Case study: Indian Airlines Christmas Eve hijacking

The Christmas Eve 1999 incident exposed major flaws in India's national security apparatus, some of which remain unresolved

By Ryan Holliway

On Christmas Eve 1999, Indian Airlines Flight 814 departed Kathmandu, Nepal, for Delhi carrying 178 passengers. Approximately 40 minutes after takeoff, five Pakistani militants armed with pistols, grenades, and knives hijacked the aircraft and ordered the pilot to fly to Lahore, Pakistan.

The five hijackers were members of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), a Pakistan-based Islamic militant group that is active in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The men addressed each other using code names: Chief, Doctor, Burger, Bhola, and Shankar. To smuggle arms onboard the plane, the team exploited lax security at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport, which did not employ strict inspections of carryon luggage passing through security checkpoints.[1] Workers at the airport also failed to notice the hijackers' fraudulent Indian passports.

The flight departed Kathmandu at 1625 local time, approximately two hours behind schedule. Most of the passengers were Indian nationals returning home from holiday in Nepal. The hijackers, seated in business class, seized the cockpit after the flight passed into Indian airspace. The pilot used an emergency transponder code to signal Delhi air traffic control that the flight had been hijacked.

The hijacker using the name Chief demanded that the pilot fly west toward Pakistan. However, Lahore air traffic control denied the flight permission to land and closed Lahore airspace. The aircraft was running low on fuel and the pilot suggested that they divert to the Indian city of Amritsar in Punjab, located along the Indo-Pakistani border. The hijackers were reluctant to land in Indian territory, but they relented after the pilot assured them that the aircraft would be refueled. The flight arrived in Amritsar at 1900 local time and landed without incident.

Shortly after the Indian government learned of the hijacking, Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar activated the Crisis Management Group (CMG) to handle the situation. The CMG instructed the National Security Guards (NSG), the country's counter terrorist special operations unit, to deploy to Amritsar from their base in Delhi. The CMG told the state and local authorities at Amritsar airport to delay refueling the aircraft for as long as possible in order to give the NSG time to reach the city.[2]

A half hour after landing, the hijackers became increasingly agitated by the delays and suspected that the government was stalling. Chief demanded that the pilot take off immediately. The pilot pleaded with him that the aircraft did not have enough fuel. Doctor then repeatedly stabbed Rupin Katyal, a 25-year-old Indian man returning home from his honeymoon with his wife. Chief then threatened to harm more passengers and the pilot felt that he had no other choice but to try to reach Lahore.[3]

Local authorities in Amritsar had not anticipated that the aircraft would take off without refueling. There are differing accounts of the instructions given to Punjab state police at the airport by the CMG. The CMG claims it asked the police to immobilize the aircraft by shooting the tires, though no such attempt was made.[4] Due to delays in loading equipment on an NSG aircraft and the late arrival of a negotiating team, the counter terrorist unit did not depart Delhi until 1955 local time; nearly six minutes after the aircraft had already left the Amritsar airport. This prevented the government from handling the crisis while the plane was still in Indian territory.[5]

As the flight crossed into Pakistani airspace, Lahore air traffic control continued to deny it permission to land. Lahore's Allama Iqbal International Airport deactivated all navigation aids and turned off the runway lights. With little fuel remaining, the pilot attempted to land on what he thought was a runway but was actually a highway. The pilot discontinued his approach when he realized his error, narrowly averting catastrophe.

Following the incident, Lahore air traffic control agreed to reopen the airport on the condition that no passengers would be allowed to disembark after the plane landed. The Pakistani government refused the Indian government's request to prevent the plane from taking off and to allow the Indian High Commissioner access to the airport. The aircraft, surrounded by Pakistani special operations personnel, remained on the ground in Lahore for three hours before refueling and departing.

After leaving Lahore, the hijackers demanded that they be taken to the city of Kabul in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. A lack of night landing equipment at the Kabul airport forced the flight to divert to the Persian Gulf. Several countries, including Oman, refused to grant permission for the aircraft to land. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also initially denied the plane landing rights, going so far as to position buses along the runways at Dubai International Airport to block a potential landing attempt. The UAE then reversed its policy on humanitarian grounds as the aircraft came closer to the Gulf and the Indian Foreign Ministry and U.S. State Department made appeals to high-ranking members of the Saudi and Emirati royal families.

The aircraft landed at Al-Minhad Air Base outside of Dubai shortly after 0000 local time on December 25. UAE authorities demanded that women and children be released before fuel or food were provided to the hijackers. Twenty five passengers were allowed to leave the plane along with the body of Katyal, who had succumbed to his injuries. The UAE denied India's request to allow an NSG unit to travel to Dubai to storm the aircraft, which left the city approximately five hours later.

The flight finally landed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold, at 0830 on December 25. India did not maintain diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime, forcing the Indian government to coordinate with the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Due to these delays, an Indian negotiating team did not arrive in Kandahar until December 27. The Taliban rejected India's request to send NSG forces to Kandahar. It also stated that it did not have the capability to storm the aircraft itself. The Taliban positioned tanks and rocket launchers around the aircraft to prevent a possible Entebbe-style rescue attempt by the Indians.[6] A small NSG unit was hidden on the aircraft that carried the Indian negotiating team to Kandahar, but officials ruled out any use of force after seeing that the hijacked aircraft was surrounded by Taliban forces.

