Terror in Black September: The First Eyewitness Account of the Infamous 1970 Hijackings

Terror in Black September: The First Eyewitness Account of the Infamous 1970 Hijackings

by David Raab

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On Sunday, September 6, 1970, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked four airliners bound from Europe for New York. One, a brand new Pan Am 747, was taken to Cairo and blown up only seconds after its passengers escaped. The attempt to hijack a second plane, an El Al flight, was foiled and the plane landed safely in the UK. Two other


On Sunday, September 6, 1970, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked four airliners bound from Europe for New York. One, a brand new Pan Am 747, was taken to Cairo and blown up only seconds after its passengers escaped. The attempt to hijack a second plane, an El Al flight, was foiled and the plane landed safely in the UK. Two other planes, one TWA and one Swissair, were directed to the desert floor thirty-five miles northeast of Amman, Jordan, where a twenty-five day hostage drama began. With the additional hijacking of a British airliner, over four hundred and fifty hostages had landed in the Jordanian desert. David Raab was on the TWA flight with his mother and siblings but was separated from them and taken to a refugee camp and then to an apartment in Amman where he was held hostage through a civil war. This is his story.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Thirty-seven years ago on September 6, Palestinian revolutionaries hijacked four airliners bound for New York. Two of the planes were flown to the desert outside of Amman, Jordan, and held there just as the Jordanian civil war erupted. Raab, a health-care executive, was a 17-year-old hostage on one of those planes, and he recounts the ordeal, which resulted in his being separated from his family and dragged back and forth across Jordan for weeks in fear for his life. Raab also attempts to narrate the larger story, from the tense, fractious multinational negotiations over the hostages to the conflict between the Jordanian army and the Palestinian guerrillas. It is an ambitious undertaking, one that Raab lacks the craft to achieve. While the book is painstakingly researched, the writing rarely comes alive, even in the most dramatic situations. The various sources-including Raab's account that he wrote soon after his release-seem to be stuck together rather than shaped. Still, much of the material is intrinsically fascinating and a sad reminder of how much and how little has changed. Four hijacking attempts in one day was a record that would stand alone for 31 years, until another September day in 2001. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A hostage recalls his three-week ordeal in the Jordanian desert as Western diplomacy struggled with a new kind of terrorism. In the wake of the cataclysmic attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many have forgotten the grim drama that took place three decades earlier, when Palestinian guerillas hijacked three commercial airliners on a single September day in 1970. Raab, now a healthcare executive, was then a 17-year-old returning from a summer in Israel, heading home to New Jersey aboard a TWA 707 jet that had departed Frankfurt for New York. Raab relates in detail how his plane, later joined by two other hijacked airliners from different points of origin, was taken over and landed at dusk in the Jordanian desert. The guerillas emptied one plane and blew it up, threatening to do the same to the jets with kidnapped passengers aboard if their nations of origin did not cooperate and induce Israel to release a list of Palestinians detained for prior terrorist acts. This all happened against the background of an armed movement by Palestinians living in Jordan to overthrow the regime of King Hussein in the wake of his joining Egypt and Israel in a cease-fire and peace talks. The successful conclusion of negotiations for the release of all hostages from the hijacked airliners coincided with the Jordanian Army's ultimate victory (with Israel's sub rosa assistance) against the guerillas. But it was a grim three weeks for Raab and the nine other American men taken from their plane to a refugee compound in Amman, where they were held by a rogue element among the hijackers who thought their leaders' negotiating stance was too conciliatory. The author cuts between the diplomatic maneuversand the hostages sweating it out in captivity. Retrospectively instructive on the Middle East, but emotionally flat as a personal narrative.

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Terror in Black September

The First Eyewitness Account of the Infamous 1970 Hijackings

By David Raab

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2007 David Raab
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-60684-5



SEPTEMBER 11, 1970

Two-thirty AM. Nearly a hundred people were asleep: some upright in their seats, some sprawled out over a few chairs, and some laid out on the floor between two rows. It was dark all around except up front and in back, where two gas lamps were making a constant hiss and giving off a bright but sinister light. It was deathly still inside the plane except for an occasional sigh of anguish, subconsciously made by a sleeping person after almost a week of constant tension.

