– Two incidents highlight constant challenge for airport luggage screening
– Transatlantic plot demonstrates efforts to adapt evasive tactics
– Screening procedures require continuous evaluation and improvement as terrorists will target aviation industry in the long-term
On April 1, 2008 a Jamaican national was arrested at Orlando International Airport for attempting to board an Air Jamaica flight while carrying components for a pipe bomb. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents searched the man’s carry on luggage after TSA behavior detection officers (BDOs) noticed the man was acting suspiciously while passing through gate security. TSA agents discovered several components for a pipe bomb including end caps, a model rocket igniter, two miniature vodka bottles containing the colorless liquid, nitromethane, which is used as a solvent or as fuel for drag racing, and bomb making literature.
Also last week, TSA screeners stopped and arrested another passenger for having suspicious items in his carry on luggage in a small town airport in Stewart, Ohio. The man had placed a stolen airplane inflatable life vest in his luggage, containing metal cartridges, wiring, and batteries on its interior, leading TSA screeners to believe they were components of a bomb. The man was charged with criminal nuisance and criminal possession of stolen property.
The two incidents highlight the continued challenges TSA agents will continue to face in the long-term. To increase the efficiency of spotting potentially dangerous passengers, TSA is expected to increase the number of BDOs at the nation’s airports from current estimates at 1,200 to over 4,000 by mid 2009 (Source). However, terrorist networks will seek to adapt tactics to elude heightened levels of security. Further, details from the trial for the 2006 transatlantic airliner terror plot emphasize that terrorist networks will continue to develop evasive tactics and will target the aviation industry in the long-term.
Details Emerge For Bomb Plot That Rivaled 9/11
In London, prosecutors have begun to expose alarming details of the case of eight British suspects who plotted to blow up at least seven London flights bound for San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC, New York, Montreal, and Toronto (Previous Report). Details exposed in recent reports include:
• The defendants turned a northeast London flat into a bomb factory within days of it being purchased. One of the ringleaders, Assad Sarwar, purchased 40 liters of hydrogen peroxide, which was to be distilled into a more explosive concentration and then mixed with an organic compound commonly found in soft drinks. The defendants planned to inject a homemade detonating compound into hollowed out AA batteries, where they would then ignite the explosives using a disposable camera flash.
• The defendants had recorded suicide martyrdom videos where they spoke of revenge for American led oppression against Muslims of the world.
• As Sarwar visited Pakistan one month before the plot’s preparations were to be finalized, investigators allege Sarwar was in contact with terrorist networks abroad. Authorities uncovered a list of contacts and phone numbers, as well as a list of addresses in Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi.
• The cell disguised their physical appearance to appear more westernized as they applied for replacement passports.
Evolving Threat Requires Constant Efforts to Improve Security
While the arrest at Orlando International Airport is a success for TSA screening methods, improvements may be made to the overall ability of detecting suspicious items, as highlighted in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in 2007. According to the report, government investigators were able to smuggle prohibited items that could be used as bomb components past TSA screening checkpoints at various airports and on several occasions in 2007 (Source).
Additionally, another recent report suggested that federal air marshals are aboard less than one percent of all domestic flights (Source). TSA has refuted such claims, stating that air marshals cover a much larger percentage of flights using an intelligence driven risk-based approach to secure flights deemed high risk.
Enhancing screening procedures and flight security will be essential in protecting the US homeland. As terrorists have successfully targeted aviation in the past, aspiring terrorists will likely continue to target aviation in the long-term in hopes of inflicting mass casualties and adversely impacting the US economy.