Saturday, 6 April 2019

The plot to blow up El Al flight 016


This unusual story from over 30 years ago looks at events which had links from Kilburn to both national and international events. There are similarities with John le Carr√©’s The Little Drummer Girl which was written in 1983 and made into a TV series shown on BBC last year.

In 1986 Ann Marie Murphy was living in a terraced house in Mazenod Avenue Kilburn which the 32-year-old shared with two friends. Ann was born into the large family of lorry driver William and Kathleen Murphy who lived in Sallynoggin Park Dun Laoghaire, a small coastal town about eight miles south of Dublin. She left school at 14 and worked for ten years at the Glen Abbey tights and stocking factory at Blackrock, about two miles from her home.

In October 1984 Ann and her friend Therese Leonard came to London and got jobs as chambermaids for the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane. They initially lived in the staff house in Earls Court. Therese met Jordanian Khaled Hasi whose flatmate was fellow countryman Nezar Hindawi and the girls began dating the two men. This was Ann’s first serious relationship and she was swept off her feet by 35-year-old Nezar, a dark and charismatic man with a shadowy background. In November 1984 Ann and Nezar were the witnesses at Therese and Khaled’s wedding.
 
Nezar Hindawi and Ann Marie Murphy
Nezar told Ann that he was a journalist and he travelled abroad for long periods. He also admitted he was married and visited his wife and child in Poland, but he was getting a divorce. Ann believed everything she was told and became pregnant but had a miscarriage. In September 1985 Ann moved to the house in Kilburn which was near the large Catholic Church in Quex Road. In January 1986 she found out she was pregnant again and refused to have an abortion. Nezar disappeared.

Nezar Nawaf al-Mansur al-Hindawi, to give him his full name, was born in the village of Baqura Jordan to Palestine parents who had left Israel in 1948. It was believed that he joined the Palestine Liberation Organization as a teenager during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1967. He came to London in 1979 and met Barbara Litwiniec when they were both studying at a Kensington language school, and they married seven months later in December 1980. In 1981 their daughter Natasha was born, and soon afterwards Barbara returned home to Poland. Nezar continued to make regular visits to see them. He had come to London to work as a journalist but could only get work as a messenger at the Al Arab newspaper where he was fired in 1982 after just two months.

In late 1985 Nezar was trained for two months at a camp run by the Abu Nidal Organization near Dahir, east of Damascus. He met General Muhamed al-Khuli, the head of Syrian military intelligence, and Colonel Haytham Said in January 1986, to plan an attack on an El Al plane. Told to use a woman as the bomb carrier, Nezar decided on Ann. He was given an initial payment of $15,000 and promised that if successful, he would be paid $250,000. He proved his abilities by organizing a bomb attack on the German-Arab Friendship Society in Berlin carried out by his brother Hasi and a cousin on 29 March. Nine people were injured. They also planted a bomb in the La Belle disco in Berlin which killed three people and injured 230. Hasi was jailed in Berlin for 14 years for the attacks.

Nezar arrived back in London on the 5 April using a passport provided by the Syrians and posing as a foreign ministry accountant. He stayed at the Royal Garden Hotel, which was used by the crew of the Syrian Arab Airlines (SAA). The following day he was given a bag containing the explosive which had been smuggled in by a SAA crew member. It consisted of 1.5 kgs or about 3.3 lbs of the Czech-made plastic explosive Semtex.

Unexpectedly, Nezar turned up at Ann’s flat in Mazenod Avenue on 7 April and said they were going get married in Jordan. He gave her £100 to buy new clothes. On the 15th they went to a travel agent in Regent’s Street where Ann bought an El Al ticket to Tel Aviv, again using money supplied by Nezar. He said that as a Jordanian he would not travel on an El Al flight and his company had booked him on a different airline. They would meet up later to see his parents and get married. The next evening he arrived at her flat, nervously smoking his pipe and wondering if any of Ann’s friends were there. Ann said no, but a minute later her sister Heidi stuck her head into the room to say, ‘Have a nice time.’ ‘I thought I told you not to tell anyone,’ said Hindawi. Ann replied that she had told two of her sisters about their trip. Nezar gave her the small wheeled suitcase, saying he did not want her to have to lift anything in her condition. He packed a calculator in the case which he told her was a present to a friend.
 
El Al Boeing 747-200

At 7.30am the next day the couple took a taxi to Heathrow and Nezar kissed Ann goodbye. She went through security and the bag was X-rayed without any problems. But when she arrived at Gate 23 she was questioned by an El Al security officer. Four months earlier on 27 December 1985, two groups of terrorists from the Abu Nidal Organization opened fire on El Al passengers at Rome and Vienna airports and killed 19 people and wounded 120. In the two attacks four terrorists were killed and three were captured. The alert officer at Heathrow became suspicious when Ann said that her fiancé had helped her to pack the bag and was travelling on another flight. After the bag was emptied it felt heavy and he found the Semtex concealed in a false bottom. Ann was astonished and after being taken away in handcuffs, told Special Branch and MI5 officers all she knew about Nezar. They already had his details on file and within two hours his photo and description were given to the press and TV.

