By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
BRUSSELS -- The capital of the European Union was in the midst of a historic celebration on May 1, 2004, when security officials learned of a sudden emergency: An airliner that had departed Norway with 186 passengers aboard had possibly been hijacked and was headed this way.
On the same day that the union expanded its borders to admit 10 new member countries, an Air Europa Boeing 737 en route to Spain did not respond to an urgent series of radio calls from air traffic controllers as it flew over Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands before entering Belgian airspace.
With fears mounting that the plane might launch a kamikaze attack on E.U. or NATO headquarters in Brussels, three countries scrambled fighter jets but had trouble intercepting the aircraft as it rapidly crossed one national border after another.
Then a flight attendant looked out the window of the airliner and saw two French Mirage 2000s flying alongside, prompting the Air Europa pilots to get on the radio and report that everything was fine. The incident ended peacefully but exposed Europe's vulnerability to a Sept. 11-style hijacking and the difficulties in coordinating a multinational response to a fast-breaking terrorist threat.
The European Union exists in large part to harmonize policy among its members. But when it comes to dealing with a hijacked airliner, those countries cling to a patchwork of contradictory rules and regulations.
In Sweden, it is forbidden to shoot down a civilian plane under any circumstances. Germany recently passed a law that gives the defense minister the authority to open fire on a hijacked plane, but the measure is being challenged in court.
Four East European countries lack their own air forces and rely on neighbors to patrol their skies, making the chain of command still more complicated. Some other countries won't divulge their policies, citing national security.
On a continent where many countries are so small that planes can pass through their airspace in minutes, aviation and security officials say the conflicting approaches make it almost impossible to prepare an adequate defense against hijackers bent on crashing a plane into a target.
"It's a very, very complex issue to come to a conclusion on because there are so many partners involved," said Bo Redeborn, director of security affairs for Eurocontrol, the agency that oversees European air traffic. "We're not there yet, that's clear. Some states are much more ready than others. We are best prepared to fight the last war. We're seldom prepared to address threats we haven't seen before."
Europe has some of the busiest air traffic corridors in the world. With passenger flights on the increase and a heightened sensitivity toward security since Sept. 11, 2001, there's also been a big jump in the number of hijacking false alarms. Reports of traffic controllers losing radio contact with pilots for a prolonged period have roughly doubled since 2002, according to Eurocontrol.
There are no hard statistics on how many such cases in Europe have escalated to the point where military intervention resulted, because countries don't pool the information. But Eurocontrol said fighter jets have been scrambled 19 times in the past two years to intercept airliners that lost touch with its air traffic control center in Maastricht, the Netherlands. The center monitors air traffic in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of Germany, tracking about 25 percent of the flights that pass through Europe each day.
During the Cold War, West European nations relied on NATO to defend against a Soviet air attack. While NATO has since expanded to take in many of the former Communist states of Eastern Europe, it lacks the authority to shoot down hijacked civilian airliners, now a far more likely threat than attack by a foreign military. That decision is explicitly left to individual countries.
"This is an awfully difficult subject," Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO's secretary general, said in a September meeting with a small group of reporters in Berlin. "The notion of national sovereignty is very strong. To go after civilian airlines with passengers on them, we'll defer on that."
NATO still monitors the skies for intruders, civilian or military, and will scramble jets on the orders of local officials. It has also supplied AWACS surveillance aircraft to guard against terrorist attacks at more than 20 high-profile international events since the Sept. 11 attacks, such as the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens and the funeral of Pope John Paul II at the Vatican last year.
"We are very well served by our ability to identify threats. We've got the communications, we've got the radars," said a senior NATO official in Brussels who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Our ability in Europe to see and understand what is going on is probably as good as anywhere in the world. Our ability to put an aircraft in the sky very quickly is also very good. The difficult bit comes when you have identified a renegade aircraft."
The European Union has had little success on this issue. Gijs de Vries, the bloc's counterterrorism coordinator, said security officials are working to improve Europe-wide readiness for a hijacking, but he declined to discuss details. "I can't get into any of that," he said in an interview last year.
Giles Merritt, director of New Defense Agenda, a Brussels research organization that specializes in security issues, said European leaders have placed a higher priority on intelligence-gathering and prevention. Many officials don't see shooting down an airliner as an option under any circumstances, he said.
"Let's assume some jihadist group did get their hands on a civilian plane and they were headed to the Eiffel Tower," Merritt said. "And that there was enough time for a French leader to make a decision on how to respond. No politician wants to be the guy to pull the trigger on 200 innocent people, just on the suspicion that it will crash into something. His career would be over."
European counterterrorism officials said they don't take the threat of a hijacked airplane lightly, however. French investigators believe that an Algerian radical group schemed to fly an airplane into the Eiffel Tower in the mid-1990s; the iconic structure is still considered a major target for a terrorist attack.
British and U.S. officials said last fall that they had uncovered an al Qaeda plot to hijack an airplane in Eastern Europe and crash it into Heathrow Airport in 2003. Details of that case remain sketchy.
After a man commandeered a small plane in Frankfurt in 2003 and threatened to crash it into the European Central Bank in the city's downtown, Germany approved a law that gives its military the green light to shoot down a hijacked airliner. Last year, a suicidal pilot crashed a small plane in front of the Reichstag, the German Parliament building in Berlin. No bystanders were hurt, and investigators ruled out terrorism as the motive.
The German air force said it scrambled jets 20 times last year to chase after planes that had lost radio contact for prolonged periods; none of the incidents turned out to be a hijacking. But many lawmakers have expressed misgivings about the new law, citing a clause in the German constitution that forbids the state to take the life of any German citizen. The Federal Constitutional Court, Germany's highest judicial body, is scheduled to rule on the measure later this year.
Burkhard Hirsch, a former vice president of the German Parliament who is a plaintiff in the case, cited the inherent risk of making a mistake when dealing with a hijacked airliner. He referred to the case of a passenger on a flight to Munich who reported having a bomb and threatened to blow up the plane. Two fighter jets were promptly dispatched, but held their fire. When the plane landed, it turned out the passenger didn't have any explosives, only a mobile phone.
"If I get on an airplane, I don't like the idea that the minister of defense has the right to shoot me down," Hirsch said. "There's a difference between government and God. God knows what our fate is. The military and flight controllers do not. Nobody on earth has the right to play God."