Twenty-four years after Indian Airlines plane hijacking: What lessons did Nepal learn?

Questions still remain about the source of weapons smuggled aboard the aircraft, the existence of pre-information within Indian intelligence and the lapses in Nepal's airport security.

Narayan Adhikari

  • Read Time 4 min.

This day in 1999, an unfortunate event that happened rocked the South Asian region by storm and raised the alarm in Nepal’s neighbor.  It all started on December 24, after the IC-814 was hijacked by terrorists forty minutes it took off from Kathmandu airport for New Delhi. The aircraft carrying above 170 passengers remained hostage for over a week.

 Exactly 24 years have elapsed since the notorious IC-814 Indian Airlines hijacking, an event etching a somber chapter in Nepal’s aviation history. The seizure of the Kathmandu to Delhi flight by terrorists remains a haunting episode, prompting Nepali authorities to ardently fortify airport security.

Nestled in the Himalayas, Nepal grapples with distinctive challenges in safeguarding its airspace. The 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 vividly spotlighted vulnerabilities within Nepal’s airport security apparatus, thrusting the nation onto the international stage with its inadequacies laid bare. This incident not only laid bare the frailty of Nepal’s airport security but also unveiled deficiencies in regulations and overall security infrastructure. The global community poses pertinent inquiries regarding the extent of lessons gleaned by Nepal from this harrowing experience, coupled with a keen interest in the current spectrum of security measures implemented.

The IC-814 hijacking raised numerous questions, some answered and others still pending. Queries persist regarding the source of weapons smuggled aboard the aircraft, the existence of pre-information within Indian intelligence, and the lapses in Nepal’s airport security that allowed lethal weapons to go unchecked.

Each year, billions of individuals traverse airports, making airport security a paramount global concern. Post the 9/11 incidents, air hijacking occurrences have significantly diminished owing to fortified and modernized security systems. Nevertheless, the imperative for Nepal to elevate its airport security to advanced levels has surfaced. Numerous security lapses persist within airports, creating opportunities for human traffickers, gold smugglers, and certain drug traffickers to exploit vulnerabilities. Recent incidents, such as the smuggling of 66 kg of gold and instances of human trafficking facilitated through visit visas, underscore the pressing need for enhanced airport security measures.

Terrorists successfully captured all crew members and 171 passengers, disguising themselves as passengers in an orchestrated air hijacking incident. The Indian plane, victim to this hijacking, was initially diverted to Kandahar Airport in Afghanistan, traversing Amritsar in India, Lahore in Pakistan, and Dubai in the UAE. India, over 8 days following the abduction, failed to execute any decisive security measures against the terrorists. Notably, during the plane’s landing in Amritsar, India was unable to conduct a hostage rescue operation or a specialized security intervention.

In Dubai, the local government prohibited Indian authorities from implementing security measures. Tragically, one Indian citizen fell victim to the terrorists’ violence. Ultimately, succumbing to the hijackers’ demands became the only recourse for the Indian government to secure the release of the hijacked plane. Consequently, three terrorist leaders—Masood Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Omar, and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar—incarcerated in Indian jails, were reluctantly freed.

Masood Azhar, currently active, has established the Jihadi organization named Jaish-e-Mohammed. Sheikh Ahmed Omar, born in Britain and educated at the London School of Economics, was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 on charges of kidnapping and murder and remains in jail. Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar, initially associated with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, now leads a terrorist organization, Mujahideen, after his release from an Indian prison. Both Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar face charges related to terrorist attacks on Parliament House and Uri.

The annual alerts from the US State Department and the European Union consistently emphasize the imperative to elevate security standards. Nonetheless, Nepal’s airport security systems grapple with several challenges. Numerous government and private sector entities operate within the airport domain, lacking proper cooperation and coordination. When incidents occur, the absence of a readiness to assume responsibility becomes evident.

The IC-814 hijacking incident underscores the need for Nepal to fortify its airport security measures. Nepal can address security challenges and establish a safer air travel environment.

Key challenges in Nepal’s airport security landscape include political instability, political alliances with smugglers, limited managerial resources, duplicated work efforts, a dearth of advanced technology, a deficient immigration data management system, misuse of airport entry passes, inadequate rules and regulations, and an absence of a clear mandate for security agencies.

To enhance airport security systems, the government must invest in advanced security technologies such as state-of-the-art baggage screening systems, biometric identification, and surveillance equipment. Assigning a single, clearly defined security agency for vital installations would eliminate redundancy. The government should introduce a comprehensive training program focusing on threat detection, crisis management, and effective communication in high-stress situations.

Implementing adaptive security policies with a crystal-clear mandate is essential. These policies should be flexible enough to adapt to evolving threat scenarios and political landscapes, ensuring a proactive approach to security challenges. Given the global nature of airport security, international collaboration, cooperation, and information sharing play vital roles. Strengthening collaboration with international partners is crucial, and the government should invest in infrastructure improvements to alleviate congestion and modernize airport facilities, ensuring efficient security procedures.

The IC-814 hijacking incident stands as a pivotal lesson, underscoring the need for Nepal to fortify its airport security measures. Through investments in advanced technologies, international collaboration, infrastructure enhancements, and comprehensive training programs, Nepal can address security challenges and establish a safer air travel environment. Coordination among the government, aviation authorities, and international partners is imperative to tackle these challenges and safeguard the security and integrity of Nepal’s airports.

Narayan Adhikari is a researcher on national security and terrorism.

Twitter: @BraboAlfa