(CNSNews.com) – Four Palestinians added to the FBI’s list of “most wanted terrorists” this week were involved in a deadly hijacking of an American airliner 23 years ago – an attack which some reports have linked to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The State Department announced Thursday that it would pay rewards of up to $5 million each for information leading directly to the capture or conviction of Wadoud al-Turki, Jamal Rahim, Muhammad ar-Rahayyal, and Muhammad al-Munawar.
Convicted and jailed in Pakistan in 1988, the four men plus a fifth, Zayd Hassan Safarini, were freed by President Pervez Musharraf’s government in January 2008 and deported. The FBI believes they are living in a Middle Eastern country.
The five hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 on September 5, 1986 in Karachi. The flight, which originated in Mumbai, had made a stop in Pakistan’s biggest city en route to Frankfurt and New York.
The flight crew managed to escape shortly after the gunmen boarded the Boeing 747, effectively grounding it. The terrorists, identified as members of the Abu Nidal terrorist group, then demanded a fresh crew to fly the plane to Cyprus.
After identifying passengers’ nationalities from their passports, Safarini, the leader, shot and killed a recently naturalized American citizen.
Some 16 hours later, when the power supply to the plane faltered and eventually shut down, the gunmen moved the more than 300 passengers into one part of the cabin.
A 2004 U.S. Department of Justice statement described what happened next:
“On Safarini’s signal, after the hijackers recited a martyrdom prayer in Arabic, and after the lights on the aircraft had gone out, the four hijackers opened fire on the assembled passengers and crew, throwing hand grenades into the crowd and spraying the trapped passengers with automatic weapons fire, attempting to kill as many passengers and crew members as possible.”
A total of 22 people, including two Americans, were killed and more than 100 wounded.
The terrorists were arrested, tried and sentenced to death, although Pakistani authorities subsequently commuted the sentences to life imprisonment – an effective 15 years in Pakistan.
Safarini was the first to be released, weeks after 9/11, and put on a flight from Lahore to Amman via Bangkok. In the Thai capital he was arrested by U.S. officials and flown back to the United States.
Facing 95 counts including murder, attempted murder, hostage taking and attempting to commit air piracy, he pleaded guilty in a U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in exchange for a U.S. agreement to drop its pursuit of the death penalty.
In May 2004 he was sentenced to 160 years’ imprisonment.
Safarini’s plea agreement included a commitment to cooperate with the authorities, including by testifying against his fellow hijackers – who were also charged in the District of Columbia for their role – should they ever come into U.S. custody.
When he passed sentence on Safarini, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan called on Musharraf to facilitate the U.S. bid to bring the other four to justice. But four years later, they were freed and – according to Pakistan media reports – flown to Dubai. (One report said at the time they were en route to the Palestinian territories.)
The hijacking of flight 73 occurred five months after President Reagan ordered air strikes against Libya, in retaliation for the bombing by Libyans of a Berlin nightclub shortly beforehand. The attack in Germany cost the lives of two U.S. soldiers and a Turkish woman, and 41 Americans were among the more than 200 wounded.
After the hijacking in Pakistan, reports emerged indicating the Gaddafi was responsible for the attack, and had tasked the Abu Nidal group – which was in the process of moving its operations from Syria to Libya at the time – to carry it out.
(The group was headed by Abu Nidal, a notorious Palestinian terrorist whose real name was Sabri Khalil al-Banna. It was responsible for scores of deadly attacks, including the 1973 bombing of an American airliner at the Rome airport, coordinated attacks on Israeli airline ticket counters at Rome and Vienna airports in 1985, and the hijacking of an EgyptAir airliner to Malta in 1984. Abu Nidal later moved from Libya to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where he died in 2002.)
In March 2004, London’s Sunday Times, citing Western and Pakistani intelligence sources, said that Gaddafi had ordered the hijacking as a reprisal for the U.S. bombing raids on Tripoli and Benghazi earlier that year.
The report said the terrorists’ plan – Gaddafi’s plan – was actually to blow up the airliner over Tel Aviv, but it was thwarted when the flight had been unable to take off from Karachi.
The paper said Pakistani intelligence agents had tricked the captured hijackers into confessing that they were working for Gaddafi by showing then a doctored newspaper report saying the Libyan leader had died in a plane crash.
Distraught, the terrorists had confessed that Gaddafi had sponsored their mission, it said.
In 2006, a group of survivors of the hijacking filed a $10 billion civil lawsuit in the District of Columbia against Libya.
In its report, the Sunday Times noted that if a place carrying more than 300 people had been blown up over Israel’s biggest city, the loss of life would have been even greater than that of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 two years later.
A total of 270 people killed in the New York-bound plane and in the Scottish town of Lockerbie where the wreckage fell. Libya was blamed for that attack, a Libyan agent was sentenced in 2001 to life imprisonment in a Scottish prison, but was controversially freed on “compassionate” grounds last summer.