An attempted attack on a US plane on Christmas Day illustrates aviation’s enduring need for vigilance against determined extremists constantly trying to outwit the industry’s defenses.
So strong is the sector’s lure as a target for militants that the security industry must innovate ceaselessly to stay one step ahead, and even then total protection for air travelers is no more achievable than it is in any other branch of transport.
“It’s a contest,” said Henry Wilkinson of Janusian Security in London, noting militants make a point of researching to identify and exploit weaknesses in aviation security. “It’s highly likely that when security improvements devised as a result of this latest incident have been put in place, terrorists will come up with a way to get round them.”
In the Christmas Day incident, a Nigerian man believed to be linked to al-Qaeda militants was in custody on Saturday after he tried to ignite an explosive device on a US passenger plane as it approached Detroit, US officials said.
The suspect, who suffered extensive burns, was overpowered by passengers and crew on the flight from Amsterdam. The passengers, two of whom suffered minor injuries, disembarked safely from the Delta Air Lines plane.
Security experts say that while the industry’s defenses have improved in recent years, there is no widely deployed technology to routinely guard against a bomber with explosives hidden in a body cavity or strapped to his body.
Dutch counter-terrorism agency NCTb said in a statement that the man went through security at Schiphol airport but added it could not rule out the potential for dangerous items to be brought on board, “especially objects that with the current security technology such as metal detectors are difficult to detect.”
Security experts said it was important to establish how the man took the device aboard and how much was known about him by counter-terrorism officials tasked with monitoring potentially dangerous individuals.
“This case is an example of how groups and/or individuals wanting to make a point continue to probe the aviation industry for weaknesses,” said Chris Yates of Jane’s Aviation.
Yates and other experts noted that if passengers do not set off an alarm during pre-board electronic screening, then there is less chance they will be “patted down” by security staff — a simple but reasonably effective search if performed correctly.
“We need to establish exactly what happened. But this incident does appear to be very worrying: No one should be able to get dangerous materials onto a plane,” he said.
Militants have a powerful rationale for putting aviation high on their list of favorite targets and deploying the maximum ingenuity to ensure success.
Simply by choosing to bomb a commercial airliner, an attacker is guaranteed wide publicity. If the target is also on an international route then the effect is multiplied, with the news and its attendant terror effect spreading across the globe.
And if the plane’s destination is the US, the attack, if successful, is sure to harm Americans, a top goal for anti-Western militants such as Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and its loose network of like-minded allied groups.
Security analyst Paul Beaver said Friday’s incident showed airliners remained an iconic target with a particularly Western character because of the Western origins of commercial aviation.