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The Illusion of Aviation Security in Light of Current Terror Threats


Danny Shenar, (Research Fellow, ICT)

May 2018

General Background

In a previous article discussing many of the terror attacks against the aviation industry over the last few years, we reached the conclusion that the threat to civil aviation is likely to become more serious.

Terror attacks against the aviation industry have multidimensional effects and vast influence on a country’s national strength and resilience. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was formed by the Chicago Convention on Civil Aviation to be a UN agency that would work towards reaching global consensus on international civil aviation standards and recommended practices. Nevertheless, the subsequent Annex 17 to the Chicago Convention was written in so general a fashion that it fails to implement regulations that would ensure that the methods used at most airports around the world provide a reasonable response to the threats. The explosive devices shrewdly concealed in the attacks during the 1980s would probably have not been discovered today by the detection systems used in a significant number of airports worldwide.

The high level of threat against the civil aviation industry stems from a combination of international terror organizations’ ability to obtain a variety of types of explosives (military, industrial, and improvised), their proficiency in using them, and their awareness of the limitations of the detection methods currently being used at airports.

Given my experience over the last few decades as director of the Israeli Transportation Ministry’s Security, Emergency Preparedness, and Cyber Division, this article will discuss the circumstances that have allowed so many countries to accept such an inadequate standard of performance in their airports’ security detection practices. In addition, the article will discuss the security shortfalls that have allowed attacks to be carried out successfully, time after time, on commercial airlines and the international efforts at combating the array of threats against the civil aviation industry.


Regulations on Aviation Security

As mentioned above, the existing international regulations not only fail to help narrow the gap between the threat and the response, but they are one of the main reasons that the threat to the civil aviation industry has increased in magnitude and severity. Annex 17 to the Chicago Convention is the only binding international agreement currently in place. The agreement of all ICAO member states and a number of additional organizations is required in order for it to be changed at all. Furthermore, there is no statute of limitations to any change made to the agreement, no matter how minute or undisputed. As a result, Annex 17 was written with such general language that it allows even countries with the most superficial security measures to comply with it. The issue has long ago gone far past the point of being just a minor problem.

There is essentially no international standard for airports that clearly mandates any effective security methods to deal with the full scope of threats. As a result, security procedures and practices today at most airports worldwide are not uniform and do not always provide the necessary effective response to most of the real threats (including those that have been around since the 1980s). The main gaps in security really involve the way that advanced technologies are used.

After the downing in December 1988 of Pan Am Flight 103, which was flying from London Heathrow Airport to New York JFK and blew up in midair above the Scottish town of Lockerbie, and the attacks of September 11, 2001 when four American airplanes were hijacked and forcibly crashed into specifically selected targets in the United States, the US initiated a comprehensive domestic and international effort to improve the security screening of passengers and their carry-on luggage. This initiative included the establishment of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as an agency of the US Department of Homeland Security.

After these two events, other terrorist attacks have either successfully or unsuccessfully been carried out over the years, from Richard Reid’s attempt to detonate an explosive device concealed in his shoes to the bombing of two domestic Russian passenger planes and the attempt by a passenger to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 flying from Amsterdam to Detroit with a bomb sewn to his underwear. These incidents resulted in the US adding more layers of security and stricter regulation, which included rigorous pat-downs on some passengers, and the purchasing of state-of-the-art screening equipment that could detect nonmetal weapons and explosive devices on passengers and in carry-on bags.

To balance out the legislation passed by the US, which also heavily affected all flights to the United States, Europe passed a law for the first time in 2002 that imposed aviation security guidelines on all EU member states. Although the European legislators meant to issue rules that were more binding than the general guidelines of Chicago Convention Annex 17, the need for all EU member states to reach a consensus on the matter again caused the rules to be worded very generally, which created a controversial compulsory level of security. In practice, the EU did not make any upgrades to its screening procedures. Besides issuing administrative requirements obligating each country to have an authority responsible for aviation security and obligating them to issue local regulations and to conduct inspections, things remained unchanged relative to the way they were prior to the September 11 attacks.

The European legislation was updated in 2008, but most of the updates again dealt with administrative aspects involving oversight while the main emphasis regarding screening itself focused on the ban on liquids and how to gradually transition to allowing them to be taken on flights as screening capabilities improved.

To complete the picture of what the EU was doing to improve security, it should be noted that these countries were using the one-stop security method for years, whereby passengers flying from any of the dozens of airports in the EU would have to go through a security check before boarding the plane, but would not be checked again were they to stop in another EU country for a connecting flight. This practice contains certain risks since a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and it is clear that the effectiveness, skill, and training level of EU security employees differ from country to country.

