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What we know about Seif Eldin Mustafa, the man who hijacked EgyptAir Flight 181

A crowd of people wait at an EgyptAir check-in counter at Cairo International Airport on January 31, 2011, in Cairo, Egypt.
A crowd of people wait at an EgyptAir check-in counter at Cairo International Airport on January 31, 2011, in Cairo, Egypt.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Seif Eldin Mustafa, the hijacker who forcibly redirected EgyptAir Flight 181 to land in Larnaca, Cyprus, admitted his crimes to Cypriot investigators during a court appearance on Wednesday.

But the man at the center of one of history’s strangest hijackings told investigators he acted out of desperation — to see his ex-wife and family living in Cyprus.

"When someone hasn’t seen his family for 24 years and wants to see his wife and children, and the Egyptian government won’t let him, what is he supposed to do?" Mustafa told the authorities, according to the New York Times.

Here are the latest, even stranger details that have emerged about Mustafa since the plane landed in Larnaca and he's been in Cypriot custody.

The hijacker does indeed have a family in Cyprus

Cypriot state media reported that Mustafa’s wife, a citizen of Cyprus, still lived there, though Mustafa had left in 1994. The couple also had five children together, one of whom, a daughter, died in a car crash. The children have since broken all ties with their father and were in a state of shock on Tuesday following the hijacking, according to Cypriot state media.

On Wednesday, Cypriot officials said Mustafa had actually been deported from Cyprus on three separate occasions since 1994, on charges of harassing his ex-wife, according to the Guardian. On at least one occasion, he sneaked back into the country using a fake passport.

In Egypt, Mustafa lived in an impoverished neighborhood with a widowed sister and a mentally disabled brother, and his neighbors said they had heard Mustafa complain he was trapped in Egypt. Mustafa had a criminal past there — Egyptian security forces said he had escaped from prison in 2011, where he was serving charges of fraud and forgery following the 2011 anti-government uprisings.

How the hijacking transpired

Fifteen minutes after the plane departed from Alexandria, Mustafa stood up from his seat and showed the flight crew a white belt with cables connecting to what he said was a remote control, according to the Times. He passed notes to the flight’s pilots, demanding the plane be rerouted and threatening to blow it up if it landed anywhere inside Egypt. That belt was later confirmed to be a fake.

Mustafa seemed "unstable," Homer Mavrommatis, director of the Cyprus Ministry of Foreign Affairs Crisis Management Center, told CNN.

He held three passengers and four crew members hostage on the plane for six hours after it landed at Larnaca airport. "He kept on changing his mind and asking for different things," Mavrommatis said.

It seems as though Mustafa’s primary motivation was to reconnect with his former wife, asking that a letter he’d written be passed to her. At points, he also insisted on the release of 63 female prisoners from Egyptian jails, suggesting a political motivation for the hijacking, and demanded asylum in Cyprus.

The hijacker posed for a photo with a passenger

Hours into the standoff, when Mustafa was still holding hostages, one of the passengers requested to take a selfie with him. Mustafa obliged, posing for a photograph with a grinning Ben Innes, a health and safety auditor from Britain.

Innes told reporters that he requested the picture to get a closer look at Mustafa’s belt. "I figured if his bomb was real I’d nothing to lose anyway, so took a chance to get a closer look at it," he said.

The picture immediately went viral.

The hijacker faces possible lifetime imprisonment

Mustafa is now being held without bail pending further investigation.

In his court appearance on Wednesday, prosecutors read out a list of charges, including piracy and violations of counterterrorism law. Some of the charges carry life sentences.

Through the court appearance, Mustafa hardly spoke, not once objecting to his detention or questioning legal procedure. Court officials said after the session adjourned, Mustafa asked once more for permission to call his former wife.