Beating the bombers

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 © Rex Features/Chris Eyles

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab may have failed in what is alleged to have been his objective - to blow up a US airliner on approach to Detroit - but his attempt certainly put the cat among the pigeons.

A young Nigerian man with Islamic fundamentalist beliefs, trained in Yemen and on the books of US intelligence agencies, Abdulmutallab had been able to board a Northwest Airlines flight bound for the USA carrying sufficient explosives in his clothes to destroy the aircraft.

Since the game-changing "suicide hijack" of four US airliners on 11 September 2001, an estimated $40 billion plus has been spent on US intelligence and security systems. Meanwhile, the on-board methodology for dealing with aircraft hijackings has been turned on its head. Despite all the changed thinking and methodology, however, Abdulmutallab was still able to do this. But how?

On his three-stage journey that started in Africa, Abdulmutallab had fooled security at all three departure airports by contouring a package of explosives - mainly crystalline PETN - to fit in his underpants, making the package conform with his lower abdomen. It was this trick - concealing the material in a body area that most security agents conducting body searches would avoid out of deference to personal sensibilities - that appears to have allowed Abdulmutallab to pass through security at Accra, Ghana, where he bought his return ticket to Detroit using cash, then Lagos, Nigeria where he changed flights for Amsterdam, and finally Amsterdam Schiphol itself, from where he took off for Detroit.

MEASURES

Among security measures adopted since 9/11, only one has been completely successful - so far. Its aim was to prevent hijackers taking effective control of aircraft and using them as weapons. That, immediately after the devastating attack on the World Trade Center, was clearly the primary security objective.

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 © Rex Features
Abdulmutallab is led off the aircraft after being overpowered by passengers

The measure adopted was to fit hardened, bullet-proof security doors between the cabin and the cockpit, controllable by the pilots from within the cockpit. That system, adopted worldwide along with crew procedures ensuring the physical isolation of the flightdeck from the cabin between pushback and arrival on-stand at destination, has ensured that there have been no successful hijacks of large Western airliners since, and certainly no hijacker has been able to commandeer a large airborne aircraft.

Abdulmutallab would have made no attempt to take the Northwest Airbus A330 over because he knew he could not do so. He allegedly just prepared to blow it up. His motives for leaving the attempted detonation until the aircraft was approaching Detroit's metropolis are not clear, but it is possible that any terrorist, deprived of the opportunity of directing the aircraft like those on 9/11, might be seeking to harm as many people on the ground as possible.

To reinforce the fortress cockpit concept, many airlines have voluntarily mounted surveillance cameras in the cabin, their images viewable on the flightdeck. Some carriers have mounted cameras throughout the cabin, others just covering the area in the vicinity of the cockpit door and forward galley.

Meanwhile in the USA, because federal law makes it relatively easy to enable this, specially trained volunteer pilots are allowed to carry handguns in the cockpit in case a potential hijacker were to find a way to get in there. No pilot has had to use a gun in anger, but in at least one case a gun was accidentally discharged on the flightdeck.

Since the Detroit incident, the US Transportation Security Administration has rushed through some automatic renewals of pilot gun licences, but the TSA has not explained what an armed pilot might have been able to do to influence someone with Abdulmutallab's alleged intent.

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Who is Abdulmutallab?

Abdulmutallab is the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker who has recently retired. He had been undergoing postgraduate studies in London and Dubai paid for by his father. Described by his friends an austere and seriously religious boy, Abdulmutallab had, after his studies in London, travelled to Yemen where he attended religious instruction at the university in Sana'a, and had then informed his father that he did not wish to pursue his business studies in Dubai, but to move to Yemen to study Sharia.

His already worried father, disturbed by personal messages his son had sent the family, went to the US embassy in Abuja, Nigeria in November to tell them he believed his son might have become radicalised and thus a security risk. This information was passed to US counter-terrorism officers in the USA, but no action was taken.

In addition to having armed pilots on some flights, the TSA fields sky marshals - anonymously dressed officials supposed to look like passengers, but actually armed and fully trained in on-board security techniques. The marshals, says the TSA, are not positioned on all flights, but the agency will not say what proportion of departures carry them. Israel's airlines have marshals on all flights.

