Khaled came to public attention for her role in a 1969 hijacking and one of four simultaneous hijackings the following year as part of Black September. She is credited as the first woman to hijack an airplane. She was later released in a prisoner exchange for civilian hostages kidnapped by her fellow PFLP members.
Khaled was born in Haifa, Mandatory Palestine, to Arab parents. Her family fled to Lebanon on 13 April 1948 as part of the 1948 Palestinian exodus, leaving her father behind. At the age of 15, following in the footsteps of her brother, she joined the pan-Arab Arab Nationalist Movement, originally started in the late 1940s by George Habash, then a medical student at the American University of Beirut. The Palestinian branch of this movement became the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine after the 1967 Six-Day War.
Khaled also spent some time teaching in Kuwait and, in her autobiography, recounted crying the day she heard that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
On August 29, 1969, Khaled was part of a team that hijacked TWA Flight 840 on its way from Rome to Tel Aviv, diverting the Boeing 707 to Damascus. According to some media sources, the PFLP leadership thought that Yitzhak Rabin, then Israeli ambassador to the United States, would be on board; he was not. She claims she ordered the pilot to fly over Haifa, so she could see her birthplace. No one was injured, but after the passengers disembarked, the hijackers blew up the nose section of the aircraft. After this hijacking, and after a now famous picture of her (taken by Eddie Adams) holding an AK-47 rifle and wearing a kaffiyeh was widely published, she underwent six plastic surgery operations on her nose and chin to conceal her identity and allow her to take part in a future hijacking, and because she did not want to wear the face of an icon.
On September 6, 1970, Khaled and Patrick Argüello, a Nicaraguan-American, attempted the hijack of El Al Flight 219 from Amsterdam to New York City as part of the Dawson's Field hijackings, a series of almost simultaneous hijackings carried out by the PFLP. The attack was foiled, when Israeli skymarshals killed Argüello before eventually overpowering Khaled. Although she was carrying two hand grenades at the time, Khaled said she had received very strict instructions not to threaten passengers on the civilian flight. (Argüello shot a member of the flight crew.)
The pilot diverted the aircraft to Heathrow airport in London, where Khaled was delivered to Ealing police station. On October 1, the British government released her in exchange for hostages taken in a further hijacking.
Khaled has said in interviews that she developed a fondness for the United Kingdom when her first visitor in jail, an immigration officer, wanted to know why she had arrived in the country without a valid visa. She also developed a relationship with the two policewomen assigned to guard her in Ealing and later corresponded with them. Khaled continued to return to the UK for speaking engagements until as late as 2002, although she was refused a visa by the British embassy in 2005 to address a meeting at the Féile an Phobail in Belfast, where she was invited as a speaker. Eventually she managed to speak to people at the Belfast Féile through a video link.
Khaled is worried of the Arab-Israeli peace process. According to her, "It's not a peace process. It's a political process where the balance of forces is for the Israelis and not for us. They have all the cards to play with and the Palestinians have nothing to depend on, especially when the PLO is not united." She has become involved in politics, becoming a member of the Palestinian National Council and appearing regularly at the World Social Forum.
She is married to the physician Fayez Rashid Hilal, and today lives with their two sons Bader and Bashar in Amman, Jordan. She is an atheist.
She was the subject of a film entitled Leila Khaled, Hijacker, directed by Palestinian filmmaker Lina Makboul, premiered in November 2005 at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.
In 2011 Khaled went on a speaking tour in Sweden, including speeches at May Day demonstrations of the Communist Party and the Central Organisation of the Workers of Sweden, a public art gallery, Södertörn University College and a seminar arranged by the Left Party.She was the subject of an artwork portrait made entirely out of lipsticks, "The Icon", created by artist Amer Shomali using 14 colors, and 3500 lipsticks.
The song Like Leila Khaled Said from The Teardrop Explodes' 1981 album Wilder is a love song to Khaled. Songwriter Julian Cope said it was a love song to her "cos I thought she was so beautiful. But I know that the whole thing was like bad news."
The second CD of Julian Cope's 2012 album Psychedelic Revolution is named "Phase of Leila Khaled". The first CD is named "'Phase of Che Guevara". The album's lyrics contain several references to political demonstrations, terrorism and suicide bombers. The accompanying booklet also contains a photo of Leila Khaled.
The 10th song of the album Friværdi, released on 26 September 2005 by the Danish rock band Magtens Korridorer, is entitled "Leila Khaled".
Writer Chris Boucher has said that he named the character of savage warrior Leela from Doctor Who after Leila Khaled.
Khaled is mentioned by Fun-da-mental in "Mother India", on the Love India CD (2010) widely distributed in the United States by Starbucks.
The album Olive no Ki no Shita de, released in 2007 by the Japanese rock singer Panta, features a song entitled "Leila's Ballade". This song's lyrics were written by former Japanese Red Army member Fusako Shigenobu and her daughter Mei Shigenobu. In 2012, Khaled was invited to a ceremony for the 40th anniversary of the Lod Airport massacre by a Japanese far-left group in Kyoto, at which Panta performed the song in front of Khaled.