Northwest Flight 253: A Catalyst for a New Approach to Aviation Security?

This article has been written with Tarique Ghaffur, Chairman of CSD Global Ltd and former Assistant Commissioner, Metropolitan Police, London.

The global aviation system will continue to be a compelling target for terrorists, as illustrated by the Northwest Airlines terrorist attack on the 25th December 2009. As the dynamic driving aviation security change tends to be terrorist actions, the predictable official response has been to further tighten security restrictions on passengers. Aviation history is littered with terrorist attacks against the aviation industry, leading to permanent new safety procedures. However, the reason terrorists attack airports and aircraft is because they can. And aviation security does not help itself by repeatedly and very publicly demonstrating its failings.

President Obama has expressed his concerns about the systemic intelligence and security failures in this case, including unconfirmed reports that the US was aware that "a Nigerian" in Yemen was currently being prepared for a terrorist attack. During 2009, Abdulmutallab's father informed the US authorities that his son had embraced radical Islamic extremism and spoken of "sacrificing himself." In November 2009, Abdulmutallab was placed on a general list of people with suspected terrorist connections, known as TIDE, but not the no-fly list. The result was that Abdulmutallab was able to board a number of flights without difficulty.

This case clearly identifies the need for more sophisticated passenger profiling undertaken by well-trained practitioners, focusing on behaviour, documentation checks, background and travel patterns. The fact that Abdulmutallab had bought his ticket in cash in Ghana, boarded in Nigeria with no hold luggage for a two week trip to America over Christmas, and given what the US agencies knew, should have set alarm bells ringing.

Abdulmutallab's modus operandi was also not new: the method of concealment, the use of PETN explosives and the origin of the bomb (i.e. Yemen), have strong similarities with the assassination attempt on Saudi Prince Nayef in August 2009, as well as the detention of a Somali man, carrying similar powdered chemicals, and a syringe at Mogadishu Airport, Somalia, in November 2009.

The failed Detroit attack has also raised further extensive debate around the effectiveness of the current screening technology. The most common methods of primary screening across most airports are basic X-Ray machines and metal detectors, with the majority of advanced screening devices, such as the controversial new whole-body screening devices, being used as secondary screening devices. Despite the call for increased deployment, they will continue to have limited application, because of costs and time delays from screening the billions of passengers and pieces of luggage passing through airports each year.

Technology can never replace the human being and yet many countries' governments have left the task of maintaining security to the airport authorities, who hire security firms which mount the lowest bid. Many experts believe that the central weakness of airport security systems are their failure to invest properly in privatised workforces, which tend to be under-trained, underpaid and under-valued.

As a consequence, the aviation security industry is littered with stories of security breaches. Some notable examples include the discovery of a British Airways Aviation Security Manual, detailing security contingency plans at Heathrow Airport, London in 2004. In 2008, a Dutch journalist was able to place a fake bomb aboard a plane at Schipol Airport and was also able to board the Dutch royal plane. In 2009, the US TSA accidentally posted a 2008 sensitive manual on the Internet, containing complete details for screening passengers. Any security chain will only be as strong as its weakest link and every mistake creates the kernel of an opportunity that will not be missed by those seeking to exploit it. The liturgy of failings and deficiencies in airport security clearly demonstrates that the aviation system cannot be made 100% terrorist-proof; however, 100% focus and effort on security should be non-negotiable.

The big question is whether or not the current approach to aviation security is 'fit for purpose' in the 21st Century? The current 'reactive' approach to security is based on some form of illogical 'retro thinking,' whereby we focus on protecting ourselves against the specific tactic of the previous terrorist, hoping that this will ensure our safety from the next terrorist attack.

In order to move forward, we need to re-think our approach to aviation security. For a start, security needs to be treated as a first tier business activity, operating under the supervision of an overarching international body, with international rules, protocols and standards for aviation security, that migrate seamlessly into national and local oversight.

There is a need to recognise that the environment is complex, unpredictable and adaptive and therefore we need to consider the whole environment within the concept of master planning. This approach requires the development of comprehensive risk assessment for all the different assets, comprehensive integrated physical, technical and human security footprints, overlaid with an effective integrated command and control structure, and supported by comprehensive emergency planning.

We are now at a critical crossroads for aviation security. The choices are simple: we can carry on as we are or we can face up to the difficult challenge of rethinking our approach. We believe that by adopting an integrated strategic approach, based on security master planning, we will engage in holistic thinking rather than narrow silo thinking, we will be responsive rather than reactive. Safety is a neutral agenda because everyone wants to feel safe, particularly when they travel by air. We therefore have a collective responsibility to ensure that we do not miss this opportunity right now to make a difference.

(This article has been compiled from open source and personal views; read a more detailed version of the report)

Tarique Ghaffur is the Chairman of Community Safety Development Global Ltd, a London-based, internationally focused company offering innovative solutions around master security design and consultation, global investigation, asset protection and security training and development. He retired from the Metropolitan Police in London in November 2008 after 34 years service, reaching the rank of Assistant Commissioner.