Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Security Credited For Decline In Hijacking

LONDON -- The aircraft hijack drama played out at Stansted Airport near London on Tuesday was a grim reminder for Western nations of a problem that has largely dropped out of the public concern spotlight in recent years.

A Sudan Airways plane on a flight from Khartoum to Amman was diverted to Britain by armed hijackers, some believed to be Iraqis, who eventually freed the 199 passengers and crew.

It was the second hijacking this year involving a Sudanese airliner. On March 24, a Sudan Airways Airbus A320 plane carrying 40 passengers and crew on an internal flight was hijacked to Asmara, the Eritrean capital, where the two Sudanese hijackers surrendered and sought political asylum.

Still, experts in Britain said aircraft hijacks have moved from one of the principal terrorist methods used by violent guerrilla groups to a relatively rare tactic, especially in the developed world.

"They have proved to be not a terribly successful way for terrorists to achieve their aims," said Dr. Richard Clutterbuck, a writer and researcher on guerrilla methods. "And all the while airport security has been improved."

Figures from the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Projected Violence at Scotland's St. Andrews University show that aircraft hijacks accounted for 32 percent of what it classifies as terrorist incidents in the late 1960s.

But in the the 1980s and so far this decade, the figure is down to 4 percent.

"It is far more difficult for terrorists to hijack an airliner than it was 20 to 30 years ago," said the center's director Dr. Bruce Hoffman.

Clutterbuck said there was an immediate 50 percent cut in hijacking incidents after passenger searches at boarding gates were introduced in the United States and elsewhere in 1971.

Hoffman noted that between 1969 and 1973, 3.5 aircraft in every 100,000 leaving U.S. airports were hijacked. But when metal detectors were introduced, the hijack rate fell to one in 100,000.

But in some cases guerrillas have resorted to the much more drastic method of simply bombing planes.

A bomb aboard a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 killed 270 people, and another is suspected to have caused the explosion last month aboard a Paris-bound TWA flight off the New York coast, in which 230 people died.

Aircraft hijackings were recorded before World War II, but the problem increased in the 1960s with what Michael Yardley, a British psychologist and writer, described as "the 'Take me to Cuba' syndrome in the United States."

The method then became a favorite with groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, frustrated by the failure of Arab states to defeat Israel in war.

"Modern international terrorism really dates from that time," Yardley said. "But a number of the organizations involved directly or indirectly later decided to become respectable."

He said the problem has dropped further from public consciousness in the West because recent major hijackings tended to have taken place in areas not of great interest to Western media such as remote parts of the former Soviet Union.

Clutterbuck said the hijack-free record of the Israeli state airline El Al suggests that more could be done to tackle the problem.

But he said it had come at the cost of heavy subsidies from the Israeli government and a three-hour check-in period.

"It's now probably the safest way to fly to the Middle East, and passengers seem ready to accept it," he said.