The EU states’ attitude towards security is rooted in the fact that when the principles of how to approach aviation security were established, most of these countries did not feel threatened by organizations such as Hizbullah and al-Qaeda. Even the attack on the Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit was perceived more as an attack against the United States rather than on one of the countries of the EU.


Insufficient Security Procedures

Screening of Passengers and Carry-On Bags

The screening of passengers and carry-on bags has always focused on weapons detection in an effort to prevent planes from being hijacked rather than on an effort to discover explosive devices meant to blow the plane up in midair.

As a result, a detection system has been propagated today at most airports around the world that relies on the use of metal detectors combined with conventional X-ray scanners, which lack automatic explosive-detection capability.

This screening system leaves a large gap in place while suicide and inflight bombing attacks abound. This gap can be exploited to smuggle aboard explosives, explosive devices, and even weapons that are nonmetal or that have a low metal signature, both by placing them on passengers themselves or in their carry-on bags. The absence of a directive mandating the screening of shoes and electronic devices is also liable to cause various types of weapons to be overlooked.

In addition, there are so many ways to conceal something (in shoe soles; on a person’s body, specifically in intimate areas; in tubes of various products; through explosive sheets in hidden panels; in computers or other electronic devices, etc.) and there is such a wide variety of specialized weapons available, some or all of which are ceramic or nonmetallic and can be disassembled and hidden. In turn, a significant number of advanced search and detection procedures using a wide array of technologies is required to find weapons with a reasonable rate of success. These are things that do not exist at a significant number of airports around the world.

Methods and systems of detection already exist that can provide a response to the gamut of threats and that would certainly have a higher success rate than what is being used today, but they are not always employed. For example, it is almost impossible to find an explosive device like the one on Richard Reid without having passengers take off their shoes and scan them in the X-ray machine. Nevertheless, most airports around the world do not have people take off their shoes.

The difficulty involved in implementing these detection practices stems from the fact that this is a very sensitive issue. It is compounded by the fact that the more accurate the method of detection, the more time it will consume and the higher the ratio of false alarms there will be. It will also tend to involve a higher level of invasiveness and further violation of passengers’ privacy. Achieving the right balance requires a major investment of human resources, infrastructure, and research in the development of unique technologies, something that airport managers and regulators have been trying to avoid.

To put things in perspective, we shall suffice by listing a number of incidents in the past where the perpetrators either were caught trying to bring weapons onto the plane or where they succeeded in doing so and most likely would not have been discovered with the systems in place today.

A. In December 2001, Richard Reid, a passenger flying from Paris to Miami on an American Airlines Boeing 767 with 197 passengers on board, tried to blow up the plane with triacetone and PETN hidden in his shoes. He probably would have brought down the plane had the bomb kit operated correctly. Another attempt of this sort would probably not be detected today in places where passengers are not required to take off their shoes.

B. In 2004, two female Chechen terrorists blew up two Russian planes. The prevailing explanation today among experts for how they did it is that they concealed the explosives in bras. If improvised explosives with a nonmetal detonator concealed in a bra were to be used in an attempted bombing today, they would most likely not be discovered.

C. In December 2009, a passenger attempted to kill 290 people aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from the Netherlands to the United States when he concealed an improvised explosive device and a chemical nonmetallic detonation system in his underwear. The explosives went undiscovered by airport metal detectors and they would probably not have been found today by the same screening system either.


Security Screening of Checked-In Luggage

Baggage that passengers check in and send to the plane’s cargo hold is screened to prevent the plane from being blown up midflight by an explosive device concealed in the bag itself or in an item inside the bag.

During the 1980s, terrorist organizations frequently tried to blow up planes through sophisticated attempts to smuggle explosives in checked-in baggage that conventional methods had a hard time detecting. As a result, more advanced technologies and scanning systems were developed to facilitate the automated detection of these explosives. This technology is usually installed as part of the scanning apparatus located among the baggage conveyor systems that take the luggage to the plane’s cargo hold. Nevertheless, the new machinery’s ability to detect certain forms of explosives is also limited, which necessitates the use of additional machinery that is not always available. This was demonstrated most dangerously by a certain type of explosive that has been used over the last few years in terrorist attacks throughout Europe (in France, Belgium, Spain, etc.).

A number of countries, such as the United States and Israel, have implemented a combination of advanced systems to respond to this threat even though not required by international standards. However, many countries not only lack this advanced machinery but are still using conventional scanning systems, despite the shortcomings in their ability to detect explosives of all kinds.

