Islamic Terrorism on Screen
Shortly after the worst terrorist attack in history, America's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, proclaimed that no one could have imagined the scale of an act of war such as occurred on that black day. Actually, many in Hollywood–writers, directors, producers—could and did, often with penetrating motion pictures for the big and small screen.

Hijacking of TWA Flight 847

These were the words of a hijacker aboard a rapidly descending jet to the Beirut, Lebanon, control tower, in June, 1985, when Beirut, like other airports, refused permission to land: "We are suicide terrorists! If you don't let us land, we will crash the plane into your control tower, or... crash into the Presidential Palace!" The captain of TWA flight 847 pleaded: "They are beating up passengers. We must land in Beirut. He has pulled the pin of the grenade. We must land. He is ready to blow up the plane."

The tower ceded and, after the Boeing 727 touched down, the hijackers responded by murdering young American Robert Stethem, whom they had beaten and shot in the head, and by throwing his corpse onto the tarmac. Jewish passengers were separated, after the hijackers patrolled the aisles, asked for names and collected passports, and they were removed from the plane.

An account of the hijacking, The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story, was televised in 1988. The highly-rated movie focuses on one undaunted stewardess from New Jersey (played with grit by Lindsay Wagner from The Bionic Woman), who is widely credited with rallying the passengers. Derickson, who saved countless lives, showed no fear. Her ability to speak German to the leader, who called himself Castro (Eli Danker), proved especially useful.

The 17-day siege was carried out by Moslem terrorists backed by Iran's Hezbollah, whose name means Party of God. After seeking—and gaining—the release of 766 Islamic terrorists being held in Israel (President Reagan had pressured Israel to capitulate), the terrorists escaped. The plane, which had been booby-trapped with explosives, was blown up.

Those remaining Jewish passengers were rescued by an elite anti-terrorism unit known as The Delta Force, also the name of a 1986 picture loosely based on the hijacking. In the movie, the commandoes are led by a colonel (Lee Marvin) and his top soldier (Chuck Norris). The Delta Force's cast includes Joey Bishop, Shelley Winters and Kim Delaney (NYPD Blue) as a nun.


Iran Versus America

Rescue is also the theme of On Wings of Eagles, a miniseries based on Ken Follett's best-selling book. The true story centers on heroic businessmen who defy the U.S. government and decide to rescue their own imprisoned employees. The workers had been seized in Teheran, Iran, following Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic revolution. They were held for $13 million ransom.

Enter company president H. Ross Perot (Richard Crenna). Perot, before he decided to run for president, tries diplomacy, which, not surprisingly, fails to persuade the Moslem radicals. Perot enlists a retired Army colonel (Burt Lancaster) to lead a rescue mission and assembles a strike force. Look for Esai Morales as the Iranian who helps them.

Hijacking of the Achille Lauro

No such dramatic rescues awaited those who boarded a Mediterranean cruise ship in 1985, remembered in The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro. The 1989 TV movie is the unforgettable story of Marilyn and Leon Klinghoffer (Lee Grant and Karl Malden), an elderly Jewish couple from the United States, who, while traveling, became victims in one of the most heinous terrorist acts against Americans.

The Italian cruise was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists off Port Said, Egypt; they executed the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer in front of his wife and rolled him off the deck. Forty-eight hours later, after the remaining hostages were released, the Achille Lauro mysteriously caught fire off the coast of Somalia and sank. The tragedy was also chronicled in Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair (1990), another made-for-TV movie starring Burt Lancaster as Leon Klinghoffer and Eva Marie Saint as his wife.


Target: America

The taut thriller Executive Decision (1996) delivers a strikingly similar plot to the actual Sept. 11, 2001, attack.

With its depiction of Islamic terrorists seizing a 747 bound from Athens to Washington D.C., watching Executive Decision is an eerie experience. Key elements are a disturbing mirror to reality: a man with explosives strapped on enters a hotel, a plane becomes a missile aimed at America's most treasured institutions, the top jihadist carries the Koran, hijackers are well-dressed and polite, passengers and crew resist, and the U.S. military is forced to contemplate shooting the plane down before it reaches its target.

Kurt Russell's David Grant, a terrorism expert, is enlisted to assist an unprecedented air-to-air Special Forces operation. Director Stuart Baird's first directing job is written by brothers Jim Thomas and John Thomas (Behind Enemy Lines) and also stars Halle Berry as a steely stewardess, Steven Seagal (in one of his better roles), John Leguizamo and fine performances by Len Cariou as the Secretary of Defense and Andreas Katsulas as the most devoted radical Moslem.

Another well-written thriller, Black Sunday (1977), was criticized as implausible when it was released in theaters. That's too bad; the writing team is exceptional and the movie is entirely realistic. The script is by Thomas Harris (The Silence of the Lambs), who wrote the novel, Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest), Kenneth Ross (The Day of the Jackal) and Ivan Moffat (Shane).

