A decade ago aviation was changed completely and irrevocably when the US suffered its worst attack on home soil since Pearl Harbor. TIM ROBINSON looks back on the changes that have been brought about by 9/11 in the decade of aviation security. This is a full article published in Aerospace International: September 2011

[caption id="attachment_5281" align="alignnone" width="381" caption="Ground Zero, New York, September 2001. (DoD/US Navy)."][/caption] Ten years ago, the terrible TV scenes of America under attack, sent shockwaves around the world — ushering in a new age where airports and airliners would no longer be symbols of freedom, travel and discovery. Instead, as we mark a decade since 9/11, it is instructive to look back and consider how aviation security has evolved with each incident.

The road to 9/11

However, it is important to remember that the new era of mass casualty terrorism did not start exclusively with 9/11. The radical Islamic terror which would be known as Al-Qaeda or AQ-‘inspired’ had had roots nearly a decade before. Indeed, there had already been a serious and significant attempt to destroy the World Trade Center — with a truck bomb in the basement in 1993. This attack — though it only killed six people, was intended to topple the towers — a chilling foretaste of 9/11. The WTC then, already was earmarked as a priority target. Meanwhile in 1994, the hijacking of an Air France A300 by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of Algeria, introduced the second part of the equation — that of a planned suicide attack using the aircraft to crash into a symbolic structure — in this case the Eiffel Tower. Fortunately in this case the plot was thwarted when the French counter-terror unit GIGN stormed the aircraft on the ground in Marseille. The following year, 1995, also saw another aviation terror plot (from the planners of the 1993 WTC bomb) foiled — an ambitious plan to down multiple (up to 11) airliners simultaneously over the Pacific using bombs planted under the seats in the lifejackets. The intention here was to kill up to 4,000 and target US airlines — causing enough chaos to dislocate and shut down the global air transport system. Finally in 2000 Los Angeles International Airport was targeted in a bomb plot to coincide with the new millennium. Again, this time, the attack was prevented. Though these plans did not come to fruition — the pieces for a mass casualty terror attack using airliners were already in place.

Previous aviation terrorism

Aviation terrorism, of course, is not a new phenomenon. However, how 9/11 differed was that previously an aircraft hijacking was a means to an end — either to escape a regime or jurisdiction or to issue demands to release prisoners and continue the struggle. In particular, as the age of mass travel using jet airliners expanded in the post-war years, hijackings jumped in the late 1960s and 1970s from an average of one a year to around five a year. Specifically the Palestinian-Israeli conflict saw aircraft hijacking achieve prominence as a method of generating international attention and media coverage. Thus the advice (through experience) to pilots and passengers was to not resist but to comply with hijackers’ demands and land. On the ground, it was assumed the hijack could be negotiated peacefully or in the worst case — the aircraft stormed and the attackers arrested or killed. Anti-hijacking efforts then focused on honing counter-terrorism skills and negotiation expertise once the aircraft was on the ground. The notable exception to this, of course, was Israel, which has employed armed air marshals on El Al, due to it being a high-profile target. A second strand is the threat from bombs. Although earlier incidents had seen aircraft bombed, it was the Pan Am Lockerbie attack in 1989 that was a watershed event in how belly cargo was screened. With machines installed in airports around the world — the luggage bomb, though not eliminated entirely, became a far more difficult mode of attack.

