Hijacking of airplanes an emerging threat

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

Extremists, motivated by the religious urge of Holy War are likely to step up attempts to highjack airplanes.

The failed attempt at hijacking a passenger plane flying from Hotan in the Chinese province of Xinjiang brings into focus the prospects of the increasing use of hijacking of civilian planes by suicide bombers, who do not plan to negotiate with authorities but aim at inflicting maximum damage on the state. When the goals of hijackers are related to religious fundamentalism, the case of which has increased in recent years, and the hijacker being highly spirited and motivated by the religious urge of holy war and salvation after death, the operations are likely to be more severe. Particularly as the cases of recent years indicate, the multi-ethnic and pluralistic states are most prone to such type of attacks, as the very core of these states- diversity and pluralism- are challenged by the hijackers who are motivated by the single point agenda of Holy War, irrespective of the consequences these dangerous games entail. While these suicide bombers are labelled martyrs in their groups and by their patrons, their emergence and increasing numbers must be real causes of worry for modern plural states, in which one of the popular modes of travel has become air travel.

Not that aeroplane hijacking is a novel phenomenon. In the last century there are numerous examples of hijacking of planes to highlight and pursue goals of a particular group. This tactic was also used by states during the Cold War. The goal was more centred towards achieving a particular policy. But in most of these cases, the aim was not to destroy the plane and kill all the civilians inside it, but to use hijacking as a bargaining tool to extract concessions or to achieve a particular goal against the adversary. Various conventions adopted at Tokyo, Hague and Montreal guide such kind of developments. But, it was after the end of the Cold War, after the collapse of the ideological blocs, with the rise of intra-state conflicts and assertion of religious and minority groups, that suicide bombing emerged as one of the most dangerous weapons in the hands of the non-state actors to assert themselves against the states. In the emerging era of globalization and communication, in which news flies faster than the planes, the disgruntled groups used suicide bombing not only as a tool against the state policies, but also as a tool of intimidation and fear against the common people. It was hence no surprise that when the Twin Towers were collapsing in New York in 2011, Osama bin Laden and his friends were revelling the tragic scene and popular panic on the scene of a TV set in the Af-Pak region.

As mentioned earlier, multi-ethnic and pluralistic states have become emerging victims of suicide hijacking. While multi-ethnic states emphasize on inclusivism, federalism and harmony and reconciliation, the religious fundamentalist groups emphasize on exclusivism, dogmatism and religion based law. It may be possible that not all religious groups or minority groups advocate extremism and violence, but some of these groups have posed severe challenges to pluralistic societies. India and Russia signed the Moscow Declaration on Protecting the Interests of Multi-ethnic and Pluralistic Societies in 1994, and a bilateral declaration against terrorism in 2001, as these societies were increasingly concerned about rising menace of religious fundamentalism and terrorism, and their negative impact on their multi-ethnic frame. Russia in its southern parts and India in its northern and north-eastern parts have been confronting some of these challenges with enormous tasking of their resources.

One of the well-known cases in which India lost one of its civilian planes is the explosion of Air India flight 182, named Kanishka in Atlantic Ocean in 1985, killing all 329 people including passengers and crew. The investigations pointed the involvement of Sikh extremists, who demanded for a separate state Khalistan and were supported in this venture by some extremist groups as well as states, having a rivalry with India. Though India could handle the Khalistan problem, its problem in Kashmir is still gruelling. Some of the Islamic extremists hijacked another Indian Airlines flight 814 to Kandahar in Afghanistan in 1999 and in this gruelling drama of negotiation for days, the extremists could succeed in their demands by freeing some of the notorious terrorists such as Masood Azhar from Indian jails. Masood upon freeing established Jaish-e-Mohammed which within a span of two years became so powerful that it was able to orchestrate an attack on Indian Parliament in 2001, killing many security personnel. India, in 2005, adopted a law to handle aeroplane hijacking, which included many provisions such as shooting the hijacked plane if the situation demands, hijacking will be considered an act of aggression against state, hijackers will be sentenced to death if captured, etc. Many other nations too have adopted tougher policies to handle any possible hijacking. Some of the measures include special training to airline crew members, making the cockpit door bullet proof and stringent security measures at the airports.

The fear of hijacking has also impacted the security preparedness at the airports around the world. The states, particularly having troubles in their regions, have become more cautious, and tightened the security measures in their airports. For instance, after the incident at the Hotan airport, the Chinese Civil Aviation department have further tightened security measures at airports including two Shanghai airports, Pudong and Hongqiao. As per the new instructions, the passengers may now be subject to measures such as removal of shoes and belts, and detail screening of their handbags. The authorities blamed it on Islamic extremists in the restive Xinjiang province, which has been witnessing violence in past few years due to differences between local Uighurs and Han Chinese. The provincial official website, Tianshan stated, “It is a serious and violent terrorist attack by means of hijacking an airplane.” The hijacking drama started after ten minutes of the flight took off when six passengers with crutches, used as weapons, moved to cockpit door and tried to enter inside, but were strongly resisted and overpowered by the crew and other passengers. In this melee, about ten people including crew members, civilians and hijackers were injured. This incident happened just before few days of the third anniversary of 2009 violence in the province, which killed about 200 people. The radical Uighurs of the region have demanded separation from China and the establishment of an independent Turkestan, which has strongly been resisted by China. The crucial issue here is: how to maintain a balance between the interests of a multi-ethnic and pluralistic China and interests of the Uighurs, who are culturally and religiously distinct from mainland China. But, as earlier emphasized, any resort to violence including suicide bombing and hijacking only further jeopardizes attempts at peace and reconciliation.

Undoubtedly hijacking of civilian planes have emerged a threat to civilians as well as states. Tightening security measures at airports may partly help solve the problem, but the larger issue of reconciliation and harmony must be focused and worked upon by multi-ethnic states without compromising the basic virtues of multi-ethnicism and pluralism.

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