'By Far the Greatest Threat to U.S. Civil Aviation'

“The system worked,” said DHS (Department of Homeland Security) Secretary Janet Napolitano on the Sunday talk shows following apprehension of the so-called “Underwear Bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutullab, on Christmas Day 2009.  Abdulmutullab had attempted to detonate a PETN-based explosive device, hidden in his underwear, while flying from Amsterdam to Detroit on Northwest Airlines Flight 253.  The device had fizzled, however, and Abdulmutullab was subdued by other passengers until after the plane landed in Detroit.

In tests conducted for the BBC using a similar device holding the same amount of explosive, researchers concluded that it was unlikely that Flight 253 would have gone down if the device had worked properly.  Nevertheless, Abdulmutullab and whoever was sitting next to him would probably have died in the blast – and the incident once again underscores the vulnerability of the U.S. civil aviation system to terrorists.

Moreover, Napolitano’s assertion that “the system worked” would have been true only if the passengers who stopped Abdulmutullab were considered part of “the system.”  That also was the case in the 2001 incident involving Richard Reid, when the other passengers had to deal with the situation on board after failure of the explosive device concealed in Reid’s shoes to detonate completely.

For Abdulmutullab to come as close as he did to exploding a lethal device aboard an aircraft there had to be, and were, several failures throughout the U.S. aviation security system. It is evident in retrospect, for example, that he should have been caught before he ever boarded the aircraft (an Airbus A330).  Also, he had paid cash for a one-way ticket to the United States and held an apparently valid U.S. visa – despite the fact that his United Kingdom visa had been cancelled a year earlier – either of these suspicious circumstances should have alerted security inspectors that something was amiss.

Moreover, Abdulmutullab’s own father had actually warned the U.S. embassy in Nigeria that his son was a dangerous jihadist – nonetheless, the younger Abdulmutullab was not on the U.S. no-fly list or even on the so-called “secondary” screening list. Last but not least, he had passed through security in Amsterdam with no difficulty and was not given any special attention.

All of the preceding was in rather sharp contrast to the flight Richard Reid took on El Al in 2001. He and every item in his possession were thoroughly screened, and an undercover air marshal was assigned to an adjacent seat on the same plane. Because Reid seemed to be “just testing” El Al Security, did not have any explosives or weapons with him, and had not manifested any unusual behavior, he was permitted to reach his destination without incident; but he was being carefully monitored every step of the way.

Profile & Interview: A Powerful Combination 

Many people point to the Israeli aviation security system as a model for what the U.S. system should be.  Others say that this is a bogus comparison because Israel operates only 43 planes serving 48 destinations. U.S. air carriers, in contrast, complete an average of about 28,000 flights per day.  Nonetheless, there are still a number of helpful lessons that the United States can learn from the Israelis.   

The backbone of the Israeli system is the profiling the Israelis use of each passenger. The profiling is accompanied by an interview during which a well trained security agent carefully questions the passenger, inquiring about such matters as to why he or she is traveling to Israel, where he/she is staying while in Israel, and who does he or she know in the country.

It was this patient methodology that unmasked the pregnant Irish woman with a bomb who attempted to board an El Al flight in London in 1986. The father of the unborn child was a Jordanian named Nizar Hindawi, who had told the woman that he wanted her to come to Israel to meet his family before they were married. He was not traveling with her – but it was he who had packed her bag.  Sewn in the lining of the bag was an expertly crafted bomb packed with Czech-made Semtex explosive. The bag had been x-rayed several times, and nothing suspicious had been detected – but the security agent at the gate was nonetheless convinced, from her interview with Anne Mary Murphy, that there was something wrong. It was not until the security agent cut the lining of the bag open that the explosives were discovered.

The Israeli focus is less on guns and explosives than it is on people.  As reporter Jeff Jacoby observed (in a 23 August 2006 article in The Boston Globe), the Israelis believe that “things don’t hijack planes, terrorists do, and … the best way to detect terrorists is to focus on intercepting not bad things, but bad people.”  Hence, the Israeli emphasis on profiling and the interviewing of passengers.  Indeed, the Israelis learned long ago that not all passengers should be accorded the same amount of screening.  The real key to effective airport security, in their view, is reducing to a minimum the size of the pool of people being more than perfunctorily screened, and then spending whatever time is necessary on those individuals who fit the terrorist profile and/or fail the initial screening process.

