Secret Wars …. The Prologue

A few minutes after nine o’clock in the morning …

four men dressed in light-colored jackets entered the main terminal of Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport. They maneuvered their way through the thousands of holiday travelers and mountains of baggage that filled the vast main passenger terminal. They approached a long queue of men, women, and children weaving back and forth in front of a ticket.

Each passenger shuffled slowly forward toward the El Al counter to check in luggage for the six-hour flight to Tel Aviv. Another line, composed of nearly identical-looking faces and just as long, waited at an adjacent counter to check in for the even longer flight on TWA 841 to New York. Hundreds more lounged in and around the nearby coffee shop, seeking a few moments of solitude from the stress of inter- national holiday travel.

Security was tight within the terminal. Italian carabineri security forces, wearing bulletproof vests under their bright-blue uniforms, walked slowly in pairs, making certain their presence was known, their machine guns slung conspicuously under their shoulders.

The Italian government believed the increased security measures to be prudent, as worldwide tension had risen after a series of terrorist attacks against venues frequented by travelers. Within just the last few months, sixty people had been killed in the hijacking of an EgyptAir flight bound for Malta, and the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro had been seized. Most dramatically, television images were still fresh in every traveler’s mind of TWA 847’s hijacking to Beirut, Lebanon, that summer.

Still, travelers never spoke on the subject, even the most seasoned ones. They collectively and silently knew Israel’s El Al airline was a favorite terrorist target. Why tempt fate?

Conscious of the importance of its tourist trade, the Italian govern- ment planned to ensure that holiday travelers to Rome found them- selves standing in the highest security area of the airport.

The four men moved to within fifty yards of the El Al passenger check-in counter. Without warning, one pulled two grenades from inside his jacket, released the pins, and rolled the explosives across the terminal floor into the crowded coffee shop. One grenade exploded, sending an ear-shattering echo across the terminal. Ripping open the front of their coats, all four men pulled out Soviet-made Kalashnikov rifles and began firing into the crowd.

Bullets sprayed wildly into the El Al and TWA counters as screams of panic mixed with the rapid gunfire, and the smell of gunpowder filled the air. Italian security forces returned fire from their mezza- nine-level positions above the counter. Four plainclothes Israeli El Al Security Officers, who had been patrolling the concourse, charged the gunmen and opened fire.

Some of the panicked travelers fell to the floor, while others ran terrified from the gunmen, looking desperately for a place to hide. Crying and moaning now mingled with the sounds of the automatic gunfire. A father threw himself over his two children, but too late. His daughter was shot in the neck and chest and died instantly. His son was struck in the stomach.

The terrorists, yelling, “Kill them all,” ran through the crowd, grabbing the heads of the people now lying flat on the terminal floor and shooting them at point-blank range. The advancing security guards shot and killed two terrorists as they ran. A third terrorist took refuge on the floor among the mass of wounded and dead pas- sengers. Seriously wounded, the gunman reached for his rifle when he saw El Al security officers rapidly approaching. The guards shot him in the head, spattering blood across passengers and luggage.

Dozens of enraged travelers, seeing the bloodied fourth terrorist making his escape toward the terminal exit, grabbed, punched, and kicked him. They dragged him by his hair until stopped by police rein- forcements, who captured him alive.

In a little over a minute, the terrorists and airport security had fired over three hundred rounds of ammunition. Bodies, luggage, and blood were strewn across the floor. Moans and wails of children rang through the hall. Glass from the airport windows, shot out by the gun battle, littered the sidewalks and street. Police-car and ambulance sirens wailed outside as helicopters circled above. Early body counts found fifteen dead and seventy-two wounded.

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