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1malaysiaen  “To be a regional centre of excellence in training and research on counter-terrorism”      
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Airports And Terrorism


The chances of success or failure for a terrorist to launch a successful aviation strike in the air are greatly predetermined by what takes place on land. Airport  security, to a great extent, forms the greatest hurdle for a successful terrorist attack and thus remains the best and often times last option for a terrorist attack to be  identified and thwarted by the authorities. 


Security of Airports and Airstrips

Controlling access to aircrafts, airfields and certain sensitive airport facilities is highly essential. Reports from the US show that prior to 9/11, there were numerous  instances during which special agents using fictitious law enforcement badges and credentials were gaining access to secured areas, bypassing security  checkpoints at major airports and walking unescorted to aircraft departure gates. There is also the possibility that attacks on airport terminals and airline offices can  form a greater threat in current times rather than aircraft hijackings. It is pertinent to note that Indonesian-born Singaporean terror fugitive, Mas Selamat bin Kastari, who recently escaped from detention in Singapore on 27 February 2008, was suspected of plotting to bomb Singapore Changi Airport in 2002. Further investigations  confirmed that he had initially planned to do so by crashing a plane into the Changi International Airport. 


A similar situation occurred in Penang, Malaysia on 20 November 2006, when robbers masquerading as RELA (Ikatan Relawan Rakyat Malaysia or Malaysian voluntary corps) officers gained access into the Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Cargo Complex in Batu Maung and took RM 47 million worth of computer chips. The robbers apparently knew exactly what they were looking for and came in two container lorries to cart the stolen goods. It is also pertinent to note that the Airfreight Forwarders Association of Malaysia’s Chairman, Walter Culas, had received an anonymous SMS claiming that a major heist would occur either at the Kuala Lumpur International  Airport (KLIA) or the Penang International Airport. He had subsequently notified the authorities but that did not prevent the heist from taking place. The incident is significant as it clearly shows that security, particularly at critical areas which include airports, ground transportation to and from airports, ground servicing areas,  airline offices, airport perimeters and in-flight security, need to be improved upon. It is also plain to note that if a robber can infiltrate these areas, a terrorist can, in most  likelihood, do the same.


On 15 October 2007, The New Straits Times reported that a Palestinian national, Osama R.M. Shublaq, aged 27, had entered a Singapore-bound Boeing 777-200 (flight  SQ 119) via the nose wheel on 11 October 2007 at KLIA. This security breach took place without being detected by closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera recordings. He was discovered after falling 2.4 m from the nose wheel, when the plane arrived at Changi International Airport, Singapore.


Newspaper sources indicate that Osama was believed to have crawled out from one of the drains in darkness to get into the aircraft at about 9 pm on 11 October 2007. He then entered the restricted zone of KLIA by scaling two perimeter fences. Hence, the Transport Ministry’s initial claims that there had been no intrusion along the airport’s fencing was disproved. Local authorities initially claimed that they were still not aware how the stowaway had boarded the plane while affirming that “everything seems to be all right at the airport.” Malaysian immigration revealed that there were no records of the stowaway entering or leaving the country but later retracted its claim when they discovered that the individual concerned had come in on a social visit visa on 15 September 2007. The reason for this ‘oversight’ was due to a slight difference in the spelling of Osama’s name given to Immigration when compared to the name which appeared in his passport.


During the incident, the number of security guards at the airport area had been reduced because of the Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebration. It was reported that although there were numerous entry and exit points, there was an insufficient number of security guards to patrol the area during that time due to the holiday season. It is estimated that approximately 8,000 people move in and out of the cargo complex daily and checks on visitors are done manually and with negligible CCTV surveillance in the area. This lack of security at critical and sensitive areas, particularly at airports, was also both observed and reported to the author, during the course of his study.


