Aviation security professionals have long warned about the ability of terrorists to find new ways to attack the flying public, and since 9/11 it seems every few years we have witnessed a new, chilling example of terrorist ingenuity and flexibility.
A pattern developed in which new plots emerged, and new security measures were introduced in response. Then the terrorists changed their tactics, and the process would start again. Once hiding explosives in carry-on baggage was made more difficult, terrorists adapted by hiding small explosives in shoes. Once the US began X-ray screening of shoes, terrorists attempted to smuggle liquid explosives onto planes. After that became more difficult due to liquid divestiture requirements, there was an effort to smuggle a non-metallic bomb in the underwear of a terrorist.
In short, we have known for a long time that aviation security is facing a flexible and determined terrorist adversary.
What I believe has changed in recent years is that – frighteningly – terrorist ‘innovation’ is accelerating but, unfortunately, we in the aviation security community are not keeping up.
Terrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, commented recently (in The Atlantic, 23 May 2017): ‘Over the past three years there has been an explosion in the frequency of terrorist attacks against Western countries, and in the lethality of these events. […] Those who predicted the decline of [jihadism] missed several things. Most important […] is the sheer innovativeness and adaptability of major jihadist groups. For jihadist organisations, the ability to innovate is a necessity, not a luxury. Terrorist groups have a ‘fundamental organisational imperative’ to learn.’
What are some of the specific warning signs that terrorists are innovating faster? Consider the recent decision by TSA to inspect small personal electronic devices because terrorists may now be seeking to place small amounts of explosives in them.
Or look at Australia. This past summer, security agencies were able to foil what they called at the time “the most sophisticated plots that has [sic] ever been attempted on Australian soil” (New York Times, August 2017). This involved smuggling IED components through aviation security and then assembling them on an aircraft. After that plot failed, the suspects then tried to create an improvised chemical device intended to release ‘highly toxic hydrogen sulfide.’
Last year, I took part in a panel discussion on aviation security discussing future threats, including the risk that terrorists would attempt to use drones to attack aviation. That seemed somewhat theoretical at the time. Now, having learned that ISIS is making extensive use of drones to attack US forces in Iraq, the threat seems very real.
Even the attack last year against Brussels Airport – one of the first attacks targeting airline passengers before they even boarded a plane – represents a kind of diabolical innovation by terrorists.
In less than two years, terrorists have expanded their arsenal of tactics to attack aviation, sometimes with deadly effect. Yet, is the aviation security community keeping pace? Are we innovating as fast as possible? Are we encouraging the smartest people to bring their ideas to aviation? I think we need to do much better. Take two small examples: Firstly, more than fifteen years after it was started and several years after it was required to do so by law, we are still waiting for the US DHS (Department for Homeland Security) to provide a fully-funded technology roadmap for aviation security.
What does this have to with innovation? Everything. There are hundreds of private sector companies that want to invest in ways to improve aviation security, in everything from improving operator training, to making it easier for passengers to become ‘trusted travellers’, to better checkpoint screening technology. But without a clear and significant commitment to fund these innovations, these companies can’t justify investing capital to bring these solutions to market.
Secondly, look at the laborious and expensive testing and certification procedures for aviation security technology. The two most influential global regulators, the TSA and the European Civil Aviation Conference, have been talking for over a decade about developing a common set of testing requirements, or least reducing the cost of certification.
Yet, today, private companies are expected to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for certification testing or to ‘lend’ systems to regulators in order for them to perform tests. While these requirements may be acceptable costs of doing business for companies with deep pockets, they are barriers to smaller, innovative firms. Not surprisingly, as it becomes more expensive to deploy technology, the aviation security industry is undergoing consolidation, rather than a wave of start-up activity.
The terrorists have shown a relentless ability to find new ways to attack us. We in the aviation security community, both government and industry, must partner to find ways to test and certify aviation security technologies at a pace that does not compromise the ability to effectively counter the acceleration of terrorist innovation. The stakes could not be higher.