This Week in History: Black September erupts in Jordan

PFLP terrorists hijack 3 commercial airliners, take 310 hostages to Dawson's Airfield in Jordan in attempt to free Palestinian prisoners.

Leila Khaled 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ali Jarekji)
Leila Khaled 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ali Jarekji)
On September 12, 1970, three empty commercial airliners were blown up on Dawson’s Field, an abandoned desert airstrip in Jordan dubbed “Revolution Field” by the Palestinian terrorists who controlled it. The blasts took place one week after four planes were hijacked by the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the events that transpired would become known as Black September.
On September 6, 1970, terrorists boarded three planes departing various European airports. The flights, operated by El Al, Swissair and TWA were all headed to New York.
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Along with the rest of the passengers and crew, four PFLP members had boarded El Al flight 219 that day. Made aware of the suspicious passengers, the captain of the Israeli jet forced two of the would-be hijackers to deplane. The two remaining terrorists, however, one of whom was the soon-to-be-famous Leila Khaled, were allowed to remain onboard.
Once the air, Khaled and her Nicaraguan husband Patrick Arguello, rushed the front of the plane with live grenades and demanded that the cockpit door be opened. Intent on preventing the hijacking, however, the captain instead put the plane into a steep dive, throwing the hijackers off balance and allowing passengers and air marshals to disarm the two terrorists. Arguello was shot and killed in the struggle and Khaled was arrested once the plane made an emergency landing in London.
But the two other planes that had been boarded by the terrorists were easily taken once in the air and instructed to head toward Jordan. The two terrorists who had been removed from the El Al flight managed to purchase first class tickets on another plane, Pan Am Flight 93 from Amsterdam, which they also hijacked without incident.
The pilot of the Pan Am flight, however, managed to convince the terrorists that the plane was too large to land on the desert landing strip and instead flew to Cairo, where the passengers managed to evacuate mere seconds before the explosive-laced aircraft exploded.
The remaining two planes landed at Dawson’s Field in the Jordanian desert, where dozens of PFLP members awaited the hostage-filled planes on the barren airstrip.
The passengers were held for days and presented to television news crews from around the world, who were invited to hear the terrorists’ demands – the release of PFLP prisoners in Israel and in Europe, including Leila Khaled, who was at that point being held in Britain.
Reporters were allowed to question passengers about the conditions of their captivity. In one almost comical exchange, a journalist asked one passenger about the sanitary conditions on the plane, to which PFLP spokesman Bassam Abu Sharif responded, “Would you like to smell it?”
Some days later, on September 9, PFLP sympathizers hijacked a fifth plane, BOAC Flight 775, also bringing the aircraft and its passengers to Dawson’s Field.
By that point, there were 310 hostages being held in the desolate desert flats once home to a British Air Force base. Negotiations – mediated by the Red Cross – were taking place between the PFLP and various governments, including Britain and the United States, the latter of whose citizens made up the majority of the hostages.
The only country to refuse to negotiate with the terrorists was Israel.
The PFLP set a September 12 deadline for the release of their prisoners.
On September 11, one day before the deadline, over 200 of the hostages were transferred to Amman for release. But the Jewish passengers, along with the three flight crews, were separated and kept at the airstrip.
In a move designed to be both a media spectacle and to serve as a warning ahead of an expected assault by Jordanian army forces, on September 12, the PFLP blew up the explosive-laden planes, one after another, a dramatic scene that was captured on video for the world to see.
Almost immediately following the explosions, heavily-armed Jordanian troops advanced toward the airstrip, leading to a short stand-off. Nonetheless, the PFLP forces managed to escape to Amman with their remaining hostages.
The entire hijacking incident and the events leading up to it had amounted to a direct challenge to the sovereign rule of Jordan’s King Hussein. Palestinian nationalist terrorists had essentially taken control over a significant portion of the Kingdom.
Following the detonation of the airliners, Jordan declared war on Palestinian groups in the country, a weeks-long battle that left thousands of Palestinian fighters and civilians dead. The episode was dubbed Black September.
For the PFLP and other Palestinian groups, the Black September hijackings represented both failure and success. By taking westerners, and specifically Americans hostage, the PFLP had managed to inject the Palestinian struggle into the consciousness of the Western world. Additionally, the British acquiesced in releasing Leila Khaled and other PFLP prisoners it held.
However, the majority of the prisoners whose freedom the PFLP had sought were not released as a result of the hijacking and the Black September battles with the Jordanian crown resulted in the expulsion of most Palestinian terrorist groups from Jordan.