The plan was to plant explosives in the belly of the plane; the explosives were to be transported by a duped and innocent passenger entirely unaware of their existence.
El Al security agents at the London stop uncovered the explosives and prevented the terror attack. After the discovery of the explosives, local authorities took over and arrested the passenger; later also arresting the man who sent her, a Jordanian Arab named Nizar Hindawi.
The passenger, a 32 year old Irish woman named Anne-Marie Murphy, who was six months pregnant, arrived at the check-in desk some forty minutes before it closed. She was approached and questioned by the deputy security officer as part of routine passenger security checks.
No suspicious signs were revealed during her questioning. The passenger, who gave the impression of being a simple woman, responded in the negative when asked if she had been given anything to bring to Israel. During the questioning she was calm, and revealed no sign of nervousness. In the check of her baggage, suspicious signs came to light: a Commodore scientific calculator with an electric cable was found; the bag raised suspicion due to its unexpectedly heavy weight. The security officer’s examination of the bag revealed explosives concealed in the bottom of the bag, under a double panel. He called the police, and the passenger was arrested.
Examination of the bomb by the local police revealed a detonator in the Commodore calculator coated with plastic Simtex explosives, connected to an electronic timing device which was set to activate the major explosives cache hidden inside the bag.
An examination of the timer mechanism, once it was disconnected from the explosives, revealed that the jet was intended to explode about two and a quarter hours after its takeoff for Israel, at a height of 39,000 feet, when it would have been airborne between Italy and Greece.
Hindawi’s Syrian connection
Anne-Marie Murphy’s interrogation revealed that she had met a Jordanian named Nizar Hindawi about two years earlier. He presented himself as a journalist, and a relationship developed between the two. The relationship was on and off, given that Hindawi was not permanently resident in the UK. In April 1986, when they met again, he discovered that she was in advanced stages of pregnancy as a result of their relationship. He suggested that they marry, and spend their honeymoon in Israel. He gave her a sum of money for buying clothes, acquiring a passport, and purchasing a plane ticket to Israel. He further told her that as a Jordanian, he was unable to travel together with her, but would travel to Jordan and from there he would travel by land to Israel in order to meet her at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
On the night before her flight, Hindawi arrived at her house with a large bag and helped her to pack her belongings. During the drive to the airport, she noticed that he was fumbling in her bag: later on it was revealed that this was in order to connect a battery to the Commodore computer and to attach it to the bottom of the bag, close to the principal explosives cache.
The interrogation of the terrorist Hindawi as well as other individuals arrested in the case, revealed that the Syrians were behind the plan, through members of their embassy in London. Syrian air force intelligence men brought the bag, which was later equipped with explosives, from Syria to the UK, via Syrian Airlines. These Syrians also prepared an operational infrastructure in London, including a safe apartment used for briefings, preparation and escape following the attack. Hindawi’s interrogation revealed that he had been linked with the Syrian intelligence since the 80’s, as well as with two senior officers in the security administration of the Syrian air force.
In February 1986, one of the two, Haytham Sa’id, proposed to Hindawi that he plant a bomb in an El Al jet. Hindawi received detailed instructions from Sa’id regarding how to plant the bomb. Sa’id further advised Hindawi to use a woman to plant the bomb in the jet, explaining that a woman would arouse less suspicion. Hindawi was promised $250,000 for carrying out the mission.
Hindawi decided to make use of his girlfriend, Anne-Marie, to plant the bag in the El Al plane. He proposed to her on April 7, 1986, and suggested that they hold the wedding in Israel, as well as the honeymoon. On the 16th of April, Hindawi helped his girlfriend pack her bags, in the bag he brought her specially for this purpose. The next day, he accompanied her to the airport. On the way, he activated the explosive mechanism of the bomb.
Hindawi returned to his hotel after bidding farewell to Murphy, and waited for the Syrian Airlines crew car which would take him to the airport, where he would depart for Syria. When the car arrived, one of the crew members informed him that Anne-Marie Murphy had been arrested at the airport. He instructed Hindawi to hail a taxi and to go immediately to the Syrian embassy. The man gave Hindawi a sealed envelope, and instructed him to hand it to the Syrian ambassador personally.
When the ambassador read the missive, he instructed Hindawi to travel, with two Syrians, to the safe apartment in London. Hindawi was held in the apartment until the next morning, when the two Syrians again arrived to accompany him back to the embassy. Hindawi suspected that they were about to kill him. He fled and called his brother, who called the police. Hindawi was arrested. At the time of his arrest he was in possession of a Syrian passport.
The apartment in which Hindawi had been held was that of a guard in the Syrian embassy, and the Syrians guarding him were embassy guards. The three were expelled from the UK. A British police search of the apartment revealed Hindawi’s false documents as well as official Syrian embassy documents.
The trial and the consequences
Anne-Marie Murphy was not tried. Nizar Hindawi was sentenced on October 25, 1986, to 45 years imprisonment. During the trial, his defense attorney attempted to claim that the affair was a Mossad provocation, and that the Mossad had planted the bomb in order to “uncover” it and thus gain political capital against Syria. The security officer who testified in the trial under the name Mr. A, hidden from the audience and reporters by a curtain, was forced to deny that he was a Mossad agent as well as that he himself had hidden the bomb in Anne-Marie Murphy’s belongings during the security check…
As a result of the affair, Britain cut its ties with Syria. The exposure of the explosives in London foiled the terror attack, and saved the lives of 395 passengers and crew. The Israeli prime minister at the time, Shimon Peres, later stated that if the attack had been successfully carried out, the state of Israel would have been forced to go to war with Syria as a result of the Syrian role in the attack.
A rare coincidence
This incident occurred in London less than six months after El Al’s security apparatus had been put to the test: on the 27th December, 1985, two groups of terrorists simultaneously attacked groups of El Al passengers in the Rome and Vienna airports.
The attacks were thwarted, leading to the deaths of three terrorists in Rome, and the arrest of the fourth, who was wounded. In Vienna, one terrorist was killed and two were caught. During the Vienna incident, El Al security officers and guards led a hot pursuit of the terrorists’ car, together with the local police. In the two incidents together, sixteen civilians were killed, including an El Al passenger, and 120 were wounded, including 7 El Al employees, 4 deputy security officers, and one security guard.
It turned out that the “Abu Nidal” organization was behind the planning and execution of the two attacks; and furthermore, the terrorists departed from Damascus, the “Abu Nidal” faction headquarters, for both Rome and Vienna. There was a rare and coincidental connection between these two incidents and the London incident: the security officer of the London flight was involved in the Vienna incident as well, where he had been serving as a backup security officer at the local El Al station.
These two incidents reflect some degree of the great complexity in the field of security, and the high level of expertise required to provide a response to a variety of threats: the preparedness and the quick reactions needed for an immediate response to an attack initiated by the opponent; as well as the “mind war” between the security apparatus and the terrorist organizations eager to find gaps in security which can be used to infiltrate explosive devices to explode planes in midair, even with the unwitting aid of duped passengers.