Airport security is the terrorist’s best friend

Posted: May 22, 2016 in Times
Tags: , , , ,

A piece from yesterday’s Times in their regular Thunderer column looking at terrorism and aviation. Have done a bit of work on this topic in the past and of course we do not yet know what actually happened with EgyptAir, but there is an understandable suspicion in this direction. Beyond this, spoke to the Financial Times as part of their big Silk Road special supplement.

thunderer

Airport security is the terrorist’s best friend

Raffaello Pantucci

People’s complete vulnerability on an aircraft and the spectacular coverage of air crashes make them a ripe target.

On December 11, 1994 a bomb went off on Philippine Airlines Flight 434 from Cebu to Tokyo, killing one passenger. The liquid bomb had been designed by Ramzi Youssef, who was testing aviation security. His ambition was to plant around ten such devices on planes originating in Asia bound for the United States. The success of his plan hinged on the relatively low level of security at Asian airports.

Youssef’s plan never came to pass. An entrepreneurial bombmaker and terrorist, he was captured in Pakistan the following year and jailed in the US for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York. His uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was more successful with the 9/11 attacks and tried to fulfil his nephew’s ambition by dispatching two young Britons with bombs in their shoes to bring down planes on transatlantic routes. In preparing them for their mission, Osama bin Laden told aspirant bomber Saajid Badat that it would break a crucial link in the global economic chain and lead to the collapse of the United States.

Aviation continues to be the focus for terrorist networks. People’s total vulnerability on an aircraft, the essential role of aviation in connecting our world and the spectacular coverage of air crashes all make it a ripe target. Groups continue to create sophisticated new devices, such as the laptop bombs deployed against planes in Somalia that have so far failed to kill anyone except the bombers. But the real key to success for terrorists is to identify an individual working in the security system who helps slip a device or weapon on board a plane. The most likely cause of the downing of a Metrojet plane last year is the use by Islamic State of an insider at Sharm el-Sheikh airport security to plant a bomb that killed 224 Russian tourists and aircrew.

For security officials one of the greatest concerns is the marriage of these two problems — increasingly sophisticated devices and secret help on the inside. This is heightened by the fact that planes increasingly start and end their days on different continents, stopping numerous times along the way. This should multiply the number of security checks on the craft but given the number of journeys and people involved, it instead exposes them to numerous potential breaches. What’s more, the quality of security checks varies enormously from country to country.

Setting international standards for such security is complicated and expensive. The equipment is very costly. To install it globally would be a heavy burden on poor countries with competing domestic priorities. Second, there are thousands of airports connected by typical daily flight plans. A plane that starts its day in some remote city in Africa can easily end up in a European capital after stopping off somewhere in the Gulf. Security checks on such an aircraft would need to be consistent among staff with different languages and legal systems. And finally, notwithstanding all the potential tightening of safety rules, clever terrorists will continue to devise new bomb-making methods, meaning that airport security needs to be continually updated just to maintain a basic standard. When one considers the many thousands of flights that take place every day over the world, the scale of the challenge is considerable.

Yet it is worth remembering that successful terrorist incidents remain mercifully limited. While we have seen a number of civilian craft brought down recently, terrorism has been less of a factor. The Germanwings disaster last year was a pilot suicide, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014 was never resolved (but not believed to be a terrorist incident) and Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down the same year by Ukrainian rebels using Russian missiles.

The Metrojet bombing was the most recent successful terrorist attack on a plane. All of these incidents took place against the backdrop of our increasingly crowded skies, in which almost every flight passes off safely. It’s important to remember this when evaluating the response to disasters such as this week’s. An exaggerated reaction can be costly, ineffective and simply play into the hands of terrorists who want to undermine our way of life.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s