In the fall and winter of 1990, you couldn’t turn on the news and not hear the word “Vietnam”. America’s war in South East Asia was front and center in the minds of the country since almost 500,000 Americans were deployed to the other side of Asia in Saudi Arabia. For months Operation Desert Shield, the Coalition plan to defend Saudi Arabia, was the hot topic on the evening news, and more importantly, virtually the only topic on the world’s first 24 hour news channel, the new Cable News Network, or CNN, which by broadcasting all day, essentially drove the narrative.
On paper, America’s involvement in South West Asia in 1990 did look like a folly: Iraq had the 4th largest army in the world, and arguably the most experienced. Iraq’s entire military had just emerged from an eight year blood bath with Iran: every one of its soldiers was battle hardened. The Iraqi Republican Guard was on every pundit’s list of the top ten most feared and respected military formations in the world. And after overrunning Kuwait in a day in August, they had had months to dig in. America had fought some small engagements in the 80s, but had only last seen large scale combat eighteen years before in 1972, when it seemed that it was ignobly run out of Vietnam. America had air power for sure, but four years before Muammar Gadhafi had easily weathered that and survived.
None of this was lost on GEN Norman Schwarzkopf, the Coalition commander. For months he had shepherded a fragile coalition of longtime friends and former adversaries, developed a plan of unheard of audacity, and dealt quickly and severely with interservice rivalry and meddling from the Pentagon. Desert Shield was the first real test of former President Ronald Reagan’s new upgraded military, the new AirLand Battle Doctrine, and the much needed reforms and forced jointness of 1986’s Goldwater-Nichols Act. Even though the US military was built to fight the Soviets, Schwarzkopf knew the stakes were greater than the liberation of Kuwait. On 12 January 1990 in a conference with his staff, and corps and division commanders, he said, “America is watching, we can’t fuck this up.”
On 15 January 1991 Schwartzkopf received the final approval from Pres HW Bush to commence offensive operations on the 17th. That afternoon outside of Riyahd Saudi Arabia, Schwarzkopf told the press that he had almost a million soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from America and 33 other countries, and more importantly, that he was prepared to take offensive action to oust occupying Iraqi military forces from Kuwait. The press conference was part of an information campaign to give Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein one last chance to leave Kuwait.
He didn’t take it.
As coalition air power pounded Iraqi military and infrastructure, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein needed to force a ground engagement before his army disintegrated, if only for the propaganda value.
On 29 January 1991, three severely attritted Iraqi mechanized and armor divisions attacked the Saudi port town of Khafji, just across the border from Kuwait. They overran a US Marine observation post and routed a Saudi Arabian battalion. Coalition commanders knew the attack was imminent but the US Air Force would not deviate from the air campaign plan and the US Navy carriers and naval gunfire were unavailable due to a lack of flexibility and integration into the coalition operations (the air tasking order had to be printed out, put on a plane, and flown to the carriers in Persian Gulf for coordination, approval, and execution daily. The US Navy had no communication systems compatible with the US Army and Air Force systems).
Most of the attack was defeated but the Iraqi army still occupied the town on the night of 29-30 Jan. However, a US Marine Force Recon team stayed behind in the town and from a roof top began to coordinate air and artillery fire on the Iraqi forces the next morning. In order to strengthen the coalition unity and allow the Saudis to redeem themselves, Gen Norman Schwarzkopf decided that the town should be recaptured by the Arab coalition forces in the area.
Starting on the night of 30 Jan, Saudi infantry and Qatari tanks assaulted into the town supported by US Special Forces and USMC artillery. Though there was some heavy fighting initially, coalition firepower would eventually force the Iraqis out. The Saudis and Qataris cleared the town by 1 Feb.
The Battle of Khafji was the first ground engagement of the Gulf War. The Iraqi Army lost three of its best regular divisions and the Coalition casualties were relatively light. And were mostly due to a friendly fire incident with the US Marines on the night of the 29th, an unsupported initial attack by the Qataris on the 30th, and an AC-130 that was shot down on the 31st. Additionally two US soldiers were taken prisoner when their HET (military tractor trailer) made a wrong turn and inadvertently drove into town. Saddam Hussein wanted to force “The Mother of All Battles”, but found out quickly that Coalition air power, once properly allocated, made short work of his armor and mechanized troops.
On 2 August 1990, four divisions of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Republican Guard along with the entirety of the Iraqi Special Forces invaded the Emirate of Kuwait.
