The 25th Anniversary of the Alas Chiricanas Bombing: suicidal terrorism in the crosshairs

The 25th Anniversary of the Alas Chiricanas Bombing: suicidal terrorism in the crosshairs

In the 25 years since the Alas Chiricanas bombing, suicidal terrorism targeting the aviation industry has evolved from terrorists smuggling bombs on planes, to using aircraft as guided missiles, to gun and bomb attacks in the public areas of airports. While the aviation security enterprise has adapted to the evolving threat, it needs to adapt progressive changes in order to mitigate the changing nature of suicide terrorism. Stephen Felty analyses the dynamic nature of this discipline and reveals some recommendations for the next phase of aviation security.

The use of suicide terrorism through the 1990s and its increasing influence since 11 September 2001 has created a vector of academic, societal, and governmental focus on this discipline of study.

Suicide terrorism is not a recent phenomenon. The earliest recorded instances of suicide attacks date back to 400 BCE when Greek ships were set on fire and steered into enemy ships, establishing a naval tactic that was used for over two millennia. During the crusades, suicide tactics were used by Islamic assassins against the invading Christian forces. In World War II, Japanese air units were used as guided missiles against allied forces during infamous kamikaze attacks. The one variable that all of these historical examples have in common is that the attackers used this tactic in part to overcome asymmetry of power in their forces. This variable is also held in common with the more modern version of suicide attacks starting in the 1980s with the bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon and the U.S. embassy in Iraq.1

From 1980 to 2001, there was a total of 188 suicide attacks worldwide. Since 2001 that number has increased almost exponentially, becoming a major tactic worldwide of inferior forces ranging across a broad spectrum of ideologies and nationalities.2 Alas Chiricanas was part of the opening wave of suicide terrorism that began in the 1980s and reached a zenith with the attacks on 9/11. It holds significance because it was among the acts of suicide terrorism successfully conducted by Islamist militants against a Western aviation target as part of the growing identity conflict between the Islamist world and the West.

This article examines suicide terrorism on the 25th anniversary of the Alas Chiricanas bombing. It offers an understanding of the evolution of suicide terrorism against aviation targets. It also discusses how suicide terrorism has adapted as a tactic against the aviation security enterprise over the past 25 years, and what it means for security scholars and practitioners.

Background

Alas Chiricanas flight 901 exploded in mid-air after departing from Colon City, Panama, en route to Panama City on 19 July 1994. All 21 lives onboard were lost, including 3 crewmembers and 18 passengers. 12 of these passengers were Jews, many of whom were prominent businessmen in the area. The attack occurred one day after the bombing of a Jewish community in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, which resulted in 85 lives lost and 300 people injured. Argentine prosecutors and Israeli intelligence officials blamed Iranian backed Hezbollah for both attacks. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) blamed a passenger named Ali Hawa Jamal for carrying the explosive onboard the aircraft and is believed to have detonated the device in the cabin. This would be regarded as the first suicidal attack against civil aviation perpetrated as a terrorist act; there had, of course been a number of suicides for insurance gain. Prior to the attack, he had travelled to Lebanon, the home country of Hezbollah. As recently as May 2018, the Argentine government called for continued investigations into the Alas Chiricanas bombing, after Israel shared new intelligence pointing to Iranian planning and Hezbollah execution of the attack.3

“…Alas Chiricanas Flight 901 exploded in mid-air after departing from Colon City, Panama, en route to Panama City on 19 July 1994…”

The actual wreckage of the Alas Chiricanas flight (above) and representative image of an act of inflight suicidal terrorism (facing page).
The actual wreckage of the Alas Chiricanas flight (above) and representative image of an act of inflight suicidal terrorism (facing page).

Since that fateful day in 1994, suicide terrorism continues to rise in prominence. Perhaps the most dramatic instance was the 11 September 2001 attacks involving four planes and costing the lives of 2,996 people. Suicide terrorism outside of aviation has been occurring in Sri Lanka, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and inside Western democracies such as Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. No country is immune from these asymmetric tactics.4 In fact, the greater the disproportion between forces, the more likely these attacks seem. That said, asymmetry is not the only factor driving suicide terrorism.5

Evolution of Suicide Terrorism against Aviation Targets

Since the Alas Chiricanas bombing, aviation security has had to evolve against a changing and dynamic threat. Terrorism against aviation targets evolved from hijackings, to suicide terrorism with bombs, to using aircraft as human-guided missiles, and more recently to suicide attacks in airports.