The incident revealed the significant fact that the Palestinian national, without any form of planning or external assistance, was able to avoid both electronic and manual forms of detection at the nation’s premier airport and was only detected when the plane landed in Singapore. What was also disturbing was that even after the whole incident had taken place, the relevant authorities were still initially unsure of how the breach had happened.


On 9 April 2008, The Star reported that a Bangladesh airliner on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Dhaka made an emergency landing in Bangkok after a Bangladeshi passenger; Harun Rashid Hassan Ali had slipped a fruit knife undetected into the plane, subsequently causing panic among passengers. It was further reported on 11 April 2008 that three Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB) staff were suspended over the security breach by inadvertently allowing the knife to slip through security checks at KLIA. There was also confusion over the jurisdiction of the security breach, when a transport official mentioned that the particular area in which the security breach took place was ‘not under the jurisdiction of the MAHB’ but was instead a ‘public zone’ which fell ‘under the jurisdiction of the police.’ 


On 10 April 2008, The Star reported how armed robbers shot five people in a threeminute heist at KLIA and escaped with RM 3.5 million.16 It is also pertinent to note that The New Straits Times reported on the following day that the closed-circuit television cameras outside KLIA were not switched on during the shoot-out. 


Past incidents of such security breaches in Malaysia include:

    • Shamsul Ramli, a 16-year-old boy whose body was found in the wheel bay of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 747 which landed in Johannesburg, South Africa on 15 March 1993. Investigations later revealed that he had climbed into the wheel bay of the aircraft which was parked at the Subang International Airport;

    • Arif Salleh, a 25-year-old mental patient, was caught sitting in a parked, empty Boeing 737-400 which had arrived from Penang, at Bay 20 of Terminal One in Subang on 31 March 1993;

    • Johari Kasmin, 25, was detained by a guard near the MAS clinic at Subang Airport Complex A after he hitched a ride in a van from Terminal Two on 8 April  1993;

    • Phuah Ang Huat, 38, was detained by guards on 10 April 1993 when he gave Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB) guards and customs officers the slip by dashing into the departure hall. He claimed that he was on a mission from God;

    • Chandrasekaran Karuppan, 37, was arrested on 20 April 1993 after he ran into the baggage section at Terminal One of Subang Airport;

    • Shopkeeper Rahaman Saar V.A. Sultan was arrested by airport guards for intrusion at the Penang International Airport departure lounge on 27 April 1993;

    • An 18-year-old stowaway was found hiding in a plane at the airport in Subang in December 1994;

    • A teenager was found hiding beneath an aircraft at Terminal One; also in December 1994; and

    • Indonesian, Hapsah Abdul Kadir, was found on-board a Malaysia Airlines flight bound for Kota Kinabalu without a boarding pass on 11 March 1995.

    • In general, most airports, in particular the smaller ones, lack efficient airport perimeter security. Hence, there is a possibility that smaller airports can be used as a launching strip for planes or experimental aircrafts within or beyond the shores of a country.

Among the issues that warrant attention are:

    • Allowing individuals who charter flights to be brought right to the tarmac to enter the airplane without any form of security check conducted on them;

    • Entering the hangar of airports with minimal security vetting;

    • Manning of the numerous entry points by various entities, both private and government;

Studying the security of the numerous smaller airports, store ports, airstrips, and flight parks is imperative. While the concentration of security is on major airports, these sites can be a very viable target for terrorists to launch their operations.These sites have been well-documented by flying enthusiasts and information with regard to them is readily available on the internet, which subsequently means that such information (i.e. exact location, condition of the airport/airstrip) is known to all who are interested, including, of course, the terrorists.

The possible prevailing weaknesses in ground airport security are as follows:

    • Human fallibility: airport security officials, particularly those manning entry and exit points, need to be diligent in screening whoever enters these secure sites;

    • Complacency: the notion is that since terrorists have yet to infiltrate airports, it can therefore never happen; and

    • Variable levels of airport security: particularly between smaller and bigger airports, whereby the prevailing notion is that smaller airports are not viable terrorist targets or conduits for terrorists.

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