Air France Hijacking – GIGN 1994
The GIGN had dealt with the deadly fanaticism of Islamic terrorists before. In 1979 a captain and two sub-officers had been dispatched on an urgent mission to Saudi Arabia to help dislodge several hundred armed Muslim extremists who had taken over the Sacred Mosque in Mecca. Thousands of pilgrims on their annual hajj to Mecca were being held hostage in a labyrinth of underground passages beneath the Mosque.
The very survival of the Saudi monarchy hung in the balance as Captain Paul Barril presented the Saudi National Guard with his plan to use paralyzing gas to flush out the insurgents from an underground area of sixty square kilometers. The GIGN advisers trained handpicked teams of Saudi soldiers in demolitions and room-clearing techniques to conduct the assault, which resulted in 2000 dead after an entire day of close quarters battle.
On December 26, 1994 the GIGN again faced a potentially disastrous encounter with Muslim terrorists when Captain Denis de Favier prepared his “super Gendarmes” to storm an Air France passenger jet hijacked in Algeria by suicidal terrorists of that country’s Armed Islamic Group (AIG).
News about the hijacking, which began at midday on December 24, caught many members of the French counter-terrorist unit at home with their families for Christmas. However, the tall, angular-faced de Favier had not strayed far from Paris and his briefings, contingency planning an transport arrangements were methodically prepared by the time his men were assembling early that afternoon at their HQ outside Versailles.
Four terrorists of the AIG, the extremist faction of an Islamic fundamentalist coalition waging a bloody civil war against the military-backed government of Algeria, had managed to board an Air France airbus disguised as airport security men. As the aircraft readied for take-off at 11:15 a.m., the terrorists had produced miniature AK-47s with collapsible stocks, crying “Allah Akbar” to announce that the airbus was under their control and all of the passengers and the crew were their prisoners.
With their blue strobe lights flashing, the GIGN vehicles raced out to the forested highway leading out of Versailles, as 257 terrified hijack victims helplessly watched an Algerian policeman and a Vietnamese diplomat being dragged to the front of the aircraft. There were cries for mercy and then the crackle of automatic gunfire as the two men were shot in the back of the head and their bodies dumped on the runway. The terrorists were deadly serious about their demand to be flown to Paris.
The GIGN team, which by that evening had driven on to the military airfield of Neuilly, boarded an Air France airbus identical to the hijacked plane. Special arrangements had been made so that they could completely familiarize themselves with the aircraft’s workings, and so plan and practice the counter-hijack operation, while flying south to their destination. But clearance to land at Algiers’ Boumedienne airport had not been received as de Favier and his team took off shortly before 8 p.m.
Philippe Legorjus, the former GIGN chief who had trained de Favier and most of the other men now preparing for what was their first real-life storming of an aircraft, had also cut short his Christmas break. He was driving to his parents’ home in Normandy with his wife and two children when his beeper sounded. After dropping them off with hurried kisses, he drove without stopping to his reserved parking place beneath the corporate headquarters of Air France, off the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
As the chief security consultant for France’s national airline, Legorjus was a vital member of the Air France crisis-management team which now came together. The company president was in touch with the French government; the chief pilot was finding out as much as possible about what was going on inside the plane and passing on the information to Legorjus, who was in constant radio contact with the GIGN team. He was also on the phone to the chief of Algiers’ airport police and the sinister commander of the Algerian Army’s elite commando force, the Ninjas, who ringed Boumedienne airport.
French Prime Minister Balladur flew to Paris from the Alpine resort of Chamonix, Interior Minister Pasqua arrived form the Cote d’ Azur, and Foreign Minister Juppe chaired the government’s swelling crisis team as a host of other government officials interrupted their holidays to assume their places. The decision was quickly reached to accede to the hijackers’ demands by allowing the aircraft to land in Marseilles. But the Algerian authorities would not let it leave Algiers.
“The Ninjas wanted us to launch a full-frontal assault on the airbus,” explains Legorjus, “using explosives to blast our way inside. It was going to be a disaster.” And probably similar to the fiasco a decade earlier when Egyptian commandos had tried to storm a plane hijacked to Malta, killing fifty hostages in the process.
