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Context of 'September 8, 1974: TWA Plane Explodes in Mid-Air; Abu Nidal Affiliate Claims Responsibility'

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TWA logo.TWA logo. [Source: Surfside Hawaii (.com)]TWA Flight 841, en route to New York City from Tel Aviv, explodes in mid-air. The Boeing 747 stopped in Athens for a routine layover, took off, and shortly thereafter reported an engine on fire. Soon after the report, the plane explodes and crashes into the Ionian Sea. Seventy-nine passengers and nine crew members die. A TWA spokesman in New York says that sabotage is “highly unlikely,” but a youth organization in Beirut with connections to Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal claims that one of its members surreptitiously placed a bomb on board. In general, aviation officials scoff at the idea that a terrorist would have bombed a plane. However, in May 1995, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will find that the plane was destroyed by a bomb. The NTSB’s final report will say that the “probable cause of this accident was the detonation of an explosive device within the aft cargo compartment of the aircraft which rendered the aircraft uncontrollable.” [Board, 5/26/1975 pdf file; Werth, 2006, pp. 324-325]

Entity Tags: Trans World Airlines, RobertMoomo, Abu Nidal

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Trans World Airlines Flight 514, a Boeing tri-jet 727 carrying 85 passengers and seven crew members from Columbus, Ohio, to Washington, DC, prematurely descends and slams into a 2,000-foot-high peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, approximately 50 miles west of the nation’s capital. All 92 people on board are killed. The crash occurs near a highly classified underground installation known as Mount Weather. The incident will draw significant public attention to the secret bunker for the first time since its construction in the 1950s (see 1952-1958). A federal spokesman will refuse to answer questions regarding the complex, but will say the facility is run by the Office of Preparedness, which is responsible for “continuity of government in a time of national disaster.” The Office of Preparedness was formally known as the Office of Emergency Preparedness (see October 28, 1969).
Misunderstanding Blamed for Crash - The National Transportation Safety Board will later rule by split decision that the crash was caused by a misinterpreted instruction given to the pilots by an air traffic controller at Dulles International Airport. The controller alerted the pilots that the flight was “cleared for approach,” which the flight crew incorrectly assumed gave them a clear path to descend to 1,800 feet. Experts will tell the NTSB that the phrase “cleared for approach” is open to misunderstanding. Three of the five board members will fault the plane crew for misinterpreting the command, while the other two will place responsibility on the air traffic controller for not specifically telling the flight to maintain its altitude. [Associated Press, 12/2/1974; Associated Press, 1/22/1976; Emerson, 8/7/1989]

Entity Tags: Mount Weather, Washington Dulles International Airport, RobertMoomo, Trans World Airlines

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Abu Ndal circa 1982.Abu Ndal circa 1982. [Source: Reuters / Corbis]The BBC will later suggest that US intelligence actually becomes aware of specific Abu Nidal accounts held in the criminal BCCI bank in 1984. This is because the FBI busts an illegal arms deal in New York City that involved Nidal’s BCCI accounts in London and a Nidal front company in Poland called SAS Trade at this time. [Herald Sun (Melbourne), 8/2/1991] In the 1980s, Nidal is considered the world’s most wanted terrorist. In December 1985, for instance, his network launches simultaneous attacks in Rome and Vienna, killing or wounding dozens. In 1986, the CIA tells the State Department in detail about the criminal BCCI bank’s links with Nidal and his terrorist network. They reveal that Nidal has multiple accounts at BCCI branches in Europe. [Beaty and Gwynne, 1993, pp. 328] In July 1987, Ghassan Qassem, manager of one of BCCI’s London branches, is contacted by the British intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6. They tell him that they know SAS Trade has many millions of dollars worth of accounts in his branch and that the company is an Abu Nidal front. Qassem agrees to be an informant. [Observer, 1/18/2004] Nidal first opened a BCCI account in London in 1980, depositing $50 million using an alias. In addition to being a terrorist, Nidal is an illegal arms dealer and BCCI helps him buy and sell weapons, oftentimes involving British companies. [Los Angeles Times, 9/30/1991] Qassem will later claim that he saw Nidal in Britain on three separate occasions and went shopping with him. In 1983, Nidal was interviewed by police, who took him straight to the airport and put him on a plane to leave the country. [Guardian, 7/30/1991; Observer, 1/18/2004] Qassem recognizes Nidal as a terrorist from a photograph in a magazine in 1987 and tells this to his BCCI superior, but he is told to keep quiet. The CIA and British intelligence use their knowledge of Nidal’s BCCI accounts to force SAS Trade to shut down in 1986, but usually they merely monitor terrorist activity. For instance, Nidal’s group teaches urban terrorist tactics to Peru’s Maoist Shining Path guerrillas in 1988. Shining Path pays Nidal $4 million for this work through his BCCI account and then attempts to bomb the US embassy in Lima later that year. Intelligence agencies also merely watch as Middle Eastern governments give tens of millions to Nidal through his BCCI accounts (see 1987-1990). In December 1989, Qassem tells his BCCI superiors that he is working with British intelligence. He is quickly fired. [Los Angeles Times, 9/30/1991] Nidal learns of the surveillance and empties the accounts before they can be frozen. [Guardian, 7/30/1991; Observer, 1/18/2004]

Entity Tags: UK Security Service (MI5), SAS Trade, Abu Nidal Organization, Central Intelligence Agency, US Department of State, Abu Nidal, UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Bruce Ivins working as a Red Cross volunteer in 2003.Bruce Ivins working as a Red Cross volunteer in 2003. [Source: Associated Press]During a several day search of a pond near Frederick, Maryland, by FBI investigators for clues to the anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001), Scientist Bruce Ivins is there with the investigators, working as a Red Cross volunteer. Ivins will commit suicide in 2008 after coming under scrutiny as the FBI’s main suspect in the anthrax attacks (see July 29, 2008). The pond search is highly publicized at the time, and is an unsuccessful effort to find evidence connecting the attacks to Steven Hatfill, the FBI’s main suspect at the time (see December 12-17, 2002). The pond is near USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory where Ivins works and Hatfill used to work. As a Red Cross volunteer, Ivins serves coffee, donuts, and snacks to FBI agents and other investigators in a military tent. He is eventually removed after officials realize he is an anthrax researcher who could compromise the investigation. Apparently, Ivins is a regular Red Cross volunteer at the time. Miriam Fleming, another Red Cross volunteer working at the pond search, will later recall that Ivins “was kind of goofy, but he was always in a good mood. He seemed so normal.” [New York Times, 8/7/2008]

Entity Tags: Miriam Fleming, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bruce Ivins, Steven Hatfill

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks

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