenades and armed with Glock 9mm and Heckler & Koch MP5 weapons, stormed the aircraft and the battle began. Thanks to the in-flight training previously made on the A300 during the flights to and from Palma de Mallorca, some of them went immediately inside the passenger cabin in order to open the rear doors and let passengers and crew evacuate as quickly and as safely as possible, while the battle in the forward galley and cockpit was still ongoing.
One of the GIGN team was shot at by the GIA terrorists with an AK-47, but the bullet was stopped by his pistol, saving his life.
Major C. remembers that when they saw the first officer jumping out of the plane from the cockpit, they initially thought he was one of the hijackers. He recalls that after approximately 15 minutes, the hijacking was over as all the four terrorists had been killed, but that the team immediately had to help coordinating the emergency first responders in helping the 170 passengers and members of the Air France crew, as well as the ten GIGN operatives who were wounded during the storming of the aircraft.
The Marignane event, in its complexity, provides the first indication of the mindset which had developed to target national symbols using civilian airliners. For the majority such an action was unimaginable before the 2001 attacks, but for those in the security services it was something very much contemplated from 1994 onwards. However, the hijacking also showed the world the commitment and preparation of the GIGN.
This article is dedicated to all passengers and crew of the AF8969 flight and to all GIGN operatives and their families. S’engager pour la vie.
Massimo Catusi recently joined Milan Bergamo airport operator SACBO as a safety specialist. SACBO authorised him to write this article and to visit to the GIGN barracks in September 2019.
Massimo started his career with Eurofly Airlines, and then moved to the second largest airline in Italy working as Head of Cargo Operations and as a Ground Operations Officer. He is a volunteer for ‘Fondazione 8 Ottobre 2001’, the foundation created after the Linate disaster. Since 2017, Massimo has been flying C152 aircraft at Aeroclub Bergamo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or on +39 3408655665.
Daniela Tardo works as a ground operations member for the second largest airline in Italy, based at Milan Malpensa Airport. She is passionate about aviation, especially the AugustaWestland 109 helicopter, and is building her career in the aviation sector. When not on official duty on the ground, she takes to the skies, along with her fiancée, travelling around Italy in their own Tecnam P92.