The hijackers threatened to execute passengers and blow up the aircraft. Their initial demands included US$200 million in cash, the release of 36 militants from Indian jails, and the body of Sajjad Afghani, a Kashmiri militant leader killed by Indian security forces in Jammu in June 1999. The Taliban, which repeatedly threatened to force the aircraft to leave the country, convinced the hijackers to drop their monetary demand, stating that such a request was "un-Islamic."

Conditions for the passengers onboard the aircraft deteriorated as the negotiations dragged on for four more days after the Indian delegation arrived. The lavatories overflowed, food was in short supply, and the temperature in the cabin was frigid. Meanwhile, relatives of the passengers put pressure on the Indian government to resolve the crisis. Family members disrupted the telecast of a live press conference given by External Aff airs Minister Jaswant Singh and pleaded for the government to meet the hijackers' demands.

The two sides finally had a breakthrough on December 31. The Indian government agreed to release three high-value prisoners who had been involved in militant activities in Kandahar: Maulana Masood Azhar (the leader of HUM), Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar. Jaswant Singh accompanied the militants on a fl ight to Kandahar. The passengers and crew of the hijacked aircraft were transferred to the minister's aircraft while the hijackers and the freed militants escaped to Pakistan, where some of them openly live today. Azhar went on to found Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist organization that staged the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Saaed Sheikh is believed to have orchestrated the kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in January 2002 and is suspected of financial involvement in the 9/11 attacks on the United States.[7]

The Christmas Eve 1999 incident exposed major flaws in India's national security apparatus, some of which remain unresolved. As a result of the NSG's slow response and a lack of coordination among local, state, and national agencies, the government missed its only chance to resolve the crisis on Indian territory in Amritsar. The issue of India's emergency response capabilities resurfaced during the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, when the NSG took more than 11 hours to reach the city after the attacks began. The slow reaction forced undertrained and ill-equipped state and local police officers to handle the critical first hours of the attack, when 10 militants took hundreds of people hostage at several locations around the city. Even after the NSG arrived, it lacked sufficient resources, such as helicopters, which prolonged the crisis and allowed the militants to paralyze a city of more than 13 million people for three days.[8]

Five of the 10 largest cities in India — including Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Ahmedabad — have been targeted in large-scale terrorist attacks since 2006. The Indian government has made some progress toward improving its readiness for future attacks. For instance, in July 2009 the NSG opened four regional bases in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Kolkata to pre-position resources and improve reaction time. In addition, the Home Ministry announced plans in December 2009 to create a new counter terrorism center to better coordinate information sharing among India's intelligence agencies.[9] However, the capabilities of local and state police forces still have much room for improvement.[10]

The terrorist threat in India has the potential to escalate tensions on the subcontinent to the brink of war. The United States was quick to increase counter terrorist cooperation with India following the Mumbai attacks in order to avert deployment of troops along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border, which would have strained Pakistan's military resources at a time when it faced mounting insurgency in the northwest. Despite such efforts by the United States, India has remained critical of U.S. officials for their failure to consistently pressure Pakistan to crack down on militant factions.

The Indian government's decision to release the three prisoners in exchange for the passengers on Indian Airlines Flight 814 remains a controversial decision, especially in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. During the campaign for the April/May 2009 Lok Sahba elections, the Indian National Congress staunchly criticized the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — which led the ruling coalition at the time of the hijacking—for meeting the hijackers' demands.[11] The Congress has vowed to pass an antihijacking law prohibiting the government from negotiating with hijackers during future incidents.

The global aviation sector remains a prime target for terrorists, as recently demonstrated by Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab's attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in December 2009. Even at Western facilities that have incurred far greater security expenses than the Kathmandu airport had in 1999, it is difficult to completely prevent terrorists from exploiting security loopholes and smuggling the chemical components for explosive devices onto aircraft. It is doubtful that India is currently capable of preventing another hijacking scenario in which terrorists use hostages to extract concessions from the government — much less prevent a bombing.

As a whole, the aviation industry has seen a decrease in terrorist hijackings with intent to ransom aircraft and passengers since 9/11. This is due, in part, to the increase in security and screening measures put into place following the 9/11 attacks. Additionally, the 2001 attacks have led passengers to demonstrate a willingness to take direct action to subdue attackers on several occasions rather than acquiesce to their demands, including on Flight 253 and during the Richard Reid "shoe bomber" attempt in 2001. This may have encouraged a shift in terrorist tactics.

Terrorists consistently search for potential attack venues that are easier to penetrate and offer the greatest likelihood for success. Mutalab and his handlers correctly assessed that screening measures along the route from Ghana to Nigeria to Amsterdam would prove insufficient to detect the components of his explosive device. The bombing attempt exposed vulnerabilities at airports in both developing and more wealthy nations. In addition, the failure of U.S. government agencies to piece together information that could have put Mutalab on a no-fly list highlights unresolved inadequacies in governmental performance that continue to challenge the United States following the 9/11 attacks.

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