Suddenly, a flashlight was shining in my face. I looked up and saw the copilot, Jim Majer, standing over me. His eyes were elongated from lack of sleep. The beginnings of a blond beard could be seen on his tanned face. His hair was a mess because he had run his fingers through it many times over the past few days. He had a sad look about him. He had had to bear much more than the rest of the passengers because he was a member of the crew and had to look out not only for his own good, but also for the good of all the other people on board. Now he was forced to be the bearer of bad news.

"David, they want you up front ... for questioning."

Petrified, I quickly came to my senses, even though I had just been awakened in the middle of my first decent night's sleep in a week. Immediately, I smelled the foul odors emanating from the hundred human beings who had been living unwashed in these confines for five days, odors that were intensified daily by the heat of the desert and the increasing stench of the plugged-up toilets.

What was a plane doing in the middle of a desert, and what were a hundred people, including me, doing living there? Arab guerrillas had decided to bring this about by hijacking the plane I was on. And now some of these guerrillas wanted me ... for "questioning."

I looked pleadingly at Jim, wanting to ignore what he had just said, but knowing that I had no choice but to obey. His answer to me was a look of sympathy that said that he didn't want to have to tell me to go and he didn't want me to go, but that he, too, had to do what he was told.

I got up and put on my shirt, socks, and shoes, for I had been sleeping in just a pair of short pants and an undershirt.

I thought to myself that it would be better not to think of what might be in store for me. But I knew I would be taken off the plane in a few minutes, never to see it again. What about my mother, three brothers, and sister who were also on the plane, my father at home nervously wondering and waiting? When would I see them all again? I tried to force these thoughts out of my mind.

My mother, who was sitting a few rows in back of me, saw me while I was shuffling around, looking for my shoes under the seats, and instinctively knew what was going on. She came over to me. Her face showed the surprise, sorrow, uncertainty, and fear that she was feeling—when would she see her son again? Though this was probably the saddest moment of our lives, we shed no tears. Crying would only make us feel worse and would probably wake up someone, robbing him of some well-deserved sleep. There was a mutual understanding between us—thank you for being so close to me for seventeen years, be brave, do the best you can, and try to survive. Hopefully, we'll be together again.

I started walking up the aisle with my mother close behind. I began to shake. I had lost control over my muscles and was twitching violently all over. But I continued walking. The Arabs would not take this as an excuse for my not getting off the plane. One of the men who had been summoned, and who felt equally as bad as I, saw my condition and put his arm around my shoulder, bringing me close to him and thereby stopping my shaking.

We were then told to get off the plane. I turned around and looked at my mother with pleading eyes, and she looked at me with sympathetic ones. We condensed into a short moment the lifetime that we deserved to have as mother and child.

Unable to hold back the tears much longer, I left the plane, slowly descending the ladder from the door of the plane, onto a jeep, and then onto the desert floor. I had a feeling of emptiness—I was being taken away from my family to a place that I didn't know anything about. I had no one to console me except nine other men who felt the same as I did.




By the time the hijackings occurred in September 1970, Jordan was a seething cauldron, superheated by friction between the Palestinian resistance movement and the regime of King Hussein.

1967: The Ingredients Are Mixed

In 1967 King Hussein made a disastrous decision. Jordan was moderate, Western-leaning, and, quietly, even on good terms with Israel. But in June 1967, at the behest and duplicity of Egypt and Syria, Jordan entered the Six-Day War and promptly lost its West Bank. During the fighting, about 200,000 Palestinian Arabs fled to the East Bank, planning to return once Jordan won. It did not, and these refugees instead joined over half a million others who had fled during Israel's 1948 War of Independence and whose descendants lived there too. By 1970 Palestinians made up over half the population of Jordan's East Bank, mostly unabsorbed into society, concentrated in refugee camps, awaiting their "return."

The Palestinian resistance movement, established to destroy Israel long before the war, also shifted its operations to Jordan's East Bank—what is now simply Jordan. The dynamics of the movement and its relationship with Hussein are integral to our story.

After the humiliating Arab defeat in 1967, Palestinians felt abandoned by Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, who now focused on regaining their lost territory rather than destroying Israel. Many Palestinian leaders concluded as well that Arab regimes could not destroy Israel even if their desire to do so resurfaced. They resolved to retake control over their own fate and to promote guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla groups created before the war grew, and new entrepreneurial groups began to proliferate. Some formed around individual leaders or philosophies; others were created by Arab states who wanted to have a hand in the guerrilla movement. Over time, certain groups began to stand out.

