Hypothetical Scenarios Involving Aviation Terrorism
In his 1994 novel, Debt of Honour, Tom Clancy wrote of how a fuel-laden plane was hijacked by terrorists and intentionally flown into the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. with the purpose of killing the American President. It was perceived then to be just what it was supposed to be - a work of fiction - until 11 September 2001.
Given the current security climate and the prevailing security mechanisms, there is a possibility that such previously thought ‘impossibilities’ can happen. Among the possible scenarios are as follows:
Microlights flown by terrorists being crashed into critical infrastructures
Given the simplicity in operating microlights, its relatively low cost and the ease of obtaining one, the microlight is an evident choice for terrorists. Due to the short runways that are necessary for take-offs, microlights can be launched from numerous spots within a country. Its ability to hover three to four feet above ground and its unique design allows it to evade radar detection. Given its payload capacity of approximately 150 kg, it is well poised to carry sufficient explosives to cause considerable damage. Hence, it is very well possible for such a craft, piloted by a single terrorist and laden with explosives, to target critical and iconic infrastructure or even industrial areas/petroleum plants.
Microlights flown by terrorists being crashed into a descending or ascending airplane
Given all the advantages of a microlight as mentioned earlier, the craft can also be used to target descending or ascending planes. The terrorist in the microlight needs only to target the fuel tanks of the planes or to be close enough to the airplane’s turbine to be sucked in. Given that microlights have the capability of achieving high altitudes of up to 10,000 feet, another method is to position itself in the flight path of an oncoming plane. Falling debris from a mid-air collision can also cause extensive damage as seen in the Lockerbie tragedy, where falling debris killed eleven people on the ground.
Terrorists commandeering joy-ride flights and crashing them into critical infrastructure or descending/ascending airplanes
Joy-ride flights and chartered flights in numerous countries allow individuals to experience the skies in two-or four-seater planes. A discerning terrorist can exploit this situation, as in numerous cases, no security screening is done for those wanting to go on such flights. Therefore, while a passenger in a commercial plane is subjected to numerous screenings (metal detector, physical checks) a passenger in a joy-ride flight enters into the plane with no screening whatsoever. Also, unlike commercial planes, there are no physical barriers i.e. intrusion-proof doors that separate the pilot in the cockpit from the passengers. Hence, a terrorist can easily commandeer the craft and then resort to crashing it.
Terrorists chartering flights and crashing them into critical infrastructure or descending/ascending airplanes
Unlike the joy-ride flights, chartered flights travel across greater distances. There is at present organisations providing clients with door-to-door services, during which the client is brought from their house right up to the tarmac of the awaiting jet. The security clearance that they have to undergo is vague and not properly documented. Hence, terrorists can charter flights and either commandeer the craft or even use their own pilot from the very beginning. These small jets with considerable fuel storage can cause extensive damage and by the time those responsible realise that the plane is off-course, it would be too late.
Terrorists infiltrating airports, airstrips, flight parks and hijacking/sabotaging airplanes
Numerous security breaches have occurred within the airport perimeter and other critical areas in numerous countries involving robbers and stowaways. Given that situation, it is significant to consider terrorists utilising the same modus operandi to either hijack or sabotage airplanes.
Terrorists being trained in flying schools for flying and aircraft maintenance
Suspected terrorists have been known to use other countries for flight training as seen in the case of the World Trace Centre bombings on 11 September 2001. There is also the possibility that terrorist groups might utilise training received for aircraft maintenance for other ulterior motives.
The hypothetical cases presented above are not purely academic in nature, but given the current situation, they have the potential to occur. Based on what has been observed, there is an urgent need to take cognizance of these factors in formulating adequate safeguards so as to prevent any outward incidents.
Possible Security Recommendations
In coming up with recommendations to improve the overall security of the aviation field, these questions need to be considered:
- What problems do the security measures solve?
- How well do the security measures solve the problems?
- What other problems do the security measures cause? (this is due to the fact that security is a complex and inter-related system in which one change can cause a ripple effect causing unintended consequences in other areas)
- What are the economic and social costs? (It is pertinent to note that costs are not merely financial but can also involve social costs. For example, profiling passengers according to a certain ethnicity or religion is a sensitive issue in Malaysia).
