Air France Flight 8969 hijacking and perfect GIGN raid

hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 in December, 1994
French counter-terrorism unit GIGN assaulted the plane and freed hostages (Photo: CCTV)

The hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 hit the headlines on the Christmas Eve, 1994. Just before the planned takeoff, the plane was hijacked by four terrorists from the Algerian terrorist group GIA (Islamic Armed Group). The terrorists boarded the plane disguised as security agents. The plane was the Airbus A300B2-1C, tail number F-GBEC.

Introduction

Air France Flight 8969 was a regular flight en route to Orly Airport, Paris from Houari Boumedienne Airport in Algeria with 236 occupants (including passengers, crew, and hijackers). The flight was scheduled for December 24, 1994, at 1105 a.m. local time. Shortly before takeoff, four terrorists disguised as Algerian presidential police, with blue uniforms with Air Algerie logos, boarded the plane.

At the same time, the Algerian military felt suspicious of noticing that the Air France flight 8969 appeared to have an unauthorized delay, so they began surrounding the aircraft. Operators from the Algerian Special Intervention Group (GIS) were present at the scene. Upon seeing the GIS operators, gathering outside the plane, one of the terrorists shouted “taghut,” an Arabic word for “infidel.” Immediately, the crew onboard knew those guys were terrorists.

Hijacking of the Air France Flight 8969: Airbus A-300 with tail number F-GBEC
The hijacking of the Air France Flight 8969: Airbus A-300 with tail number F-GBEC seen in 1982 (Photo: Air France)

Hijacking

At first, other people on board didn’t have any suspicion because the alleged security agents got onto the plane and regularly started to check passports. Suddenly, they pulled out their Uzi’s and AK-47 assault rifles. Moments later, the Air France flight 8969 was hijacked. Terrorists barricaded themselves and the first thing they did was the murder of two passengers. To prove their commitment, they killed an Algerian police officer and a Vietnamese diplomat.

Only 15 minutes later, the French government was notified about the hijacking through their own intelligence channels. French intelligence agents were already assigned to monitor Algerian military and police radio traffic where they found that something has happened at the airport. The government immediately put their elite counter-terrorism unit GIGN on standby.

The French equivalent for the US Navy SEALs
The French elite counter-terrorism unit GIGN (Photo: XY)

Enroute to Algeria

The Algerian interior minister personally led the negotiations with the terrorists, that used the pilot as a go-between. After four hours of negotiations, the members of the notorious GIA cell agreed to release some of the hostages. From the descriptions the freed hostages gave, the Algerian intelligence services quickly identified the terrorists including their leader Abdul Abdullah Yahia. They seemed determined, well planned, and very cold-blooded.

Nearly nine hours into the hijacking and hostage crisis, the French government ordered GIGN to move. 35 GIGN operators took off from Paris, to fly to Palma De Mallorca in Spain where they should wait for further orders. The French government couldn’t persuade the Algerian government to accept help from the GIGN.

From Algeria to Marseilles

The day after the hijacking, the terrorists wanted to take off and fly to Paris. The Algerian security forces weren’t willing to let the plane take off. The hijackers threaten to kill a French passenger and did it shortly after the Algerian authorities refused to give in to their demands. The French Prime Minister phone his Algerian counterpart and demanded they let the plane to take off. Finally, on December 26, 1994, the plane left Algeria and headed for France.

On the same day, the plane carrying the GIGN operators was already in the air headed for Algeria but was ordered to turn around and head for Marseilles. Additional GIGN reinforcements were dispatched to Marseilles, so the total number of operators headed to the Marseille airport was 51. The aircraft carrying the GIGN operators touched down before the hijacked aircraft.

When the Air France Flight 8969 landed in Marseille, the negotiators immediately started negotiations with the terrorists. As they took their time, GIGN started planning the daring raid. They examined the plane for possible entry points and did the basic check for booby traps. They also placed listening devices on the plane chassis. The official negotiations continued for hours and the terrorist got impatient and wanted to take off again and leave Marseilles.

Greenlight for GIGN

In the late afternoon of December 26, 1994, at 1645 hours the terrorist got impatient. They opened one of the plane doors and started shooting at the control tower. Fearing the terrorists would kill more hostages the GIGN was given green light.

At 1717 hours three eight-man teams went into action. Using three mobile ramps they approached the aircraft but were spotted by the terrorist who opened fire. The first team went through the front door and the first six operators that went into the aircraft were injured. The other two teams went into the aircraft through the aircraft’s rear doors. The heavy firefight occurred, but after only 90 seconds, the first hostages were evacuated alongside the wounded operators. The remaining terrorists retreated to the cockpit where they were pinned down.

hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 in December, 1994
French counter-terrorism unit GIGN assaulted the plane and freed hostages (Photo: CCTV)

The GIGN could storm the cockpit but didn’t dare since the terrorists still had the pilot and a steward with them. The co-pilot had jumped out one of the cockpits windows when the attack had started.

The two terrorists continued to exchange fire. A GIGN operator threw a flash-bang grenade through a cockpit window, but the grenade didn’t have much effect on the terrorists. During the standoff with the terrorists in the cockpit, and almost four minutes from the beginning of the action, all the hostages were evacuated except for the pilot and the steward who were still in the cockpit.

GIGN snipers positioned on the roofs of the surrounding airport buildings were ordered to open fire on the remaining terrorists in the cockpit. The firefight continued for several minutes, and suddenly the shooting stopped and over the radio, the pilot told that all the terrorists were dead. The two remaining hostages were evacuated from the aircraft. Amazingly they were both unarmed, despite the cockpit was full of bullet holes.

The part of the GIGN raid during the operation of the overtaking hijacked Air France flight 8969 was directly broadcasted on national TV and millions had the opportunity to watch how the GIGN ended this hostage crisis.

Aftermath

A 17-minutes long attack had ended successfully. Over 1500 rounds had been fired, while four hijackers were killed. In total, three passengers were executed while the 173 people were saved. As a result of the damage to the aircraft, the A300 was written off. The crew of the A300 and the GIGN forces received high national honors.

Further investigation of the incident led the investigator to the conclusion that the terrorists had planned to detonate the aircraft over the Eiffel Tower. That claim comes from the former leader of the militant group. They never again attempted this plot.

Air France Flight 8969 hijacking: The aftermath of extensive shooting during the standoff with the terrorists barricaded in the cockpit (Photo: CCTV)
Air France Flight 8969 hijacking: The aftermath of extensive shooting during the standoff with the terrorists barricaded in the cockpit (Photo: CCTV)

Air France Flight 8969 hijacking in numbers

Occupants:236 (including 4 hijackers)
Passengers:224 (including 4 hijackers)
Crew:12
Fatalities:7 (3 passengers and 4 hijackers)
Injuries:25 (13 passengers, 3 crew, 9 GIGN operators)
Survivors:229
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