Given the military nature of the Algerian government, certain key army commanders held sway over Cabinet ministers who would otherwise have been prepared to comply with the French government’s wishes. Throughout Christmas Day heated exchanges by telephone went on between members of Balladur’s Cabinet and their Algerian counterparts, and by evening the crisis seemed to be reaching a head. The terrorists had laid down an ultimatum. If the mobile stairway was not withdrawn and the airbus allowed to take-off, they would kill a hostage every half an hour. At 9:30 p.m. they brought a French national up to the cockpit: a young cook employed at the French Embassy. They held a gun to his head. “If you don’t allow the plane to take off they are going to kill me,” he pleaded over the radio.
Pasqua called the Algerian Interior Minister and told him to withdraw the stairway. He in turn called the colonel commanding the black-hooded, machine-gun toting Ninjas on the runway. The Cabinet minister gave the Ninja chief a flat order: “Withdraw the passenger steps.” The reply was a swift “Fuck you!” The Ninjas, locked into a savage three-year-old struggle against the Islamic guerrillas, could not agree to an order from civilians which could be considered as any type of concession. “They didn’t even want our help,” says Legorjus. Advice from two French military advisers at Boumedienne airport was being ignored and permission for the GIGN team to land continued to be refused. De Favier and his men were waiting on board their airbus at the nearby Spanish airport of Palma de Mallorca.
The Algerians tried to reassure the French government that the terrorists were bluffing. But shortly after 10 p.m., the French cook’s corpse came tumbling down the mobile stairway. Discussions followed and between other key French negotiators and high-ranking Algerian military commanders. Following direct orders from his Prime Minister and from army generals, the Ninja colonel disgustedly agreed to withdraw the stairway, allowing the plane to take-off at 2 a.m. for Marseilles, where the French government had cleared it to land.
De Favier’s team were already in place, having touched down just twenty minutes earlier on board their airbus at an airstrip adjacent to the main airport. GIGN snipers had taken up positions around the control tower. Paratroopers from another special surveillance unit, the Escadron Parachutiste de la Gendarmerie Nationale (EPGN), were camouflaged among the tall grass lining the runway, closely observing the hijacked plane, Flight 8969, taxiing to a halt at Marseilles-Marignane.
The negotiations were now entirely under the control of the GIGN. The Gendarmerie’s chief prefect in Marseilles, Alain Gehim, served as the main interlocutor with the hijackers, speaking with them over the radio from the control tower. At every juncture during the discussions, de Favier would quietly pass him written instructions. The priorities were to find out as much as possible to give the counter-terrorism team the necessary time to prepare their assault and favorably position the airbus. They could conduct the assault as soon as they were ready–and the sooner the better. There were reasons. Flight 8969 could under no circumstances be allowed to fly to Paris or indeed leave Marseilles.
Intelligence officers at the French Embassy in Algiers had received an urgent call from a paid informant in the Islamic underground, saying that the AIG planned to blow up the airbus over Paris, crashing it into the middle of the city. The information appeared to have some corroboration from some of the sixty-three passengers who had been released in Algiers. Several said that they had heard the four gunmen, who seemed highly fanatical, talk repeatedly about flying to the eternal paradise and make many references to “Allah’s perpetual white light”–the Islamic vision of holy death. The possibility of a Lockerbie-type terrorist air disaster over the French capital was being taken very seriously.
Fearing that explosive charges had already been set on board the aircraft, the GIGN had to plan its assault very carefully, and it was now the government which was growing impatient, wanting action by mid-morning. But de Favier insisted that he needed to get right up close to the aircraft to plant listening devices to monitor the exact movements and sounds inside the plane before he could refine his assault plan. The intelligence being gained through microwave sound amplifiers trained on the aircraft was not proving sufficient.
Terrorist demands for twenty-seven tons of fuel to fly on to Paris were used as leverage by the GIGN to stall the hijackers. Gehim demanded in exchange the release of all the passengers. At one point the hijackers’ leader, Abdul Yahia, screamed into the cockpit microphone, “You want us to blow up everything right here! You have one and a half hour to let us take off to Paris.” The deadline he had set was 10:00 a.m.