9/11 – Initial responses

[caption id="attachment_5282" align="alignnone" width="333" caption="Passengers faced increased security measures over the past 10 years."][/caption] However, the attack on 11 September 2001 brought two innovations to aviation terrorism. The first was the concept of using the aircraft itself as the weapon — with all the damage a fully-fuelled large airliner can create. The second was the suicide aspect — of hijackers who effectively turned a civil airliner into a guided smart missile full of innocents to attack the heart of their enemies perceived power centre — the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Washington DC (by the fourth aircraft where the passengers overpowered the hijackers). The enormity of the physical and psychological blow struck that day has been chronicled in detail elsewhere — but it is noteworthy that the number of dead (2977) was slightly more than the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack which also shifted the world upon a new path. For US President George W. Bush, the response to 9/11 was the ‘War on Terror’ - a campaign still ongoing today. The shock of the attack, its scale and its ability to use the tools of an ‘open society’ (mass transport systems and flight training) meant that a number of aviation security measures were quickly enacted and deployed. Perhaps the obvious one was for locked doors on the flightdeck. However, the door also had to be specified to resist a determined attacker and also had to be bulletproof. Security at airports was also tightened and strengthened — especially in US domestic terminals which the attackers had identified as the weak points in the air system. After 13 September all types of knives, for example, were banned — correcting the loophole that had allowed ‘boxcutter’ blades to be taken through security by the 9/11 attackers. The event also saw the creation of a massive new government agency in the US – responsible for security screening at US airports, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). This is part of the Department of Homeland Security — another US Government reorganisation in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The TSA as of 2011 has some 58,400 employees, with 45,000 of these being screeners employed at airports.

Air marshals

The TSA also expanded massively the Federal Air Marshal (FAM) service. Like the Israeli air marshals, the role of the armed FAMs is to travel incognito on US-registered airliners, blending in with passengers. Other countries, including Australia and Canada have also created their armed ‘sky marshal’ services to protect airlines. The sheer scale of the number of flights that needed protection, also saw the creation of the Federal Flight Deck Officer — a programme to deputise pilots and aircrew to carry firearms in the cockpit to defend their aircraft.

Airborne QRA

[caption id="attachment_5283" align="alignnone" width="375" caption="Air forces now practice co-operation in intercepting suspect airliners. (DoD/USAF)"][/caption] The events on that September morning have also introduced a new role for air forces and the fighter community — that of aerial interception of airliners and QRA (Quick Reaction Alerts). Scrambles of fighters now regularly take place when airliners lose radio contact, experience faulty transponders, or if there is on-board disturbance — such as air rage or disruptive passengers. Key to this measure is the unthinkable decision to potentially shoot down a hijacked airliner that is non-communicative and is heading towards a major population centre. Like a Cold War MAD nuclear exchange — the high speed of a jet airliner and the need to decide quickly means that this nightmare scenario of sacrificing a plane full of innocent passengers to protect people on the ground now weighs heavily on decision-makers. As well as national QRA responses, air forces are now training and regularly practising with other foreign air forces and agencies to ‘hand-off’ and co-ordinate responses to potential suicide airborne attacks. Notable international events, meetings or summits, (Such as G20, Davos or the World Cup) also now involve an airborne element of air defence fighters on combat air patrol.

Checks on pilot training

The manner in which the 9/11 attackers also took pilot training in the US as part of their plan to fly the aircraft into targets has also led to changes in screening prospective students. In the US, the Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP) created by the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 bans flight training for foreign students — unless the DHS perform a security background check and vets them first.

Aviation terrorism evolves

The ramping up of security measures, though, did not remove the attractiveness of the air transport system as a potential target for terrorists. In December 2001 Richard Reid attempted to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami using explosives hidden in his shoe. Fortunately a faulty fuse meant he was overpowered and he was arrested. The upshot was that passengers were now required to remove their shoes for examination when passing through airport security. In 2006 another mode of attack was foiled in an ambitious plot to destroy ten airliners flying from the UK to the US and Canada using liquid explosives that would be mixed in flight to produce an explosive. Though the plan was disrupted and the bombers jailed, the planned method to be used led to the ban on passengers carrying liquids over 100ml on to flights in hand luggage. Frustrated at getting on to the aircraft to destroy it, some terrorists have chosen to attack the airport — knowing that this prestige target will also gain them headlines. In 2007, for example, two men rammed the passenger terminal at Glasgow airport with a car containing a crude bomb. Fortunately, although the car was on fire, the bomb did not detonate and the men were arrested.  However, earlier this year 37 people were killed and 137 injured when suicide bombers attacked the busy arrivals hall in Domodedovo Airport in Moscow. This followed an earlier attack in 2005 in which two female Chechen sucicide bombers had killed 89 people in a co-ordinated dual attack on two Russian domestic flights originating from Domodedovo. The end of 2009 also saw another new method of attack tried — this time by a terrorist from Nigeria who attempted to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit using plastic explosives hidden in his underwear. On this occasion the device did not work as intended and set him on fire. He was arrested on landing. The response to this attempt of a device being smuggled in underwear and/or in a sensitive part of the body has been the introduction in November 2010 by the TSA of ‘Enhanced Screening’ either using a backscatter X-Ray or millimetre wave scanner to see beneath peoples clothing, or through more thorough  pat-downs if they refuse.