The Integrity of Personnel Authorized to Enter Restricted Areas

Amin Tariq was a member of a terrorist group that conspired to blow up planes flying to the United States in the summer of 2006. He worked as a security employee for Jet Airways and G4S at London Heathrow Airport. Investigators claimed that the 23-year-old Tariq who had studied biochemistry gave information to terrorists about security protocols at the airport and advised them on how to bypass them.

In 2011, a British Airways employee, Rajib Karim, was found guilty of plotting a terrorist attack. He was an IT expert who used his place of employment to try to help establish a network for attacks on US-bound flights.

One of the suicide bombers who participated in the March 2016 attack on Brussels Airport worked at the terminal several years before the attack.

The attack on a Russian Airbus operated by Kogalymavia that was flying from Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt to Saint Petersburg, Russia in October 2015 was also successful because of assistance provided by local airport employees in Egypt, according to the prevailing opinion among professionals in the field.

A clip from a security camera was released in February 2016 that showed employees at the Mogadishu airport handing over a laptop containing an explosive device to a suicide bomber, who detonated the device on a Daallo Airlines flight. The bomb failed to blow up the whole plane only because it was prematurely detonated at too low an altitude.

Information was released in November 2015 following the terrorist attacks in Paris that 70 employees who had access to restricted areas at the airports there were listed as suspects in terrorist activities or as individuals who were radicalized and had affiliations with terrorist operatives.

In summary, a real danger exists that people with hostile intent could get past the various security systems in place and assist in smuggling prohibited substances and objects into restricted areas, considering the capabilities of personnel with access to those areas and to sensitive security protocols. It can be said with a fair amount of certainty that the various terrorist organizations have tended to exploit personnel employed at airports who have expressed support for their cause. Even if all airport employees went through some sort of background check, the effectiveness of these checks has been limited due to the increase in the number of people and small groups that have been radicalized at home, some of whom began as low-level employees at the airports.

To make matters worse, security checks on current and future employees encounter legal, ethical, and practical restrictions. There is currently no guideline dictating how and to what level or frequency to conduct background checks on new or veteran employees working in the sensitive areas of an airport.

Security on Flights

Flight security has been significantly improved with the installation of a bulletproof, shrapnel-proof, intrusion-resistant door to the cockpit in compliance with Annex Six to the Chicago Convention. However, the door is usually opened a number of times throughout a flight for service purposes, which may allow a terrorist to break into the cockpit and carry out an attack.

The institution of a standard that would make it mandatory to install two doors, one meeting the requirements of Annex Six and another lighter door meant to prevent anyone from getting close to the main one, has not yet received positive feedback. The installation of a secondary barrier in addition to the main door could significantly reduce the risk that terrorists would succeed in breaking into the cockpit.


The concealment of undetectable explosives or flammable materials in the cargo hold of a passenger flight is no new threat to civil aviation. As long ago as 1970, an explosive device planted in the cargo hold of Swissair Flight 330 from Zurich to Tel Aviv blew up nine minutes after takeoff. The crew tried to turn the plane around and land in Zurich, but they were unsuccessful and the plane crashed, killing all 47 on board. The device was planted by a Palestinian terrorist inside a package with an Israeli address. There was another incident the same day where a similar type of device with an Israeli address blew up on a plane taking off from Frankfurt, though the crew managed to land the plane.

Outrageously, commercial cargo flown on passenger planes still has the potential to serve as an exceptionally attractive target for terrorism, particularly because this cargo does not entail the same scanning requirements as passengers and their bags, which are occasionally put through X-ray machines that detect explosives automatically.

As an example of how commercial cargo has become a prime target for terrorists, let us take a look at how security measures failed to detect an explosive device on a UPS flight on October 29, 2010. Despite specific detailed information passed through intelligence channels, the device was so well concealed that the printer containing it was originally cleared by military and police explosives experts, and the explosives were not discovered. A senior official told The Guardian that the device was “one of the most sophisticated we’ve seen. The naked eye won't pick it up, experienced bomb officers did not see it, X-ray screening is highly unlikely to catch it.”

Modern shipping allows the sender to choose how the product will be sent in advance and to follow the shipment online. The sender can ascertain the shipment’s exact route and timeline, thus giving the terrorists a wide range of ways to verify that the package will detonate without the need for inside information or to be on the plane.

To conclude, commercial shipping is a complex network with no binding uniform international standardization yet with a tremendous amount of goods, packages, and mail sent on passenger aircraft. The numerous breaches in cargo screening can have a significant impact on the nature of the threat to commercial aviation.

