AIRSIDE CRIME: RED ALERT AT THE AIRPORT!

AIRSIDE CRIME: RED ALERT AT THE AIRPORT!

Dealing with crime has always been a primary responsibility of public security agencies. However, in the airport environment the main concern of the aviation security authorities is to ensure the safety of the restricted area and to prevent acts of unlawful interference in civil aviation. Rodrigo Magno discusses airside crime cases, highlighting the importance of aviation security integration with law enforcement agencies and how intelligence actions can mitigate the vulnerability emanating from the insider threat.

Airside crime can cover the most diverse transgressions, ranging from petty crimes, such as theft of passenger property in boarding areas, to complex schemes designed by organised criminal groups to smuggle drugs or military weapons abroad. But should every single airside crime be seen as an act of unlawful interference? And what differentiates criminal organisations from terrorist groups in the context of aviation security?

As a general rule, an airside crime is considered an act of unlawful interference if it falls within the concepts listed in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Aviation Security Manual (Doc8973) and ICAO Annex 17, where unlawful interference is defined as ‘… acts or attempted acts such as to jeopardise the safety of civil aviation, including but not limited to: unlawful seizure of aircraft; hostage-taking on board aircraft or on aerodromes; forcible intrusion on board an aircraft, at an airport or on the premises of an aeronautical facility; introduction on board an aircraft or at an airport of a weapon or hazardous device or material intended for criminal purposes’ etc.

The main difference between airside crime and terrorism is that the former primarily aims at profit. However, criminal organisations and terrorist groups are converging and joining forces to exploit each other’s specialised skills and strategic assets, thereby raising a red flag for the AVSEC community every time criminal activity is identified in the airport environment.

To fight crime, you must first know your enemy. Thus, we will look at recent cases in which airports served as a platform for criminals and organised crime, how authorities identified the perpetrators, and what measures were taken to combat and prevent such crimes.

Airfield Power Supply Cable Theft

This is one of the most serious crimes faced by airport authorities, since it can affect critical infrastructures and eventually lead to major accidents. In 2011 and 2012, a series of power cable thefts occurred at Rio de Janeiro International Airport, leading to electrical failures in the auxiliary landing systems. Approximately 3,000 metres of power cables weighing 1,900 kilograms were removed from electrical boxes located at runway 10/28.

“…a series of power cable thefts occurred at Rio de Janeiro International Airport, leading to electrical failures in the auxiliary landing systems…”

The perpetrators responsible for these crimes were never discovered, but since runway 10/28 is surrounded by slums, airport authorities believe local residents were responsible for punching holes in the electrical substation wall and disarming the circuit breakers while other gang members cut and stole the cables from the electrical boxes located at the runway.

The Federal Police issued a series of recommendations to the airport operator, including increasing the number of surveillance cameras on the 10/28 runway system, installing infrared long-range cameras, implementing constant patrolling in the runway perimeter, installing advanced security fences, and reinforcing electrical box security.

Airline Baggage and Catering Theft

Statistics on checked baggage theft are scarce. There is no doubt this type of crime is very common, but airports and airlines do not want to spread data that may damage their brands. In 2012, the Daily Mail reported that John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) had more than 200 checked luggage thefts per day and claimed that airport employees were behind the theft, and that airlines simply reported the incident as lost luggage. CNN reported 30,621 cases of missing valuables from an analysis of lost property claims filed with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) between 2010 and 2014. More than 25,000 of those were from checked luggage. In 2012, the Daily News also reported that, since 2003, just under 400 TSA officers had been fired for stealing from passengers.

“…just under 400 TSA officers had been fired for stealing from passengers…”

Regarding catering theft, federal officers from Rio de Janeiro International Airport recently dismantled a criminal ring that included two employees of a catering firm who were busted for stealing bottles of wine and champagne and mini bottles of booze from planes during their shifts and reselling the bottles to the owner of an electronics store in a nearby neighbourhood.

After a thorough investigation, federal officers found that the suspects were catering truck drivers. They waited for international flights to arrive and attached the trucks to unload the trolleys from the airplane galley. During this procedure, they filled plastic bags with sealed bottles they had separated from the trolleys. After driving back to the catering area, they transferred the plastic bags to their cars in the airport parking lot and exited the airport area to deliver the goods.

Bottles stolen from aircraft by catering truck drivers at Rio de Janeiro International Airport
Bottles stolen from aircraft by catering truck drivers at Rio de Janeiro International Airport

After conducting surveillance on the suspects at the security-restricted area and following their cars to the electronics store, undercover federal agents made the arrests and seized more than 2,300 bottles of liquor.

