Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Hijack Drama Descends into Tragicomedy
Last week's hijack drama aboard a Tupolev-154 flying out of Makhachkala started as a gripping international thriller and ended as a grotesque vaudeville farce.
The plane with 48 passengers and 10 crew was hijacked en route to Moscow and diverted to Israel. The terrorist was later seized by Israeli police who initially informed the Russian authorities that he was a Chechen supporting the Islamic cause.
However, the sanity of the hijacker, Akhmed Amirkhanov, was soon called into question when, according to Israeli officials, he announced that his father had sent him to protest to the "emperor of Japan and the world" about "the yellow race overthrowing the white race".
The prosecutor general of Dagestan then told journalists that Amirkhanov had thrown a handwritten note out of the plane when it touched down for refuelling in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. It began, "Attention! This is an announcement for the secret services of the white race..."
It later emerged that the hijacker was a former law student from Makhachkala University, who had been expelled for consistently failing to attend his exams. Both he and his father were reported to have suffered from various psychiatric problems.
But, in the hours following the hijack, the Russian and Israeli media wasted no opportunity to wring every drop of tension out of the mid-air crisis - and to score a few propaganda points in the process.
Izvestia daily newspaper in Moscow reported that the man was 36-year-old Zagir Gusseinov, a resident of the Khasavyurt region of Dagestan, who had served three jail terms and was "an active Wahhabite". (Apparently common wisdom holds that anyone who is deranged is automatically a Wahhabite, since the reverse is clearly the case).
The Israeli authorities were quick to announce that the hijacker was an Islamic militant from Chechnya who had re-routed the plane to the Middle East as a demonstration of support for the Palestinian uprising. Israeli TV claimed that the Chechens had dubbed the operation "Al-Aha" after a mosque of the same name in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz, chief of the Israeli general staff, took personal charge of the operation and Prime Minister Ehud Barak turned back from a trip to Washington as fears grew that the drama might turn into a re-enactment of the 1972 anti-terrorist operation in Ben Gurion airport. The operation, incidentally, was headed by Barak personally, with the future premier, Binyamin Netanyahu, among the commandos.
However, the suspense soon turned to disappointment as the hijacker surrendered and made just one demand - to hold a press conference. Press reports still fail to agree as to what Amirkhanov used as a fake bomb - a blood pressure gauge or a rolled-up bandage. But there is still more confusion over why the Chechen Wahhabite theory enjoyed such wide exposure in the Russian and Israeli press.
With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still raging, the Israelis - to quote Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia - "are in retreat". Both the nation's leaders and its people are desperate for some spectacular success to boost flagging morale.
At the same time, Israel seems increasingly eager to strengthen its ties with Russia by emphasising the "Islamic threat" which faces both countries (see article by Mikhail Ivanov in CRS No. 54). And, while President Vladimir Putin tried to play down the incident, commenting, "It's a shame that crazy people drive the world crazy", Barak himself responded, "We should be prepared for similar threats and join forces in international efforts to combat terrorism."
Of course, these are commendable sentiments - and it seems that Israel is not the only nation eager to help solve Russia's Chechen problems. On November 14, Polish secret service agents arrested a gang of five Chechens and announced that one of the suspects was implicated in August's bomb attack on Pushkinskaya Square. The claims astonished the Moscow team investigating the bombing and Kommersant daily quoted the officers as saying, "Well, send him to Moscow and we'll sort it out here". Apparently, the Polish authorities are equally keen to improve relations with the Kremlin by chasing the Wahhabite phantom.
But, all this said, it is vitally important to keep a cool head in the face of the much-vaunted Islamic threat and to recognise that such a blaze of publicity can ultimately serve the Wahhabites' own political goals. Worse still, it could encourage genuine fundamentalists to follow suit and hijack other planes in a bid to further their cause.
And, in the cold light of day, there are several aspects of last week's hijacking which raise a number of disturbing questions. Why were the four FSB operatives on board the Tupolev-154 (a fact confirmed by the head of the FSB in Dagestan, Vladimir Smirnov) unable to overpower the hijacker before he took control of the plane? And how is that a passenger with a criminal record and a history of mental problems was allowed to board a plane in an area which is supposedly the focus of a massive security operation?
Perhaps the psychiatric examination will show that Amirkhanov is not quite as disturbed as his scribbled notes and erratic behaviour seem to indicate. After all, Platon Obukhov, the son of a high-ranking Russian diplomat, also pleaded insanity during his trial on spying charges. However, medical experts later declared Obukhov of sound mind and the court imposed a lengthy jail term.
There is, however, one silver lining is this cloudy story. The passengers aboard the Tupolev-154 included a group of Dagestani soccer fans flying to Moscow to watch their team, Anzhi, play Torpedo in the bronze medal round of the national championship.
Anzhi lost the match after Torpedo scored a penalty in the third minute of extra-time and won 2-1. Thus the Makhachkala fans stuck in the hijacked plane were spared the agony of watching the bronze medal slip through Anzhi's fingers. Of course, they're already arguing over the legitimacy of the penalty, but that is a different story altogether.
Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.
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