The African nation of Mauritania is situated on the northwest of the continent, bordering the Atlantic Ocean to the west. (Here’s a map.) At just over one million km2 (400,000 square miles), it’s nearly four times larger than the United Kingdom, but it has far, far fewer people. Approximately 90% of Mauritania is in the Sahara Desert; as a result, only about 4.5 million people live there, compared to about 67 million in the UK. Mauritania’s economy is similarly much, much smaller than you’d see in Europe; its nominal per capital GDP is roughly $1,300, or about 35 times lower than you’d find in the UK.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that, despite being a huge nation by area, Mauritania doesn’t have a similarly huge need for robust air travel. In fact, only one airline — Mauritania Airlines — services the nation. And even then, Mauritania Airlines only has six planes capable of transporting, in total, about 550 passengers. (For perspective’s sake, that’s about the carriage load of one Airbus A380.) If you’re looking to fly in or out of Mauritania, you really need to plan ahead.
And when he boarded a plane in early 2007, it quickly became clear that Mohamed Abderraman did not plan ahead.
On February 15th of that year, Abderraman, then 32 years old, boarded an Air Mauritania Boeing 737 in the nation’s capital of Nouakchott. (Air Mauritania was a predecessor airline of Mauritania Airlines.) The flight was supposed to go to Gran Canaria, a Spanish-controlled island to the north. (Here’s another map.) But Abderraman had other plans. As the Daily News reported, Abderraman, seeking political asylum, had snuck a pair of semiautomatic guns onto the plate and hijacked the flight. He insisted that the pilot divert to France — but his plans didn’t go quite right.
First, the pilot told him, going to France simply wasn’t an option: the planned flight was only about an hour and a half, and a trip to Paris would take at least five hours — the plane wasn’t carrying nearly enough fuel to do that. The pilot offered to go to Morocco instead, but Morocco said no. Abderraman agreed that the flight could go to its original destination of Gran Canaria, figuring that he’d still have some degree of control; after all, he was still locked in a tin can, and the only one with guns.
But Abderraman’s plan had another major flaw. While communicating with Abderraman, the pilot, Ahmedou Mohamed Lemine, discovered something about the malfeasor — Abderraman didn’t speak French. That’s not uncommon in Mauritania — only about 15% of the population speaks French — but among those with jobs that will allow them to afford a plane ticket to an off-shore island, it is much more common. Captain Lemine realized that he could, effectively, speak in code to the passengers and crew, simply by giving some instructions in French. So that’s exactly what he did.
As the Associated Press reported, Captain Lemine addressed the cabin over the PA system, “ordered women and children to move to the back rows of the plane” and asked the others in the plane to get ready — “he would knock the attacker off-balance with a rough landing, and that they should be ready to pounce.” Not knowing what the captain was saying, Abderraman was unprepared for what happened next. Per the AP, as the plane touched ground, Lemine “slammed on the brakes, then abruptly accelerated, throwing the hijacker to the floor.” The assembled passengers snapped into action, “[throwing] boiling water from a coffee maker on the man’s face and chest, then [beating] him into submission.”
It worked. According to a local news report, their actions “allowed a brave flight crew to overpower him and hold him until the Guardia Civil were able to board the plane and take him into custody.” Abderraman was ultimately convicted of attempted hijacking and sentenced to 17 years in prison.
From the Archives: The Never-Built Airport That Was Never Intended to be Used Anyway: An interesting way to prevent hijacking.