The Alas Chiricanas bombing represented the first phase of this development. Suicide terrorism was particularly effective in creating public fear because it left passengers particularly helpless. The impact in terms of damage and publicity made for a huge return on investment from the attacking organisations perspective. As security evolved to include the checking of bags, X-raying of luggage, and passengers walking through metal detectors, the threat evolved as well. 9/11 introduced the concept of using suicide terrorists to hijack aircraft and turn them into guided missiles to take out high-value targets.6 This was a true force multiplier in the arsenal of most terrorist groups. Suddenly it was not only airline passengers who were not safe, but anyone anywhere could be struck. The death toll and the value of the damage to physical assets increased exponentially. Instead of killing 21 targets, as in the Alas Chiricanas bombing, now aircraft could be used to kill thousands of people while simultaneously shattering the flow of commerce. The 9/11 attacks imposed an immediate cost of nearly $55 billion (approx. £43.2 billion) in physical damages and $123 billion (c. £96.64 billion) in lost economic activity. The toll is even higher when one considers the costs of increased security spending and the war efforts of the U.S. and its NATO allies. A 2011 study by the New York Times estimated the total cost to the U.S. at nearly $3.3 trillion dollars (c. £2.59 trillion) in the first decade following the attacks.7

“…as recently as May 2018, the Argentine government called for continued investigations into the Alas Chiricanas bombing, after Israel shared new intelligence pointing to Iranian planning and Hezbollah execution of the attack…”

“…foreign fighters fleeing the collapse of the Islamic State adds a new threat vector. Thousands of young men and women returning to Europe from Iraq and Syria raise the threat of attacks against aviation targets…”

Continued attempts by suicide terrorists led to further evolution in aviation security. The liquids bomb plot led to a full liquids ban followed by size restrictions for liquid carry-ons. The shoe bomb plot by Richard Reid led to the removal of shoes during the screening process. The underwear bomb plot by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab led to the introduction of full body-scanners. After failing to bring down Western aviation targets for nearly two decades, suicide terrorists again shifted their tactics, focusing on attacks at airports themselves. This allowed them to avoid security screening and detection altogether, focusing the brunt of their attacks on lines of people checking in and waiting to go through security. This exposed a vulnerable part of the aviation security enterprise.8

The suicide attacks at Brussels International Airport and J.K. Ataturk Airport in Istanbul overwhelmed Western aviation security by attacking the public side of airports. Terrorist attacks at airports resulted in the deaths of 32 people in Brussels, and 45 in Istanbul, plus hundreds more wounded. The economic loss of these totalled in the billions of dollars when one considers the physical damage, lost economic activity, and tax revenue loss.9

These attacks forced the aviation security industry to again evaluate its methodology and adapt security. Renewed focus has been placed on public area security at airports across the globe. Recent intelligence revealed the intention of terrorist organisations to use airport and airline personnel as an insider threat against the industry. Analyses of Facebook accounts found airport employees from across Europe had posted Islamist Jihadist content on their profiles, one of the attackers involved in the Brussels attack had even worked at the airport for more than five years. The 2016 bombing of Daallo Airlines in Somalia, in which employees helped an individual smuggle a laptop bomb on the plane that later detonated in the air, provides a powerful example of the vulnerability the aviation system faces from insider threats.10

Suicide terrorism focused on the aviation industry is not a new phenomenon. It has been occurring for decades and has only increased in appeal to terrorist organisations. Furthermore, the threat of foreign fighters fleeing the collapse of the Islamic State adds a new threat vector. Thousands of young men and women returning to Europe from Iraq and Syria raise the threat of attacks against aviation targets.11 Aviation security specialists will need to remain vigilant and adaptive in order to stay ahead of the threat posed by suicide terrorism.

Implications for Scholars and Practitioners

In order to prepare for, mitigate, and respond to the evolving threat of suicide terrorism, aviation security scholars and practitioners need to adapt their understanding of the current threat. Intelligence and risk-based security need to take an increasing role in pushing security to the public side of airports to prevent further attacks on the aviation industry.