Threat from the ground

[caption id="attachment_5284" align="alignnone" width="403" caption="SA-16/18 MANPADS missile systems remain a disturbing threat for civil aviation."][/caption] But the threat does not only come from bombs or suicide attackers. Some also worry that the proliferation of man-portable SAMs (or MANPADS), such as the Russian SA-7/18 or US Stinger missiles, mean that they could be acquired and used by terror groups to bring down an airliner. Since 2001 three incidents have occurred in which large civilian aircraft have been attacked by MANPAD systems — the most famous being in 2003, when a DHL A300 freighter landed safely in Baghdad after being hit by a SA-7 missile. The easiest response to this has been to regularly patrol airport perimeters and enrol airport workers, aircraft spotters or even local people to report any suspicious activity nearby. Since MANPADS only have a very limited range, take-off and landing are the most vulnerable periods. Clearing a MANPADS launch footprint is of course possible only at airports that you or allied nations control so some responses have focused on fitting military-style defensive aid systems (DAS) to decoy incoming missiles. These can be laser based (DIRCM) or use flares. However, the expense and ongoing debate about safety has so far meant that only Israeli airlines, along with certain VVIP, aircraft have been equipped with these systems. A related but ground-based anti-MANPADS system ‘Vigilant Eagle’ has been proposed by Raytheon. This would use high-powered microwave directed energy from ground stations sited around an airport’s perimeter. However, while the emphasis is on MANPADS it is also notable that a heavy machine gun or anti-material sniper rifle could also be used to target an aircraft on take-off or landing — and with similar results if the operator was skilled enough.

Non-commercial airliner threats

But it is not just commercial passenger flights where the threat of aviation terrorism has spread and where new security rules have had to be enacted. October 2010 saw bombs made out of printer cartridges which were posted to US addresses by Al-Qaeda’s Yemen offshoot. These were found on two separate cargo aircraft with the intention that the timer would explode them over a US city. The response was a stepping up of cargo security with some countries banning cargo from Yemen. The general aviation community, too, has not been exempt from scrutiny — despite the limited effect that a light aircraft under a certain weight could have. In July 2010, for example, the TSA launched its General Aviation Secure Program — where the community could inform the authorities of modified aircraft, strange behaviour or suspicious people near airfields. While it may seem paranoid, it is notable that the 9/11 attackers who attended flight schools had no interest in how to land an aircraft — an act that would set alarm bells off now — but whose significance was missed then. Yet, despite these measures, there still remain loopholes and gaps in aviation security. For example catering, cleaning and duty free services could be used to place explosives or arms onboard an aircraft for an accomplice to use later on. Though these employees have airside passes and are screened, regular news stories involving theft from secure areas on airports shows there is cause for concern. Duty free itself is also a concern. Confiscating nail clippers but then allowing passengers to buy, for example, a large glass bottle of vodka onboard, which could either be smashed and used as an offensive weapon, or its contents used to create a fire seems an anomaly given other restrictions. Finally there is the worrying spectre of body or cavity bombs — either by using an existing cavity like the rectum or more sinisterly, getting the explosives surgically embedded. This method has already been used once in an attempted attack in Saudi Arabia.

