October 13, 1977
By the late 1970s, cooperation between rejectionist Palestinians and leftist European terrorists had reached a high point. Joint training, weapons exchanges, operational insights, and trading of operational personnel freely flowed among the various wings of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), West German Baader-Meinhof Group and other German leftists, Italian Red Brigades, Irish Republican Army (IRA), Petra Kraus Group, Basque Nation and Liberty, and a host of other now-forgotten organizations. But government forces were similarly banding together against the terrorists, with quick reaction elite forces sharing training, tactics, and doctrine. The Israeli success at Entebbe led to numerous special operations teams armed with clipboards and light weapons to learn the lessons of the Israelis. They were put into practice in October 1977, when a West German team traveled thousands of miles to conduct a similarly daring rescue of its citizens from hijackers. The Entebbe and Landshut rescues led terrorists to all but abandon high-profile aerial hijacking sieges.
On October 13, 1977, Lufthansa flight 181, a B-737 (called a Landshut) scheduled to fly from the Spanish resort island of Mallorca to Frankfurt, was hijacked 55 minutes after takeoff. Two women hijackers reached into their boots, withdrew guns and hand grenades, and along with two male accomplices, diverted the plane to Rome. On board were 82 passengers and 5 crew. Hostages included a Spanish flight crew, Swedish passengers, an Austrian flight attendant, four West German crew, six West German beauty queens, and two Americans.
Two hijackers identified themselves as Harda Mamoud and Walter Mohammed, who appeared to be their leader. A statement in grammatical and concise Arabic delivered to Reuters in Beirut identified them as the Organization of Struggle against World Imperialism, which confirms the “objectives and demands” of the Red Army Faction kidnappers of industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer. The group demanded the release of 11 terrorists from the Socialist Patients’ Collective and Baader-Meinhof Group in West German jails, as well as the release of two PFLP terrorists held in Turkish jails since an attack on August 11, 1976. They demanded $15 million and 100,000 marks for each prisoner. The terrorists demanded to have the prisoners flown to Vietnam, Somalia, or South Yemen.
The hijackers took off for Cyprus, landing in Larnaca, although the Cypriot government at first barred their arrival. In what came to be known as Operation Oscar X-Ray, Hans-Juergen Wischnewski, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s troubleshooter, carrying satchels with millions of marks, set off in a German jet trailing the hijacked plane in the hopes of beginning negotiations. Simultaneously, a West German commando unit began practicing assaults on a similar B-737 in the Cologne, West Germany, airport hangar. Two squads of 32 men each boarded a third jet and headed for Cyprus that night. Soon afterward, the German jet carrying the commandos arrived in Akrotiri, Cyprus, 50 miles from Larnaca, Cyprus. Perhaps fearing an Entebbe-type raid, the hijackers took off for Bahrain.
On its way, the plane was refused permission on October 14, 1977, to land in Beirut, Damascus, Kuwait, and Iraq. Bahrain and Dubai, which were next on their itinerary, tried to prevent the plane’s landing. Vietnam, Somalia, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, named by the hijackers as candidates to receive the released prisoners, indicated their unwillingness.
The hijackers hoped to increase the pressure by their treatment of the hostages and establish an image of being willing to kill. They consistently refused requests to release sick, young, or female passengers. The leader of the hijackers called out the names of those he believed were Jewish and said they would be killed in the morning. The female hijacker took delight in brushing grenades against the heads of the passengers while the terrorist leader ranted against imperialism and Zionism. Pressure mounted when the hijackers fired three shots at Dubai engineers approaching the aircraft to attach a mobile generator because the plane’s lighting system had failed.
The plane now headed for Oman, but the Sultan refused permission to land. They went on to Aden, but Yemen attempted to prevent the landing as well. Pilot Juergen Schumann left the aircraft to inspect damage to the landing gear and wandered into an area cordoned off by security forces. He attempted to convince the authorities not to allow the damaged plane to take off again. When he got back to the cabin, he was forced to kneel in the aisle while a one-question trial was held on whether he tried to escape. The leaders of the hijackers fired a bullet through his head in front of the passengers.