The reasons for the invasion were many. Between 1980 and 1988, Iraq and Iran fought the devastating and costly Iran-Iraq War, in which neither side could claim victory, but both did. Despite Iraq actually starting the war, it felt that it was defending the Sunni Arabic States against Shia Persian domination. Iraq racked up significant debt to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States; debt that Iraq could not pay back because its economy was wrecked after the war. Moreover, Saddam accused the Gulf States of keeping the price of oil artificially low (Saddam wanted $25 a barrel when it was $7 a barrel) in order to prevent the rise of Iraq, a relatively secular socialist rival to the religious Sunni Wahhabist state of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Saddam felt that if it wasn’t for British meddling in 1913, Kuwait would have been part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq when it was formed in 1920 out of the British protectorate of Mesopotamia. Ottoman Mesopotamia consisted of four provinces: Mosul, Baghdad, Basra and Kuwait, the first three of which became Iraq. Finally, despite all of this Saddam had little intention of actually invading, he was just posturing for debt forgiveness and concessions. That is until the American ambassador to Iraq, Amb. Abigail Glaspie, told Saddam that America had “no opinion on Arab vs Arab conflict” and did not wish to go to war with Iraq. Saddam took this as a green light by America to invade Kuwait.
Although Kuwait had a modern military of three brigades with a respectably sized air force, the very experienced Iraqi Republican Guard surprised and overwhelmed Kuwait’s small army. Kuwait City, all of its oil fields, all of its military bases, and the Emir’s Palace were occupied by the next day. 400,000 Kuwaitis and 120,000 foreign nationals (mostly Indians) fled the country to Saudi Arabia.
As Saddam Hussein consolidated his hold on Kuwait, Saudi Arabia requested UN assistance because it believed it was Saddam’s next target. On 3 August, the UN Security Council passed a near unanimous resolution condemning the invasion, which surprisingly included France and the Soviet Union, Iraq’s traditional benefactors, and the vote was abstained only by Yemen.
The resolution shocked Saddam Hussein, who didn’t think anyone would care.
As Israeli commandos stormed the Sabena Flight 571 hijacked by members of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September at Lod Airport (modern Ben Gurion International Airport), their brother organization, the hard left Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was planning another attack on Israel, this time directly at the airport itself. The operation was financed with the ransom money the PFLP received from the West German government after successfully hijacking a Lufthansa airplane in February.
After the Sabena hijacking, security to get into Lod Airport was tight. To bypass this, the PFLP planned to fly in from a different airport and attack the terminal from within. Additionally, the PFLP recruited three members of the Japanese Red Army to carry out the attack. They were training with the PFLP at one of their camps in Syria. Their ethnicity was thought to make it easier for them bypass security and avoid suspicion.
On 30 May 1972, the three Japanese men in business suits arrived at Tel Aviv’s Lod airport on an Air France flight from Paris. They strolled over to the baggage claim with the rest of the passengers. Once they claimed their bags, specifically their violin cases, they pulled out sawed off Czech assault rifles, and opened fire on the people in the terminal. One ran out on the tarmac and opened fire on the people descending the stairway off of an El Al flight that had just landed. 26 were killed, including the head of the Israeli National Academy of Science, and 17 Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico. 80 more people of many nationalities were wounded.
One gunman ran out of ammunition and was killed by his comrades. A second ran out of ammunition and killed himself with a grenade. The third was captured when he tried to escape. Kozo Okamoto was tried and sentenced to life in prison. He was eventually exchanged with the PLO in 1983. He currently lives in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
On 8 May 1972, a Sabena Boeing 707, Flight 571, took off from Vienna for Tel Aviv. 45 minutes into the flight, two men and two women of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September hijacked the plane. Despite having the cabin stormed mere seconds before, the pilot made a calm announcement to the passengers and crew that “We have friends on board”.
Capt. Reginald Levy was a former member of the RAF and a veteran of both the Second World War and the Berlin Airlift. 8 May was his 50th birthday. By all accounts, he’s also the guy everyone wanted to have a pint with, and the only reason the terrorists didn’t kill any passengers. When the flight landed at Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport (Ben Gurion International Airport), the terrorists made demands for the release of 315 convicted Palestinians held in Israeli jails. But thanks to coded messages sent by Levy to the air traffic controllers, the Israelis were already prepared.
They chartered a flight to Egypt filled with 315 fake prisoners that was to take off in the morning. That night, agents snuck onto the tarmac and cut the hydraulic lines in the landing gear and slashed the tires, preventing the plane from departing. The terrorists were furious, but Levy calmed them down by talking to them to keep them occupied, especially after they separated the Jewish passengers and sent them to the back of the plane. He, “spoke of everything, from navigation to sex”. They trusted him enough that they sent him off the plane with some explosives, to show the Israelis they meant business. Of course, Levy gave all the information that the Sayeret Matkal, the elite Israeli Special Forces, needed to storm the plane. Levy returned with photographs of the bogus prisoner transfer, and assurance that mechanics would fix the plane.
At 4 pm, 16 “mechanics” drove up to the plane dressed in all white coveralls. The disguised commandos breached the plane in five places: the main door, the rear door, the emergency door, and over the two wings of the plane. They killed the male terrorists, and captured the two female terrorists. Two passengers were wounded, one of whom died of her wounds, and one commando was wounded.
Operation Isotope was the first successful operation to seize a hijacked plane. There would be many more. Two of the commandos were future Prime Ministers of Israel, Ehud Barak, and the current Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the only commando wounded in the operation.