In today's world, airport and aviation security is tight that incidents of plane hijacking have almost ceased to occur. After September 11, 2001, when an airplane was hijacked to carry out the devastating attack on the World Trade Centres in New York, USA, aviation security across the world has been tightened even further. Nowadays, it's impossible to board a plane with a knife or even a bottle of water, let alone a firearm. Like anywhere in the world, security at our airports is uncompromising. Yes, there are some questions regarding the security system of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, but the system isn't as bad that a passenger should be able to board an airplane with a pistol.
Even then, news of the attempted hijack of a Biman passenger jet has spread around the globe quite quickly. Within hours, the attempt was foiled. First, it was heard that the hijacker was wounded in a commando operation. Then, it was heard that he was killed, not wounded. The news coverage of the event could have ended that way, but it didn't. On social media, people began to question the official narrative and make fun of the event. Why is such a matter pertaining to national security, concerning the image of the state, unrelated to any divisive issues such as politics, being made a subject of mockery?
According to initial news reports, the attempt was made while the plane was due to land in Chattogram. The pilots and crews reportedly made an emergency landing. Then, we got to know that the security forces took position in the airport and surrounded the plane, after having received the instruction to do so from the highest levels of government. The commandos reportedly concluded the mission in just eight minutes. The hijacker was wounded but later died from his wounds. The army, whose commando team conducted the operation, explained that because the hijacker was making threats, the commandos had to respond.
That a commando operation would result in some casualty wasn't much of a surprise. What happened afterwards was, however, mind-boggling.
Before dwelling into the issue further, it may be mentioned that this hijacking attempt was perhaps different from any other similar historical incident. Normally, the hijacker holds the pilot and passengers hostage to force the authorities to accept his demand. In this case, however, the would-be hijacker didn't hold anyone hostage and let all passengers go. All available sources claimed that his only demand was to talk to his wife and the prime minister.
It's not impossible for a normal citizen to talk to Bangladesh's prime minister. Her telephone number is in the public record and she often personally receives calls. So, why did someone have to hijack a plan to talk to such an easy-going prime minister?
The second claim was that he wanted to talk to his wife, who happened to be an actress. She divorced him four months ago. These two strange demands, naturally, question his mental stability. But what was weirder was the reaction of the authorities.
First, the hijacker was said to have carried a gun and, perhaps, a suicide bomb. Some passengers, after having gotten off the plane, claimed that they heard two to three shots fired. The pilot, it was reported, skilfully made an emergency landing, although the state minister for civil aviation refuted the report and said that it was a normal landing.
Second, it was said that the entire attempt was foiled in a commando operation that lasted for only eight minutes. A pistol was recovered, while the would-be hijacker was injured. One and a half hours later, he died of his wounds. The next day reporters asked the state minister why the wounded hijacker was not immediately sent for treatment. The minister couldn't give a satisfactory answer, a typical response that everything would be revealed after an investigation. He also expressed scepticism over the accuracy of what was being reported but could not reveal what was “authentic” in his view.
Third, we came to know, thanks to the state minister for civil aviation, that the hijacker had used a toy pistol. The police commissioner of Chattogram said that they had examined the weapon and concluded that it was a toy gun. He also confirmed that the hijacker was not carrying any bomb.
Fourth, the next day, again thanks to the state minister for civil aviation, we were told that the would-be hijacker did not carry a gun, not even a toy gun, but had something that looked like a plastic pipe.
Here are four questions that would disturb anyone who'd followed the developments so far.
If the hijacker's pistol was just a toy gun and he had no bomb with him, why was the commando operation necessary? One may say that it was not initially possible to determine whether he had a real gun or not. And the same goes for the bomb. And so the authorities didn't want to take any risks and opted to go ahead with the operation. The commandos must have conducted the raid with utmost professionalism and efficiency. But there should have been a better explanation than just saying that the hijacker was “aggressive”. Maybe then, not so many questions would have been raised.
How is it though that the passengers had heard shots being fired? Well, even toy guns these days make sounds. Maybe the panicked passengers couldn't discern whether bullets were actually being fired from a real gun or not.
How could the state minister for civil aviation confirm that the pistol wasn't real? Well, the police commissioner of Chattogram, having examined the object, certified that it was a toy gun. The minister, perhaps, came to his conclusion based on those findings.
But what's the rationale behind the conclusion that it was neither a real gun nor a toy gun, but a plastic pipe-like object instead? How do we explain this statement? Did anyone not see any gun in the hijacker's hand? If he wasn't carrying anything that resembled a gun, how could the police determine whether it was just a toy? If it was a plastic pipe-like object, how could it be a toy gun? It can't be both.
Fifth, how can one incident have so many different explanations?
If the firearm was real, it would put the aviation authority in a tight spot. How can an armed passenger get into a plane undetected? The passenger jet had both domestic and international passengers. Usually, security is stricter on international flights but there is no room for lax security for domestic flights either. In most countries, both domestic and international flights are subjected to tight security measures. So the fact that the hijacker managed to get into the plane having bypassed security checks merits scrutiny. That security at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport is of a questionable standard is already well-known. Is this what all the fuss is about?
It's probable that the authorities had thought that the “toy gun” narrative would deflect attention away from important questions over the state of security. But the fact is, even a toy gun cannot pass undetected through scanning machines and other security measures. So even if the firearm was a toy gun, concerns over lax security remain.
It was not a gun—but something like a plastic pipe!
Common sense dictates that a “firearm” or “toy gun” and a “plastic pipe” bear little resemblance to each other. How can one confuse one with the other? Even if we say, for the sake of argument, that something like a plastic pipe was used to create something like a gun, whether real or not, it does not explain how it found its way into the plane in the first place. So none of the explanations about the nature of the object given so far holds, especially in the face of overwhelming evidence pointing to the unacceptable standard of security services at our airports. Every day passengers have to suffer because of this.
Sixth, the main objective of a commando operation is to neutralise the target as quickly and efficiently as possible. Stories of firearms, toy guns or plastic pipes have no relevance to that. The commando team had asked the hijacker to surrender, and after he refused to do so, they did what they needed to, with precision, one might add. If it's true what they said about the suspect dying because he didn't receive treatment for his gunshot wounds—the commando team cannot be held responsible for that. The blame lies with the law enforcement agencies or the airport authorities—and also with the state minister, the aviation authority and those in charge of security whose many conflicting claims and statements evoked ridicule and scepticism.
The reprimand being issued for “ridiculing” national security or the image of the country on social media will not address the situation. It may complicate it further. What's needed is to unearth the truth, tell the public about it, and do what's necessary based on the findings. The authorities have pledged to unearth the truth after investigation. But our past experiences with the outcomes of such “investigations” doesn't really instil much confidence. Yet we hope this time it will be different. Any investigation should also look at why different people gave such conflicting explanations to the extent that it turned a national security issue into a subject of mockery.
Golam Mortoza is a journalist. The article was translated from Bangla by Nazmul Ahasan and Badiuzzaman Bay.