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Active Threats Against The Aviation Sector:
Terrorism, Active Shooters, Workplace Violence, And 'Insiders'

By Dr. Joshua Sinai

Since the advent of modern terrorism, the aviation sector has been one of the most frequently targeted by Active Threat attacks. Active Threat is a new category of converging threats that is being advanced in homeland security to encompass the distinct threats of terrorism, active shooters, workplace violence, and 'insiders' which characterize numerous attacks in which the perpetrators tactics utilize several of these types of threats. Thus, in the aviation sector, for example, the shooting rampage on January 6, 2017 by Esteban Santiago-Ruiz at Fort Lauderdale Airport was both active shooter (he allegedly suffered from psychological disorders) and terrorism (it is reported that he was influenced by ISIS).

By expanding the aperture to recognize such attacks as combining several threat types (e.g., active shooter and terrorism, or workplace violence, active shooter, and 'insider'), it will also serve to upgrade the capability to counter them with appropriate multidisciplinary response measures. To understand the magnitude of the types of Active Threats facing the aviation sector - which in this article is defined as consisting of airports and airplanes - this article's chronological listing of attacks that have targeted this sector breaks them down into these distinct types of threats and vulnerabilities.

For those determined to kill indiscriminately and to inflict mass casualties, economic disruption, world headlines, and psychological anxiety and fear among wider publics, aviation transportation in the form of commercial airports and airplanes are ideal targets. Also making this sector vulnerable for Active Threat targeting is that they cannot easily be protected in a comprehensive way without interrupting the large flow of passengers and goods that rely on them for their transportation needs. On a tactical level, they are especially vulnerable because areas at airports such as passenger check-in departure areas and counters, and baggage claim and arrival areas are not as robustly protected as the more secure pre-board screening points with their explosive trace detection (ETD) equipment and random physical searches of passengers. Thus, attacking such vulnerable areas can also inflict high casualty rates until armed responding personnel arrive from the airports' more secure areas.

The aviation sector is especially vulnerable because large numbers of people pass through airports on a daily basis. During holiday seasons, in particular, the volume of passenger traffic increases exponentially, accompanied by especially heightened threat levels since terrorists attempt to exploit such special occasions to ruin their celebrations by inflicting mass casualties during such high volume passenger periods.

On a positive note, once inside airports' more secure areas, due to heightened security measures in inspecting passengers' checked-in or carry-on baggage, it has become more difficult for terrorists to blow up aircraft in mid-air via their luggage compartments, which was not the case previously, such as on December 21, 1988 when a bomb placed in a baggage on board Pan Am Flight 103 exploded, destroying the aircraft and all 243 passengers and 16 crew on board, with the aircraft crashing into Lockerbie, Scotland. Similarly, with pilots cockpits' doors locked and hardened during flight as a security measure introduced in the aftermath of 9/11, it is more difficult for terrorists to hijack an aircraft by overcoming its pilot crew, a tactic used by the 9/11 al Qaeda terrorists. Nevertheless, as discussed later, terrorists have continued to attempt to exploit new vulnerabilities in these areas, with several high profile attacks and bombings causing high levels of casualties and physical damage.

Securing Cargo Aircraft

In addition to securing passenger aircraft, also of concern is the security of aviation cargo. While a high percentage of air freight is carried in passenger planes, which are subject to inspection by x-ray, the rest is transported in cargo planes, with only a reported small amount of air cargo checked in the same strict way. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had attempted to exploit this security gap on October 29, 2010, when it shipped two packages, each containing a bomb consisting of 300 to 400 grams of plastic explosives and a detonating mechanism, on separate cargo planes bound from Yemen to the United States. Fortunately, the bombs were discovered and defused at en route stop-overs (one in East Midlands Airport in the United Kingdom and the other in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates).

Finally, as discussed later in this article, it is possible that the bomb that exploded the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 Airbus A321-231 aircraft on October 31, 2015 as it was flying above the northern Sinai, may have been placed in its cargo compartment by an airport maintenance crew member.