Wider consequences

[caption id="attachment_5285" align="alignnone" width="332" caption="So called 'naked' body scanners unleashed a wave of protests about privacy in some quarters."][/caption] So what are the consequences of this decade of aviation security? First — despite the efforts to target air transport — the AQ and other terrorist organisations have been unable to repeat 9/11 — despite the motivation to succeed it may have given them. Planners now know that the cockpit is locked and secured and that even if screams are heard from the back, the pilots have orders to land the aircraft safely rather than allow it to be used as a weapon. Even if cockpit doors were strengthened — the general public now — having been aware that a hijacking may be a suicide attack — are likely to fight back and overwhelm any hijackers. The presence of air patrols and QRA aircraft also means that there is a final layer that can be used in the event of a worst case scenario. But there are downsides too. The massive and widespread tightening of aviation security around the world has invariably rubbed up against civil liberties and privacy concerns — with some arguing these responses were playing into the aims of terrorism (to create fear and force governments into repressive measures that then provoke a counter-response). Indeed, the past decade, for example, has seen a succession of sometimes worrying, sometimes bizarre, sometimes farcical incidents as rules have been applied and misapplied. For instance, a man was detained at Heathrow airport before a flight because he had a T-Shirt with a Transformers sci-fi robot holding a gun. Pilots, too have also been vocal about some of the illogical rules and procedures that have been brought in since 9/11 (even to the extent of one stripping in protest). They argue ‘Why screen us, and remove tiny penknives when we could, if we wanted, destroy the airliner ourselves merely by flying it towards the ground?’ In the latest complaints, the most recent ‘Enhanced Screening’ measures in the US set off a wave of protests from those who believed that photo-quality ‘nude’ scans of passengers would be shared, to anger and ‘Don’t touch my junk’ objections who felt that the TSA’s touching policy was far too invasive — especially towards children. Meanwhile, other critics have warned of the potential danger to civil liberties by the enhanced sharing of passenger data and cross referencing between government agencies and nations. There also may be an increasing perception of risk — magnified by the media — which can lead to overreactions and misunderstandings. Every air rage incident with a drunken passenger onboard becomes seen through the terrorism prism, a security threat — necessitating the scrambling of fighter jets to escort it home. An airliner which loses communication and which crashes in Greece, meanwhile is assumed initially by some to have been shot down. Finally the lack of aviation knowledge in the mainstream media equates a stolen Cessna 152 with the threat of a rogue 767. Finally, the locked cockpit may have had a small, but perhaps not insignificant, effect on recruitment and in sparking an interest in aviation by cutting off the wonder and excitement of an aircraft cockpit. Many older readers might remember that visits to the flight deck for children were a spur to developing a career in aerospace.


[caption id="attachment_5286" align="alignnone" width="403" caption="Queue at airport. In the modern world, wherever people gather in significant numbers is a pontential target."][/caption] As this article shows the past decade has seen enormous changes in securing the air transport system — with each incident adding to the ‘ratcheting’ effect. However, the results have been that AQ and other terrorist groups have been unable to replicate 9/11 or even another Lockerbie — despite extensive efforts to pull off another ‘spectacular’. Indeed, the most recent attacks, that of Domedodovo and the printer cartridge plot have seemed to indicate that despite the attraction of downing an aircraft mid-air, it has become too risky. But the threat of mass casualty aviation terrorism has not been eliminated wholesale. Anywhere where people gather, whether it is concerts, sporting events, theatres or transport terminals, remains an attractive target. Sanitising and erecting barriers at airports – merely moves the queue outside the terminal. And as the 1972 Lod and Moscow airport attacks show — sometimes the terrorists do not even need to pass security. Aviation has changed completely and we can never go back. But perhaps the most significant conclusion is, despite these deadly threats and the security ‘hassle’ we now take as normal, air travel continues to grow. If it was 9/11’s aim to make people afraid to fly ever again, it did not work.  

Aerospace International Contents - September 2011

News Roundup - p4 Kicking the parameters- p12 Profile of the AirMule VTOL fancraft Is it safe?- p 14 Air Transport Security Developments 9/11: ten years on - p18 Looking back on a decade of aviation security Libya: the conflict to date- p 22 Focus on the ongoing Libyan air campaign British rotorcraft 'rebirth' - p 26 A second chance for the UK civil helicopter sector? Letter - p 29 Empire of the Sky and the BAE Hawk Plane Speaking - p30 Interview with Brian Johnson, IoM Director of Civil Aviation The last word - p34 Keith Hayward on the Britain's future carriers
    This is a full article published in Aerospace International: September 2011. As a member, you recieve two new Royal Aeronautical Society publications each month - find out more about membership.

Tim Robinson
6 September 2011