The terrorists forced the copilot to head the plane for Somalia. When the plane landed at Mogadishu, the pilot’s body was dumped onto the runway. The hijackers tied up the hostages, poured alcohol from passengers’ gift-shop liquor over them and in the cabin for eventual burning, and collected passports to throw out so that passengers could be identified after the planned explosion.
International recoil at this action grew to recognition of the need for immediate, forceful response. The team members of Grenzchutzgruppe Neun (GSG 9) set off before the Somali government gave permission for the rescue.
The GSG 9 team moved on the plane at 2:00 A.M. on October 18, 1977. Approaching from the rear, the commandos set up four stepladders. They ignited an oil drum and rolled it toward the nose of the plane and away from the craft. The hijackers were drawn to the cockpit for a better look, allowing the commandos to open the plane’s doors simultaneously. The raiders threw in specially designed British flash-bang grenades. Rushing in, the commandos yelled, “Get down!” Two terrorists were killed in the cockpit. A third in the first-class compartment opened fire. Although hit by two bullets, he hurled a grenade toward the rear of the plane. Hit by more bullets, he detonated another grenade while falling, injuring several hostages. The fourth terrorist, a woman, opened fire through the door of the lavatory in the rear of the plane. She was quickly subdued. Six minutes after the beginning of the operation, the passengers were safely out of the plane. One commando and four passengers were slightly injured.
The euphoria of the Germans was tempered by the embarrassment to the government over the prison suicides of Baader-Meinhof members Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Raspe, and Gudrun Ensslin, and the attempted suicide of Irmgard Moeller.
On October 27, 1977, the PFLP-Special Operations claimed credit, saying that the hijack leader was Zuhair Akkasha, whose fingerprints matched those of the killer of North Yemen’s former prime minister, Al Jehri, on April 10, 1977. The two other dead hijackers were identified as Nadia Shehade Doebis and Nabi Ibrahim Harb. Many suggested that the hijackers were members of an Iraqi-based group PFLP wing headed by Wadi Haddad.
In the wake of Japan’s embarrassment over caving in to hijackers during a September 28, 1977, incident in India and Germany’s jubilation over its success, many other nations felt pressed to establish similar commando rescue squads.
On March 20, 1993, Monika Haas was arrested for involvement in the Landshut hijacking. A warrant was issued for hostage-taking, kidnapping for the purpose of blackmail, and disrupting air traffic. She had been under investigation since March 4, 1993. She had written a book entitled The Red Army Faction–Stasi Connection. Haas was tried in 1996 for providing the weapons. She was sentenced in 1998 to five years in prison. A federal court dismissed her 2000 appeal.
On October 31, 1994, Der Spiegel reported that Palestinian Soraya Ansari, 41, was arrested in Norway and provided investigators with details of the Landshut hijacking of which she was the sole survivor. She stated that she knew Haas, who lived in Frankfurt, Germany. She said that Haas was the former wife of a Palestinian leader. Germany’s request for Ansari’s extradition was rejected by a lower court judge on December 9, 1994, citing humanitarian considerations. The decision was reversed a week later by an intermediate level court. She was freed just before Christmas.
As of January 6, 1995, Ansari, alias Souhaila Sami Andrawes, was fighting extradition. She admitted her role in the hijacking. A Somali court convicted her of air piracy and terrorism and sentenced her to 20 years. She was placed on a cargo plane to Baghdad and freedom in 1978. Beirut-born Ansari had been on Interpol’s wanted list since the early 1980s. Norwegian authorities said they did not know of her past when she, her husband Ahmed Abu-Matar, and daughter received residency permits after arriving from Cyprus in 1991.
Ansari claimed that Germany could not try her because of double jeopardy; she had already served time in Somali jails for the same crime. German officials said that a new German trial would be lawful because Somalia is not a signatory to international judicial conventions and that a year in jail fell far short of justice.
On November 19, 1996, Hamburg’s State Supreme Court convicted Suhaila Sayeh, a Palestinian woman, of murder and other crimes and sentenced her to 12 years in prison for her role in the Landshut hijacking. She was one of the four hijackers, but claimed she had no role in killing the plane’s pilot. The court ruled that she had been complicit. Sayeh was the only hijacker to survive the German GSG 9 rescue operation in Somalia that freed 87 hostages. She was arrested in 1994 in Oslo, Norway, and extradited to Germany.