It was a slip on Yahia’s part, indicating that explosives were wired up inside the aircraft. The terrorists had maintained several hours of radio silence between their landing at 3:30 a.m. and the start of negotiations with Gehim at 6 a.m. The placing of two ten-stick packs of dynamite in the cockpit and beneath a row of passenger seats fused by one detonator had, apparently, been carried out during that time. The amount of fuel the hijackers were demanding was three times what was needed to fly to Paris. Its real purpose, the GIGN speculated, was to create an exploding fireball somewhere above the Eiffel Tower. Gehim then spun out the negotiations still further, offering to provide the hijackers with food and to service the aircraft, cleaning it and emptying the blocked toilets, which were creating a terrible smell. They agreed. Disguised among the stewards and service crew who were allowed to the aircraft, GIGN operatives inserted minuscule eavesdropping devices. Tiny infrared closed-circuit cameras and cannon microphones were placed by windows along the exterior of the fuselage. It was now possible to monitor closely what was happening in the aircraft.
“We now reached the consensus to pass on to offensive action,” says de Favier. “We had the necessary intelligence to plan our operation with exactitude. We knew that none of the entrances to the aircraft were booby-trapped or obstructed and that two terrorists were inside the cockpit at all times.” It was decided, however, to try to press for the release of more hostages before an assault which would inevitably entail casualties. There was no doubt that the terrorists were determined to resist and were well armed. Each has a 7.62mm Kalashnikov sub-machinegun and hand-grenades. Most menacingly, there were also the explosives.
Shortly after midday an elderly couple walked off the airbus, leaving over 150 fellow passengers on board. Yahia insisted that it was the last concession he would make before reaching Paris. The GIGN assault force began positioning themselves around the runway. After dividing his men into four teams, de Favier moved them into predetermined locations hidden from the view of the aircraft. Using careful calculations, he had planned the exact angles from which to rush the plane’s three main entry points on mobile stairways. The GIGN commander was confident that access into the fuselage could be gained by simple manipulation of the hatch doors’ exterior mechanisms.
The release prisoners told the hostage negotiators that the hijackers were growing increasingly impatient and irritable, reading out passages form the Koran in frantic tones over the aircraft’s speaker system.
By 4 p.m. the GIGN were in position at the bottom of their respective mobile stairways and fully prepared. After putting their Kevlar helmets with yellowish Plexiglas visors over their heads, already hooded with ski masks, and strapping bulletproof vests over fire-retardant suits, they checked and rechecked their .357 magnum revolvers, and their 9mm MP-5 sub-machineguns and automatic pistols. Snipers lying low at the top of the control tower trained their rifles’ telescopic sights on the cockpit, where two of the terrorists guarded the pilot and flight crew. The assault could be launched at any moment, but with the patient assurance instilled by experience and cool professionalism, Captain de Favier preferred to wait a little longer. He wanted to wait until twilight.
“The biggest problem until now had been to stay concentrated amidst the inaction and uncertainty. We could anticipate the danger although we did not really imagine what awaited us,” recalls Alain, who had barely completed two years in the GIGN and was now among the lead squad of Gendarmes who would be entering the hijacked plane’s cockpit.
Just before 5 p.m. de Favier’s instructions to be ready to move at a moment’s notice came over the radio sets inside the men’s helmets. Magnums were unholstered and those men with MP-5s pulled back their round cocking levers. Suddenly the searing noise of accelerating jet engines came from the airbus parked some 400 yards away, and it started to move. Yahia’s shrill voice then came screaming over the control tower’s amplified system. IF the plane was not refueled for take-off in fifteen minutes, he threatened, “I will take action!”
Prefect Gehim reassured him that the refueling trucks were on the way as the aircraft rolled slowly towards the control tower. He played for time while the GIGN assault teams repositioned themselves, adjusting their angles of approach. The plane got to within thirty yards of the control tower and at 5:08 p.m. a gun barrel protruded from the cockpit’s window. Shots cracked out and Gehim ducked, together with the others in the tower, as 7.62mm rounds shattered the bay window before them. The snipers held their fire. Gehim strained to keep his voice clam over the next few minutes, trying to sustain his dialogue with Yahia as the GIGN adjusted their plan.
