My cousin Therese hijacked a Boeing 707. On May 8, 1972, she boarded Sabena Flight 571, scheduled to fly from Brussels to Tel Aviv. She wore a girdle stuffed with two and a half kilos of high explosives. She later made the bizarre claim that she wore it for her bad back. She had used similar girdles to ease the suffering of patients while she was a student nurse at the English Hospital in Nazareth. Her father told the Jerusalem Post that everyone in their home town of Acre knew that Therese suffered from agonizing back pain. Back pain runs in our family and has been made an excuse for all kinds of wild behavior, but nobody before Therese had tried to use it to hijack a plane.
In 1972, she was 18 years old. She was not typically beautiful; her broad, plain features ran on my father’s side of our family, and like many Arab young women her age, she felt the social pressure to get married. The Munich massacres were still to come, and hijacking was much in vogue. For the guerrilla group Al Fatah, or any of the other terrorist groups joined under the umbrella of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), there was gold to be mined in the skies above their heads. Two months earlier, Ali Taha Abu Snina, whose code name was Kamal Rafat, the “captain” or senior officer in charge of Therese’s hijacking, had secured a $5 million ransom from the West German government for a Lufthansa B-747 that had been hijacked and forced to land in South Yemen while en route from New Delhi to Athens.
To match the girdle Therese wore, like a revolutionary’s twinset, a battery-operated detonator in her bra. She had also concealed a hand grenade in a box of talcum powder in her carry-on luggage.
When she left Beirut the first week of May, no one had bothered to tell her what her mission would be. Three months training in an Al Fatah camp had taught her to obey orders. But she had an inkling that she would be involved in “some sort of hijack operation or an act of sabotage against the Jews or maybe the Americans.” A clue was provided by Abdul Aziz Al-Atrash, a member of her revolutionary cell, whom she knew only by the name in his stolen Israeli passport, Zachariah; when they flew together from Beirut, he asked if she would be afraid if they attempted to seize an airplane. He called her by her code name, Samira.
On Monday afternoon, May 8, the men in Therese’s cell, armed with automatic weapons, and the women, wearing girdles full of explosives and carrying grenades — Rima, the only other woman with Therese, had hidden hers in her vanity makeup case — waited in line to be searched at Brussels Airport. Back then, security was practically nonexistent, and the group had already successfully smuggled several kilos of high explosives, two grenades, and two automatic weapons undetected on previous flights. They boarded the aircraft and took their assigned seats, among 65 other passengers, on the flight, whose final destination was to be Tel Aviv. When the plane stopped in Vienna, 25 people came aboard. The flight was nearly full.
Fifteen minutes after takeoff, Therese went to the lavatory, removed her girdle, and extracted her grenade. Rima did the same. Back in the seats, they waited five minutes, after which Zachariah went forward into the cockpit. Rafat and Therese walked to the front of the passengers’ compartment, where Rafat, brandishing his automatic pistol, said in a calm, slightly accented English that they were hijacking the plane. He told them nobody would get hurt as long as they did what they were told. A voice over the loudspeaker announced they were flying over Sarajevo.