Aviation at gunpoint

Aviation at gunpoint

By Nir Ran

Terrorist organizations around the world are divided into countless streams, motives, ideologies and action methods. Organizations with religious fundamentalist motives, such as Al-Qaeda (Sunnis) and Hezbollah (Shiites), left-wing "anti-imperialist" organizations, such as the Japanese Red Army, anarchist ultra-leftist organizations, such as RAF (better known as "The Baader Meinhof Complex"), national separatist organizations focusing on territorial aspects, such as the IRA and ETA, or driven by vengeance, such as the ASALA Armenian-Turkish organization, Palestinian organizations (subdivided into all the aforementioned categories at the least), South American guerrilla organizations, such as the ERP, and these are only some of them. A more profound examination shows quite a few organizations characterized by (or more precisely - infested with) trance ideologies, such as the PKK, which is an ultra-leftist movement, as well as a separatist terrorist organization driven by territorial motives. Either way, various reviews of terrorist groups fail to detect a common denominator when it comes to ideology, objectives and methods of action, and the reason for this is simple - besides the ultimate goal to promote terror, death and destruction, these organizations do not have any common denominators.

However, from the tactical perspective, we can point out one common denominator that pervades the operational concept of these organizations, most of which consider civil aviation the most attractive target for terrorist attacks.

Indeed, no other target was stricken by terror so many times by various organizations, leading to severe consequences since the rise of modern terrorism on the map of political violence in the late sixties of the last century.

Most experts recognize the hijacking of El-Al flight from Rome to Tel Aviv on July 22, 1968, and its landing in Algeria by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as the forerunner of the modern air terrorism. Despite the fact that hijackings occurred beforehand as well, they were motivated by criminal intents or aimed to achieve personal goals. However, the above mentioned hijacking was the first to be carried out in order to apply political pressure. Terrorist organizations and the entire world immediately noticed that in addition to political pressure, the terrorists were able to instigate a continuous multinational crisis, and achieved a tremendous propaganda effect. Massive media coverage of terrorist attacks on aviation, along with a sense of chaos they created, led the terrorist organizations around the world to attack civil aviation time after time, i.e. terrorist attacks against passengers and planes on the ground, attacks against aircraft from land, attacks inside the planes during flight and finally, attacks against land targets via airplanes hijacked in the air.

The question is: what characteristics of civil aviation make it so attractive on one hand, and so vulnerable to terrorist attacks, on the other hand?

Actually, it is a combination of three major circumstances:

1) The "Transportation Revolution", led primarily by aviation that paves the way for lighting fast transportation of people and goods from and to all corners of the world within 24 hours at an affordable price, is one of the most significant components of globalization process - a component, which in many ways is even more important than the information and technology revolution.

Quantitatively speaking, more than 10,000 airlines operate in about 17,000 airports, flying 93,000 planes a day. From slightly over 310 million passengers a year who used airline services all over the world in 1970, the figures increased to about three and a half billion (!) passengers, who used commercial aviation services in 2015. This number almost equals half the world's population1.

Not surprisingly, civil aviation in perceived as a paramount economic, social and national treasure in every country all over the world, while the severity of the threat towards civil aviation is perceived proportionally to its significance.

2) Attack impact - or in other words, the input-output ratio in terms of the result achieved by the enemy - another characteristic of air traffic is that it is carried out via aircraft that besides being a technological masterpiece, are very vulnerable and sensitive to any sudden change in air pressure. As a result, a few hundred grams of explosives are enough to cleave and "take the plane down".

There is no other place that allows a group of terrorists to cause such a severe damage with so little effort and risk involved. A simple bomb weighing less than half a kilogram brought on board by a sneaky passenger (i.e., without direct contact between the terrorist and security) or planted on the plane by a collaborator working at the airport (see Russian metrojet crash over the Sinai Peninsula on the way from Sharm El Sheikh to St. Petersburg last year) will crash the plane carrying hundreds of passengers. Moreover, there is no other place in the world that does not allow to seek assistance from security services in case the terrorists were able to take over the plane in the air.


1 Data source: the World Bank http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IS.AIR.PSGR?end=2015&name_desc=false&start=1970


3) Terror within its primitive meaning - the term "terror" means an imposed fear and horror. Indeed, there is no other field in which the level of citizens' awareness and concern regarding a possible attack is so high, and any event that occurs in some corner of the world raises the level of concern worldwide.