- Given all the above, is it worth the cost?
Considering the complexities involved, the finite resources available and the tremendous security landscape that needs to be covered, there is a need to better involve the stakeholders, among which is by means of:
The involvement of potential flying students and flying enthusiasts:
- Issuance of certificate of good conduct/good behaviour as a criterion for potential flying candidates ; and
- Adherence to the ‘no-aerial’ photography rule for all flying enthusiasts.
The involvement of flying schools and clubs:
- Positioning flying clubs and schools as the ‘first line of defence’ when dealing with the issue of aviation terrorism;
- Conducting personality and psychological evaluation for all potential flying candidates;
- Including security elements in interviews for all potential flying candidates;
- Scrutiny of banking statement of all potential flying candidates
- Transmission of information with regards to the dismissal of students/instructors to the DCA; and
- Ensuring that flying schools and clubs maintain meticulous records of students.
Involving the flying authorities and other relevant bodies:
- Conducting both positive and negative vetting for all potential flying candidates;
- Checking the passports of all potential flying candidates;
- Conducting repeated security vetting and monitoring of pilots in Malaysia;
- Providing a security checklist to flying schools and clubs for enrolment of potential students;
- Publicising the security procedures with regard to flying and flying-related activities by relevant agencies;
- Establishing a DCA security hotline for reporting suspicious behaviour/activity;
- Initiating discussions between various players with regard to aviation security at regular intervals;
- Including a security element for aviation doctors screening potential pilots ;
- Conducting closer scrutiny of joy-ride flights;
- Initiating the establishment of ‘no-fly zones’ and counter-measures if such zones are breached;
- Ensuring the security of both small and large airports, airstrips and flight parks;
- Issuing of Certificate of Clearance by the DCA for all incoming microlight/aviation related purchases; and
- Monitoring of existing pilots.
THE INVOLVEMENT OF POTENTIAL FLYING STUDENTS AND ENTHUSIASTS
Issuance of Certificate of Good Conduct/Good Behaviour
The Certificate of Good Conduct/Good Behaviour is to be issued by the respective embassies of all foreigners wanting to learn to fly. This is to ensure that individuals who are wanted or blacklisted in their respective countries are not allowed to learn to fly.
Also, recommendation letters from previous institutions of learning and former employers would be a necessary requirement for all potential pilots (particularly local pilots) wanting to learn to fly.
Adherence to the ‘No-Aerial’ Photography Rule
Although there is a ‘no-aerial photography’ rule, it is often times not adhered to due to lack of enforcement. In some cases, flight operators take the liberty to allow aerial photography during ‘discovery flights’ or ‘joy-rides’ for tourists wanting to fly over the city. Hence, efforts must be made by the DCA to ensure a system of monitoring, either in the form of spot checks or encouraging tip-offs from the general public.
THE INVOLVEMENT OF FLYING SCHOOLS AND FLYING CLUBS
Flying operators as the First Line of Defence
To study the possibility of initiating a programme that will automatically enrol the flying instructors at both the club and school levels as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the local DCA, whereby their active cooperation and participation, particularly in the area of security, is institutionalised. It is significant to note that in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, he was detected and reported to the FBI by personnel from the flying school that he was attached to.
Given the lack of resources between the police and the DCA in most countries, it would also be advantageous to get the assistance of all flying clubs and schools in providing such vital security information.
Conducting Personality and Psychological Evaluation
The purpose is to ascertain the personality and psychology of the individual wanting to learn flying and to ensure that the individual is not a threat. Certain questions can be crafted to identify certain characteristics of violent, anti-social behavior and also determine the psychological profile of the individual which can subsequently be used as indicators to initiate further investigation.
There can be tendencies in a terrorist which can be exhibited through his answers to some questions. There are many who doubt that a terrorist wanting to commit an act of terror will reveal something through a personality test. Nevertheless, skilled interviewers can be trained to pick up certain signs that can be revealed through such tests. However, it must be pointed out that should this procedure be implemented, there will be a need to design a suitable test and also to employ personnel to conduct and interpret the results of the test. There could also be the problem of ‘false positives’, whereby test results show the possibility of violent tendencies when in actual fact, there are none.