Active Threat Incidents Against the Aviation Sector

As mentioned earlier, the deadliest catastrophic attack against the aviation sector was al Qaeda's coordinated and simultaneous hijacking of four airliners on September 11, 2001, intentionally crashing two of the planes into the World Trade Towers in New York City, with the third plane crashing into the Pentagon, in Arlington, VA. The fourth plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, PA, after passengers attempted to take control before it could reach the hijackers' intended target, reportedly the U.S. Congress or the White House in Washington, D.C. Nearly 3,000 people died in those attacks, including the hijackers and passengers on board the planes. These coordinated attacks demonstrated glaring vulnerabilities in U.S. aviation security at the time, which the U.S. government and its allies around the world have since attempted to substantially upgrade.

Active Threat Incidents

The aviation sector has long been targeted by the four types of Active Threat attacks, especially terrorism, although it also faces significant active shooter, workplace violence, and 'insider' threats, as well. With regard to terrorist groups, their tactics have evolved over the years from hijackings to bombings, as well as attacking airports and their nearby areas. In the 1970s and 1980s, hijacking was a pervasive terrorist tactic. This tactic was transformed in 9/11 when the terrorist goal evolved from the previous tactic of hijacking and then landing the aircraft (once their demands were met) to using the planes as suicide bombs to cause mass destruction as they crashed into their intended targets on the ground. In response, as security has been hardened at airport terminals and aircraft (especially by automatically locking cockpits), instead of hijacking planes (although several planes had been hijacked since then), terrorists have turned to other tactics such as bombing them by firing shoulder-launched Stinger missiles at flying aircraft. This was demonstrated by al Qaeda's unsuccessful attempt to down the Israeli Arkia Boeing 757 aircraft, carrying 261 passengers that had just taken off from Mombasa's airport in Kenya in late November 2002.

Eight types of Active Threat attacks against the aviation sector are discussed in this section.

(1) Hijackings
In the 1970s and 1980s hijacking airlines was a widespread terrorist tactic, with the hijackers using the airliners as a negotiating tactic, either to free prisoners, concede to political demands, or extort ransom payments. One of the first hijackings by a Middle Eastern terrorist group, which was also the first time an Israeli airliner was hijacked, occurred on July 22, 1968, when an El Al plane departing from Rome and headed for Tel Aviv, Israel, was hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and diverted to Algiers. Its crew and passengers were held hostage for five weeks and were released following 40 days of negotiations. Following the hijacking, El Al became extremely security-conscious and instituted the first baggage check program.

This was followed on September 6, 1970 when PFLP operatives hijacked four airliners departing from European airports, diverting two to a disused airfield in the Jordanian desert, with a third airliner diverted to Beirut and then Cairo. Another hijacking attempt was thwarted by El Al security its flight from Amsterdam. On September 9, a PFLP sympathizer seized a BOAC flight in Bahrain and brought it to the same Jordanian airstrip as the first two.

On May 30, 1972, after departing their aircraft, three members of the Japanese Red Army carried out an attack at Lod Airport (now known as Ben Gurion International Airport), in Tel Aviv, killing 24 people and injuring 78 others.

On 27 June 1976, Air France Flight 139, originating in Tel Aviv, took off from Athens, Greece, heading for Paris, was hijacked by two operatives belonging to a PFLP offshoot, who were joined by two German terrorists. The airplane eventually arrived at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

(2) Bombs on Board Aircraft
Prior to 9/11, the deadliest terrorism-caused airline catastrophe occurred on June 22, 1985 when Air India Flight 182, operating on the Montréal-London-Delhi route, was downed by a bomb on board that had been placed by Sikh terrorists, killing its 329 crew and passengers.

In an example of state-directed terrorism, in November 1987, two North Korean operatives planted a bomb on a Korean Airline Boeing 707 en route from Baghdad to Seoul, causing it to explode in midair over the Andaman Sea off the coast of Burma, killing its 20 crew members and 95 passengers aboard.

In another major airline bombing, on December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103, a Boeing 747, en route from London Heathrow to New York's JFK International Airport, was destroyed by a bomb on board as it was flying over Scotland, killing its 243 passengers and 16 crew members. The aircraft's explosion also resulted in the deaths of 11 people in Lockerbie, in southern Scotland, as large sections of the plane fell, destroying several houses. The Libyan government was charged for the bombing.