Black Sunday holds up remarkably well. A group of Palestinians, known as Black September (a real life organization that terrorized the West during the 1960s and 1970s—including the attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics), recruit Bruce Dern's deranged pilot to fly the Goodyear Blimp into the Super Bowl, killing everyone, including the president of the United States.

A hardened Israeli agent (Robert Shaw) tracks and tries to stop them. Marthe Keller chillingly portrays Dahlia, a Black September member loosely based on Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) hijacker Leila Khaled. Black Sunday is directed by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May).


The Arab-Israeli Wars

One of the most popular TV movies, Raid on Entebbe, which aired on Jan. 9, 1977, is also one of the best. It's the incredible story of the brilliant Israeli commando operation conducted in July, 1976, at an African airport after Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Air France passenger jet. The tension steadily builds following the hair-raising hijacking, in which—as may have happened on Sept. 11, 2001—a female lures the pilot out of the cockpit.

The hijacked plane is grounded in pro-Palestinian Uganda, ruled by dictator Idi Amin (veteran actor Yaphet Kotto at his most animated). The Israelis refuse to negotiate. As political factions unite for the sake of Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Peter Finch, who won an Emmy for his performance) approves what remains the boldest, most successful anti-terrorist strike in history.

Avoiding radar detection, the impeccably trained commandoes land at the Ugandan capital of Entebbe, and rescue the passengers. Only one Israeli solider was killed during the brutal fighting—Lt. Col. Jonathan "Yoni" Netanyahu (Stephen Macht), younger brother of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An ominous historical footnote: the world, including the United States, condemned Israel for violating dictatorship Uganda's sovereignty.

Raid on Entebbe is directed by Irvin Kershner, who went on the direct The Empire Strikes Back, and it also stars Charles Bronson. Look for a young James Woods as a commando. Woods' presence in the picture is particularly ironic since, during a commercial flight in 2001, Woods was seated in first class with men he became convinced were plotting to hijack the plane—an observation Woods shared with the flight's captain. After the 9/11 attack, Woods later identified the men to FBI agents as the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Spy novelist John Le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl, released in 1984 starring Diane Keaton, gets Le Carre's typical convoluted treatment. It is intensely involving.

Israel attempts to retaliate against Palestinian terrorists by designating American actress Charlie (Keaton) to impersonate a dead terrorist's girlfriend and infiltrate the PLO. Losing herself in the role during terrorist training after being drilled with Islamic dogma, one gets the sense that Charlie's struggle offers a genuine glimpse at the psychological effects of religious zealotry. Little Drummer Girl is directed by George Roy Hill (The Sting) and written by Le Carre and Loring Mandel, who wrote the tight Nazi drama, Conspiracy, for HBO. The cast includes Klaus Kinski and Sami Frey.


The Munich Olympics Massacre

Those too young to remember the horror of watching the Summer Olympics in 1972 will find the appropriately titled One Day in September a lesson in how long the West's enemies have been using terrorism as theater. The 1999 Academy Award-winning Best Documentary, narrated by Michael Douglas, presents what was then the world's most searing Arab terrorist act—the seizure and execution of 11 Israeli athletes—caught on television.

Not without serious flaws, such as the glaring omission of PLO leader Yasser Arafat's role, ABC sportscaster Jim McKay's anguished voice bellows over the image of the eight black-masked men of PLO's Black September and One Day in September provides an early preview of what was to dominate world events for the next 30 years. Among those interviewed: escaped terrorist Jamal Al-Gashey, Israelis and Germans, whose incompetence is truly astounding.

The attack is also the subject of the 1976 drama, 21 Hours at Munich, produced for television and directed by William A. Graham, whose TV credits include the riveting Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones. 21 Hours at Munich stars William Holden as the German chief of police, Richard Basehart as Chancellor Willy Brandt, Shirley Knight, Anthony Quayle and Else Quecke as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

A better movie, which picks up the Munich massacre's aftermath by tracking Israel's response, is the three-hour made-for-TV Sword of Gideon, which aired in 1986. Anyone who saw Steven Spielberg's Munich will note the similarities, which are due to the same literary source used for both pictures, Vengeance by George Jonas. The Israeli agents (Scarface's Steven Bauer, Cabaret's Michael York) hunt the Munich terrorists and render justice one by one. Rod Steiger (Doctor Zhivago, The Pawnbroker) plays the role Geoffrey Rush portrayed in the Spielberg movie and Colleen Dewhurst (McQ, Annie Hall) appears as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

Attack on The World Trade Center, 1993

Two made-for-television pictures were produced following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which was regarded as an aberration at the time. Without Warning: Terror in the Towers, aired in 1993, with Andre Braugher, George Clooney and Fran Drescher. Path to Paradise: The Untold Story of the World Trade Center Bombing (1997), which stars Peter Gallagher, Marcia Gay Harden and Allison Janney, traces the FBI's investigation.

That movie's tag line: "No one expected a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. But many could have prevented it."

Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2002 on the first anniversary of the 9/11 Islamic terrorist attack on America. This article has been updated and edited by the author as a reader resource and in recognition of the attack's fifth anniversary.


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