“…John F. Kennedy International Airport had more than 200 checked luggage thefts per day…”

Smuggling

Another common airside crime that exploits airport and staff vulnerabilities is illegal importation of goods. Taking advantage of lax regulation of inspection and payment of customs duties, a criminal organisation operating at Rio de Janeiro International Airport recruited passengers to travel to Miami. These passengers bought electronics and other high-value goods. Upon returning to Rio, their checked bags were taken from the unit load devices (ULDs) by corrupt handling staff and placed on the mats of the domestic area, where a corrupt airline employee removed the bags and brought them to the landside of the airport, thus avoiding customs inspection.

A different modus operandi of the gang consisted of recruiting an airport employee who accompanied the passenger bringing the goods to the customs area and signalled to a corrupt customs official. The suitcases were subjected to inspection but the passenger was cleared without having the goods taxed or seized.

A customs officer was caught receiving bribes to release the goods, and those involved in the scheme were arrested and put on trial.

Operation Rush: 300kg cocaine seizure at Rio de Janeiro International Airport. The drug was meant to be shipped to Europe through Rio de Janeiro in bags and crates shown in this image
Operation Rush: 300kg cocaine seizure at Rio de Janeiro International Airport. The drug was meant to be shipped to Europe through Rio de Janeiro in bags and crates shown in this image

Drug Trafficking

Drug trafficking poses a major challenge for border control and airport authorities. Arrests of drug mules venturing into security checkpoints or through checked baggage containing false bottoms are just the tip of the iceberg. The problem goes far beyond daily interceptions at international airports, involving transnational criminal organisations, corruption of airport staff and government officials, money laundering and even terrorism financing.

According to the United States Department of Justice, in February 2017, twelve current and former TSA and airport employees were indicted for smuggling approximately 20 tons of cocaine from 1998 through 2016. The suspects smuggled suitcases, each containing at least 8 to 15 kilograms of cocaine, through the TSA security system at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in Puerto Rico. Sometimes as many as five mules were used on each flight, with each mule checking in up to two suitcases. A baggage handler/ramp employee picked up suitcases he knew contained cocaine from the mules at the airline check-in counter and, after clearance by TSA drug trafficking organisation members, he took the suitcases to their designated flight, avoiding further inspection.

“…in December 2017, the Brazilian Federal Police launched Operation Rush, which began as an investigation of an unaccompanied bag sent back to Brazil from Amsterdam containing 36 kilograms of pure cocaine…”

The investigations and arrests were made after the creation of a multi-agency initiative called AirTAT (Airport Investigations and Tactical Team) which aims to identify, locate, disrupt, dismantle and prosecute domestic and transnational criminal organisations and operatives using the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport as a platform for criminal activity.

In another important case, in December 2017, the Brazilian Federal Police launched Operation Rush, which began as an investigation of an unaccompanied bag sent back to Brazil from Amsterdam containing 36 kilograms of pure cocaine. The investigation took nine months to develop and uncovered a major scheme to ship cocaine to Europe through Portugal. The organisation was composed of airline, handling and security employees as well as ex-employees and individuals from outside the airport community, including two foreigners, a Romanian and an Albanian.

Their modus operandi consisted of checking the bags containing the drug with duplicated bag tags of random domestic flight passengers. Once in the restricted area, corrupt employees took the luggage from the domestic screening area and discreetly transferred it into international flight ULDs. The drug was transported to the airport by taxi to avoid police roadblocks and then sent to Portugal using the criminal scheme. The gang profit was close to US $6,000,000 (approx. GBP £4,215,000) per month. The arrest of a member of the gang led to a warehouse raid in which approximately 300 kilograms of pure cocaine were seized.

Operation Rush was the result of the creation of a dedicated intelligence and investigations police team at Rio de Janeiro International Airport and was responsible for the arrests of more than 30 individuals and the seizure of approximately US $886,000 (approx. GBP £622,275) and nine luxury cars in possession of gang members.

Trafficking in Firearms

Firearms trafficking represents a major problem across the globe, supporting terrorist actions, drug gangs, militia groups, guerrillas etc. The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime reported in its 2015 Study on Firearms that ‘Land was the most frequently mentioned shipping route. During the whole reporting period (2010-2013), eight countries – Brazil, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Estonia, Montenegro, Latvia, Lithuania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – reported that firearms were exclusively seized while being transported by land’.

Operation Rush: money seizure of approximately US $886,000 at Rio de Janeiro International Airport
Operation Rush: money seizure of approximately US $886,000 at Rio de Janeiro International Airport

However, the modus operandi seems to be changing, as Brazilian authorities recently discovered that, from 2014 to 2017, a criminal organisation was exporting from the United States, and importing into Brazil by air cargo, a total of 75 shipments containing concealed weapons that were supplying Rio de Janeiro’s drug gangs. The shipments were sent from Miami to Rio de Janeiro and declared as water heaters or mechanical pumps.

