Airports in Tokyo Have Seen Terrorist Attacks and Plots in the Past

First the airport, next Haiga Sophia!
First the airport, next Haiga Sophia!

The terrorist shooting attack and bombings at Istanbul airport on June 28, 2016 kept many travel security professionals around the world up all night. Foreign security officials responsible for the health and safety of overseas spectators and participants at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics may wonder if the airports in Tokyo can be the targets of terror attacks during the Tokyo Summer Games.

Sad to say, the airports in Tokyo are just as vulnerable to terror attacks as any other major airport in the world. By way of background, Tokyo has two airports. Haneda Airport  is close to the center of Tokyo (approximately 10 miles away) and handles primarily domestic flights although it does have a significant number of international flights as well. Narita Airport is much further from downtown Tokyo (approximately 45 miles away). Narita airport handles around 90% of foreign flights serving the Tokyo market. Although it handles relatively little traffic now, Ibaraki Airport will likely be used during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to handle the large number of foreign visitors to Japan. Ibaraki Airport is smaller than either Haneda Airport or Narita Airport and is also approximately 45 miles from central Tokyo.

Although recent history has not seen any terrorist threats to any of the above three airports Narita Airport is no stranger to terrorist attacks or thwarted  plans for terrorist attacks. Perhaps the most notorious and ambitious terrorist plan to target Narita Airport is the so-called Bojinka plot of 1995. Terrorists planned to simultaneously explode bombs mid-air on airplanes that departed from Narita Airport as well as airports in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand. As noted in the linked Wikipedia article one flight from Manila to Narita Airport was bombed mid-flight while in Japanese airspace. This bombing was part of the practice for the Bojinka plot. The plane was able to land but the blast killed one passenger.

In 1985 a bomb was loaded on a flight from Vancouver Canada to Narita Airport and exploded in the baggage handling section of the terminal building. Two baggage handlers were killed. The plotters who planted that bomb also planted a bomb on an Air India flight from Canada to the UK. Just about an hour after the explosion at Narita Airport the other bomb caused the Air India flight to crash near Ireland with no survivors.

In 1982 a Pan Am flight from Narita Airport to Hawaii suffered a bomb blast shortly before arrival at Honolulu. The aircraft suffered damage but the crew was able to land it safely. The blast killed one passenger and injured 16 others.

Noteworthy is the fact that in 1982 Pan Am bombing Narita was one of the most heavily guarded and policed airports in the developed world. The linked Wikipedia article discusses the violent protests against operation of the airport as does this article in the Japan Times. As the writer knows from personal experience the security measure at Narita Airport in 1982 included an off-airport security check for everyone headed to the airport and strict checks of all passenger baggage.

From his time serving at the Legal Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo the writer knows that security at Narita airport has been defeated before. One time two people who wanted to enter the U.S. illegally for jobs took a flight on a U.S. carrier from an Asian country to Narita. The two subjects hid themselves in a service area above the ceiling of one of the aircraft lavatories. Several hours later the same plane left Narita for the U.S. The two subjects then came down into the lavatory and looked for empty seats in the plane for the rest of the journey to the U.S. Unfortunately for them there were no empty seats. They were discovered and the plane returned to Narita. Needless to say, the two subjects had false passports which they planned to use to enter the U.S.

But Narita Airport in Tokyo cannot claim a monopoly in Japan on aviation terror incidents. Haneda Airport was the point of origin for All Nippon Airways Flight 61. This flight occurred on July 23, 1999. The hijacker temporarily took control of the flight (a Boeing 747) and inflicted fatal injuries on the pilot before he was subdued. The hijacker, Yuji Nishizawa, implemented the hijacking with a knife he smuggled onto the plane. Nishizawa carefully reviewed security procedures at Japanese airports and noticed a way to smuggle a knife through the security checkpoint (more details on his method are listed in the body of the linked Wikipedia article).

The purpose of this post is to point out that foreign security officials who will work at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics should understand that terror threats are a real possibility at Japanese airports and on flights to and from Japan.

Author: Ed Shaw

I am a retired FBI Special Agent (25 years) who lived in Japan for a total of fifteen years and speaks Japanese. At two different times during my career with the FBI (first for five years and then for four years) I worked at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Japan and represented the FBI to all Japanese law enforcement, security, and intelligence agencies. While in Japan with the FBI I handled everything from international fugitive and spy investigations to sensitive reviews of U.S. government national security issues. My assignments took me to all parts of Japan. After nine years I am well-acquainted with how Japanese law enforcement and intelligence agencies work, their objectives, their bureaucratic habits, and most importantly how they interact with their foreign counterparts. Tokyo has been selected as the site of the 2020 Olympics. Each Olympic country participating in the games will have security officials looking for the best way to assure the safety of its athletes and other countrymen visiting Tokyo. The purpose of this blog is to share with those security officials the best way to ensure the safety and security at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

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