Guns, high speed chases, cash, escaped criminals – not what we would normally associate with an international airport! But, for Albania’s Tirana International Airport, recent history has demonstrated that plots better associated with blockbuster movies can play out in reality. Eugene Gerstein offers thoughts on last year’s heist in Tirana, how it could happen again and what can be done to prevent similar occurrences, both in Albania and elsewhere around the world.
On 9 April 2019, in broad daylight, a vehicle filled with armed assailants broke through a perimeter gate at Tirana International Airport. This sounds like a fairly unique situation, doesn’t it? It so happens that this was not the first time something like this had happened at this particular airport. In fact, it was the fifth time; two of the events took place outside of the perimeter proper (on the airport approach roads), so I concede that some readers might consider it to be ‘only’ the third time the airport fell victim to organised crime!
To summarise these events: two robberies took place in 2015, one in 2016 (with nearly a million Euros stolen), then another in 2017 (with 3.2 million Euros taken), before the most recent one occurred in 2019. The 2019 robbery was different because one of the assailants (who was also a suspect in the 2016 robbery) was shot dead in an exchange of gunfire with the police (or, according to some reports, was taken out by his own accomplices), allowing the embattled police force to claim an easy victory.
Even an armchair analysis of the event demonstrates systemic failure across the board – from the fact that the dead assailant, a known criminal on the run from a Greek prison, was able to freely move around Europe, down to the fact that this brazen attack was the fifth such event at the Albanian capital’s main airport. However, the failure was not only down to the airport but also the judicial system and border control agencies.
If we dig a little deeper into the facts associated with all the aforementioned events, we find at the very centre of the reports that the interesting way in which Albanian banks operate – cash nearly always being transferred out of the country via air – is well known to everyone and, it seems, is of particular interest to those with nefarious intent. The reason behind the transfers? Foreign banks operating in Albania send their hard currency to Vienna because Albania’s central bank does not accept such deposits for security reasons. Understandably, this makes the threat to flights bound for Austria a particular concern.
It is impossible not to consider the insider assistance which was likely to be part of attack planning and, possibly, facilitation. The perpetrators had to have, at a minimum, ‘spotters’ and people providing them with information on different aspects of loading, timetables and airside procedures. Of course, they also had luck on their side.
It is clear that security practices at Tirana International Airport were lax. This is something the Albanian government was quick to point out in their rush to blame the airport operator for what happened, even though the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) clearly asserts that security is actually the responsibility of the state.
Aside from sabre rustling and political statements, the outcome was that Austrian Airlines – the carrier targeted in the 2019 heist – stopped carrying cash shipments out of Albania. Beyond the carriage of cash, the airline also had passengers on board, so the risk to human life was much higher than if the incident had involved a cargo-only aircraft.
Carrying cash has little to do with aviation security. Indeed, the only reference in Aviation Security Manual 8973 (in its various versions) to the transportation of cash by air, is a statement that specifies cash boxes may be carried as hold baggage if in compliance with specifications listed in Doc 9284, Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air. As we can clearly see from the subject of this article, cash can indeed be a dangerous item, perhaps not due to the nature of the material being transported but certainly in respect of how it elevates the threat posed to any given flight.
In respect of the Tirana 2019 heist, where aviation security measures failed tremendously was in their ability to prevent the breach of the airport’s perimeter. If manually operated bollards had been installed at the gate, or if there had been a higher-grade gate, then entering airside would have been much more complicated. At the same time, a cursory inspection of Tirana’s simple chain-link fence is enough to ascertain that sections of it are clearly lower than those specified in ICAO guidelines (2.44m), was devoid of any comprehensive sensor-based perimeter intrusion detection equipment, and could be easily cut, thereby allowing easy access to the airside.
The other failure – especially if we were to assume that this robbery was not assisted by anyone on the inside – is that personnel either ignored or did not see a vehicle that clearly did not belong airside. There is anecdotal evidence that it was painted to resemble a DHL delivery vehicle; however, there should be a clear list of all vehicles present on the airside at any given time.
The Other Side of the Trenches
If I remove my aviation security hat and view the challenge from the perspective of a senior executive within the vehicle armouring industry – something I have been involved with for a number of years – we should consider that, according to recent market research, the majority of economic growth is substantially driven by increased customer cash spending and the constant addition of new ATM machines (despite declarations of cashless societies in many places around the world). In order to securely transport this cash, corporations must use high-quality armoured trucks and reliable subcontractors.