Combination of these elements allows us to conclude that the tremendous professional challenge, facing those engaged in aviation security worldwide, is not expected to get any easier.

Threats against civil aviation can be divided into seven categories:

  • Airplane hijacking for the purpose of bargaining.
  • Hijacking planes in order to use them as powerful guided bomb.
  • External attack via a firearm or shoulder-fired missile.
  • Airplane explosion in midair via a bomb smuggled in the luggage or commercial cargo.
  • Airplane explosion caused by a bomb planted by a recruited employee (including via supplies delivered to the plane).
  • Plane sabotage.
  • All types of attacks against facilities, airplanes or crowds at the airport.

And we haven't even mentioned the developing cyber threats (including taking over the steering and navigation systems of the plane from the outside), aircraft  attacks via unmanned aerial vehicles and other methods of action.

Thousands of people have died in approximately 250 attacks against civil aviation since 1968. During the four year period between 1985 and 1989, 1,237 people were killed as a result of plane crashes caused by bombs smuggled into the plane by passengers. Among such events: June 1985 - 329 people were killed in  Air India Flight 182 explosion in midair off the coasts of Ireland; November 1987 - 115 people were killed in Korean Air Flight 858 explosion after the plane took off from Abu Dhabi, following a stopover on the way from Baghdad to Seoul; December 1988 - the lives of 270 people were taken in Pan Am Flight 103 explosion over the town of Lockerbie, UK; September 1989 - 171 people were killed when the French plane, UTA Flight 772, exploded above Niger; November 1989 - 107 people killed in Avianca Flight 203 bombing near Bogota, Colombia.

During the aforementioned period, at least two (more) attempts were made to smuggle bombs into El-Al planes using the same method (El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv, April 17, 1985; El Al flight from Madrid to Tel Aviv, June 26, 1986). Both attacks were thwarted by the Israeli security services and in both cases, the terrorists failed. In fact, terrorist organizations failed to sabotage Israeli planes in midair from time immemorial. Since 1968, and especially since the beginning of the 1970s, Israeli civil aviation is well-prepared to face the threat. Since then, terrorist organizations failed to crush planes in midair by smuggling bombs and attempting to hijack the planes. Risk analysis and management is an ongoing process and all signs indicate that the Israeli airport security system, deployed across Israel and throughout all five continents of the world, is well-prepared to face the threats.

Since the events of 9/11/2001, awareness in the field of aviation security raised significantly worldwide. Accordingly, the relevant government agencies, airport authorities and airlines worldwide are willing to invest significant resources in security, while the passengers are forced to go through a rigorous and lengthy physical check. The "quality of life" of all those using the services of civil aviation - passengers, airlines and aviation organizations - is undoubtedly impaired.

The security system still relies on a physical check, carried out by a large staff utilizing the constantly evolving technology that not always fits the need and threat. Security technology developed in recent years may herald a breakthrough in the field of detection of weapons and explosives. While the level of detection rises, the security check itself is still too slow considering the massive amount of passengers. Technology-based security check is yet to be implemented efficiently. Technology will not replace the human factor that will continue to serve as the foundation and key to success, however, the aviation security system that currently relies strongly on large personnel, will lean towards the balance between the human factor and technology. Either way, in the meantime, the system works and this is not the place to criticize it (though the criticism exists). In any case, there seems to be no machine in development, which will be able to be as efficient as a check carried out by a security guard and detect malicious intents, especially when it comes to detecting people carrying a bomb to the plane without their knowledge. This is an additional strong point in favor of the human factor, which most probably will continue to serve as the key element of an effective and efficient security system, alongside the technological means that will be available. At the same time, we can assume (and hope) that more emphasis will be put on preliminary information collection regarding the passenger in order to detect suspects and handle the situation accordingly. This may cause a certain tension in terms of individual freedom, which will ensure a moderate approach to security procedures.

After examining the overall situation, as well as particular cases, we assume that the terrorist threat to civil aviation will continue to lead the exposure risk map, at least in the foreseeable future, while on the other hand, civil aviation will continue to thrive and grow. In the meantime, and the challenge facing those engaged in the field of security remains directly proportional to the above.

By Nir Ran

Comments are closed.