Including Security Elements in Interviews
The interviews currently conducted by flying schools and clubs before enrolling a potential pilot are for the express purpose of assessing the candidate’s interest, capacity to learn and perhaps ability to pay the fees. At present, interviews for potential students wanting to learn how to fly are usually conducted by clubs and schools and do not include any security elements. It is pertinent to note that security elements embedded in the form of questions during the interviews can provide a significant opportunity to learn about the intention of the candidate wanting to learn how to fly. Given the fact that the interview will be conducted by non-security personnel i.e. the flying school/club, there is a chance that the candidate will speak more freely, allowing a trained interviewer to detect ulterior motives in that particular individual. Also, the interviews can be conducted after the personality and psychological tests have been carried out, allowing the interviewer to have a better picture of the potential candidate. Hence, it will be beneficial to include such a component in the interviews as an initial screening procedure. This security element can be standardised for all clubs and schools.
Scrutinising of Banking Statement
Another factor to be considered is the possibility of flying clubs and schools checking and monitoring the banking transactions of their students so as to ensure that there are no suspicious financial transactions. This is pertinent as numerous cases have shown that terrorists were able to operate through funding which, if initially detected, could have led to their arrest. In the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the FBI was alerted by two officials from the Pan Am International Flight Academy based on his suspicious financial transactions.
Hence, all potential students, both local and foreigners, who want to learn how to fly in a particular country, will have to sign a form allowing the club and school authorities to scrutinise their financial transactions. Since the permission to check the finance is given by the students themselves, the banking authorities are not involved, thereby averting the difficulty of involving banks (which have to content with confidentiality clauses), in the said process.
A pertinent issue to be addressed is the question of who will be monitoring financial transactions of the students. The flying schools and particularly the flying clubs may not want to or have the necessary resources to manage the monitoring. The police also may not have the necessary manpower to scrutinise financial transactions of all flying students. This can be addressed by engaging credit rating companies to check the financial backgrounds of those interested in learning how to fly.
The question of potential students not allowing for such checks due to privacy issues also needs to be considered. However, it must be noted that such checks are already routinely conducted, and in some cases, mandatory for some establishments.
Therefore, it is proposed that the clubs, schools or credit rating companies carry out the checks and any suspicious transactions are subsequently reported to the police. It is important to note that while this is not a full-proof method, it does, to some extent, make the job of the terrorist more difficult. Hence, this step could deter wouldbe terrorists from utilising a particular country as a launching pad, seeing that their financial transactions will now be monitored.
Transmitting Information with regards to the Dismissal of Students/Instructors to the Relevant Flying Authorities
At present, if a student or instructor is rejected or terminated, there is no mandatory need to inform the relevant flying authorities. Thus, a student/instructor, rejected by a flying school can go to another club or school and continue the process until he finds one that accepts him.
This point is significant, as a terrorist wanting to do harm and being rejected by a school/club can subsequently try elsewhere without having to fear that he can be caught. He can also then work on his ‘mistakes’ which caused him to be rejected in the first place and ‘fine-tune’ his efforts to ensure that he is accepted in the subsequent club/school.
Hence, there is a need for a mechanism in which, if a student/instructor is rejected or expelled, the club/school will have to immediately notify the relevant flying authorities on the reasons for the rejection or expulsion. Subsequently, if the authorities deem it necessary and warranted, they will then issue a directive for other schools/clubs not to accept that student/instructor if approached. This is important as it will allow the authorities to ascertain the intentions of the suspected individual and it will stop the individual from being accepted into other flying clubs/schools which might not have noted the suspicious behaviour.
Ensuring that Flying Clubs and Schools Maintain Meticulous Records of Students
Since some clubs are managed by elected committees and records are often misplaced or lost when new committees take over, there is therefore a need to ensure that all flying clubs/schools keep detailed and meticulous records of all students. Hence, a mechanism needs to be in place to ensure proper record keeping, particularly with clubs whose managing committee/s may change with the passing of years. A possible suggestion is to make it mandatory for a copy of all records to be sent to the relevant flying authorities for record and filing purposes.
INVOLVING THE FLYING AUTHORITIES AND OTHER RELEVANT BODIES
Conducting both Positive and Negative Security Vetting
There is a need to study the possibility of conducting both positive and negative vetting on all foreigners and a negative vetting on all locals wanting to learn how to fly. This is to ensure that besides checking their names against local, regional and international terrorist list databases such as International Police (Interpol), steps are taken to actively investigate potential students. These steps should also be extensively publicised so as to dissuade would-be terrorists from wanting to commit any such acts in Malaysia.
