Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Aviation Security Threats and Realities

Via STRATFOR (Security Weekly) -

Over the past few weeks, aviation security — specifically, enhanced passenger-screening procedures — has become a big issue in the media. The discussion of the topic has become even more fervent as we enter Thanksgiving weekend, which is historically one of the busiest travel periods of the year.


We believe that this review will help establish that there is a legitimate threat to aviation, that there are significant challenges in trying to secure aircraft from every conceivable threat, and that the response of aviation security authorities to threats has often been slow and reactive rather than thoughtful and proactive.


While understanding that the threat is very real, it is also critical to recognize that there is no such thing as absolute, foolproof security. This applies to ground-based facilities as well as aircraft. If security procedures and checks have not been able to keep contraband out of high-security prisons, it is unreasonable to expect them to be able to keep unauthorized items off aircraft, where (thankfully) security checks of crew and passengers are far less invasive than they are for prisoners. As long as people, luggage and cargo are allowed aboard aircraft, and as long as people on the ground crew and the flight crew have access to aircraft, aircraft will remain vulnerable to a number of internal and external threats.

This reality is accented by the sheer number of passengers that must be screened and number of aircraft that must be secured. According to figures supplied by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), in 2006, the last year for which numbers are available, the agency screened 708,400,522 passengers on domestic flights and international flights coming into the United States. This averages out to over 1.9 million passengers per day.

Another reality is that, as mentioned above, jihadists and other people who seek to attack aircraft have proven to be quite resourceful and adaptive. They carefully study security measures, identify vulnerabilities and then seek to exploit them. Indeed, last September, when we analyzed the innovative designs of the explosive devices employed by AQAP, we called attention to the threat they posed to aviation more than three months before the Christmas 2009 bombing attempt. As we look at the issue again, it is not hard to see, as we pointed out then, how their innovative efforts to camouflage explosives in everyday items and hide them inside suicide operatives’ bodies will continue and how these efforts will be intended to exploit vulnerabilities in current screening systems.


This ability to camouflage explosives in a variety of different ways, or hide them inside the bodies of suicide operatives, means that the most significant weakness of any suicide-attack plan is the operative assigned to conduct the attack. Even in a plot to attack 10 or 12 aircraft, a group would need to manufacture only about 12 pounds of high explosives — about what is required for a single, small suicide device and far less than is required for a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. Because of this, the operatives are more of a limiting factor than the explosives themselves; it is far more difficult to find and train 10 or 12 suicide bombers than it is to produce 10 or 12 devices.


There has been much discussion of profiling, but the difficulty of creating a reliable and accurate physical profile of a jihadist, and the adaptability and ingenuity of the jihadist planners, means that any attempt at profiling based only on race, ethnicity or religion is doomed to fail. In fact, profiling can prove counterproductive to good security by blinding people to real threats. They will dismiss potential malefactors who do not fit the specific profile they have been provided.

In an environment where the potential threat is hard to identify, it is doubly important to profile individuals based on their behavior rather than their ethnicity or nationality — what we refer to as focusing on the “how” instead of the “who.” Instead of relying on physical profiles, which allow attack planners to select operatives who do not match the profiles being selected for more intensive screening, security personnel should be encouraged to exercise their intelligence, intuition and common sense. A Caucasian U.S. citizen who shows up at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi or Dhaka claiming to have lost his passport may be far more dangerous than some random Pakistani or Yemeni citizen, even though the American does not appear to fit the profile for requiring extra security checks.

However, when we begin to consider traits such as intelligence, intuition and common sense, one of the other realities that must be faced with aviation security is that, quite simply, it is not an area where the airlines or governments have allocated the funding required to hire the best personnel. Airport screeners make far less than FBI special agents or CIA case officers and receive just a fraction of the training. Before 9/11, most airports in the United States relied on contract security guards to conduct screening duties. After 9/11, many of these same officers went from working for companies like Wackenhut to being TSA employees. There was no real effort made to increase the quality of screening personnel by offering much higher salaries to recruit a higher caliber of candidate.

There is frequent mention of the need to make U.S. airport security more like that employed in Israel. Aside from the constitutional and cultural factors that would prevent American airport screeners from ever treating Muslim travelers the way they are treated by El Al, another huge difference is simply the amount of money spent on salaries and training for screeners and other security personnel. El Al is also aided by the fact that it has a very small fleet of aircraft that fly only a small number of passengers to a handful of destinations.


While it is impossible to keep all contraband off aircraft, efforts to improve technical methods and procedures to locate weapons and IED components must continue. However, these efforts must not only be reacting to past attacks and attempts but should also be looking forward to thwart future attacks that involve a shift in the terrorist paradigm. At the same time, the often-overlooked human elements of airport security, including situational awareness, observation and intuition, need to be emphasized now more than ever. It is those soft skills that hold the real key to looking for the bomber and not just the bomb.

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