Above CNN but Below Classified: pulling back the curtain on aviation security policies

By Dr. Erroll G. Southers

Just before 4th July this year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a terror alert, informing the public of a new low-tech terrorist threat that could defeat America’s high-tech aviation security apparatus. To meet this threat, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced a new policy whereby air travellers at foreign airports are prohibited from bringing powerless electronic devices on U.S.-bound flights.
For some, this alert and policy amendment may look like another case of ‘reactive’ airport security. Take off your shoes. Toss out the water bottle. Now, power on your phone. Aren’t all these cat-and-mouse checkpoint tactics just some bureaucrat’s knee-jerk reaction that does little more than frustrate our airport experience? Actually, no.

The public is largely unaware of something the security community has known for some time. We are dealing with innovative and adaptive adversaries who are intent on being successful. They are methodical, they are sophisticated, and they are undeterred. They really do have the capacity to use shoes, liquids, electronic devices and a range of other devious and ingenious methods of secreting explosives onto an airplane. In 2010, for example, al-Qaeda bomb-maker Ikrimah al-Muhajir wrote about the organisation’s research efforts, claiming responsibility for downing a UPS aircraft earlier that year and discussing explosive compounds that could beat metal detectors, pass materials analysis tests, and dodge the nose of explosive detection canines.

The best response to this unabated terrorist quest to blow up an airplane is one in which all air travellers can participate, and to do so effectively, the public needs to understand why security measures are continually being changed. It boils down to three core elements – actionable intelligence, human screening and a randomised application of resources.

Intelligence- and Risk-Driven Policy
News of this latest terror alert reminds us of the utility in attacking an airplane. Terrorists are remarkably strategic in weighing attack utility, considering fatalities, injuries, the disruption to the aviation industry, and most importantly, the psychological effect a terror attack has on a population. American taxpayers have invested billions of dollars in aviation security, and a successful attack would suggest it has all been for naught.

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