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The Insider Threat to Air Travelers

Part I

Most Airport Workers Do Not Undergo Normal Security Screening Procedures

Commercial airports are complex environments, with many airlines and thousands of employees and travelers entering and leaving them daily, so protecting them from harm is vitally important. Unfortunately, and as history has shown, airports, airlines and the flying public are attractive targets for people and organizations wishing to do them harm. And that harm comes from a variety of directions, such as from terror groups and their fighters. What’s even more worrying is that these threats sometimes come from “insiders.”

According to the International Air Transport Association, an airport insider is someone who exploits their role in or their knowledge of an airport for unauthorized (i.e., unlawful) purposes. Insiders may be full-time or part-time employees of the airport, its airlines or others authorized to be in sensitive areas. These areas include the tarmac and airliners on it, baggage holding areas and other non-public spaces. Because of their unique access, airport insiders can potentially do significant harm to the flying public if they’re motivated enough. Consider:

In 2010, a British Airways employee was caught plotting to blow up a plane by using his insider access as an IT expert. He was allied with a Yemen-based terror group and specifically sought employment with BA to exploit the access to UK airliners and airports he was given. He aimed to smuggle a bomb aboard one of his airline’s commercial jets.

In 2015, the Russian airline MetroJet suffered a devastating terror attack when a bomb exploded on one of its airliners while it was over the Egyptian portion of the Sinai Desert. It’s believed that a mechanic working at the Sharm El-Sheikh International Airport planted the device aboard the aircraft before it departed. More than 220 people lost their lives in that attack.

In February 2016, a passenger on Daallo, a Somali airline, detonated an explosive device hidden in a laptop computer. The flight, traveling from Mogadishu, Somalia to Djibouti City, was able to land safely and only the terrorist was killed. Using their special access, two Mogadishu airport workers allied with the Al-Shabaab terror group helped smuggle the explosive laptop onto the plane.

A 2017 report by the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee said that America’s airports are facing increased vulnerability to insider threats. The House committee found that the security standards in place at most airports would likely be unable to prevent insiders with ill intent from attacking those facilities or airliners and travelers. According to the committee, most of the nation’s 1,000,000-plus airport insiders can regularly bypass standard security screening.

Some airport insiders with security access have also joined terror groups such as ISIS, Al-Shabaab, and Al-Qaeda. Their knowledge of operations at the airports they once worked at would be invaluable to non-state terror groups seeking a way to attack the flying public. Finally, a 2015 federal inspector general’s report also found that 73 airport workers had possible terror ties that didn’t come up on their background checks. Since then, though, DHS and TSA have worked vigorously to address the issue, and TSA has disputed the total number of such workers, saying there were far fewer of them originally.

The matter of what can be done to mitigate or even eliminate the airport insider threat is a topic ripe for full discussion, and Part II in this series will look at just what’s been done in the U.S. to address it.

About the Author: Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 400-plus commercial airports.

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