A change that arguably makes marshals redundant is the fact that passenger reaction in the presence of hostile on-board behaviour has altered radically. Pre-9/11, for both crew and passengers, the accepted drill in the event of a hijacking was to comply with hijackers' requests about where to fly, then after landing to leave the negotiations up to security forces on the ground.

Since 9/11, passengers, fully aware of the fact that a terrorist hijacker means the probable death of everyone on board unless he/she is overpowered, are demonstrably no longer passive. That has been true from 9/11 itself when, on board one of the hijacked aircraft - United Airlines Flight 93 - some passengers who used their mobile telephones to report events on board learned from relatives the fate of the other three flights.

They then overpowered the hijackers, who crashed the aircraft in rural Pennsylvania, but were denied their intent to use it to destroy a Washington DC target like the White House or the Capitol.

In December 2001 passengers overpowered Richard Reid, a radicalised, Pakistan-trained British Moslem who was seen by cabin attendants to be attempting to detonate a bomb in his shoe while American Airlines Flight 63 was en route from Paris to Miami. He failed, but security scanning from then on has included X-raying passengers' shoes.

On board the Northwest flight to Detroit on 25 December, passenger reaction to events was also an important factor. When the chemicals Abdulmutallab was carrying had begun to burn, passengers at first were confused because his attempts at detonation had been invisible, carried out under a blanket. Then, however, they began to act, leading the flight attendants in attempts to extinguish the flames, which they achieved. Once his plot had failed, Abdulmutallab appeared to become resigned to his fate.

Since 9/11, certain simple passenger behavioural profiles have been made common knowledge among airline and airport staff, who are supposed to report them to security staff if they observe them.

Among these are passengers who pay cash for a ticket for immediate travel, especially if it is one-way. Another security cue is passengers who check in no baggage for a long-haul flight. Abdulmutallab conformed with two of those behaviours - paying in cash and not checking in baggage. It is unclear whether that information about Abdulmutallab was noted or reported at the time.

After the event, Abdulmutallab himself was arrested and taken to hospital to be treated for burns caused by his improvised bomb, which had caught fire instead of exploding.

INTELLIGENCE CHANGES

The intelligence - rather than security - changes that have been brought in since 9/11 mostly involved the gathering of advance data on all air travellers. The TSA - a post-9/11 creation in its own right - requires all passenger data for each flight to be transmitted by the airline to the Department of Homeland Security before the flight departs, so the names and details of each can be screened against a database containing a list of suspect persons, criminals, and people banned from visiting the USA.

Apart from the creation of the TSA, there was another major organisational change made by the Bush administration to US security and intelligence system following 9/11: the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. One of the main objectives of this new government department was to bring together the efforts of the USA's many defence, security, intelligence and police organisations to ensure they shared information that pertained to the nation's home security. That concern over data-sharing involves all the military arms, the coastguard, the FBI, the CIA, the diplomatic corps including all the embassies abroad, the State Department and finally the TSA itself.

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 © Rex Features
Long-suffering passengers can expect long delays at airports as security is tightened yet again

It is this area of intelligence operations that President Barack Obama particularly wants examined to identify specific failures over the Abdulmutallab case. The US intelligence community, he confirmed in a public statement on 5 January, definitely held information on Abdulmutallab that should have ensured he was either banned from flying to the USA or given particularly detailed personal screening, but the information about him failed to trigger any action.

 ISRAEL Arie Egozi Tel Aviv

SMARTCARD SYSTEM STARTS BEN-GURION TRIAL

THE ISRAEL Airports Authority has unveiled a system designed to handle all pre-flight security procedures for international passengers departing Ben-Gurion International airport. A pilot trial of the "Unipass" system has begun.

IAA says Unipass will cut the time taken to perform security checks, thereby improving passenger service. During the pilot stage IAA is using El Al Airlines frequent flyers to test the system.

Following the pilot period, the system will gradually be employed for all passengers. Registration for the system will be open to any passengers over the age of 16 and will be on a voluntary basis. Any passenger electing to undergo conventional procedures rather than sign up for the Unipass system will be able to continue being checked as usual.

IAA says Unipass, in its final configuration, will enable passengers to conduct their security procedures independently, from an initial security check through to check-in, border control and boarding.

