We Didn't Start the Fire: 'Terror on the Arlines'

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As former head of MI5 Stella Rimington notes in her autobiography, terrorism didn't begin with September 11, and, sadly, nor will it end there; terrorism has proven too effective in getting the world's attention. Since the late 1960s, MI5, the CIA and other security organisations have seen a rise in what became known as 'international terrorism', with groups like 'Black September', a Palestinian terrorist group led by 'Carlos the Jackal', who targeted Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Whereas traditionally the British Security Service's targets were Soviet-backed groups intent on stealing state secrets and trading information, these new enemies were different: for one thing, they didn't strike quietly like the Russians; they had no intention of returning to a target more than once; They struck fast and hard to focus the world's media on their cause; and they were more than willing to kill to achieve their aims. The gentlemanly act of spying swiftly became a thing of the past.

Airplane hijackings are not, sadly, a recent invention, no matter how ingrained the events of 9/11 are ingrained in our memories - indeed the first time an airplane was hijacked was back in the 1930s. But the events Billy Joel refers to when he sings about 'terror on the airlines' concern the kind of politically motivated hijackings that began to spring up from the late 1960s onwards, campaigns organised as part of an attempt to draw attention to the broader political cause of the hijackers themselves. The first of these took place on 22 July, 1968, which saw the first airplane hijacking by Arab terrorists. Members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) took control of an El Al flight, holding its passengers hostage and demanding that the plane be redirected to Algiers.

On this rare occasion, the hijackers were successful, to some extent. As a consequence, terrorism takes to the skies. Just two years later, on 6 September, 1970, the PFLP again orchestrated a campaign of hijackings, targeting five planes over three days and managing to capture four of them. Three of the planes were redirected to the Jordanian desert, emptied of passengers and crew and then blown up in front of the horrified cameras of members of the world's press. The event was the catalyst for the Black September civil war in Jordan. When the Palestinians lost that battle, more terrorist groups emerged, including the 'Black September' group mentioned earlier. It was they who, on 1 March, 1973, took control of the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum and eventually shot three of their hostages.

Almost exactly one month later, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York were officially opened.

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