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Airport security threats: combating the enemy within

Since the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks on the US, most travellers have got used to the sight of fortified airports around the world. Few people these days are surprised to see barriers and other physical protection measures around them, as well as the presence of armed police patrols.

An airport is an enormous, complex operation, and while on the surface one that is more physically secure is reassuring for travellers – and acts as a bulwark against a possible terror attack – there is also a hidden threat from inside the airport environment. This threat has no boundaries and exists across all airports and countries. Here, the “insider” has the ability to overcome many of these overt security measures if they want to target and threaten passengers or the wider population.

As soon as the term insider is used, people think of terrorism in the context of the “radicalised” or “terrorist” insider. But the subject is far more complex: insiders can include individual criminals, organised crime gangs, disgruntled employees or even unwitting members of staff who, through failure to follow proper security processes, leave airports vulnerable to external threats.

Terrorists, smugglers, gangs and thieves

Probably one of the best-known UK terrorist insiders in recent times is Rajib Karim. Karim was a British Airways software engineer who had been radicalised, and plotted to place a bomb on board a BA plane. His plot was subsequently foiled, and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison for terrorist activities.

Police on patrol at Heathrow Airport. EPA

Unfortunately, there have also been terrorist insider successes. On October 31, 2015, Russian Metrojet flight 9268 crashed over the Sinai Peninsula after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. A bomb hidden in a drinks can is believed to have caused the aircraft to crash, and a group associated with Islamic State claimed the attack, which killed 224 people. It is suspected the bomb may have been placed onboard by an airport employee at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.

The most common examples of insider threat lie with individual members (or groups) of staff who commit low-level crime in the airport. This can range from smuggling drugs to theft from bags as they are processed through the handling system. Organised crime networks also see airports as a legitimate route to traffic drugs from South America to the rest of the world.

A recent case at Heathrow involved corrupt baggage handlers who were part of a criminal network planning to smuggle at least £16m worth of drugs into the UK from Brazil. The gang was caught after a surveillance operation and sentenced to more than 139 years in prison.

But it’s not only drugs that are smuggled through airports. In the US, a firearms smuggling plot by five men, including an employee and an ex-employee of Delta Airlines, was foiled by authorities. These individuals were involved in the trafficking of over 150 firearms (including assault weapons) from Atlanta to New York. This plot took advantage of a security vulnerability which involved access passes which were available to the insiders, and enabled the transportation of firearms by the group of employees.

Dealing with threats

While it is important to highlight past examples of insider activity within the aviation sector, it is also essential that suspicious behaviours and indicators are recognised. Research has been carried out to identify behavioural indicators, and use this as a predictive technique to detect current and future insider threats.

Suspicious acts by employees may include nervous or secretive behaviour, turning up for work in uniform on days off, showing interest in security matters outside their normal scope, and undertaking hostile reconnaissance for future exploitation of airport weaknesses.

Insider threat has now been recognised as a clear and present danger within the international aviation sector and organisations such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has produced guidelines on how to manage this threat. The threat from insider activity within the aviation sector has also been recognised by governments and law enforcement agencies.

Everyone has an opportunity to do more to combat the aviation insider threat, through a “community approach” at airports. This involves everyone from operators, airlines and third party contractors, to law enforcement working in collaboration and sharing key information (such as Project Servator, which seeks to “detect, deter and disrupt” criminal activity, including terrorism). Addressing personnel security weaknesses in airports which could allow hostile insiders to gain work there, is essential. And, of course, this approach also includes the general public who are encouraged to report anything suspicious to the counter-terrorist hotline or airport authorities.

Pre-employment screening, vetting and ongoing security management of employees can all be improved. Training programmes for management and supervisors are essential for airports, and will provide them with skills to identify, manage and resolve these threats. The value of managing the insider risk should not be underestimated. By acknowledging and identifying the threat and developing measures to combat it, we can make our airports safer places for all passengers and the staff who service them.

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