Checking Passports of All Potential Flying Candidates
There is a need to study the possibility of scrutinising passports of all potential flying candidates so as to ascertain the places visited by the applicants. Subsequently, applicants who have visited certain ‘high-risk’ countries are to be highlighted and given a more thorough security vetting.
Repeated Security Vetting after a Certain Time-Frame
At present in some countries, if a foreigner is cleared the first time, there is no need for him to be vetted again even after a lapse of years. Hence, a foreigner can come into the country, undergo the security vetting, get his flying licence and then leave the country in question for a unspecified period of time and when he returns, he need not undergo any form of security vetting on the basis that he has already gone through it before. This is a loophole that can be exploited by terrorists.
Hence, there is a need to study the possibility for all foreign applicants to be vetted (negative and positive vetting) every time they seek to renew their flying licence, to ensure that they are ‘clean’.
Providing a Security Checklist for Flying Clubs and Schools
It will be highly beneficial if the authorities can give flying clubs and schools training on what to look for when assessing a potential applicant’s level of threat. This briefing can be followed by a checklist for all clubs/schools which provide the following:
- Security details to look into when accepting potential candidates (e.g. during the initial interviews); and
- Steps to be taken when confronting a suspected terrorist i.e. who to report to and what to do until the relevant authorities take over.
However, the disadvantage of such security screening is once again ‘false positives,’ through which the security vetting procedures would identify the potential applicant as a threat when in actual fact he or she is not. It must therefore be stressed that the security procedures proposed are not to be taken as conclusive and only indicate the possibility of an anomaly and the subsequent need for further investigation. Hence, the purpose of these procedures is not to ascertain if the potential candidate is a terrorist or otherwise. Rather it is an indicator of whether further checks are warranted on the potential candidate.
Relevant Agencies Publicising Security Procedures
The relevant flying authorities can actively project to both local and foreign potential pilots that anyone wanting to take up flying would be thoroughly scrutinised before being allowed into the programme. This aggressive campaign could dissuade potential terrorists from attempting any such schemes, especially when they realise that there are comprehensive security vetting procedures and security layers which are capable of detecting such schemes. This can also be demonstrated in the form of public relations exercise in which the flying authorities and other relevant authorities ‘advertise’ to all parties – both locally and internationally – the security steps being taken to ensure potential flying applicants are clean.
This is significant as terrorists are known to conduct research on countries which have easy access to enrolment into flying classes. If they are confronted with a comprehensive security vetting procedure, it is hoped that the country in question no longer becomes a viable place for the terrorists to carry out their plans. There is a possibility that additional security vetting and procedures could dissuade legitimate candidates from learning to fly and this in turn will affect the flying business. It must be noted however, that should a terrorist learn to fly in a certain country and actually carry out an attack in any part of the world, the repercussions on the country in general, and its aviation industry in particular, will be catastrophic. For example, flying schools in the United States after 9/11 have been put under numerous restrictions and their businesses have been severely affected. It is to avoid this that such preventive measures are being proposed.
Instituting a Security Hotline
There is a need to study the possibility of establishing a hotline by the flying authorities for personnel from flying clubs and schools, aviation doctors or the general public to alert the relevant authorities on suspicious behaviour of students, instructors or anyone else connected to the general aviation industry. This hotline number will then be prominently displayed at all airports, airstrips, flight parks, flight hangars, flying clubs and schools.
Efforts must also be undertaken to create public awareness and to encourage the various entities as well as the general public to report if they suspect something amiss. It would also be of utmost importance to ensure that an efficient reporting mechanism is set up and that all reports are treated confidentially, followed upon and action taken if deemed necessary.
Initiating Discussions between Various Players with Regard to Security at Regular Intervals
A loose formal/informal discussion/forum involving all major players (flying clubs,schools, police, aviation doctors, airport authorities, flying authorities and other relevant parties) should be initiated on a regular basis to review security matters such as those mentioned above.