On 1 June 2017, after a long investigation, Brazilian authorities, including the Civil Police, Customs Service and Federal Police interdicted the Rio de Janeiro International Airport cargo facility. A search of the warehouse revealed a shipment that had arrived on a commercial flight from Miami. The Brazilian authorities conducted an X-ray examination of the shipment, which revealed anomalies in the images. A search of the shipment, manifested as ‘pool heaters’, revealed 60 military assault rifles, 60 magazines for those rifles, and 140 rounds of ammunition. The contraband was concealed inside water heaters. It is believed the guns could have been sold in Brazil for up to US $1,500,000 (approx. GBP £1,100,000) in total.

Law enforcement authorities estimate the criminal organisation made a profit of between US $357,000 and US $447,000 (approx. GBP £250,735 and GBP £313,945) per shipment.

This case reveals the criminal organisation’s reliance on corrupted customs brokers, who had free access to the airport cargo facilities at the origin and destination of the shipments, as well as vulnerabilities in the exportation/importation procedures.

Assault rifles seized at at Rio de Janeiro International Airport's cargo facility
Assault rifles seized at at Rio de Janeiro International Airport’s cargo facility

Tarmac Heist

This crime is uncommon in airports but leads to huge international repercussions. On 4 March 2018 at around 21:30 local time, five gang members wielding assault rifles infiltrated Viracopos International Airport in São Paulo and stole US $5,000,000 (approx. GBP £3,511,000) in cash from a Lufthansa cargo plane in a six-minute heist.

According to the federal police report, the gang used a Hilux pickup truck adorned with stickers mimicking the runway security firm logo, and were able to tear past two gates and drive into the cargo section of the airport. They attacked two security guards patrolling the area, then invaded a parked Lufthansa plane on the tarmac just as employees were transferring bags of cash into an armoured vehicle. The group drove out of the airport with the cash before police arrived. Nobody was arrested.

In a similar theft, which may have also inspired the Viracopos heist, on 18 February 2013, eight masked gunmen in two cars with police markings stole approximately US $50,000,000 (approx. GBP £33,000,000) worth of diamonds from a Swiss-bound Fokker 100 operated by Helvetic Airways on the apron at Brussels Airport, just before 20:00 local time. The action took place with precision, military timing and apparent insider knowledge. More than 30 suspects were arrested in Belgium, France and Switzerland in highly coordinated police operations.

The Insider Threat

This list of crimes is not exhaustive, and criminals and criminal groups often show creativity and dynamism. However, it is possible to identify a common ground present in all the crimes examined: the insider threat.

Airside crime will, for the most part, rely on corrupted employees with airside access. Some groups will act in a very organised and permanent fashion and others in a more rudimentary way. The starting point for mitigating this risk is an adequate recruitment process and extensive and constant background checking of all airside staff. In February 2018, The Sun reported that a temporary security pass allowed Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamud, a former terror suspect with a string of convictions, to gain access to the runway and baggage-handling areas at Heathrow Airport. Simple background checks would have shown that Mohamud had served five years in prison in total since 2003. He accrued 14 convictions for 21 offences including threats to kill, robbery, assault, money laundering and sexual assault.

“…a temporary security pass allowed Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamud, a former terror suspect with a string of convictions, to gain access to the runway and baggage-handling areas at Heathrow Airport…”

Integration between the airport operator, law enforcement and intelligence agencies is paramount. As an example of a mutual aid agreement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Next Generation Identification (NGI) programme is providing real-time criminal history monitoring of the aviation worker population through its Rap Back Service (short for Record of Arrest and Prosecution Background, which enables employers to continuously monitor their employees’ criminal and arrest records by receiving alerts from the FBI if there are any additions to an employee’s FBI records). This effort aims to implement FBI Rap Back functionality in the TSA aviation environment and can significantly reduce vulnerability and risk during airport staff selection and accreditation processes.

Conclusion

The most important aspect of mitigating and neutralising airside crime is to combine AVSEC technology and procedures with police intelligence. The creation of permanent and dedicated multi-agency intelligence and investigations groups within airports allow for a better flow of information between the airport community and law enforcement as well as a faster and more efficient response using proactive measures such as constant staff surveillance, telephone/data monitoring, infiltration of agents, informant recruiting, etc.

From the cases pointed out in this article, we learn that airside crime has a great impact on the AVSEC routines, raising the risk of acts of unlawful interference in civil aviation and increasing the chances of terrorist attacks, since interoperability between criminal organisations and terrorism has already been identified.

Rodrigo Magno is a Brazilian federal police officer with over 14 years of border protection, airport security, major events planning and risk assessment experience. He successfully designed and coordinated border protection and airport security operations for major events in Rio de Janeiro, including the 2016 Olympic Games and the 2012 Rio+20 United Nations Conference. He can be contacted at rodrigomagno@gmail.com.

Rodrigo Magno
Rodrigo Magno