A Gift to the Jihadis: The Unseen Airport Security Threat
Most of the security at airports is focused on passengers, but the baggage handlers and employees in restricted areas could be bigger threats.
Watchers of jihadist Internet chatter and Tweeting have noted a spike in discussions about bomb making. This was largely provoked by the appearance of the thirteenth edition of the magazine Inspire, put out in English by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And if you think there’s something strange about discussing the bomb making arts in open source media you would be right. Clearly, the magazine’s editors are being disingenuous—unless their intention is to be creatively destructive, as they have in the past, by forcing airports to step up passenger screening, without actually dispatching any bombers.
Most of the 112 pages of this edition of Inspire are aimed at lone wolf terrorists, reflecting what became the new focus of anti-terrorist authorities in 2014—apprentice jihadists indoctrinated over the internet making their way to the Middle East for training, with the ultimate objective of slipping back into their original communities and becoming “sleepers.” France is on high alert this week after a series of attacks by loners.
Making this scenario more complicated is the rivalry between al Qaeda and ISIS. Although the menace of lone wolf attacks predates ISIS (the Boston Marathon bombing was, after all, carried out by a self-created cell of two) it’s ISIS that has become the magnet for the new jihadism. ISIS has an advantage over al Qaeda; they hold a vast swathe of territory and have established secure routes for recruits to use for both entry and exit.
On the other hand, as ISIS urges loners to strike at the west, it has so far shown nothing like the same proficiency in developing bombs and training bombers. That reputation belongs to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular and, in particular, to its elusive bomb-making mastermind, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. He’s the Yemini architect of the failed 2009 underpants bomber’s flight to America and a highly sophisticated attempt in 2010 to blow up a UPS airplane by converting a printer cartridge to a bomb—discovered only a few hours before it was due to detonate.
Al-Asiri (who narrowly escaped a drone attack earlier this year) isn’t inclined to advertise his technology. If he has contributed to Inspire’s extended do-it-yourself guide to bomb making, it would be because he thinks it can work as an exercise in deliberate disinformation and confusing the enemy. He remains busy trying to penetrate the shield with something much smarter. Earlier this year, security at major airports was tightened because of a tip that al-Asiri had been working on a cell phone bomb. Passengers were asked to make sure their phones and other devices were charged so that they could be switched on for inspection.
But beyond trying to figure out the backstory to the propaganda put out by both ISIS and Al Qaeda lies one constant: the most favored form of attack by jihadists is against commercial airliners and the most desired result is a spectacular explosion and crash over a major western city.
You would expect, therefore, that by now all of our lines of defense from intelligence gathering to the cockpit door have been perfected and hardened, so that the jihadist’s dream is sure to be denied. After all, we have constructed Fortress America at enormous cost. And the intelligence services of both the United States and Europe have detected and thwarted more attacks than we will ever know about—finding that printer cartridge bomb, for example, was a brilliantly executed coup.
However, we have just had a necessary wake-up call that all is not as secure as we believed. It turns out that as we surrender our forgotten bottles of water to the TSA screeners at the public side of the terminal, airport workers going into the restricted areas where the airplanes sit at the gates and the baggage is loaded are not screened.
Kenneth Thompson, the Brooklyn District Attorney, revealed an investigation which led to the arrest of two men: one present and one former employee of Delta Air Lines at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, who are charged with smuggling scores of guns onto at least 20 flights from Atlanta to New York from May to December.
Mary Schiavo, who was inspector general of the Transportation Department in the 1990s, told CNN that back then she had warned about this soft point in airport security and that even after the creation of the TSA in 2002 it was ignored. “There was a big issue on cost,” she said.
Security in the areas known as “airside” rests on employee background checks, carried out not only when someone is hired but at random later. After the revelations about Atlanta’s broken security, the TSA said it took “the potential for insider threats at airports very seriously.”
But the conjunction of this specific weakness in airport security and the now very apparent threat of jihadist sleeper cells on the lookout for a vulnerability is alarming. Background checks are far from infallible in catching skillful and dedicated terrorists, prepared to take many months to survey a target, prepare fake IDs, get hired and breach security.
In fact, experts in airport security have long worried about this weakness. The scrutiny and screening of passengers is a lot more rigorous than what goes on out of sight at the other side of the terminals, both in the checking and screening of cargo and the integrity of the workers who have access to the tarmac and the airplanes.
Al Qaeda’s guide included a section on how to conceal bombs on (or within) someone’s body (of the same kind that failed with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underpants bomber), and warned that they could be detected by body scanners. But, they added, that body scanners are absent at local airports, which they called “this large loophole.” Thanks to the Atlanta case, they can now see another in plain sight.