Terrorist Hurdles to Aviation Security

In an effort to blow up a U.S. commercial aircraft in-flight, a would-be terrorist faces three hurdles.  First is his successful passage through an airport security checkpoint without the “tool” of his trade being discovered.  Second, once onboard the aircraft, the tool selected for the terrorist’s mission must function properly.  Third the terrorist hopes, once his attack is initiated, there will be no interference from other passengers.

Once an armed terrorist has successfully passed through security and is on his way to board an airplane, the attack is a fait accompli.  Its success is then determined by the last two hurdles.  One or the other has come into play the last two times terrorists have attempted to detonate an explosive device onboard an airborne U.S. aircraft.  

The attackers during both attempts — “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in 2001 and “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab last year — sought to wreak death and destruction during the Christmas season.  But because fate and/or courageous passengers intervened, both attacks failed.  In Reid’s case, failure stemmed from a dampened fuse.  Due to a delayed flight, Reid spent an unexpected extra day wearing the shoes, causing additional perspiration to collect, thus preventing its proper ignition.  In Abdulmutallab’s case, he had sown plastic explosive powder into his underwear to which he then added, via a syringe, acid liquid.  Flames erupted on the airplane wall and his leg.  As a passenger subdued Abdulmutallab, flight attendants quickly extinguished the fire.

As to the third hurdle, terrorists should have learned a valuable lesson from 9/11 and the brave souls onboard UA Flight 93: passengers will no longer remain passive when a terrorist becomes active.  But, the tragedy is that no passenger should even be put into the position of having to so act by a terrorist’s success in overcoming the first hurdle at airport security.  If we continue to fail in our efforts to stop the terrorist there, all that is left to prevent the attack is fate and/or passenger action.

In the aftermath of Abdulmutallab’s failed attack, we have seen a rush to quickly equip airport security checkpoints with scanners, capable of exposing anything unusual a passenger may be hiding on his/her person.  Privacy issues arise as the scanner outlines more than just “unusual” items.  But, in a world where terrorists and those fighting them play a deadly chess match of move and counter-move, we already know the terrorist’s next counter-move to defeat these scanners.

Last August, a well known Saudi terrorist member of al Qaeda, Abdullah Hassan Talea’ Asiri, feigned his surrender to a Saudi Prince. Gaining the Prince’s confidence, Asiri told him other militants wanted to surrender as well, but wanted the Prince’s assurances of safe passage. The Prince agreed to talk to the other militants and dialed a phone number Asiri gave him. There was an immediate muffled explosion as Asiri’s body was ripped apart. Before meeting with the Prince, Asiri had passed through several security points — but none detected the explosive device (IED) on his person that caused the explosion. This was because Asiri had inserted the IED into his rectal cavity. It was only triggered by the radiofrequency transmission received when the Prince made the connection on the phone line Asiri had provided.  Fortunately for the Prince, he suffered only minor injuries.

A terrorist’s creativity in hiding destructive tools of his trade is not limited by the size and number of his body cavities. It is for this reason additional focus must be placed on stopping the terrorist at the first hurdle — the security checkpoint. While technology can help, its lack of success in preventing these last two terrorist incidents demonstrate the need to raise the bar for security at the first hurdle.

U.S. aviation security will never be totally effective unless the following mindset is adopted:  Security must focus less on finding the terrorist’s tools and more on finding the terrorist.  Basically, this means identifying “suspicious indicators” of hostile intent exhibited by a passenger passing through security. While the authors do not want to identify what these specifically are, they are numerous and have effectively brought attention to passengers who then require additional screening to determine if certain indicators are refutable or not.  If they are, the passenger continues to the aircraft; if not, the screening process continues until resolution is reached.

Such a mindset, focusing on terrorist bahaviors, has kept El Al Airlines passengers safe for decades. In one extraordinary case in 1986 involving a woman passing through security with carry-on luggage which, unbeknownst to her, contained a hidden IED undetected by x-ray, the terrorist plot was still uncovered because a highly trained security agent could not resolve a suspicious indicator.  Such a security system — capable of identifying even an innocent bomb carrier — seems, from all indications, to have driven terrorists to look for softer targets other than El Al.

Critics of behavior-oriented screening tend to label such techniques as profiling.  This demonstrates a lack of understanding as to what is actually involved.  Behavior-oriented screening has resulted, even within El Al, in rabbis, the elderly, pregnant women, etc. having to undergo additional questioning and screening to resolve certain indicators. When properly conducted by personnel well trained in the practice, such behavior-oriented screening can be done effectively, non-threateningly and without incurring delays beyond normal processing times.    

There is a science to behavior-oriented screening that needs to be fully mastered and then implemented to ensure the safety of America’s air travelers.  Al-Qaeda leaders have tested the U.S. aviation security process twice and determined they can overcome their first hurdle at airport security. Their efforts, therefore, will now be focused on arming the next Abdulmutallab with a much more effective tool to bring an aircraft down. Without a behavior-oriented screening process that allows suspicious indicators to be resolved satisfactorily, terrorists feel they can beat the system — and will try again.