Peripheral Security

The surrounding area of an airport should be secured in order to prevent a long-range shooting attack on planes that are taking off, landing, or taxiing and to make it more difficult for hostile entities to infiltrate the airport. This area should be as wide as necessary given the weapons that are capable of carrying out an effective attack and given the specific conditions on the ground, such as topography, foliage, approach routes, etc.

Nearly all international and domestic aviation security guidelines require that the fence surrounding the airport be 2.4 meters high and have security lighting. There is no mandatory requirement for an automatic breach-detection system and a fence alone will clearly not prevent anyone from intruding. If we take into account that the periphery of the average airport is just a few kilometers in circumference and the airport is usually located in an isolated area, then the lack of a smart fence clearly puts the airport at risk yet few airports across the world are equipped with effective and comprehensive breach-detection systems.

In addition, international and domestic security guidelines do not require airports to have security gates or barriers to prevent a vehicle-ramming attack. The gates allowing vehicles through to the airside are often of low quality and not truly prepared to stop a car trying drive into a plane laden with passengers and fuel.

International conventions make no mention of any security in the area outside the fence to counter small arms fire, rockets, or anti-tank missiles yet attempts using this kind of weaponry have been made on several occasions and can be effective at a range of several hundred meters. For example, two RPGs were fired at an El Al plane before takeoff from Paris Orly Airport in January 1975. The RPGs missed their target, but hit a Yugoslavian plane parked adjacently. In December 2000, a Sabena jet approaching Bujumbura International Airport in Burundi was hit by a barrage of gunfire seconds before landing when it was at an altitude of just 80 meters. An RPG was then fired at the plane, but missed its target. And as if those were not enough, a grenade launcher believed to be used in an attack on a plane was found on the morning of October 8, 2001 about 200 meters outside the fence of the airport in Prague.


A Partial Solution to Deal with the Current Situation

A level of threat to civil aviation this internationally extensive requires efforts to be unified, forces to be integrated, and an international strategy to be formulated to deal primarily with the danger of a plane being flown into a strategic target in a given country or a commercial plane being blown up in midair. A number of countries (e.g. the US, Israel, Britain, and Canada) have been trying to deal with this threat by applying increased scrutiny to incoming flights and not relying on other countries to comply with the Chicago Convention’s minimal standards.

These countries have put two key measures in place to counter the threats. One is that they have begun implementing intricate oversight procedures to assess the effectiveness of the security apparatus at inbound flights’ airports of origin, the probability of an attack being carried out on planes taking off from there, and ways to find and close any gaps in security. The country that has most extensively demanded further security has been the United States. For a decade now, the US has mandated a series of special and stringent requirements on all direct inbound flights involving all the different aspects of aviation security—from passenger and carry-on bag screening at the gates before boarding to special screening of baggage that is checked in, and more.

The second measure, also rooted in the desire to foil attacks at a plane’s airport of origin, has focused on the development of international security cooperation. The first signs of this cooperation already exist. Security officials have been making connections and networking, a common form of speech has been developed for emergency situations, communication channels are being created between different countries’ operations centers, joint exercises are being conducted, and relations between dozens of national security and law enforcement agencies around the world are being cultivated in order to prevent hostile actors from using aviation as a platform for an attack.



One would have expected a number of dramatic changes to have been made in the way countries address the most current terrorist threats considering all the major attacks on aviation that have occurred, the field’s extensive development globally, and the increase in the number of passengers and planes in the air. While changes have been made, only a small number of countries have actually implemented them. Despite the escalation in the level and gravity of the threat, the accepted security measures and screening procedures in most countries around the world (aside from the United States, Israel, and just a handful of other countries) lag years and years behind.

The countries that have put defensive procedures in place to counter the threat of terrorism against civil aviation have succeeded in either deterring the attackers from making their plans a reality or in thwarting them directly. However, these procedures have simultaneously acted as a catalyst for attacks to be perpetrated in countries that have remained unprepared, either due to a lack of resources or to the absence of a tradition of best practices in this field.

We can thus draw three conclusions:

A. International state-sponsored regulation must be implemented to effectively deal with the danger posed by terrorism to civil aviation. Security checks must become more stringent across the board.

B. Systems of international cooperation, such as command and control centers, should be created that would facilitate an appropriate global response to threats in real time since these threats know no borders.

C. The danger to civil aviation is at unprecedented levels and this is compounded by the evidence that the current generation of terrorists will not hesitate to die while committing an 15


act of terror. This presents national decision-makers with the more complex challenge of how to allocate resources, be it in their own countries or in the support of other countries that lack the means to do so themselves.



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