The Egalitarian Triumph Over Common Sense 

In contrast, the U.S. aviation security system is far more egalitarian – primarily because of political correctness, it seems obvious – than the Israeli system is, which means in practice that everyone receives more or less the same treatment. If a Muslim is pulled out of line for secondary screening, one observer commented, TSA (the U.S. Transportation Security Administration) employees will then select a dozen or more blonde women and/or harmless senior citizens for secondary screening so that no one can complain that he or she had been singled out by profiling or that the system is prejudiced against Muslim males in a certain age group.

Any objective analysis of the statistics developed over the last 10-15 years shows, though, that Muslim males between the ages of 17 and 35 – and from any of a short list of countries – represent by far the greatest threat to U.S. civil aviation.  They should, therefore, be accorded most of the attention at airport checkpoints.

But the U.S. system does not work that way, unfortunately.  This is not to say that the U.S. screening system should not be on continuing alert for the occasional aberration – and/or for the person who does not fit the profile.  It already is well known that al Qaeda is attempting to recruit women, and Muslim men, from both the United States and Western Europe.  One terrorist plotter arrested in the United States went so far as to change his Muslim name, Abdul Rahman, to a name, James Cromite, that sounds more Anglo-Saxon.  As Jacoby also noted in his insightful 2006 article, “No sensible person imagines that ethnic or religious profiling alone can stop every terrorist plot.  But it is illogical and potentially suicidal not to take account of the fact that, so far, every suicide-terrorist plotting to take down an American plane has been a radical Muslim man [emphasis added].”

Another way of reducing the number of people who need to be carefully screened would be through implementation of a Registered or Trusted Traveler program.  One of the TSA’s more obvious failures has been its inability to develop and implement an effective trusted traveler program – through which a passenger can elect to voluntarily provide certain personal data, including biometric information, to the government in order to pass through security at airports more rapidly and efficiently.

The Obvious Need to Rethink U.S. Aviation Security 

The TSA has, in fact, authorized a number of pilot programs, in partnership with the private sector, to test the feasibility of setting up a trusted traveler program. “Clear,” the largest of the trial programs, ended operations last year when its parent company went out of business.  The various other U.S. programs that have been tested thus far cost participants between $100 and $149 per year. In contrast, the British “IRIS” program not only is highly efficient but is also operated by the U.K. government – and is free of charge.

It is estimated that airport security now costs U.S. taxpayers more than $6 billion a year – and that total does not include the work being done in this area by U.S. intelligence agencies, the Defense Department, and numerous law-enforcement agencies across the nation. So the question arises: Are the taxpayers getting their money’s worth? The answer is a resounding “No”! Some critics have described the present U.S. airport screening process as “security theater,” contending that there is little if any hard evidence that the system has ever actually thwarted any real terrorist attacks and that it exists mainly to reassure the flying public that there will be no repeat of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Others, including many security specialists, suggest that the only real security improvements since the 9/11 attacks have been reinforcing cockpit doors in aircraft, reinvigorating the sky marshal program, and convincing passengers that they personally might have to fight back in the event of an incident on board.

What else needs to be done? All evidence suggests that nothing less than a complete overhaul of the current U.S. aviation security system will suffice – otherwise, the nation can anticipate additional aviation disasters in the future. If anything is certain from the intelligence gleaned from jihadists it is that civil aviation, in all its facets, remains their number one target when it comes to striking out at the United States and its Western allies.  A number of captured hard drives, and other materials, suggest that various jihadist cells are still working – around the clock, and on a 24/7 basis – to find existing or new vulnerabilities that can be exploited not only at civilian airports throughout the country, but also in the now unfriendly skies over the entire world.


Editor’s Note: A second DPJ article by Dr. Livingstone, spelling out in specific detail a number of additional civil aviation security measures the United States could and should implement as soon as possible, immediately follows, The Short- & Long-Term Changes Needed at DHS, TSA.

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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