The Terrorist Threat to Aviation: Back Again

Expert View

In March, the Trump Administration imposed a new set of restrictions targeting carry-on luggage arriving on planes from several Muslim-majority countries after intelligence reports indicated that terrorist organizations have been perfecting techniques to conceal explosive devices in laptop batteries and smuggle them on board aircrafts. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel spoke with Bruce Hoffman, Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, about the continual threat terrorist organizations pose to commercial aviation. According to Hoffman, it seems that after a “long lull, all of a sudden, the threat to commercial aviation has once again re-surfaced as a prominent security concern threat.”

The Cipher Brief: There have been various reports over the last couple of months that al Qaeda is attempting to conceal explosive devices in laptop batteries. How much of a threat does this pose, and is this threat being given the attention it deserves by the U.S. and governments around the world?

Bruce Hoffman: Certainly the U.S. and British governments are taking this threat very seriously. Otherwise they wouldn’t have issued their respective bans on laptops, tablets, and cellphones from select countries.

What I find worrisome is that if you go back 30-40 years ago, the terrorist threat to commercial aviation was perhaps one of the most foremost challenges we faced. Very fortunately, due to the massive improvements in security across the board following the 9/11 attacks, we actually entered into a remarkable hiatus where we really didn’t have to be as concerned with this threat since the countermeasures we had put into place had been so effective in preventing it. As a matter of fact, the prevailing paradigm after 2002 or 2003 was that not just in the U.S. and its closest allies, but generally throughout the world, aviation security had been improved to the point that the terrorist threat was no longer as significant as it once was.

This is why we were so surprised in 2006 with the liquid bombs plot aimed at simultaneously detonating explosives onboard seven airliners in route from the UK to the U.S. and Canada. That occurred during a time when we believed that we largely had succeeded in deterring terrorists from attacking what they’ve always seen as an especially lucrative target set — commercial aviation. Yet, this incident actually provided the first evidence that, despite the massive improvements in aviation security after 9/11, terrorist hadn’t forgotten about this target set. They still regarded it as important and as attractive as they ever had and were still intent on developing new and novel means – in this case liquefied explosives – to take down planes.

From then until October 2015, we were in a halcyon period in terms of the perceived terrorist threat to commercial aviation. We imagined that we had the threat under control and that our improved countermeasures were not only a sufficient but also a lasting deterrent. But then, almost in defiance of that paradigm, you had not al Qaeda – since we’ve always regarded al Qaeda generally, and specifically al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) because of its master bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, as the major threat – but a regional branch of ISIS carry out the inflight bombing of a Russian charter plane shortly after it departed from Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai.

The bomb was concealed in a Schweppes soda can, and once again, we saw the technological prowess of what was regarded as a terrorist group that had not been interested in and was much less capable of carrying out this type of attack suddenly targeting commercial aviation. There is also the strong suspicion of some insider involvement, which is potentially a problem almost anywhere, that could be exploited by terrorists.

What concerns me is that this event appears to have set in motion a series of things that have now culminated with the U.S. and UK bans on passengers bringing electronic devices onto aircraft from a specific list of countries. You had in February 2016, again the kind of terrorist adversary that we would have not thought capable of or even interested in targeting commercial aviation – al Shabaab in Somalia, the close al Qaeda affiliate – smuggling explosives concealed in a laptop onto a Daallo Somali airliner flight. The bomb exploded shortly after the plane departed Mogadishu, and it hadn’t reached cruising altitude so only the bomber was killed and the plane was still able to land safely. But this nonetheless showed that even terrorist groups that we consider second or even third tier and that lack the technological prowess or the global ambitions of an al Qaeda central or an AQAP are now not just interested in but successfully mounting effective operations against commercial airliners.

I suppose it’s really not surprising, because after all, it’s been more than two decades since Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, first used lithium batteries to power a small explosives charge that blew a hole in the side of a passenger jet in the Philippines. This was part of the 1994 Bojinka plot where he and is uncle, Khaled Sheikh Mohammad, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, had plotted to simultaneously blow up 11 U.S. airliners over the Pacific Ocean. Yousef had done a trial run in the Philippines, and the bomb had successfully exploded. Fortuitously, the plane one again hadn’t reached cruising altitude, so a massive tragedy was averted, although a Japanese passenger was tragically killed.

