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." In that same furious speech, Howe called on Britain's allies to internalize the gravity of Syria's crime and follow Britain's lead in taking "appropriate action."
The United States and Canada promptly withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus. But the European community balked at even this step, to the unconcealed indignation of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Two weeks later, the Europeans finally agreed on a virtually harmless package of sanctions against Damascus -- including the suspension of high-level visits, a review of the activities of Syrian diplomats and tightened security around SAA but excluding, for instance, the suspension of existing arms deals. The Greeks said they were still not persuaded of Syrian involvement in the bomb plot, and the French were ready to condemn only "certain Syrian citizens" rather than the Assad government. French prime minister Jacques Chirac had by then been quoted relaying speculation that the whole affair had been planned by the Mossad in order to embarrass Damascus. Naturally, Chirac strenuously claimed he had been misquoted.
Needless to say, Syria's state terror networks were not remotely inconvenienced by the international community's pathetic punitive sanctions following the "monstrous" Hindawi affair. Neither Syria, nor other terror states and organizations, were remotely deterred from intensifying their efforts at indiscriminate killing.
Two years after Hindawi went to jail, indeed, someone did manage to get a bomb on board a jumbo out of Heathrow. Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, and all 270 passengers and crew on board were killed. Libya eventually acknowledged responsibility.
Just recently, almost exactly 20 years after ambassador Haydar packed his bags and left London for good, German police announced they'd cracked another plot to smuggle a bomb onto an El Al plane, apparently out of Frankfurt this time. Details are still sketchy, but it appears that the police discovery -- six arrests following a lucky windfall from a wiretapping operation that had been aimed at drug dealers -- would have come too late had the plotters gone through with their original schedule. Their idea was to target El Al during last summer's German-hosted soccer World Cup, but the plan went awry, it has been reported, when they failed to reach an agreement with the employee at Frankfurt airport who was earmarked to place the bomb on board. No "Mr. A." would have had the opportunity to inspect that bag.
And having assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a Beirut car-bombing in February 2005, and killed half a dozen more of its prominent critics inside Lebanon in the nearly two years since, Syria last month evidently sent its terrorists into action again, murdering the rising star of a prominent Lebanese political clan, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, in his car in Beirut.
Ann Murphy and her daughter, Sarah, who turned 20 this summer, have been long since forgotten. So, too, Sarah's unthinkably callous father, Nezar Hindawi, rotting in jail. And so, too, of course, that forlorn package of European sanctions against Damascus. Even Britain, so outraged in 1986, restored its relations with Syria a mere four years later, freeing up $200 million in EU development assistance for the Assad regime -- to reward Syria for its part in the U.S.-led Gulf War coalition against Iraq and to try to secure the release of British hostages in Beirut. Completing the shift, the United States is now apparently increasingly inclined to contemplate engaging with Syria as a potential force for calming Iraq.
Why does Syria -- not to mention the nearly nuclear Iran, and the dizzying array of terror groups they jointly sponsor in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and far, far beyond -- so utterly deride the notion that the West will ever unite to effectively counter the strategy of terrorism? Well, international inertia in the face of Iran's brazen nuclear program and that new pressure for a Washington-Damascus "engagement" are only the most recent cases in point. A far earlier one is the small matter of Nezar Hindawi and the Syrian bid to bomb El Al.
As the British Jewish politician Greville (now Lord) Janner was heard to remark bitterly in the face of Europe's impotent response to the Hindawi affair, "If you don't fight terrorists together, you will be blown up separately."
David Horovitz is editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post, where this originally appeared.