Fatah became the largest and most important of the fedayeen organizations. ("Fedayeen," meaning "those who sacrifice themselves," is how the Arab world referred to the guerrillas. "Fatah," meaning "conquest," is the reverse acronym of the organization's Arabic name.) Founded in the late 1950s by Yasser Arafat, Salakh Khalaf (Abu Iyad), and a few colleagues, its message was simple and appealing: Only Palestinians could be entrusted to destroy Israel. In spring 1968, Cairo-born, 37-year-old Yasser Arafat was named Fatah's spokesman.

Probably the second largest organization and certainly the key to our story was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Unlike Fatah, it was highly ideological, calling not only for the liberation of Palestine but for the creation of a Marxist-Leninist Arab society. Formed in January 1968 by 41-year-old Dr. George Habash and his second in command, 43-year-old Dr. Wadia (Wadi) Haddad, the PFLP was fiercely independent, although it did receive extensive funding from Iraq and had close ties with Red China. The group was militant and radical. "If [it] is the only way to destroy Israel, Zionism, and Arab reaction," Habash asserted in a 1970 interview, "then we want World War III to come." In another he warned, "America is our enemy," and the PFLP was about to "teach the United States a lesson." And, unlike Fatah, which at least officially vowed not to interfere in intra-Arab affairs, the PFLP never hid its intent to replace King Hussein as a first step in liberating Palestine. The group was also fractious, ravaged by intense disputes. Only months after its founding, two important fighters departed to form their own groups. Such disagreements would play an important part in our story too.

1968: The Fire Is Lit

The year 1968 marked an important turning point for the Palestinian resistance movement when Arafat took credit for a limited battlefield success, with the Jordanian army's help, against a major Israeli retaliatory incursion. In a public relations coup, Arafat ignited the imagination of the Palestinians in Jordan and elsewhere in Arab world. His reputation soared, and thousands of young Palestinians swarmed to join Fatah and other guerrilla organizations.

Heady times ensued. As Bassam Abu-Sharif, a PFLP spokesman, later recalled, "People who had lost faith completely in Arab nationalism turned to these groups in huge numbers. Volunteers queued up to join, to become fedayeen.... In 1968 a Palestinian fedayi could travel right across the Arab world with nothing more than his organization card and be welcome everywhere. No passport—just the card. Nobody, nobody, in the Arab world then, dared raise a voice against a fedayi.... [T]he fedayi was god."

Building on the momentum, Yasser Arafat and Fatah gradually seized control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—ironically, it had been created in 1964 by the Arab states to rein in uncoordinated terror activity—and transformed it into an umbrella guerrilla organization. Arafat was elected chairman in February 1969. By June 1970, the PLO's Central Committee, now headquartered in Amman, included twenty-seven commando groups. Despite the numerous factions, on one thing the PLO was unified: It wanted Israel eliminated and it opposed all diplomacy.

1970: The Concoction Is Aboil

By 1970 the resistance movement in Jordan had swelled to about 20,000 full-time commandos, another 20,000 in popular militias, and perhaps another 20,000 to 30,000 active supporters. Fatah had between 5,000 and 10,000 armed men; the PFLP, 2,000 to 3,000. Despite the movement's swollen ranks, only a few hundred people were actually battling Israel. The rest, pushed back from the borders by Israeli retaliatory strikes and by Jordanians unhappy at being caught in those retaliations, now infested Jordan's cities, controlled refugee camps, flouted Jordan's laws, directed ever-increasing violence at the Jordanian regime and army, and essentially created a state within a state. Fatah began to see itself as King Hussein's equal, or his better. "We were sovereigns, masters of the situation," asserted Abu Iyad. Hussein's prestige at home and abroad began to erode, as did his control over the affairs of his country.

Adding to the charged mix, between 17,000 and 20,000 Iraqi troops, including tank and mechanized brigades, were permanently stationed northeast of Amman. These troops had come to fight in the 1967 war but now refused to leave or to answer to Hussein's command. Ominously, these forces were sympathetic to the fedayeen, and Iraq warned that it would not remain impartial if fighting were to break out.

