Hijacking of Ethiopian Airliner Reveals Illusions of Secrecy: Experts

There’s a new revelation in the ongoing saga of our passenger airplanes at risk of being compromised by terrorists — it’s the case of a successful terror attack carried out by the plane’s host…

Hijacking of Ethiopian Airliner Reveals Illusions of Secrecy: Experts

There’s a new revelation in the ongoing saga of our passenger airplanes at risk of being compromised by terrorists — it’s the case of a successful terror attack carried out by the plane’s host country, Ethiopia.

In recent weeks, Ethiopian Airlines and a source within its own government released a first-person account detailing an Islamic extremist attack on the country’s flagship airliner in April.

According to an email from a regional security official, the extremist group Jama’atu Ahl Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad used Ethiopia’s national airline to smuggle weapons into the country.

In that attack, Islamic extremists from Yemen’s al-Qaida terror network hijacked an Ethiopian Airlines flight on April 10, flying past the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea at 500 miles per hour, reported NBC News. The jets took off for Djibouti, then headed for Burundi, Rwanda and Libya, before touching down at a small airport in Algiers. There, they seized control of the aircraft and diverted it to Eritrea, according to NBC News.

“The hijackers are passengers who paid to be on the flight,” said the official. “They have rented multiple seats and are fleeing from security cameras. All those from the original flight are on board, and the hijackers have and have escorted their fellow passengers to the bathrooms.”

Terror experts, still reeling from the news of a new revelation about a passenger aircraft held up by armed extremists, said the hijacking appeared to be an intelligence-gathering mission, as well as a chance to steal a plane’s highly sensitive communications capabilities.

“This couldn’t be more disturbing, especially at a time when the U.S. government is simply not in a position to pass along critical security information to its partners in Africa,” said James Appathurai, president of the U.S.-based company The Aviation Safety Network.

The aviation safety network specializes in assisting airlines around the world in securing their aircraft by preventing theft, said Appathurai.

Ethiopian Airlines officials have released a passenger statement written by Al Jazeera English journalist Bilal Mohammed that illustrates a dramatic shift in the belief of the hijackers. In that statement, they used Arabic to ask Allah to allow them to take “a gift from Allah.”

“Allah give us permission to deliver [a gift], which will be great, from God,” they wrote. “Allah.”

That the hijackers took off in Arabic — not simply English, as they often did in other hijackings — hints that the mission was intelligence-gathering, according to Sky News.

“While hijacking does not involve any information sharing with the U.S. government, this implies the reason for the hijacking was a potential intelligence operation to be shared with the U.S. and the U.S. is effectively at the beck and call of the hijackers,” Appathurai said.

Ethiopian Airlines officials did not respond to inquiries sent via email. NBC News is attempting to reach a spokesperson for the airline.

The information surrounding the attack came to light this week after an official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, spoke with NBC News to explain the hijacking attack. It also follows official warnings from top U.S. intelligence officials about the terrorist threat posed by Iran’s Hezbollah.

Smugglers have used airliners for months to smuggle drugs and weapons into East Africa, but the hijacking attack in Eritrea marks the first time a cargo plane used to facilitate terrorism has been used for that purpose, experts have said.

In other hijackings, hijackers have diverted planes and interrogated the pilots and flight attendants for information about countries they were headed for, security experts have said.

Most recently, hijackers redirected the aircraft of Ethiopian Airlines in April. Hours after the flight was diverted to Berbera in Somaliland, the two airlines announced that their passenger aircraft had returned safely to the capital, Addis Ababa.

As part of the Friday announcement, official said the passengers escaped the plane and that all the hijackers were arrested.

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