“Zero,” said de Favier finally. His signal for action rushed through his men’s headsets like an electrical current, triggering, as if by remote control, a series of carefully choreographed split-second movements. The trailer engines of three mobile stairways started simultaneously. The groups of eight Gendarmes positioned on each one climbed the steps in double file as the stairways drew ever nearer to the plane. A sniper on the control tower repeatedly squeezed the trigger of his .50 rifle, its silencer muffling the six shots that smashed through the cockpit’s right-hand windscreen. “He had to be careful,” it had been made clear. The heavy rounds were fired high. “It was very difficult to determine who was terrorist and who was air crew inside the cramped cabin, where everyone ducked for cover as the half-inch bullets crashed inside, distracting the terrorists as the stairway came up to the right-hand door of the aircraft.”
One Gendarme leaped to grab the hatch. Sliding with the door to the side to make sure it stayed open, he let his feet fly off the stairway. A GIGN stun grenade was thrown inside and flashed through the firs class section as a shooter pair, one armed with a magnum and the other with an MP-5, rushed through the narrow opening. They caught two shocked hijackers along the hallway, making for the cockpit. One shot from the magnum instantly blew away the nearest terrorist, drilling a .357 bullet diagonally through his forehead. But in the next half a second a barrage of automatic fire from Yahia and another hijacker barricaded with the flight crew, hit the Gendarmes like an avalanche of steel.
Squeezing a burst from his MP-5 after the other terrorist leaping into the cockpit, Sub-officer Thierry pursued him through the open door, resting his sub-machinegun against his shoulder to carefully train its sight and avoid hitting hostages. But he instantly received seven AK rounds. Three 7.62 bullets perforated his exposed right arm, shooting off three fingers curled around the MP-5′s handgrip, which was also shot to pieces. Other bullets hit his shoulder and chest, shredding the black vinyl fabric and denting the steel ceramic plates of his bulletproof vest. Another round ricocheted off the Gendarme’s Kevlar helmet as he reeled backwards, collapsing on to the carpeted hallway. He could only think of protecting himself from the continuing barrage of bullets and heard someone shout “Grenade!” as an explosion ripped through the cabin, wounding the other Gendarmes rushing in behind him. Thierry felt the pain of shrapnel peppering his right leg before losing consciousness.
Eric, who had shot the first terrorist, had the magnum blown out of his hand by a bullet hitting its long steel barrel just as he fired a second round. In the next split second, he too was lying on the floor, his face bleeding from the helmet’s splintered visor– proofed against 9mm ammo but unable to withstand the high-velocity 7.62 rounds. Feeling other wounds along his shoulder and arm, he could still only think of recovering his weapon, which he found lying by a corner, its handle blown off by the grenade explosion.
The fire from the AK-47s was incessant. “I’ll never forget their characteristic clapping noise as the bullets flew around me. It was impressive,” says Olivier, who entered the cabin amid the smoke and shrapnel of the fragmentation grenade. Jolted by the impact of several rounds on his bulletproof vest, he was soon partially immobilized by trauma to his spine and a bullet in his left hip.
“Six of my men fell wounded around me as we came inside,” recalls de Favier, who personally led the first assault wave and was the only one who had not bee hit as Yahia’s hate-filled face peered through the cockpit’s cracked door as he fired his sub-machinegun. De Favier instantly aimed his magnum, but a bullet from an AK-47 hit the side of his helmet, tearing off the visor and forcing him to take cover. Hundreds of rounds, many coming straight through the door and dividing walls of the cockpit, were hosing the Gendarmes. “The terrorists were highly trained,” says de Favier, “and very quick.” They hardly took a second between releasing spent ammunition clips and inserting fresh ones into their curved magazines. They knew exactly how to fire, aiming for heads and the upper chest. “Their deadly spray didn’t let up for an instant.”
The Gendarme who had opened the right-hand door of the airbus had remained hanging in the air from the handle as the seven others rushed inside. He then let go. In the twenty-foot fall on to the concrete runway, he used his parachute training to relax his legs, and landed uninjured. As he reached the cabin door amid a hail of gunfire and with bodies lying everywhere, he went into a low crouch, aiming his lightweight Austrian-made 9mm automatic pistol and squeezing off several rounds into the cockpit door. Suddenly a 7.62mm bullet penetrated squarely through his pistol’s stock, going beneath the barrel, driving into the chamber and coming out on the trigger, which disintegrated into tiny pieces as the weapon flew out of his hand. The Gendarme was left with a broken index finger as another bullet smashed through a spare ammunition clip in the chest pouch of his bulletproof vest.
