Having spent my entire career in government service working on national security issues, I come from a very different background than most of the people in the aviation industry. But I suspect my experience in senior level counterterrorism requires the same skills that senior figures in the aviation industry also require. My background helps me understand why aviation security remains at the top of the agenda for anyone focussed on terrorism, regional conflict, political conflict, instability and, of course, geopolitics.
There are three security related themes in the aviation sector that are directly shaped by broad geopolitical trends:
- The fixation of terrorists with aviation
- The problem of safe havens
- The role of technology
1. The fixation of terrorists with aviation
When I was Director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the U.S., I was often asked “What keeps you awake at night?” The answer: the persistence of terrorist groups when it comes to targeting the aviation sector.
Throughout the entire post-9/11 period, I cannot recall a time when we were not dealing with some form of very real, proximate and imminent threat to aviation from terrorists. Everyone in the industry is aware that when aviation is seen as being insecure or incapable of guaranteeing the safe transport of goods and people economies can seize up.
Terrorists know and understand this. For them, aviation is an iconic target that has a disproportionately large place in our social and economic life. When they undermine confidence in it, they create fear and insecurity among the public, disrupt the economy, and expose government as being ineffective at providing security and incapable of protecting the populace, which is its first and most basic task.
All of this explains why terrorists fantasize about carrying out attacks aboard aircraft. It effectively fast tracks their agenda, whatever that agenda is. The relatively modest sums needed to support an attack using concealed explosives can quickly render pointless the billions that are spent by the aviation industry on security, which is why they will continue to develop their tactics, and the threat will remain ever present.
2. The problem of safe havens
A physical safe haven is an area which allows terrorist groups to operate without fear of disruption or disturbance. The terrorists’ safe haven gives them space to innovate, to experiment, to train and ultimately perfect their tactics and techniques.
Terrorist safe havens are created when governments are unable to exercise full sovereignty over their territory. We see this in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Syria. In each of these places, terrorist groups have taken advantage of a territorial safe haven and managed, over time, to develop the capacity and capability to mount serious attacks against the aviation sector.
Despite the success of efforts to roll back and eliminate the territorial control once exercised by the Islamic State, we continue to see large areas in both Syria and Iraq where sovereign control of territory remains outside the reach of their respective governments. So long as territorial safe havens are allowed to persist, the threat to aviation will remain significant.
3. The role of technology
At the National Counterterrorism Center, we often looked solely to technology and technological investments as our way out of whatever threat or security dilemma we faced. But over time, we came to realize that technology cuts both ways.
For example, our ability to detect explosives and protect aircraft is improving as we develop newer and better means of screening people and cargo. But at the same time, terrorists are equally clever and innovative in their own use of technology, leaving us trapped in a cycle of action and reaction.
The increasing automation of airline business certainly reduces costs and introduces efficiencies. It also reduces one significant vulnerability that the industry has always coped with — the challenge of insider efforts to undermine your security or to disrupt your operations. But you may only have replaced one form of vulnerability with another, as you’ve increased your potential exposure to cyber disruptions.
There is always an asymmetry in information between what governments know about terrorist threats and what business finds expedient. An example is the U.S. ban on laptops in hand luggage. The U.S. government wanted the ban, based on urgent, credible intelligence, while some commercial interests resisted it, so while I believe collaboration between the public and private sector is vital, there will always be tension.
With the caveat that government and security agencies will not always be in a position to divulge their intelligence in detail, it is imperative that we proactively seek to build ever better and closer partnerships between government and the industry and between governments around the world to mitigate the ongoing terrorist threat.
Nicholas J Rasmussen was the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the U.S. and formerly worked on the National Security Council staff as Special Assistant to the President