Two recent incidents, the first a successful attack and the second an attempt, on civil aviation testify once again, to the enduring fixation of terrorist organisations on this iconic target. Similarly, several publicised instances of failures by security agencies to detect prohibited items getting on board commercial flights, mercifully without evil intent, have revived concerns on the efficacy of aviation security worldwide. In the first incident on January 24, 2011, a suicide bomber (possibly two) was able to enter the international arrivals side of the Domodedova Airport in Moscow and blast explosives killing 35 persons and injuring over 150. A video recording of the explosion caused shockwaves around the world.
In the second incident, reflecting the revival of an old modus operandi, reminiscent of the bombing of ‘Emperor Kanishka’ an Air India Boeing 747 in 1985, two parcel bombs were booked as air cargo (October 27, 2010) in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, one at the FEDEX office and the other with the UPS. The parcels contained printers with bombs inside the toner cartridges. Both escaped initial detection. Each is said to have contained 300-400 gms of PETN. The parcels were to be delivered to a Jewish Synagogue in Chicago. While the first was discovered in East Midlands Airport in England, the other was detected in Dubai, both on October29. The discoveries were the result of precise intelligence, including the Tracking Nos., reportedly provided by the Saudi authorities to the Americans and not conventional anti sabotage procedures employed at air cargo facilities.
The sophistication of the devices are said to have left the British bomb detection experts in East Midlands Airport in a quandary and required renewed consultations with the authorities in Dubai and Riyadh before the bomb could be detected over twelve hours after the investigation commenced. Both the devices, fitted with timers, were capable of bringing down aircraft and were carried on hopping civilian flights on some sectors en- route to destinations where they were discovered. The plotters (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) could not be sure that the devices would necessarily be carried on passenger aircraft but may have reckoned that this was a possibility considering that much of cargo to the USA is carried in this manner. Late in 2009, the detection problems associated with body bombs, concealed within crevices of the human body (unlike explosives strapped on to their bodies by suicide bombers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan), came to the fore with the abortive suicide attack on August 27 by Ibrahim Hassan Al Asiri on Saudi Deputy Interior Minister, Nayef.
Asiri is said to have blasted device containing PETN concealed in his anus, triggered remotely. On the heels of this failed assassination followed the unsuccessful attempt on December 25, 2009 by a Nigerian Umar Farooq Abdulmuttalab to bring down a North West Airliner over Detroit using 80 gms of the same explosive concealed in his underpants. Most recently (Feb 26, 2011) TSA screeners at a security check point at JFK New York failed to detect box cutters, of the type used by the 9/11 hijackers, carried inadvertently on board a Jet Blue flight by a passenger, only to be discovered when these fell out of his cabin baggage as he sought to stow it in the overhead locker. Again (March 2, 2011) two persons were killed when a gunman suspected to be from Kosovo opened fire at a bus said to be carrying US service personnel in an ‘unsecured’ area in front of Terminal 2 of Frankfurt airport, an international aviation hub.
Barring the recent attack at Domodedova Airport which exposed the vulnerability of the city side of airports, civil aviation globally has not witnessed post 9/11, any catastrophic incident which parallels the events of that fateful day. Despite shortcomings, civil aviation is amongst the most hardened of targets amongst critical infrastructure in our country and several other countries, in view of the steps taken almost globally to strengthen civil aviation security, post 9\11.Unlawful intervention in civil aviation has declined substantially in the years thereafter. But civil aviation retains its enduring fixation with terrorist groups like the Al Qaeda and its cohorts such as the Lashkar- e- Tayabba who see it as an attractive high value and high impact target with tremendous potential for media exposure and deep psychological imprint far beyond the geographical location of the incident.
Thus, while terrorist groups had begun to target other critical assets where the security posture is weak, they would continue to attack the ‘softer’ side of even hardened airports, as is now evident. Breaches in aviation security protocols and processes are not uncommon in various parts of the world. But in the popular perception civil aviation security is seen to set the gold standard in critical infrastructure security. Therefore each breach is viewed with the greatest alarm. The ‘box cutter’ incident evoked abuse and ridicule by Americans airing their frustrations in blogs, against the screeners of the Transport Security Administration for their stupidity, lack of professionalism in being unable to detect such an item which would have shown up in the scanned image. Each attack or attempted attack has evoked a response from the security establishment considered appropriate and commensurate to the threat signified by the particular incident.
This is seen by critics as a reactive rather than a proactive response. The liquid explosives plot (2006) was followed by a partial ban on the carriage of liquids in hand baggage except in specified quantities in a separate transparent bag to be presented separately at the screening check point. The attempted shoe bombing (2001) resulted in shoes being screened separately after being taken off in some countries like the USA. After the ‘undie’ bomber incident, pat down searches have become more intrusive. All this has inevitably added to the hassles faced by the travelling public who have always thought of air travel as being both privileged and pleasurable. In the aftermath of 9/11, massive investments have been made by several countries in security infrastructure – trained human resources, technology and strengthened security procedures and controls.
