Saturday, 14 November 2015

Operation Thunderbolt : Mossad's reply to an airplane hijacking

On 27th of June 1976, an Air France flight bound for Paris via Athens, left from the Tel Aviv international airport in Israel. The flight had about 180 odd passengers and around 50 were to board at Athens. These 50 included 4 terrorists who immediately after the takeoff, hijacked the plane and brought upon the world a rather dastardly piece of news with the demon of hijackings back in action. The airplane was diverted through multiple territories and was finally brought to a halt at the Entebbe international airport in Uganda, a country that back then was ruled by Idi Amin, a ferocious Machiavellian dictator. Amin, in a surprising move, welcomed the hijacking and the terrorists. In fact Uganda's secret service agents and commandos were personally sent to Entebbe to assist the terrorists in their ghastly operation. Israel stared at the real face of devil, one that could collude and complicit with another devil. It was absolute havoc! 

The terrorists set heavy demands in lieu for the release of the hostages. It included a ransom of 5 million USD as well as the release of 56 prisoners in total, out of which around 40 were present in many of Israel's penitentiaries. The deadline for the demands to be met was set to 1st of July, post which the terrorists were to commence killing of the passengers. Israel set itself on heavy diplomatic negotiations and accosting, and directly and indirectly through its katsas and sayanim reached out to many top notch leaders and bureaucrats, including Yaseer Arafat! Arafat actually sent his ambassadors to Idi Amin and the terrorists to allow for a peaceful resolution. However, all of this met a blind eye, and the beadle among the bevy Idi Amin, started personally visiting the Entebbe terminal everyday to greet the terrorists and assure the hostages that he was a part of the negotiations. 

By seeing every other approach fail, Israel finally asked for an extension of the deadline to the 4th of July, which was approved. But instead of deference and fulfillment of demands, Israel sought to fight back by sending their IDF commandos to carry out the rescue. In the meanwhile, many developments were taking place at Entebbe and once again Mossad became the fulcrum of the operations by collecting all the intelligence it could to ensure the success of the rescue mission. 

At Entebbe, an unused old terminal building was used to house the hostages. And then in due course of time, a separation of passengers was carried out into Israelis and non-Israelis. The aircraft roster was used, and the passports came handy in doing so. However, a couple of Jews, who held dual citizenship couldn't be identified and were put in the non-Israeli block. But surprisingly, as the non-Israeli block was evacuated slowly and steadily, these Jews proclaimed their Jewish origin and joined their own people to share the same fate. It was only a matter of time when all non-Israeli passengers were evacuated and left behind were 92 hostages, mainly Israelis but all Jews, and 12 Air France crew members. And the terrorists simply awaited their appraisal.  4th of July was almost around. 

At Israel, something intense was being planned. It was a rescue operation named Operation Entebbe/Thunderbolt. Mossad was able to get in touch with some passengers who were released to find the specifics of the building where they were held. Mossad was hence able to draw a pretty accurate profiling of the terrorists and Ugandan commandos carrying out the seizure, and of the interiors and connections of the building itself. Veritably in their inquires, Mossad found out that the airport building was constructed by an Israeli company! Mossad was quick to bring them on board and to help them in creating an exact replica of the designated section of the terminal building where the hostages were held. Mossad hence did all the groundwork to ensure that the IDF had sufficient intelligence in carrying out the operation. 

On the eve of 3rd of July, 4 Lockheed Hercules C-130 aircraft along with other carriers flew over the Red Sea route, at a pretty gnawing low height to avoid radar detectio,n and the flights finally found their way to Entebbe. The overall operations team was divided into a ground support team, an assault team of 29 members, a team to clear the military strip near the airport to destroy Ugandan aircraft in order to prevent aerial retaliation, and  finally a team of paratroopers to take on the Ugandan commandos. 

As the C-130s approached, a cavalcade of vehicles moved out of their rear storage. This included a black Mercedes and a set of Range rovers. This was the exact replica of Idi Amin's personal caravan and Mossad believed that it could be used as the perfect guise for the IDF commandos to enter the terminal without anyone as much as catching a whiff. No Ugandan commando would've dared to stop Amin's vehicles, they believed. However, Mossad lacked one really important piece of intelligence. Amin had bought a white Mercedes just a few days ago. Hence, as the procession crossed, it was halted and the commandos were brought into action sooner than they'd expected to. 

Fire broke from the Ugandan side, but the IDF commandos were too swift to knock them out in no time, first with silent pistols from point blank range, but then later with rifles because the sentinels were still alive. This obviously alerted the terrorists holding the hostages captive. Next, IDF commandos swerved past the main portico and rushed into the terminal building, moving from section to section, till they finally found the first section of hostages. They used the loudspeakers to pronounce in Hebrew and English, asking everyone to stay down, but a few sprang up and were mutilated instantly. 

Next, room after room the commandos looked for the 4 terrorists. The 4 comprised of 2 Palestinian terrorists and two German revolutionary guards. One such guard held many hostages captive in one section, not shooting at them even once but waiting to confront the commandos. He was killed in one clear shot. Next, the commandos sought help from the hostages to find out where the remaining 3 terrorists were hiding. The intrepid hostages pointed towards a section leading into a room. The commandos overwhelmed the opening with grenades, then swiftly moved into the section and killed all three in no time. They started taking the hostages out of the main entrance towards the C-130s for immediate evacuation, when the Ugandan guards from the main traffic control tower started firing. 

There was crossfire from the IDF commandos, but the commander in-charge Yonathan Netanyahu, notably the younger brother of the current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was shot in chest and killed instantly. Finally, the Israeli force suppressed the Ugandan guards, and the Israeli fleet left with about 100 passengers, leaving behind lifeless a few hostages, some Air France crew members, one commando, the terrorists, and about 45 Ugandan guards. Also worth noting is that 11-30 of Uganda's MiG 17 and 21 aircraft were completely destroyed and the Entebbe building was left in tatters, as it stands till date as shown in the following picture. 

"Entebbe Airport DF-ST-99-05538" by SRA Andy Dunaway -, J3003-SPT-94-03-003-0489. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
The Entebbe terminal where the hostages were held. The bullet marks are still pretty much visible.

A big problem in the rescue plan was of refueling because the C-130s were not capable of flying for that long a distance. Help had been sought in advance from Nairobi after a very rich Kenyan Jew businessman, also a Mossad sayanim, convinced the President through a upper rank minister to extend his help in that. Finally, the help came to avail and the aircraft was refueled at Nairobi from where it left for Israel and reached there on July 4th, 1976, coincidentally the 200th anniversary of signing of America's declaration of independence. 

There were some Kenyans who lived in Uganda and they were killed immediately, and the Kenyan president too was assassinated on the orders of a revanchist Idi Amin who was now more vindictive than ever. But governments, bureaucracies and intelligence agencies from all over the world, watched in awe as Mossad and IDF brought back their men and women, and did not let their nation succumb to the demands of a few fanatics. The raid was obviously criticized by many African nations and Palestinians, but gained praise from countries like US and UK. In fact France even passed on the Legion of Honor to a few members of the command force. Israel through the staunch supremacy of its IDF commandos and Mossad agents had yet again proven that they were definitely not timorous.

This article is a series of articles, all intended to outline some of the bravest feats Mossad has pulled off. For more, please visit the following links.

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