The PFLP/RAF terrorist who evaded the UK border control system: Zohair Akache and the ‘German Autumn’

Zohair Yousif Akache before the Lufthansa hijacking
Zohair Yousif Akache before the Lufthansa hijacking

In 1980, Lord Carrington, the new Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, ordered a review of how the UK border control system was utilised in the fight against terrorism, particularly in relation to terrorists from the Middle East and North Africa. The catalyst for this review were two incidents in May 1980 – the siege at the Iranian Embassy and the killing of an Iranian dissident working for the BBC in Bayswater. Carrington asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

[I]n what ways can we tighten up on the issue of visas; how can better checks be made; what categories of people should be most closely examined? Can controls at the ports in Great Britain be effectively tightened to improve screening?… What of conducive leave to enter and deportation? (FCO 50/685, NA)

I have written an article (currently under review on this topic) and outline that there were four major actions proposed and/or taken arising from this review. They were:

  1. Interviews and security checks before the issuing of visas to most Middle Eastern and North African nationals
  2. A special landing card (with photo) for these nationals to be required when arriving in the UK
  3. The requirement that these nationals report to the police if staying longer than three months
  4. The withdrawal of the ability to appeal a deportation order before being deported (only proposed – not introduced)

These strict measures seemed to be aimed at all Middle Eastern and North African visitors and as I have written in the article:

In the course of trying to achieve the UK’s counter-terrorism objectives, the actions of the border control system placed blanket restrictions on certain nationals in order to prevent a minute number of potential ‘threats’ entering the country. From a counter-terrorist and border control perspective, it seemed that the procedure was to treat all Middle Eastern and North African nationals seeking to visit the UK as potential terrorists until considered otherwise.

FCO staff were also highly critical of this blanket approach, arguing that any terrorists attempting to enter the country were likely to be trained and sophisticated enough to slip through the border control system. The British Embassy staff in Tripoli submitted a report during this review that doubted the usefulness of the measures sought by Carrington and others. The report stated:

We have no doubt that if Libya was determined to send a terrorist to the UK, through our new system, she could arrange, with relative ease, for him to be provided with convincing documentation and to be adequately briefed for our interview. (FCO 93/2356, NA)

This post is not about the findings or an overview of my article, but about one interesting bit about the files of the review in the National Archives. One of the questions raised during the review was how effective can the border control system be in detecting potential terrorists and there is an assumption that the border control system had failed during the 1970s as several terrorists from the Middle East and North Africa had come to the UK to commit terrorist acts.

One of the failings of the border control system during this period was its failure to detect Zohair Yousif Akache, a terrorist attached to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Pakestine (PFLP), who was deported in 1976, but managed to re-enter the UK in 1977 to assassinate three people and then depart from the UK before being detected. It is interesting that this bungling was not mentioned anywhere within all the correspondence generated by Lord Carrington’s review.

Akache is probably best known as the leader of the RAF/PFLP group that hijacked the Lufthansa Flight 181 in October 1977 in order to force the West German government to release the four jailed members of the RAF, including Andreas Baader. Akache had been a ‘student’ in London during the mid-1970s and according to Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees:

This man was not formally deported but in March 1976 was allowed instead to make a supervised departure from this country, and instructions were issued that he was not to be readmitted. The Commissioner of Police informs me that police inquiries have taken into account the possibility that he may have re-entered under a false name.

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 11.15.22 pm

According to The Times, he was deported after serving a six month jail term for hitting a policeman. In April 1977, Akache apparently re-entered the UK under a false name and killed three people in Hyde Park – the former Prime Minister of the Yemen Arab Republic Kadhi Abdullah al-Hagri (or Qadi Abdullan al Hijri), his wife and another Yemeni minister. According to Rees:

The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis tells me that detailed police inquiries have established that Akache, against whom warrants of arrest have been issued for the murder of three Yemen Arab Republic subjects in London on 10th April 1977, left the country that afternoon. He left through Heathrow Airport, using a Kuwaiti passport in the name of Ahmed Badir Al-Majid. Soon after the murders had been committed the police and the immigration service at Heathrow were alerted, but the descriptions of the suspect provided to the police were insufficiently detailed to enable Akache to be identified and apprehended. It was not until the following day that urgent and painstaking police inquiries provided evidence linking Akache with these crimes.

There are two files in the National Archives in Kew relating to this incident. I have yet to go through them to see whether they can contain information about Akache. There are also four other files relating to the Lufthansa hijacking. I can only assume that these files have more information on Akache and his time in the UK, although one of the files (PREM 16/1675) is closed and retained by the Cabinet Office.

Future Tory Home Secretary Leon Brittan questioned Rees in parliament after the Lufthansa hijacking over the UK’s inability to detect Akache when he was in the country in 1977. Brittan stated:

Does not the Home Secretary agree that there is likely to be continued anxiety over the case of Zohair Akache, who was deported from this country, then allowed to re-enter the country, was suspected of committing in broad daylight the murder of three prominent North Yemenis, was then able to leave the country again and is now suspected of being responsible for the hijacking which ended in Mogadishu?

Does not the Home Secretary agree that it is extraordinary that, after all this time has passed, it is still not possible for him to confirm or deny that this man Akache, who entered and left the country in those circumstances, is in fact none other than the Captain Mahmoud responsible for the Lufthansa hijacking?

Rees replied:

If I were basing my information on the newspapers, and only on them, I would be able to confirm that. But it is not my business to confirm a story when the police do not have the basic information on which I can be absolutely sure.

On the other issue, what the hon. Gentleman says is right. I see in the newspapers from time to time that I am accused of being devious about it, but there is no clever stuff behind the events. The man came into the country and went out again. He was using a false passport and so on, and I have the details. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to say it, a mistake was made, but it certainly was not by design. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to run around all the time saying that an error was made—well, I have said it now, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied.

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As Akache was killed during the Lufthansa hijacking, he was never questioned about his involvement in the assassination of al Hagri, but it has been assumed that Akache was responsible for these killings. There is nothing more in the public record (that I know of) that casts doubt on this allegation. I am wondering whether the archival records hold more relevant information.

What is surprising is that this episode, which seems to show an explicit failure of the border control system in detecting a dangerous person from entering the UK, was overlooked in discussions of how to tighten up border security with regards to the country’s counter-terrorism agenda only a few years later. One would’ve thought that Carrington could have used this incident to show that Labour was ineffective in both border and national security and that it highlighted a reason for tighter controls.

I’m still not sure what the Akache indicent tells us about the border/national security system in the UK during the 1970s, but I’m very interested in looking further at these files!



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