“…foreign banks operating in Albania send their hard currency to Vienna because Albania’s central bank does not accept such deposits for security reasons…”
Moving cash and valuables is a complex process, which requires the use of many elements, such as proper Cash-in-Transit (CIT) vehicles, properly trained and vetted guards and, most importantly, proper processes and procedures. If an appropriate vehicle is used, such amounts of cash have to be carried by at least four guards, with two staying inside the vehicle, providing cover to their colleagues using the vehicle’s gun ports, while the other two exit the vehicle carrying the cash to the parked aircraft. If we consider an insider assistance component, then the would-be robbers would know that they would be taking a considerable risk in trying to pull off such a heist, and their chances of success (and survival) would be extremely low. Of course, using cash boxes with spray paint tamper protection – the sort that dyes all of the money should the cash box be illegally or forcibly opened – would be a further deterrent.
An appropriate vehicle would have CEN 1063 BR6+ armour, providing ballistic and blast protection, run flat tyres, which provide the ability to rapidly drive the CIT vehicle away whilst under fire, and incorporate additional protection to the occupants in the unlikely event of glass damage or bullets entering at unusual angles. Ballistic armour is installed around the vehicle’s perimeter and across its ceiling and floor, ensuring 360-degree protection for personnel and transported valuables. All critical elements such as suspension, brakes and door hinges are reinforced in order to carry the added weight of ballistic materials without sacrificing the vehicle’s high level of manoeuvrability. The vehicle should be equipped with smart locks, an ability to enter the cabin through the side-loading door (so that there is no need to open the rear doors when it is not safe), 360-degree camera coverage and GPS vehicle tracking.
“…corporations must use high-quality armoured trucks and reliable subcontractors…”
It is claimed that the Albanian assailants had AK-47 rifles, handguns and hand grenades – the exact items a properly outfitted vehicle would provide full protection from. The assailants clearly knew their target and knew what they were doing, and properly trained guards would have been equipped to handle such a situation. Again, coming back to the idea of a potential insider, without such assistance, this event might not have taken place, since it is just too dangerous and complex to attack such a target.
In a similar vein to what happened in Tirana last April, in March this year Chile’s capital, Santiago, saw its third airport robbery, netting the thieves a $15 million haul. The first attack took place in 2006 with $1.6 million stolen, and the second in 2014 to the tune of over $10 million. The incidents in Chile and Albania displayed similar patterns, which suggest either blatant negligence on the part of those responsible for security at the airports – or inside assistance. For example, like the vehicle alleged to have been involved in the latest Albanian case, all of the Chilean incidents involved vehicles disguised as legitimate courier or work vehicles. However, in the latest Chilean robbery only three of the robbers were armed; this is in stark contrast to the Albanian cases. The Chilean cases also involved the use of large numbers of men, seven to nine in each case, whereas the Albanian jobs were more compact – involving just three to four individuals.
An airport perimeter has to be hardened as much as possible, and effective background checks need to be implemented, no matter what part of the world you are in. Very few organisations invest in proper background checking, and even fewer do systematic re-checking and employee behavioural evaluations. A simple example would be baggage handlers in Colombia who are coerced into joining criminal gangs; a series of background checks can identify different vulnerabilities. In addition, proper cash transfer practices must be implemented, and every airport needs to have a standalone cash loading procedure, and to conduct associated exercises, much like emergency procedures.
“…in March this year Chile’s capital, Santiago, saw its third airport robbery, netting the thieves a $15 million haul…”
I have recently started teaching Emergency Management, so despite decades in aviation security and ground operations, I am still uncovering many startling and alarming vulnerabilities. We need to always be on a path of self-improvement, and everything we do with regards to aviation safety and security is always a rinse-and-repeat military model – there is no such thing as enough practice or enough exercise. So, as always, keep your eyes open, and your procedures up to date.
Eugene Gerstein, FRAeS is the managing partner at Security.Technology.Research Inc, part of the INKAS® Group of Companies. With over 20 years of experience in 42 countries across the globe, he has worked on large international infrastructure projects, primarily in the airport and defence industries, as well as having spent years in aviation security and ground operations. Prior to his commercial activities, Eugene was a military officer and served in law enforcement, involved in counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism task forces. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.