In examples of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and its affiliates continuously attempting to exploit gaps in aviation security they were largely thwarted in their attempts, despite the innovative tactics and weaponry used in each operation. The most notable forerunner of catastrophic airliner bombings was the December 11, 1994 bombing of Philippine Airlines Flight 434. Although the explosion was small, killing one person, with the plane making an emergency landing, it turned out to be a test run for a planned terrorist attack by Ramzi Yousef, called Operation Bojinka, to blow up 12 airliners and their approximately 4,000 passengers as they flew from Asia to the United States. Yousef's uncle, Khaled Sheikh Mohammad, later used this blueprint of using multiple airliners in a single operation to plan 9/11, with the terrorists' goal not merely to hijack aircraft but to use them as suicide bombs to cause mass destruction.

The Bojinka plot was later duplicated by an al Qaeda conspiracy in August 2006, which was foiled by British authorities by arresting the operatives during the pre-incident phase, to bypass bomb detectors at airports by detonating liquid explosive bombs on board multiple airliners destined for Canada and the United States. The plot led to tighter restrictions on carrying liquids and gels in hand luggage in the European Union, Canada, and the United States.

Another innovative al Qaeda operation was the attempt by Richard Reid, a British national, to detonate his special shoes packed with plastic explosives in their hollowed-out bottoms on board American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami on December 22, 2001. In a similarly innovative plot, on December 25, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a radicalized Nigerian who had been studying in London, attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear while on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253, en route from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan.

In a different type of innovative tactic against the aviation sector, in late October 2010, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) placed several sophisticated parcel-bombs containing 300-400 grams of the explosive PETN on passenger and cargo planes. Although the bombs did not go off, they severely disrupted freight and parcel traffic in the region.

In another new trend that was successfully executed, it is hypothesized that on October 31, 2015 operatives belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)'s Sinai Branch exploited weak Egyptian security at the Sharm al-Sheikh airport's tarmac to plant a bomb (possibly a soda can that had been converted into bomb) attached to the outside of the aircraft or inside its cargo cabin to explode Metrojet Flight 9268, an Airbus A321-231operated by Russian airline Kogalymavia (branded as Metrojet). It was speculated at the time that an 'insider', in the form of maintenance crew member, may have planted the bomb. All 217 passengers and seven crew members who were on board the aircraft were killed as it exploded above the northern Sinai following its departure from Sharm El Sheikh International Airport, Egypt, en route to Pulkovo
Airport, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

(3) Firing Rockets at Aircraft
Further innovating their terrorist tactics against aviation, on November 28, 2002, shortly after Arkia Israel Airlines Flight 582, in a Boeing 757-300 aircraft, took off from Moi International Airport, in Mombassa, Kenya, al Qaeda operatives fired two SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, which narrowly missed the plane, which was en route to Israel, although they caused two trails behind the left wings, causing the aircraft to rock slightly.

(4) Attacking Airport Check-In Areas
Finding it difficult to hijack aircraft due to intensified security measures, in December 1985, terrorists such as Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) operatives attacked the Israeli national El Al airline's ticket counters at the Rome and Vienna airports, killing 20 people. A similar incident occurred on July 4, 2002, when Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, a 41-year-old Egyptian national who was granted asylum to live in the U.S. in 1992, used two Glock pistols to shoot at the passengers standing at the ticket counter of El Al, Israel's national airline, at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, CA. Two people were killed and four others were injured before the gunman was fatally shot by a security guard (after also being wounded by him).

On November 1, 2013, Paul Anthony Ciancia, aged 23, opened fire at around 9:20 a.m. in Terminal 3 of the Los Angeles International Airport, killing a U.S. government Transportation Security Administration officer and injuring several other people.

On March 22, 2016, as part of a larger simultaneous attack that day in Brussels by local ISIS cells, three suicide bombers, carrying explosives in large suitcases, attacked a departure hall at Brussels Airport in Zaventem, killing 17 people (including the bombers) and wounding 81 others. The third suicide bomber (who was also among those killed), had failed to detonate his own bomb by the blast force of the other explosions.

About the Author

Dr. Joshua Sinai is a Principal Analyst at Kiernan Group Holdings (, a homeland security consulting firm that also specializes in Active Threat studies, in Alexandria, VA


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