The front left-hand door of the aircraft now slid open as the eight Gendarmes in the second assault wave stormed into the smoking inferno, which stank of blood and cordite. A terrorist shooting from the cockpit’s side window sprayed them with a burst of sub-machinegun fire before they were even inside. Several rounds hit the side of the sliding door as it moved towards the cockpit. Aiming his MP-5, the lead gunner instantly followed de Favier’s orders, firing at point-blank range at the left section of the cockpit, through which a lot of gunfire was coming. But AK-47 rounds fired back at floor level hit the Gendarme’s lower legs within point-blank range of the partition. The officer fell and had to be pulled away under covering fire by other Gendarmes, who began evacuating their most severely wounded comrades.
GIGN men were simultaneously moving through the rear of the aircraft from the tail doors. Having opened emergency exits, they evacuated the 159 passengers, who came sliding out on escape chutes as the gun battle raged on at the front of the aircraft. Stray bullets flew into the main seating section but no passengers were wounded by gunfire and only thirteen were treated for light injuries, mostly cuts and bruises after the full evacuation was completed in twenty minutes.
The moment he saw blood bursting out of the terrorist closest to him as the intensifying stream of GIGN fire filled the cockpit, the plane’s navigator calculated that the surviving gunmen would be too distracted to notice as he dashed to the open side window and jumped out of the plane. In doing so he was severely injured, but was quickly picked up by ambulance and rushed off for treatment for a broken leg. The pilot and co-pilot remaining in the cockpit hugged the floor beneath their seats, trying to keep their heads down as the body of a dead terrorist fell on top of them. Although wounded, Yahia kept inserting clips into his Kalashnikov, frantically spraying fire through the bullet-riddled partition.
The ferocious battle continued for ten minutes as two more Gendarmes from the second wave were wounded. Unable to see their targets, they followed de Favier’s directions, always aiming their shots at the sections of the partition through which the gunfire was coming. Finally they heard the pilot’s voice from inside, screaming, “Stop shooting!” Bursting into the cabin, the GIGN found the bullet-riddled bodies of three dead terrorists lying on top of both pilots, who were, remarkably, unscathed amid the blood, wreckage and piles of spent shell cases. They could see the package of dynamite tucked beneath the pilot’s seat. It was fused to a detonator but the terrorists had not been given a moment’s chance to operate the fuse-box mechanisms.
The GIGN’s action at Marseilles has been hailed as the most dramatic counter-terrorist operation since the SAS debut at Prices Gate. In the view of retired GIGN commander Philippe Legorjus, “It was the most important intervention in the history of counter-terrorism. It was wonderful to see all the men whom I had trained and led perform so well under that kind of pressure.”
There is little doubt that the wild Russian roulette of international terrorism had dealt the GIGN a loaded bullet. Nevertheless, the cost to the special operations unit was relatively low, considering the potentially disastrous situation they had faced: four suicidal, well-armed and expertly trained terrorists on an aircraft with around 160 hostages wired to explode with dynamite. Only Sub-officer Thierry remained hospitalized three months later, permanently disabled with one finger missing but feeling fortunate that he wasn’t missing anything else. Three more men who underwent intensive care, Erik, Alain and Olivier, were release from the hospital shortly after a month’s stay. The six other wounded Gendarmes needed no more than superficial surgery.
The GIGN operation on board Flight 8969 was classically unique in that it succeeded almost entirely in close quarter battle, the very essence of special forces counter-terrorist training, but with the added complication in this case of hardly being able to see the enemy. Unlike previous episodes, such as Princes Gate or Djibouti, standoff sniping played a very limited role in Marseilles. Here the assault team overcame the entire terrorist group, with hostages in their midst, inside a severely enclosed space, without causing the death of a single innocent victim.
A month later, de Favier was still feeling the rush of adrenaline-fuelled terror and excitement, never quite forgetting the taste of blood as he had leveled his magnum at Yahia while his men fell around him and a Kalashnikov bullet tore into his helmet. The telephone rings and he answers. After a brief conversation, the young super commando, attired in a tweed jacket and flowery tie, hangs up. “That was the U.S. Embassy,” he says. “They want to arrange an international meeting of special intervention forces here in Paris.” He looks forward to the exchange with his counterparts from the SAS, Delta and the SEALs. “I’m not a hero,” he adds. “I just like my job. Next time it could just as easily be the turn of any of the others.”