December 7, 2006
Ignoring the lessons of the past
In a London courtroom 20 years ago this winter, a naive Irish woman who had recently given birth to a daughter screamed abuse from the witness stand at the child's father, an impassive Arab man who was sitting across from her in the dock.
"You bastard," Ann Murphy shouted hysterically at Nezar Hindawi. "How could you do this to me?"
And then, being the well-raised, polite woman that she was, Murphy, who had hitherto maintained her composure through a day and a half of harrowing testimony, immediately turned to the judge to apologize for her lapse.
Moments later, though, she lost control again.
"I hate you. I hate you," she wailed at Hindawi, whose dispassionate expression still didn't crack.
Ann Murphy was the "human time bomb" who had been viciously primed by Hindawi to unwittingly carry a bomb on board an El Al plane from London's Heathrow Airport to Tel Aviv earlier that year.
In what the prosecution described, truly without hyperbole, as "one of the most callous acts of all time," the Jordanian-born Hindawi had befriended and ultimately proposed marriage to Murphy, bought her a ticket to Tel Aviv 10 days after she accepted his professions of everlasting love, and told her that while his work commitments meant he'd have to fly in via a different route, he'd meet her in the Holy Land for their wedding.
Instead, he had been intending to send her, their unborn child and the 380 other innocents aboard that April 17, 1986, flight to their deaths. He had placed a slab of plastic explosives in the false bottom of the travel bag he had purchased for her, and then helped her pack her holiday clothes on top of it. In a taxi en route to the airport, he had fiddled with the calculator he had asked her to take out as a present for a friend, Murphy testified; in fact, he was setting the bomb timer. The device had been programmed to detonate when the El Al jumbo was at 39,000 feet, above Austria. It would have ripped the plane apart.
Mr. "A.," an El Al security agent on check-in duty at Heathrow, discovered the bomb. Giving evidence at the trial from behind a screen to protect his identity, he testified that he became suspicious of what seemed an inordinately heavy bag and, having emptied out its contents, discovered the false compartment.
It is likely, too, that El Al's well-honed routine screening procedures had already identified Murphy as worthy of particular attention: She had only just got her passport, the ticket was newly purchased and she was five months pregnant and traveling alone. The most rudimentary questioning, revealing the Arab fiancé who was purportedly flying out separately, must have instantly set the alarm bells ringing.
On Oct. 24, 1986, after the jury had unanimously found him guilty, Nezar Hindawi was sent to jail for 45 years -- the longest prison sentence in British legal history.
That same day, Britain severed its diplomatic relations with Syria, giving ambassador Loutouf al-Haydar seven days to close up his embassy and leave.
Syria was comprehensively tied to the failed bombing of El Al flight 016.
Hindawi was arrested in possession of a Damascus-issued "Syrian service passport" -- the kind used for "official government business," the court heard. He told police under questioning that he had been dispatched on his bombing mission by the head of Syrian Air Force intelligence, Muhammad al-Khouli, one of president Hafez Assad's closest advisers, having been motivated by the combination of hatred for Israel and the promise of a $250,000 reward. The bomb, he went on, had been smuggled into the United Kingdom by Syrian officials in a Syrian diplomatic bag on a Syrian Arab Airlines (SAA) plane. He had been taught how to handle it and how to set the timer by another senior Syrian intelligence official, Haithan Said, a deputy of al-Khouli's.
Having abandoned Murphy and her fellow passengers to their intended fate at Heathrow, Hindawi went back to his hotel and collected his bags, planning on returning to the airport for an SAA flight to Paris. But hearing news that the bomb had been discovered, he went instead to the Syrian embassy, where he met with ambassador Haydar, a senior diplomat who was also very close to the late Assad. Haydar called Damascus for guidance; Syrian embassy officials were instructed to take Hindawi in an embassy car to have his hair cut and dyed, presumably in preparation for smuggling him out of the country.
But realizing, belatedly, that the Syrian government might not be planning to accord the gentlest treatment to a failed bomber who could implicate some of its most senior personnel in a horrific attempt at state-sponsored terrorism, Hindawi gave the Syrians the slip. He was taken into police custody the following day.
Under questioning, Hindawi sang like a bird about Syria's terror tentacles. He tied Damascus to a terror attack at Rome airport in 1985 and to another at a Paris newspaper office in 1982. He directed police to two weapons caches outside London, detailed how SAA crew members regularly brought explosives and arms into the UK and provided information on terror cells in the UK, Italy and Germany.
According to some reports, British intelligence had been tracking Hindawi for two months before the bomb plot was thwarted, having intercepted and decoded communications between the Syrian embassy and Damascus. Britain's MI5 reportedly witnessed Hindawi meeting with embassy officials and received rare official permission to bug the embassy. True or not, the fact is that Britain's foreign secretary at the time, Sir Geoffrey Howe, told Parliament immediately after Hindawi had been convicted that Britain had incontrovertible proof of the Syrian government's deep involvement in the "monstrous and inhumane crime."
"We have independent evidence that the Syrian ambassador was personally involved ... in securing for Hindawi the sponsorship of the Syrian intelligence authorities," Howe told his colleagues in the House of Commons. "The whole house will be outraged by the Syrian role in this case.... We have therefore decided to break diplomatic relations with Syria."