At Heathrow bomb disposal expert Peter Gurney searched the bag but could not find a detonator until he discovered the calculator had been modified with a circuit and small charge. This was placed close to the main bomb and had been set by Hindawi to explode in five hours when the plane would have been over Austria. It would have killed Ann, her unborn baby and all 355 passengers.

After leaving Ann, Nezar had travelled back to the Royal Garden Hotel and then boarded the SAA bus disguised as a crew member to catch the 2pm flight to Damascus. When his picture was shown on the news, officials at the Syrian embassy in Belgrave Square sent a car to intercept the coach and bring him back. The ambassador Dr Loutof Haydar phoned Damascus for instructions and Hindawi was taken to a safe house at 19 Stoner Road in West Kensington where his hair was cut and dyed. The following day he was driven back to the embassy but believing the Syrians where going to kill him, Nezar gave them the slip and went to the London Visitors Hotel at 42/44 Holland Road Kensington where he knew the owner, Naim Oran. Oran contacted Mahmoud Hindawi, Nezar’s brother who came to the hotel. After a heated discussion, Nezar agreed to hand himself over to the police and he waited at the hotel until they arrived and arrested him. He cooperated fully with British security and told them about the Syrian involvement. At first they did not believe him until he identified photos of the ambassador and gave an accurate description of his office.

On 24 October Geoffrey Howe, the Foreign Secretary, ordered all the Syrian officials to leave the embassy within 14 days. President Assad denied any involvement of his government in the bombing attempt.

The News of The World bought Ann’s exclusive story for an undisclosed sum. Ann said that Nezar took away every photo she had of him shortly before they went to Heathrow. She said she had been in love with Nezar but now she hated him, and the only good thing to come out of the relationship was her daughter Sara who had been born 10 weeks ago. Ann’s mother Kathleen said, ‘My poor darling Annie. People say she was gullible and perhaps she was, but love is blind. She believed in him and she trusted him’.

At the Old Bailey trial in October 1986 Ann gave evidence against Nezar speaking in a calm, quiet manner, sometimes almost inaudible. ‘Did you love him?’ asked the prosecutor. ‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘Did you believe he loved you?’ Ann whispered, ‘Yes.’ After several hours in the witness box she suddenly shouted at Nezar, ‘You bastard, I hate you, I hate you, how could you do this to me?’

Replying to questions, Hindawi said he loved Ann and he always would. He had told her that after their marriage they would open a shop in Dublin selling Arab newspapers. He also said that he thought the bag contained drugs which he had been asked to smuggle onto the El Al flight. The jury did not believe him.

Judge Mars-Jones said it was ‘a callous and cruel deception to sacrifice his girlfriend and unborn child as a means of destroying the El Al plane and killing all the passengers’. Hindawi was found guilty and sentenced to 45 years, the longest prison sentence in British legal history.

Gordon Thomas provides another version of the Hindawi affair in his book Gideon’s Spies (7th edition 2015), which is a history of Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Gordon was a cousin of Dylan Thomas who found a publisher for Gordon’s first book written when he was just 16. Gordon died in 2017 having written over 50 books with sales of 45 million. A few years earlier he filmed ‘My Story’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fF3Tljjj2E4

Thomas had written about the intelligence services of Britain and America when he was invited to write about Mossad by high ranking officers in Israel who provided him with considerable information. This became his most successful book and went through seven editions. The chapter called the ‘The Chambermaid’s Bomb’ says a Mossad agent, code named ‘Tov Levy’ using an Arab double agent named ‘Abu’ who was a distant cousin of Nezar Hindawi, persuaded him to carry out the plot using Ann to take the bomb onto the El Al Jumbo jet. Tov Levy followed Nezar and Ann to Heathrow and had informed El Al, Special Branch and MI5 officers, so there was never a chance the bomb would be taken onto the plane. The aim was to force Britain and other countries such as the US to sever all diplomatic relations with Syria. Gordon Thomas spoke with Hindawi who still maintains that he was the victim of a Mossad sting operation.

Although this sounds like a classic conspiracy theory, it was believed at a very high political level. Two weeks after the trial the French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac was interviewed on tape by Arnaud de Borchgrave, the editor of the Washington Times. When he was asked about the attempt to blow up the El Al plane Chirac said he had been told by the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher that they believe it had been set up by Mossad agents to embarrass Syria and destabilise the Assad regime. A political storm broke out when the story appeared, and Chirac did the only thing he could and said he had been misquoted.

The Hindawi incident has become a classic case study on security profiling which triggered airlines to begin using a set of security questions to check the integrity of passengers and their baggage, which they still do today.

A play called The English Bride written by Lucile Lichtblau and based on the Hindawi affair, was produced off Broadway in 2013. She said she was interested in exploring the motivation and relationship between the two characters. You can see an interview with the author here:

Hindawi lost his appeals for parole and is still in Whitemoor, the Category A maximum security jail, in March Cambridgeshire. Ann lives quietly with her daughter in Ireland.

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