On April 17, 1986, an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv was the target of a bombing plot that could have killed everyone on board, including the unsuspecting pregnant woman carrying the explosives. Thirty-five years later, two of the security officers that foiled the attack spoke of their experience in a television interview that aired Friday.
El Al Flight 016, originating in New York, had stopped at London’s Heathrow Airport before a final planned leg to Israel.
Yossi Orbach, then a security officer with El Al in London, told Channel 13 that “it was a normal day in April in London,” describing the warming weather and thoughts of a quiet day ahead at work. “We had no intel warnings and no preparation for what was about to happen.”
Security officers, like Orbach, began the check-in process, questioning the new travelers boarding the flight to Israel.
Anne-Marie Murphy, a 32-year-old Irish woman in her 6th month of pregnancy, arrived at the check-in area.
“She arrived fairly early, relatively speaking, for the flight. The check-in [area] as far as I remember was almost empty,” said Ofer Argov, another security official at the time.
Orbach’s first impression of Murphy was that she seemed a regular passenger: A fair-haired, pregnant young woman in her early 30s. Any hint of terror-related activity was the furthest thing from his mind when he saw her.
“She came toward us with luggage that was very easy to check; a small bag, a small purse,” Orbach said.
Argov, at the time a newcomer to the job in London, began to question her with queries familiar to anyone boarding a flight with an Israeli airline: Did she pack her luggage herself? Did she pack alone? Did anyone give her anything to pass along to others at her destination? And so on.
Argov said he didn’t realize at first that she was pregnant.
“It was one of the first things she told me; she made me aware of her pregnancy. She told me that she works at the Hilton [hotel] as a maid. I asked her where she would be staying in Israel and she answered that she would be at the Hilton in Bethlehem [in the West Bank],” Argov recalled.
“There is no Hilton in Bethlehem,” Orbach said. On the other hand, a non-Jewish person traveling to Bethlehem “is not a big deal,” he said.
Argov said he then asked Murphy about finances and whether she had enough funds to be traveling to Israel. “She said she had about 50 British pounds on her,” he said. She added she also had a credit card which she believed she could use to withdraw money in Israel. Orbach said this was not the case and her credit card could not be used in Israel.
“So there’s this woman in front of me, who says she’s going to be staying at the Hilton in Bethlehem — which doesn’t exist — and she has 50 or 100 British pounds for the whole trip. And the whole thing didn’t make sense, something wasn’t right,” Argov said.
All of Murphy’s answers were supposedly “normal” according to Argov. “Ofer asked his questions and she answered,” Orbach said, noting that she was very calm.
Security officers are trained to recognize the telltale signs of a person who knows they are about to commit a crime or an attack. But Murphy had no idea she was carrying anything dangerous.
As later came to light, Murphy had been in a relationship with a Jordanian man named Nezar Hindawi, who had left her after she told him of her pregnancy.
Then suddenly, Hindawi returned to her, offering that the two get married in Israel. Murphy naively accepted. However, Hindawi merely intended to use her as an unwitting bomber. He later claimed to have been trained and directed by Syrian intelligence services.
Hindawi told Murphy he could not fly with her, explaining that as an Arab it would take him longer to get a visa. He also told her not to mention their relationship, as this would cause her unnecessary trouble with airport security. He escorted Murphy to Heathrow and handed her the bag packed with explosives, with a timer set to go off mid-air.
For the security staff, Murphy was on paper a normal passenger. And her bags had already been approved by Heathrow’s security, but feeling that something was off, the El Al security team began to scan them again.
“The x-ray scanner unequivocally told me — there is nothing in this bag,” Orbach recalled. Still uneasy, he proceeded to open it anyway. Cleared of its innocuous-seeming contents, the bag still seemed heavy. Then, behind a false panel, Orbach found something wrapped in brown tape. “My first thought was actually drugs,” he said.
He picked up the strange package, not realizing it contained explosives. “I was still in dissonance. It can’t be a bomb. They already checked her,” he recalled thinking.
Removing the wrapping slightly, Orbach began to see a “greasy and orange” item. “This is the first lesson in explosives,” he said.
Orbach immediately notified a Heathrow security officer: “I think we found a bomb, clear the terminal.”
Murphy was taken away by British security services.
The bomb was made up of 1.5 kilograms of explosives, set on an automatic timer to explode mid-air on the Boeing plane as it carried some 370 people.
Murphy was horrified to discover her supposed partner had tried to use her as a bomber. Under questioning, she gave officials Hindawi’s name, and British security immediately began to search for the suspect.
When news of the failed bomb plot broke, Hindawi initially fled to the Syrian embassy to seek support, but eventually turned himself into the British Police.
Israel officially blamed Syria for the attempted bombing, with the prime minister at the time, Shimon Peres, saying security officers’ actions had prevented a “full-blown war between Israel and Syria.”
Hindawi was sentenced to 45 years imprisonment, while Murphy was let off entirely, as the British came to realize she was manipulated by the Jordanian terrorist. She later said the only good thing to come from the relationship was her daughter, Sara.