This discussion/forum can also be used as a training session for flying clubs/schools, during which sessions on profiling, techniques on conducting security interviews and other relevant security-based themes can be explored. This forum can also be used to disseminate and inform all flying clubs, schools and relevant personnel on security issues, so as to ensure that those involved in the aviation field are both trained and well informed.
Including a Security Element for Aviation Doctors
There is a need to study the possibility of including a security element for aviation doctors conducting medical examinations on pilots, in which a series of questions can be asked by them to ascertain the psychological make-up of the pilot. In case of any suspicious behaviour, the aviation doctor will then notify the relevant flying authorities.
Closer Scrutiny and Tighter Security for Joyride Flights
There is also a growing awareness concerning the security component with regard to joyride flights or discovery flights which take passengers on an aerial tour. At present, the security criteria with regard to joyrides are vague. Most operators who provide such services do so with little regard for security. Among the pertinent questions that need to be looked into are:
- Who are allowed to operate joyride flights?
- Are there any physical security screening for passengers wanting to participate in joyride flights and if so, what are they?
- Who manages that security and what systems are there to monitor them?
- Are there any ‘no-fly zones’ with regard to joyride flights?
- Are there any security precautions in the aircraft to ensure that passengers do not have easy access to the pilot and cockpit?
In most countries, any individual is allowed to take part in joyride flights. The security screening for passengers in such cases must also be carefully assessed to see if there are any loopholes that can be exploited. In addition to that, the aircrafts for joyride flights, often fly over very populated areas. There is also very little or, in most cases, no protective barrier between the passengers and the pilot, thereby making the craft an easy target to be taken over.
To Establish ‘No-Fly Zones’ and Counter Measures if Zones are Breached
There is a need to study the current no-fly zones in sensitive areas and to ascertain that these are updated and cover all critically sensitive structures that would include:
- Urban cities and populated areas;
- Petroleum refineries;
- Stadiums; and
- Important landmarks.
It would also be significant to include a plan of action if these ‘no-fly zones’ are breached. Among the issues which need to be considered are:
- What actions should be taken if the ‘no-fly zones’ are breached?
- Who would have the authority to make such decisions?; and
- The amount of time taken for such action to be effective (e.g. if it takes a small commercial plane four minutes to fly off-course and crash into a building, action to deal with this threat must be within that time frame).
Ensuring the Security of Both Small and Large Airports, Airstrips and Flight Parks
Terrorists who in the past used airports as conduits to attack or sabotage aircrafts have now focused on airports as the primary target, as seen in the attack on the Glasgow Airport on 30 June 2007.1 It must also be pointed out that whilst security at major airports is constantly emphasised, there is also a need to ensure that the security of smaller airports, airstrips and flight parks are equally looked into.
Certificate of Clearance from the Relevant Flying Authorities for All Incoming Microlight/Aviation Related Purchases
Currently, there is the possibility of purchasing microlights or aircraft components via the internet and having them shipped into a country. Once they arrive, the purchaser can then collect them from the Customs and subsequently assemble them.
While it is normally a requirement for the purchaser to register with the relevant flying authorities before operating and flying the microlight, there is no assurance that the individual in question will comply, as there are no means to monitor his purchase. A possible mechanism to overcome this problem is to make it mandatory for all purchasers of microlights (and even aviation spare parts) to get a letter of clearance from their respective flying authorities (i.e. the DCA) before the Customs releases the goods. When the purchaser goes to the flying authorities for the letter of clearance, the relevant agency can, at that point, ascertain the individual’s motive and reason for purchasing the product. The flying authority is also then aware that such a purchase has been made and can automatically register the individual and, if necessary, monitor the situation.
Monitoring of Existing Pilots
There is a need to carefully monitor existing pilots of carrier airlines and ensure that they do not pose a threat. It is significant to note that recent trends have shown the recruitment of well-established professionals in their careers into the field of terrorism. This specific pool is considered very attractive by terror groups because they are in positions which, if properly exploited, can cause extensive damage. Given the nature of the work of commercial pilots, they can be considered as prime targets for recruitment by terrorist organisations.
It is significant to note that due to the numerous ways in which a terrorist can exploit the aviation industry, the security put in place to deter such activates should also equally reflect such diversity. Hence, these proposed security mechanisms are intended to be broad-based, involving the various stakeholders within the industry.