The flow of migrants and refugees into Europe is compounded by the Schengen agreement, which means that once inside the Schengen area, terrorists can access any Schengen member state potentially undetected. As potential terrorists return from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, they bring with them skills in weaponry and explosives that they learned in combat. The recent success of the landside attacks in Brussels and Istanbul may lead to further such attacks. Furthermore, additional screening needs to be carried out on airport employees to overcome the insider threat. In 2015, France revoked the security clearances of over 70 employees who were believed to have been radicalised at a Paris airport, underscoring the risk that Western aviation targets face.12

The U.K. and Belgium have moved aggressively to mitigate the vulnerability of the public sphere of airports through design changes and increased security presences. The increased presence of police and canine detection units are effective deterrents but costly to maintain. An alternative to investing in more physical security in airport public spheres is to introduce principles that focus on environmental design that reduces risk to passengers. By implementing crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) measures at high risk pin-points, aviation security specialists can reduce both the costs of hardening targets and the risk to passengers. Changing passenger waiting queues, reducing access to baggage claim areas, and using technology to alleviate lines at airline check-in counters have proven to create a significant impact in deterring terrorist attacks.13

Conclusions

The threat of suicide terrorism is not a new phenomenon and has only been increasing in prominence. It is a powerful tactic to overcome asymmetry and gain publicity for terrorist organisations.14 Suicide terrorism as a tactic against Western aviation targets has evolved since Alas Chiricanas, where it primarily consisted of bombing aircraft in flight, to using airplanes as guided missiles during 9/11, and more recently to using bombs and guns to attack the public side of airports.15 In order to prepare for, mitigate, and overcome the threat of suicide terrorism, aviation security specialists will need to harness intelligence and risk-based security. Increased employee screening has become an important tool to overcoming the insider threat. Furthermore, the security presence at airports will need to be pushed further into the public side to protect passengers from possible attacks before they enter security.16

“…France revoked the security clearances of over 70 employees who were believed to have been radicalised at a Paris airport…”


Stephen Felty is a staff member of the Transportation Security Administration’s Region 4 Director
Stephen Felty is a staff member of the Transportation Security Administration’s Region 4 Director

Stephen Felty is a staff member of the Transportation Security Administration’s Region 4 Director. He focuses on security screening operations, process improvement, and programme analysis. Stephen has been with TSA for eight years, serving in various management roles. He is a recent graduate from the United States Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey California, where he focused his research on identity conflicts and the motivations for terrorism. He also holds an MPA and a Bachelors in international politics from Penn State University.

  1. Vanessa Harmon, Edin Mujkic, Catherine Kaukinen, and Henriikka Weir, “Causes and Explanations of Suicide Terrorism: A Systematic Review,” Homeland Security Affairs 14, Article 9 (December 2018). https://www.hsaj.org/articles/14749
  2. Pape, Robert A. “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.” American Political Science Review 97, no. 3 (2003): 343-361.
  3. “Panama Says New Evidence Shows 1994 Plane Crash ‘Terrorist’ Incident,” BBC News, May 22, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-44207991.
  4. “Terrorism Timeline,” Since 9/11, January 3, 2018, https://since911.com/explore-911/terrorism-timeline#jump_time_item_378.
  5. Harmon, Mujkic, Kaukinen, and Weir, “Causes and Explanations of Suicide Terrorism: A Systematic Review.”
  6. “A Brief History of Airport Security,” BBC News, June 29, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-36666913/a-brief-history-of-airport-security.
  7. Shan Carter, “One 9/11 Tally: $3.3 Trillion,” New York Times, September 8, 2011, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/09/08/us/sept-11-reckoning/cost-graphic.html?hp.
  8. “A Brief History of Airport Security.”
  9. David Oxley, “Estimating the impact of recent terrorist attacks in Western Europe”, IATA, May 2017, https://www.iata.org/publications/economic-briefings/European-terrorism-impact.pdf.
  10. Eitan Azani, Lorena Atiyas Lvovsky and Danielle Haberfeld, Trends in Aviation Security, (Herzliya, Israel: International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, October 8, 2016), http://www.ict.org.il/Article/1757/trends-in-the-aviation-terrorism-threat#gsc.tab=0.
  11. John Harrison, “Foreign Fighters: The Role of, and Threat to, International Aviation,” Aviation Security International, March 27, 2019, https://www.asi-mag.com/foreign-fighters-role-threat-international-civil-aviation-2/.
  12. Azani, Lvovsky, and Haberfeld, 2016.
  13. Linda Jashari, “Soft Target Security: Environmental Design and the Deterrence of Terrorist Attacks on Soft Targets in Aviation Transportation,” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2018), 139-141, https://calhoun.nps.edu/bitstream/handle/10945/58317/18Mar_Jashari_Linda.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
  14. Azani, Lvovsky, and Haberfeld, 2016.
  15. “A Brief History of Airport Security.”
  16. Jashari, “Soft Target Security,” 139-141