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Before September 11th: Air France Flight 8969

French special forces storming the hijacked Air France plane on Dec. 24, 1994.

The tension in the air was as thick on the tarmac of the Marseilles Provence Airport. It was Christmas 1994, and most aboard Air France Flight 8969 were anticipating spending time with families and friends after landing in Paris.

Instead, they got something much different. After four Algerian Islamic militants hijacked their plane, killed three fellow passengers and rigged the aircraft with explosives, the 229 survivors needed all the help they could get.

On the most noteworthy anniversary of September 11th, security across the United States is tight, tributes are made, and for many, the harrowing memories are hardly things of the past. Lost amid the remembrances, however, is the first bid by terrorists to transform a passenger plane into a bomb. It was narrowly averted on French soil 17 years ago, but by most accounts, it also set the stage for the destruction over lower Manhattan seven years later.

In the early 1990s, the world was a different place—perhaps part of the reason Air France Flight 8969 flew under the radar. The Berlin Wall was still in pieces as the World Trade Center towers stood tall. And Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, a malignant growth from U.S. support for Middle Eastern "freedom fighters" against Soviets in Afghanistan, went largely undiagnosed.

The return of such "Arab-Afghans" to Algerian society precipitated bad weather to come. From 1992 to 1999, Algeria experienced one of the most barbarous conflicts in modern North African history. The violence was often unexplained and ravenous. Estimates of the dead, mostly ordinary Algerians, has swung between 100,000 and 200,000.

On Dec. 24, 1994, as usual the proceedings were hurried at Algeria's Houari Boumedienne Airport. So it was before its departure to Paris-Orly Airport, four uniformed men checking passports aboard Flight 8969 appeared a curious, if minor, annoyance.

It was anything but after a 25-year-old named Abdul Abdullah Yahia and the others swiftly brandished machine guns and announced their allegiance to God and Algeria's Armed Islamic Group, a notoriously violent insurgent movement. 

Early refusals by Algerian negotiators to let the plane fly produced dire effects: An Algerian police officer, begging for mercy in the name of his wife and child, was the first to die; a Vietnamese consular official, expecting freedom as a foreigner, was the second to be executed and dumped from the plane.

Sensitive over sovereignty, Algeria—a French colony from 1830 to 1962—initially denied France permission for its special forces to storm the plane on its own territory. But after the fundamentalists killed a third passenger, a chef from the French embassy, Algiers relented under pressure from Prime Minister Eduoard Balladur.

After a landing at Marseilles the pilot stalled for time, telling Yahia he lacked fuel to reach Paris, where he claimed they sought a press conference. Yahia then instructed the French to fill the tank with nearly 30 tons of fuel—three times the amount needed to reach the capital. These demands and Algerian intelligence intercepts made it clear the zealots' true intentions: to crash the plane in to the Eiffel Tower.

But the French had a surprise. A unit of France's National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN), unbeknownst to the radicals, had been training intensively on a similar Airbus. By the time the aircraft touched down in Marseilles, the 30-man team, having trained for hours—while exhausted—was ready to pounce.

The 54-hour-long ordeal ended after the GIGN unit captured the plane and killed all four terrorists in an operation that, miraculously, left merely 13 passengers injured. The three crew and nine GIGN members who sustained injuries were among those all officially honored by the French government. The rescue itself was widely heralded a success.

Back then, it was. But, sadly, the lives of the Algerian hijackers and their plot didn't end in vain. In 2001, history cruelly permitted 19 malcontents from other parts of the Arab world to succeed where Yahia and his cohorts failed. And while they didn't die for the same cause, the motivations of the 9/11 kamikazes were certainly the same consequence of the militancy the U.S. fomented in Afghanistan decades earlier.

The legacy of 1994 has come full circle, thanks to its emulators on September 11th—and, not surprisingly, even worse blunders by Washington. Not unlike the "holy warriors" partly manufactured by the Red Army in Afghanistan, members of the U.S. military have since inadvertently trained a new generation of Algerian fundamentalists detected among al Qaeda forces in the killing fields of Iraq.

One way or the other, Claude Burgniard, a stewardess aboard Flight 8969 recalled being in particular shock when the world stood still in 2001. "I kept thinking we had apprentice terrorists," she said in an interview. "But they taught everyone a lesson."

Joseph Kirschke is a journalist and political analyst who specializes in North African and Middle Eastern security affairs.

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