The FBI has a long arm — and a long memory — when it comes to terrorism. Case in point, the agency has issued a new appeal for information that could lead to the arrests of four Palestinian men who were once imprisoned for their roles in the 1986 attack on Pan Am Flight 73 as it sat on the airport tarmac in Karachi, Pakistan. That Sept. 5 attack was part of an especially tough year for international aviation. A number of other incidents, including the April 2 bombing of TWA Flight 840 on its way from Rome to Athens, kept me hopping the globe in my job as a counterterrorism special agent for the State Department.
So it heartened me to see that the FBI, in an effort to turn up investigative leads on the whereabouts of the four — who disappeared in 2008 after being released from Pakistani custody but who still face charges in the United States — recently issued new images of the men, age-adjusted to show what their appearance might be today. The assault on Pan Am 73, which began as a hijacking attempt and turned into a bloodbath leaving 20 passengers, including two Americans, dead, was carried out by the Abu Nidal Organization, a Palestinian terrorist group.
In the 1980s, whenever a U.S.-flagged air carrier was hijacked anywhere in the world, the State Department would offer investigative assistance to the host nation. Although the FBI was the lead agency in the criminal investigations, the State Department would assist with a range of issues, include securing clearances to allow U.S. government agents to travel to the affected country to help resolve the hijacking. It was routine for our agents to team up with the FBI and conduct joint interviews of hostages and captured terrorists. Our office also managed the State Department's Rewards for Justice Program.
The attack in Karachi was part of a pattern established throughout the 1980s by the Abu Nidal Organization, led by Sabri al-Banna (aka Abu Nidal), which carried out other high-profile attacks besides hijackings, including assassinations and bombings. In December 1985, the group targeted Western aviation interests with simultaneous attacks on airports in Rome and Vienna.
In the Pan Am 73 case a few months later, with the plane stuck on the ground after the cockpit aircrew escaped in the early stages of the hijacking attempt, the Abu Nidal Organization's team opened fire on the hostages inside the plane, thinking that a Pakistani commando team was in the midst of a hostage rescue. In addition to the 20 slain, more than 100 passengers and crew were wounded, creating a horrific scene of carnage and chaos inside the aircraft. In the aftermath, we sent investigative and agent debriefing teams to Pakistan, Germany and New York City to talk with surviving passengers and crew. Some of the victims had been transported to Germany for medical care.
The Pakistanis arrested a total of five suspects for the hijacking and murders. All five were tried in Pakistan and sentenced to prison. In 2001, one of the terrorists was released by the Pakistani authorities and captured by the FBI. He is now serving what is essentially a life sentence in a U.S. prison. In 2008, the other four suspects were let go by the Pakistani authorities and subsequently went to ground. They remain on the loose, and a $5 million reward is being offered for information leading to their capture.
In retrospect, the fact that the Pakistani authorities didn't hand the terrorists over to the U.S. government for prosecution in 2008 resonates loudly. Let's face it; the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan has been strained for a while. But, looking at the situation as a former agent, I have faith that the large reward and dogged pursuit of justice by the new FBI and State Department investigators behind the scenes will eventually bear fruit. As I learned firsthand in the capture of jihadist bombmaker Ramzi Yousef, the operational leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, in Pakistan, and as we all saw unfold in Osama Bin Laden's takedown, U.S. agents have a way of bringing justice to terrorists, even if the suspects remain inside Pakistan.