The 4 men appeared normal, their blue attire that of the Algerian Presidential police with Air Algirie logos inscribed. They stepped aboard the Airbus A300, belonging to Air France Flight 8969 as it readied to depart Algiers for Paris with 229 passengers on Christmas Eve, 1994. Moving from aisle to aisle they requested passengers passports. The crew decided to delay departing until the police found what they were looking for.
Yet, despite the businesslike mannerisms of the police, something seemed odd. They were armed. AK47’s slung over shoulders. Unusual, since Algerian police often worked without firearms, and as suspicion began growing amongst those in the plane, the Algerian military authorities, in the midst of fighting a civil war, took no chances and surrounded the aircraft with Special Forces.
“Infidel” burst from the lips of one of the police upon seeing the troops outside, and the men pulled their weapons, announcing their takeover of the plane. The hijackers placed packs of dynamite in the cockpit and under a seat in the middle of the aircraft with the passengers, linking them with detonation cord. They ordered cabin crew members to switch uniforms with them to confuse any snipers trying to target them. They announced over the radio they were chosen by Allah to wage war in his name and that they belong to the Group Islamique Army (GIA or Armed Islamic Group in English), and demanded the release of two members of a banned Algerian political party.
The Algerian interior minister who arrived in the control tower before the terrorists issued demands pled with them to release children and elderly passengers if Algeria were to negotiate. Two hours after the crisis began, the terrorists dropped their demands for release of prisoners and ordered the captain to take off for Paris, where, they said, they would hold a press conference. Algerian authorities refused departure and blocked the runway. GIA’s response was they would detonate the plane unless allowed to leave.
Dissatisfied with the progress, they acted again. They discovered an Algerian police officer on the flight during the passport check and confronted him. As he pled for his life saying he had a wife and child they shot him in the head. Yet, Algeria still refused. They moved to find another, A Vietnamese embassy attaché was selected and another shot rang out. The hours began to pass as Algeria and France tried to determine the next course of action.
France pressed the Algerians to either let them send in a unit to storm the plane for which they refused, or let them leave which, again, they refused
Darkness fell on the airport as spotlights illuminated the jet sitting by itself on the tarmac. The captain, Bernard Dhellame, tried to calm the hijackers by talking with them in a personable manner, while back in France the green light went to the countries primary counter terrorist unit to transfer to Majorca, Spain. It is known by its short name of GIGN (Group d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale).
This particular detachment was led by Major Denis Favier, and made the trip aboard a similar A300, learning every detail they could about the aircraft before and after landing as the clock ticked past midnight to December 25th.
Since the terrorists dropped their demands, French officials remained perplexed about their exact intentions. Why did they still want to fly to Paris? To make other demands? Perhaps they believed the French would be more conciliatory if they threatened them on their own turf.
Then, an ominous message arrived from an informant in the GIA. It relayed that the hijackers never had any intention of negotiating for hostages. Their intention was much more sinister. They would have the plane fly to Paris then crash it into the Eiffel tower. The French insisted they be allowed to land GIGN in Algiers. Again, denied.
On the plane, the terrorists, finding their beliefs offended, ordered the men and women apart and head coverings for the women, including the stewardesses. Meanwhile, negotiators managed to convince them to release 63 passengers throughout Christmas day, mostly women, children and some with medical conditions. Almost all those released were Algerian, leaving about 170, mostly French, aboard.
As darkness fell, Algerian soldiers using night vision identified the lead hijacker, named Yahia, and brought his mother to the airport to plead with her son. At this, he became enraged and soon the hijackers threatened to kill a passenger every 30 minutes unless they were allowed to take off.
They sought out another victim, finding two French embassy employees, a secretary and a chef who they had plead for his life into a microphone. Then they executed him, dumping his body on the tarmac. Shortly thereafter with much backdoor wrangling still going on between the two governments, Flight 8969 thundered down the runway and rose into darkness 39 hours after the event began.
An auxiliary power unit had used up too much fuel while on the tarmac so the Captain informed the hijackers they would have to land at Marseille for refueling. What they didn’t know was Favier’s men were waiting as the A300 touched down at 3:33 A.M December 26 and was directed toward an isolated portion of the airport. More negotiations followed attempting to tire the hijackers as GIGN’s assault element prepared to approach the plane.
Demand for 27 tons of fuel signified the informant was right about using the plane as a bomb since only 9 to 10 tons of fuel was needed for the flight to Paris. Regardless, despite knowing the plane was rigged with explosives it would not be allowed to leave Marseille.
After sunrise on the 26th, a demand came to let the aircraft depart by 9:40 A.M., to which the French stalled by offering food and water as well as general servicing of the jet. Through the day, GIGN members disguised as technicians entered the plane and discovered the doors were not rigged or blocked. Moreover, they could be opened from the outside. They also emplaced microphones inside and outside to allow monitoring.
The final act before the assault came when GIGN, now controlling the negotiations, persuaded the hijackers to hold a press conference inside the plane. This was by design as they expected the passengers to be moved toward the rear. If all went well, the assault would commence just after dark.
More hours passed and with no press arriving and fuel yet to be delivered, Yahia ordered the plane moved to near the control tower. A hatch soon opened and gunfire sounded over the tarmac before it closed again.
Fearing a bloodbath Favier modified his plan for daylight and soon three air stairs rolled toward the Airbus, two on the right side and one the left. 30 Black attired commandoes rushed up the stairs simultaneously and yanked the hatches open. Stun grenades hurled into the fuselage as the 3 GIGN teams breached.
“There are 8 of us on the front right air stair,” a Favier recalled. “There was a small problem with the height as it was a little bit higher than the door. It hits the top of the door, a slight step back and the door opens. The air stair touches the plane and the group goes in.”
The terrorists began firing AK-47’s indiscriminately to be answered by the quicker chatter of GIGN’s MP-5’s. “The terrorists shoot at everyone who enters. Extremely murderous fire.” Favier continued. Hundreds of bullets crisscrossed the narrow space. Shouts rang out for the passengers to get down. More stun grenades detonated. A hijacker fell dead. Another was wounded and later dies. Several GIGN members were also hit, one when an AK round hits his weapon, detonating its ammunition as he positioned himself outside a hatch.
Snipers now joined the fray and fired into the cockpit, hitting another terrorist just after the co-pilot leaped from a window. Escape chutes inflated out the rear hatches and GIGN hurried the passengers down the slides to the tarmac. Smoke continued filling the passenger compartment as the commandoes search the aisles seeking more hijackers. The final one managed to keep firing at random for nearly 20 minutes before he is killed.
The plane is cleared and a tally taken of casualties. All 4 hijackers are dead, 9 GIGN members are wounded, 1 seriously, but none fatal. 13 passengers and 3 crewmembers are also injured but fully recover from their wounds. All in all, 173 passengers and crew have been rescued in about a 20 minute time span.
“When I assessed the gravity of the GIGN men’s injuries and when we learned none were fatal, then yes, I would consider that overall that the operation had been a success,” Favier concluded.
GIGN continues its crucial role across the globe today and also provides training to other elite units in the art of counter terrorism.