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Saturday September 22, 2007

In full force


Incidences of plane hijacking are still occurring although security measures have been tightened since the devastating 9/11 tragedy. Are our troops trained to handle a hijacking? 

The only way is up: Unit Tindakan Khas (UTK) operatives gaining entry through the back door of the aircraft.
MY superior says he won’t speak to you unless you have eaten something,” the policeman tells us as he warmly ushers us into a room.  

The aroma of coffee wafts through the air as another person busily preps up the place. 

“Please help yourself. He’ll be offended if you don’t eat anything. I’ll call him once you’re ready,” he continues. We munch, drink, soak in the environment, and wait in anticipation for his superior.  

Photographer Norafifi Ehsan and I are nervous with excitement as we sit in one of the lounge rooms at the police headquarters in Bukit Aman. And no, we’re not under arrest or anything like that. 

The superior’s assistant walks in, followed by another officer while yet another fella clad in a towel peeks through the door to ask a question, unaware that two women are seated. Upon eyeing us, he swiftly closes the door and dashes off to clothe himself. 

“Good morning, good morning!” greets the superior, walking in unannounced. Dressed in track pants and a maroon T-shirt, he surprises us with his casual, striking appearance.  

It’s hard to believe that men sitting here, enjoying their cup of milo tarik are police storm troopers – members of Unit Tindakan Khas (UTK) or the Special Action Unit. After months of requests, they finally agreed to an exclusive (albeit small) peek into how they would seize control of an aircraft in the event of a hijacking. 

It’s still early in the morning. The banter is easy and the camaraderie, strong. These men have just completed their daily morning, physical-conditioning training. Today, they did a 10km run. Tomorrow, it might be a 2km swim. Whatever the drill, it’s a piece of cake for them. 

For security purposes, the superior who is UTK’s Deputy Commander insists on anonymity for himself and all his troopers. And only minimum information can be published. Otherwise, the interview is off, he firmly states. We nod. 

The ongoing Mongolian murder trial has put the UTK under scrutiny and thrown some of the inner workings of the elite force into the open, including some embarrassing revelations. Still, work has to go on as members of the 300-strong unit strive to protect the security of the nation.  

Set up in 1975, the UTK is the first and only force in Malaysia trained for urban warfare. All UTK instructors are trained overseas with the best of the best. 

Selection 

Candidates, including women, go through two weeks of rigorous selection process, after which the successful ones undergo three months of basic training where they learn to identify and use explosives, among other skills. According to the Assistant Commander, a few are then selected for specialised training in combat, parachuting, diving, surveillance, being a bodyguard or becoming a sniper.  

He jokes, “The initial selection process is a killer, and our IQ portion is even more difficult than the Mensa tests!” 

Maximum impact: Searching and clearing the aircraft of threats from hijackers is something UTK troopers are constantly training for.
UTK members follow the orders of their superiors without asking questions. When the chief rolls out the command, they carry it out. Their work is cloaked in secrecy and even their spouses are clueless about the nature of their job. 

“Our main role is to prevent and eliminate terrorism, then we combat crime. We are called in as a last resort when our specialised skills are needed to handle the situation,” says the 45-year-old Deputy Commander. When the going gets tough, the UTK goes in, especially in high-risk operations like rescuing hostages. 

Training 

Just two days earlier, the entire squad underwent hijack training at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Such trainings are a routine affair carried out twice a month, from dusk to dawn, when there is no moonlight. Thirty minutes prior to an “operation”, UTK members get called up for their “mission” but won’t know what it is until they have arrived at the venue. 

“Plane hijacking happens everywhere and we are training in the hope that if it does happen, and the hijackers start the killing stage, then we are ready to storm,” reveals the 50-year-old Assistant Commander.  

Fifi was privy to the operation and saw the training up close as she clicked away at her camera. With black uniforms, guns, bullet-resistant vests, and gas masks, UTK operatives appear ruthless. For obvious reasons, tactical strategies cannot be revealed here. 

Just like you see on telly, operatives are assigned their respective stations – a few at the cockpit, a few at the aircraft doors, some act as cover? they burst open the door, search and clear the threat before seizing control of the aircraft.  

In line: UTK operatives getting ready to storm the aircraft during a training run. — NORAFIFI EHSAN/The Star
If the operation has even a slight glitch, the training starts again. Mistakes can be costly, especially when lives are at stake. Divided into two groups, they repeat continuously until the commander is happy with the results. Just before sunrise, they call it a day. 

The first recorded incident of hijacking took place in July 1948 when four Chinese hijackers seized control of a Cathay Pacific flight from Macao to Hong Kong. The ensuing struggle between the hijackers and the crew resulted in a crash, where all 25 onboard perished. 

Fortunately, Malaysia Airlines has been relatively safe with only one hijacking incident in 1978. It was only after the plane crashed, killing all 93 passengers and seven crew members in Tanjung Kupang, Johor, and the black box was discovered, did the authorities know it was a hijack. There have been three other hijacking episodes (1976, 1981 and 1991) involving different airlines on Malaysian soil but all were successfully negotiated without any bloodshed.  

Since the Tokyo Convention of 1963, the International Civil Aviation Organisation has been preoccupied with further tightening international laws relating to criminal acts against civil aviation. It is now obligatory for nations to arrest and prosecute hijackers or extradite them to the countries whose aircraft was hijacked. 

Hijackings usually followed a pattern of negotiations between the hijackers and the authorities, followed by some form of settlement – not always the meeting of the hijackers’ original demands – or the storming of the aircraft.  

Prior to Sept 11, the policy of most airlines was for the pilot to comply with hijackers’ demands (usually the release or exchange of hostages) in the hope of a peaceful outcome. 

“It’s hard to differentiate the types of hijackers. They could be terrorists or some mentally unstable passenger or someone who had a fight with his wife. We only take action when the passenger is posing a threat to the aircraft and to the safety of other passengers,” explains the Deputy Commander. 

Asked how many times the UTK has been called into action, the Deputy Commander smiles, “I can’t give you figures.” 

Sky marshals 

Hijacking can never be predicted but preventive measures include screening to keep weapons off the airplane, deploying air marshals on board, and fortifying the cockpit to keep hijackers out. Cockpit doors on most commercial airlines have been strengthened, and are now bullet proof. 

Sky marshals (or undercover law enforcement officers) became an issue in late 2003 when the US ordered foreign airlines to have armed guards on flights to and from the country as a precaution against terrorist attacks. 

Many countries and carriers have expressed great reservation because they fear having weapons on board only increases the risk of terrorist actions. 

Malaysia has yet to decide whether to introduce sky marshals. No doubt it is a preventive measure but whatever the government’s decision, UTK will be armed and ready to serve the country at a moment’s notice.  

Don’t mess with them. 

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