Did you pack your bag yourself? How questions prevented what could have been the UK’s deadliest air terror attack.

Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

LONDON – Many will be very familiar with the barrage of questions post 9/11 upon checking in, particularly for US bound transatlantic flights.

Did you pack your bag yourself? Did anyone give you anything to take with you? Are you carrying any dangerous goods?

Fastidious, tedious and time consuming these questions may seem, just 35 years ago at London Heathrow Airport it was because of these questions that almost 400 lives were saved.

In April 2021, Israel’s Channel 13 revealed for the first time, first-hand accounts of the security staff and the events that followed. Accounts and information provided in this article have been translated from Hebrew to English where appropriate.

The case of Nezar Hindawi

The date is Thursday 17th April, the year is 1986, the location is London Heathrow’s Airport Terminal 1.

EL AL Israel Airlines flight LY016 operated a routine flight from New York’ (JFK) to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport (TLV) with a stop-over in London Heathrow (LHR). Like many airlines at the time, EL AL had fifth freedom rights to operate the route.

Merely a few months before on December 27th, 1985, a coordinated attack on EL AL public check-in areas at both Rome Fiumicino and Vienna airports were under fire by the Abu Nidal organisation wounding 66 and killing 16 members of the public and airport personnel*.

Naturally, security was a major priority for the airline since its inception but particularly for this period. EL AL passengers to this day are expected to arrive up to 3 hours prior to departure to undergo a security interview and baggage search prior to checking in.

On the ground at Heathrow, the Boeing 747-200 was expected to be booked up to 375 passengers, among them an Irish woman by the name of Anne-Marie Murphy. Murphy, 32 and pregnant, was a room-maid working at the Hilton Hotel Park Lane where she met her then boyfriend and father to her child- Nezar Hindawi of Jordan.

A story like so many. A couple, expecting a child and planning to get married. Israeli security service tactics today remain unchanged. Israeli security personnel interview and analyse information based on the information a passenger provides- their story.

The couple planned to get married in Jerusalem. Hindawi instructed the naive Murphy to book a flight on EL AL alone, whilst he would supposedly make his way to Jerusalem via Amman, Jordan on an Alia Royal Jordanian flight and meet her there.

But Hindawi told her not to inform EL AL security that she was intending to get married. With just £100 to her name, a single small satchel as luggage, and traveling alone with a one-way ticket, EL AL security agents grew suspicious and bewildered of pregnant Murphy.

Did you pack your bag yourself? Yes.

Did anyone give you anything to bring to Israel? Yes, just gifts for the family.

Where are you planning to stay when you get there? The Hilton Hotel in Bethlehem.

It’s not uncommon for non-Jewish tourists to visit the Palestinian Territories. In fact, it was completely normal with what was then thriving Christian pilgrimage traffic. But what was striking to the security personnel was a major flaw in Murphy’s plans. There is no Hilton Hotel in Bethlehem.

The agents came across a naïve pregnant woman, no political affiliations or faith, little money or idea what she would be doing upon arrival and planning to stay in a place that doesn’t exist.

Having very little belongings, and such an innocent demeanour and body language that it was clear to the security personnel that it would be very unlikely for Murphy to have any insidious intentions.

Shortly after the attacks in Rome and Vienna, check-in areas for EL AL flights were promptly relocated airside after airport security adjacent to the airline’s boarding gate at Heathrow.

This meant that Murphy would have already cleared Heathrow Airport’s main X-ray screening. The airline was still not satisfied.

Agents began the further examine Murphy’s bag. Feeling that the base of the bag was unusually thicker and heavier than normal, it was cut open. A plastic bag was retrieved with an unknown package wrapped in brown paper.

Ripping open the paper an orange lump of plastic was uncovered which was later discovered to be 1.5kg of Semtex explosive plastic. Explosive material linked to a calculator, disguised as a gift, timed to explode two hours into the 4-and-a-half-hour flight to Tel Aviv.

In a matter of minutes, the terminal evacuated, aircraft still on the ground and Murphy completely unaware and shocked, exclaimed “these b*stards tried to kill me”

Here we have a story of a passenger, completely innocent unbeknown to carrying explosives that were intended to kill 375 lives, her unborn child and possibly collateral ground damage incurred by the blast.

All uncovered and prevented by taking a couple of moments to ask a number of questions. Nezar Hindawi was later found to have coordinated the failed attack under the instruction of the Syrian government. Hindawi was jailed for 45 years for plotting to bomb the Israeli Boeing 747.

In modern day context

The aviation industry like many, is a reactive one. Many procedures and policies are a result of past events in order to prevent them from reoccurring. It can be argued that Israel and its aviation security methods are an isolated case in comparison with the global aviation arena.

However, it’s because of the state’s proactive measures, they have prevented a number of potentially devastating attacks on the traveling public globally. It demonstrates that despite the ever-developing technology and travel habits that not much can compare to the art of human instinct and profiling.

On the other hand, the practice of profiling has been criticized by the traveling public as the questions have been found to be intrusive, interpreted to be an infringement on their human rights as well as possibly being discriminatory.  

Despite the practice being controversial, it can not only be used to prevent terror attacks but a new threat facing modern air travel- environmental activism.

For example, in 2019 the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion infiltrated and bypassed London City Airport security and managed to access two aircraft (British Airways Embraer 190 and Aer Lingus RJ85) as part of their demonstration.

Here is an example where profiling would have been a measure to prevent the infiltration. By asking passengers a number of questions, examining their body language and behaviour, building a story and analysing its integrity, this could have prevented the infiltration by the organisation.

To conclude, there are countless procedures in place to secure our skies. The case of Nezar Hindawi and flight LY016 maybe an isolated case concerning a greater Israeli Arab conflict but demonstrates how the drive of human instinct could potentially uncover an indirect threat to modern aviation.

The next time you travel, just think how a handful of questions could save hundreds and thousands of lives.

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