Joining the system requires a one-time registration at the airport. At the end of the registration procedure, a smartcard is issued to the passenger. For subsequent flights, passengers go through the security phase on their own at a station using the Unipass card. After identifying the passenger, the system guides the process.

Kobi Mor, IAA director general, says the Unipass system provides a unified solution combining advanced technology for biometrically identifying passengers and automatically verifying their passports.

"It will mean a significant improvement in passenger service as well as in the quality of security," he says.

Unipass, as the first integrated system of its kind for departure procedures. It was developed by IAA's Information & Technologies Department and Security Division, in collaboration with Bender Tech.

In Obama's words, the agencies "failed to join the dots". Abdulmutallab had a multiple-entry visa for the USA, but the UK, where he had studied in 2007 and 2008, had since banned his re-entry as a result of information about him received since that time.

When it is appreciated that the number of people on the TSA's list of suspects exceeds half a million, it becomes apparent how formidable a task it is to monitor that information. The more data held, the greater is the potential for incorrect data entry, conflicting data, and false alarms that dull the personal sense of urgency among TSA employees over the need to act on each individual piece of information. Yet the TSA's appetite for more information remains voracious, as if the collection of data is an end in itself.

For example, at present there is an active dispute between Canada and the USA about a TSA demand for Canadian flights transiting US airspace bound for destinations beyond America to declare all the passenger details in advance to the TSA, although none of the travellers intends to set foot in the USA. Prioritisation of the relative importance of certain types of data does not seem to be a criterion considered by the agency in its quest to accumulate information.

The TSA counters that it does have a beneficial effect on aviation security, and quotes figures to justify its argument. For example, in the week from 27 December 2009 to 3 January 2010, says the TSA, it achieved the following:

  • Twenty-eight passengers were arrested after investigations of suspicious behaviour or for using fraudulent travel documents.
  • Twelve firearms were found at checkpoints.
  • Four "artfully concealed prohibited items" were found at checkpoints.

There were 24 incidents that required the TSA to close checkpoints, evacuate terminals, or deal with breaches of airport sterile areas.

What the TSA does not reveal, however, is how many of those events involved ordinary criminality that was not a threat to aviation security, mistakes by passengers or airport employees, or were the result of precautionary TSA action taken following equipment failure or lack of resources.

Following Abdulmutallab's attempt to blow up the Northwest Airlines flight, the TSA sprang into action immediately, announcing a plan to carry out exactly the same security procedures as before, but more of them: pat-down searches twice instead of once before each departure for the USA, and physical searches of all hand baggage instead of random or scanner-cued checks.

Here is the TSA's security directive following the Northwest incident on 25 December:

"These procedures are in addition to the screening of all passengers at the screening checkpoint.

  1. Perform thorough pat-down of all passengers at boarding gate prior to boarding, concentrating on upper legs and torso.
  2. Physically inspect 100% of all passenger accessible property at the boarding gate prior to boarding, with focus on syringes being transported along with powders and/or liquids.
  3. Ensure the liquids, aerosols, and gels restrictions are strictly adhered to."

Another TSA proposal in the directive that has since been revoked is the requirement for passengers to stay in their seats for an hour before landing, with all electronic equipment and the in-flight entertainment system switched off, and no use of blankets. The question as to whether that might provoke terrorists to act before the final hour of flight was a component in the TSA's decision to revoke that element of the directive.

EQUIPMENT

A reaction in several countries apart from the USA - including the UK - has been to announce the deployment of more body scanning equipment, with mainly millimetre-wave (MMW) scanners in the frame. It is not certain that MMW equipment would have detected Abdulmutallab's figure-hugging explosive cargo, and it cannot detect substances secreted in body cavities, whereas low-dose X-Ray equipment can see everything, but it comes with medical caveats.

UK-based Qinetiq produces passive MMW equipment deployed in the USA at political gatherings. It is unobtrusive, operates at ranges of up to 17m (55ft) from passing people who would be unaware of its presence, and can identify individuals who would be worth particular attention during pat-down searches. But it is just a tool and, like the active MMW equipment, has its limitations.

So the TSA has been good at reactivity, good at confiscating passengers' nail scissors, and good at data-gathering. But if President Obama has his way, the TSA might become good at making use of intelligence. It will not happen overnight.