With highly conflicted feelings, young King Hussein essentially stood by as the guerrillas steadily took control of his country, despite the growing frustration of his army of 65,000 soldiers—professional, well trained, and composed largely of fiercely loyal Bedouins. The fedayeen were a source of pride to Jordan's large Palestinian populace as the one force still daring to fight Israel. Plus, the fedayeen served Hussein's purposes: They diverted the public's attention from domestic issues and could perhaps help him one day regain the West Bank. When East Bankers and army leaders demanded that he crack down, King Hussein replied: "What should I do to a people who have lost everything—who were driven out of their country? Shoot them? I think we have come to a point where we are all fedayeen."

By summer 1970, however, the pervasive, disruptive, armed fedayeen had wrought anarchy throughout the kingdom. They set up roadblocks around the country not only to protect themselves from the government but to shake down civilians. They extorted shopkeepers, businessmen, foreigners, and civilians at gunpoint; they impounded cars and threatened judges. Fatah's "cowboys" swaggered around, heavily armed, recorded Arafat biographer Alan Hart, "as though they owned the place and could do what they liked."

Even more serious was the fedayeen's hostile attitude toward the Jordanian army. Horror stories abound, evincing painful memories even today. The fedayeen took to sniping randomly at Jordanian soldiers, killing many. They accosted, kidnapped, disarmed, and abused soldiers to such an extent that soldiers were afraid to enter Amman. Many did not go home or visit their families for weeks at a time out of fear of being attacked. The fedayeen also terrorized soldiers' families; the son of the deputy chief of staff was assassinated in his house.

Gun, rocket, and mortar fire exchanges between the guerrillas and government troops echoed regularly in Jordan's cities, including Amman. King Hussein himself later described the situation: "No one—adult or child—could be sure on leaving his house whether his family would see him again. Amman became a virtual battlefield." To ensure his safety, the king was forced to lower his own profile to such an extent that people wondered whether he was still around. A bogus royal motorcade, including the king's double, had to be arranged to traverse Amman's streets just to reassure the people.

On June 9, the fedayeen opened fire on Jordanian Intelligence headquarters in Amman. When King Hussein went to see what was going on, his entourage was ambushed. One royal guardsman was killed, four were wounded. An infuriated army vented with firefights against the fedayeen. A ceasefire was agreed to the next day but collapsed the day after. On that same day Major Bob Perry, the U.S. assistant military attaché, was assassinated in front of his family by terrorists when he answered his door. Hume Horan, an American Embassy official in Amman at the time, recalls: "The police didn't dare to intervene. They were of no consequence and, besides, many were also Palestinians."

In an attempt to placate the Palestinians, on June 11 Hussein offered Arafat the premiership. Arafat declined. Instead, Hussein was forced to replace his uncle as army commander in chief with Major General Mashhur Haditha, who was on closer terms with the PLO. Hussein also appointed a new moderate prime minister, Abdul Moneim Rifai.

Despite these conciliatory moves, an agreement with the Palestinians was not reached until a month later. But even that cease-fire proved weak and was consistently violated. World capitals believed that Hussein was on his way out. "All the indicators were downward," recalls Horan. "The PLO factions were the darling of Arab intellectuals and the Arab street. Half of Jordan's population was Palestinian. A hostile Syria was to the north. An Iraqi tank division was encamped in [Zarqa]. And every Arab under 20 thought Hussein a stooge for Zionism and Western imperialism. King Hussein was extraordinarily isolated."

Late Summer: The Cauldron Seethes

King Hussein then made a decision that sent the guerrillas over the edge. Concerned that an escalating war of attrition between Israel and Egypt along the Suez Canal might spiral out of control, U.S. secretary of state William Rogers in June asked Egypt, Jordan, and Israel to agree to a cease-fire and to hold peace talks. They consented, and on August 7 the cease-fire went into effect. The acceptance of the "Rogers Plan" infuriated the guerrillas, who remained committed to Israel's destruction and saw diplomatic efforts as a plot to "liquidate" the Palestinian issue. Habash warned: "If a settlement with Israel is applied, we will turn the Middle East into hell."


Excerpted from Terror in Black September by David Raab. Copyright © 2007 David Raab. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

DAVID RAAB is CEO of Raab&Co., a management consulting firm. He holds an M.S. from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. from the Weizmann Institute (Israel), and a B.A. from Bar Ilan University (Israel). He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Yeshiva University. Mr. Raab is actively engaged in Israel and Middle East affairs and has published several articles. He is married and divides his time between Teaneck, New Jersey, and Raanana, Israel.

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