But terrorist methodologies have sought to keep a step ahead in trying to exploit loopholes in the existing security architecture. Aviation security is now a contest between more technology, training and information (read ‘intelligence’) inducted by state actors and innovations to circumvent the same by terrorist organisations. Unfortunately security, either because of its inherent limitations or the absence of ingenuity to devise a more ‘imaginative’ conceptual framework ( a non defined panacea) remains after each review and upgrades only good enough to prevent the last incident rather than the new emerging threat. And this is the dilemma of aviation security, perhaps of all security measures. Each threatening event revives debate on whether the upgrades in aviation security undertaken post 9/11 were somewhat flawed in their emphasis on priority areas. Some experts argue that the current emphasis on looking for the ‘bad’ object is neither a cost effective nor imaginative way of handling the threat.
It involves unnecessary uniformity in screening millions of passenger’s worldwide. They are all seen to be suspects till they are cleared at thousands of security checkpoints at airports across the world. It is like looking for the proverbial ‘needle’ in thousands of ‘haystacks’ every day 24 into 7; 365 days of the year when there may be only one attempt in a million to conceal the ‘needle’ and it may then escape detection. They also point to increasing costs on constant upgrades on aviation security which are exacerbating the financial woes of the industry, experiencing cumulative losses worldwide to the tune of billions of dollars. Critics argue that it would be more cost effective to concentrate on the ‘bad guy’ by segregating the low risk passenger (positive profiling through background checks) from the high risk and investing more scarce and finite security resources on the latter. They also emphasise the use of techniques such as behavioural detection and counter surveillance in the softer side of airports rather than instituting expensive physical security measures.
The problem is that a comprehensive alternative ‘imaginative’ framework, fleshed out in details and acceptable to those in authority responsible for aviation security, is yet to be presented. Constructive criticism and some useful ideas do, nevertheless, emanate from these sources. A brief look at the overarching framework of civil aviation security will help to put the problem in perspective. The current aviation security architecture has been progressively defined by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, to homogenise and standardise the base level of security observed by member states in the interest of orderly, safe and secure international aviation which is seamlessly connected (and therefore vulnerable at its weakest point) through transnational aviation networks. The ICAO is recognised by member states as the Global Regulatory Authority for safety and security, with prescriptive and audit functions. Member states are obliged to implement global best principles i.e. ‘Standards’ and endeavour to implement ‘Recommended Practices’ embodied in Annex 17 to the Chicago Convention, regarded as the bible of aviation security.
Detailed guidance material on setting up security controls is available in a voluminous ICAO Document. Each member state must document and implement a National Civil Aviation Security Programme to be formulated and implemented by an officer to be appointed as the ‘Appropriate Authority’. The ‘Appropriate Authority’ is meant to serve as the nodal national regulatory authority for civil aviation security. In India the Commissioner, Bureau of Civil Aviation Security is designated the ‘Appropriate Authority’ while the lead role for organising and implementing security procedures and controls at airports devolves on an armed and aviation- security- trained para- military force of the union known as the CISF, now deployed at over 55 commercial Airports in the country.
But civil aviation security is neither homogenous worldwide nor without vulnerabilities nationally because of the following reasons: varied levels of efficacy in the formulation and implementation of national civil aviation security programmes across member states because of differences in enabling legislation or absence thereof, and hugely varying levels of financial investments in security, manning levels at security points ,deployment of technology, quality of training ,rigour of security audit regimes, attention to the activities of organised criminal and drug syndicates and above all differing national security cultures. There appears to be no quick fix, no golden bullet that will extirpate all existing and evolving threats. A vast public place like an airport where open access is intrinsic to its functionality will carry several vulnerabilities, many of which have been plugged and others need to be addressed.
While existing measures will have to be upgraded and refined with better technology, human resource development and procedures and controls that deliver desired outcomes, these will have to be supplemented with new disciplines like behavioural detection, counter surveillance and proximate intelligence collection techniques. The porosity of softer side of airports like cargo terminals, catering facilities and general aviation terminals, to name a few, will have to be plugged. The outcry against escalating costs on security from the industry will also need to be addressed by national governments who may share in the costs as recognition of their commitment to national security. Countries lacking in requisite expertise and finances will have to be supported through regional and global cooperation. While security will never be hundred percent assured, the threat levels will be substantively minimised.
—The author, the Senior Advisor SWI, is a former IPS officer and had been a Commissioner, Bureau of Civil Aviation Security. He retired in 2008 as Secretary (Security), Govt. Of India