Even after the printer cartridges plot was unmasked in September 2010, we pretty much believed had this threat under control. But now we see not just al Qaeda or AQAP pursuing these types of attacks, but also presumably far less technologically proficient groups doing so.

And don’t forget there is still the unexplained May 2016 mid-flight crash of Egyptian Air 804 while it was in route from Paris to Cairo after it made stops in Asmara, Cairo, and Tunis that may also involved terrorism. We just don’t know yet – even though it’s months later – what exactly accounts for its downing. But that tragedy would appear to fit into a pattern of warning that there are too many of these incidents coming together. And just last month, there was an attempt to bomb a Turkish Airways flight.

As I said, it seems after a long lull, all of a sudden, the threat to commercial aviation has once again re-surfaced as a prominent security concern threat.

So far as terrorists are concerned, they can threaten us at the high end of the technological spectrum and conceal an explosive in an ordinary electronic item like a computer, tablet, or cellphone, but they can also potentially terrorize us just by hijacking a truck and driving it into a crowd or a department store. They aim to threaten us literally across the entire technological spectrum mostly because they believe it will enhance their coercive power and their power of intimidation.

TCB: Terrorist threats to commercial aviation has gone back decades. What is it about attacks on commercial aviation that is appealing to these groups?

BH: It’s several factors. First, it’s that you can kill a sizable number of people in one operation, at one time, and in one place, especially given the size of airliners these days.

Second, it’s the repercussions. For our terrorist adversaries, they are also attempting to keep us enmeshed in this war of attrition, and they see targeting commercial aviation as a way of throttling our economies. Whether that’s a realistic expectation is another matter, but they clearly believe that. I think this reflects their decades-long obsession with targeting commercial aviation as a means, in their view, of destroying the global economy and the Western economies in particular. For terrorists, targeting airliners and shutting down one of the key globalized commercial travel nodes of the 21st century has become an immensely appealing way of undermining our economy.

Third, terrorists are always striving to stay just a bit ahead of the counterterrorism technology curve, because they understand the impact that such a daring operation can have. If they can overcome the formidable defenses that governments have placed in their paths, they understand that the effects will be all the more dramatic and significant. It enhances, in their own minds, their coercive powers, their powers of intimidation, and their power to generate fear and anxiety, which is of course exactly what terrorism is about.

Finally, there is a vicariousness about air travel precisely because so many people use this mode of transportation. Attacking a target like an airplane has an impact that in a way, some localized terrorist attacks don’t. This is the true manifestation of the global terrorist threat – people everywhere feel this, as virtually any serious attack to commercial aviation is reported around the world.

As tragic as a commuter train bombing or a subway bombing is, of course, we still tend to see those types of attack as strictly localized ones. If we don’t live or work in that particular city or country, it may not affect us. But because so many people now regularly travel by air, it has become among the most inviting targets to terrorists.

TCB: Is there any religious justification or reference to an “End of Days” scenario used by terrorists when they target airplanes?

BH: It’s an interesting point, although in this case, I think it’s more the desire on the part of the terrorists to overcome the extensive security barriers put in their paths. Once they are able to do so, it scares people that much more and enhances terrorist’s power to generate heightened fear and anxiety among their target audiences.

Further, in many cases, targeting commercial aviation is seen by terrorists as akin to striking a symbol of the state, even if it’s a privately-owned carrier. Airlines always have a national identity, and this is just another means for the terrorists to wage their form of warfare against what they see as another manifestation of the Western order and economy.

TCB: How do we tackle this changing threat to commercial aviation? Has the U.S. been effective in this regard?

BH: The physical defense is at the airport itself; any kind of screening, for instance done once you are at the airport, is in fact the last line of defense. Further, whatever serious security measures are in place are only as good as the personnel on duty.

What you want to do is push that threat as far outwards from the airports as possible. It means disrupting terrorist networks and causing individuals like bomb maker al-Asiri to be more concerned about their own personal safety so that they are constantly looking over their shoulders and therefore don’t have the time or the opportunity to plan and plot attacks or develop new terrorist bombs or technologies.

You want to be able to disrupt the means that terrorists might conceivably use and constantly keep them guessing, thereby mitigating the threat as much as possible. But it has to be a holistic approach. The authorities responsible for aviation security are completely aware of that, and that is behind this heightened concern that once again commercial aviation seems to be in the crosshairs of, unfortunately, multiple terrorist groups.

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