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Low risk terrorist access to the flight deck


Interviewed as part of ABC News reporting on the use of general aviation, including light jets and helicopters, as terrorist weapons, the clip that made air focused on the vulnerability of the flight deck of timeshare or rental executive aircraft to terrorists who are themselves the 'passengers.' While that certainly fit the needs of ABC's story, I believe the larger theme is generic control of a flight deck for terrorist aims.

Terrorist supply chains, or asymmetrical attacker Supply chains, are not built for commercial efficiency but for detection avoidance at least until the attack is in progress. The terrorist risk calculus is not based so much on survival as on mission success. In terms of using aircraft as weapons, the critical path in the terrorist chains has been access to, and control of, the flight deck. Readers should remember that the plan that matured into the 11 September airliner attacks started as the attempted purchase of light twin aircraft that were to be modified for aerial spraying (but in this case the liquid tanks were intended to transport flammable materials onto the target rather than spraying). Only when that plan failed, did the attackers turn to airliners. Control of the flight deck remained the critical path element.

Post 11 September, airline passengers are now alert to the fact that they will be part of the missile, rather than being held for some form of ransom, and so are much more likely to resist the hijackers. Given that risk to mission success, where is the next least defended flight deck? Three that come first to mind are:

  • Freight and cargo aircraft
  • Bizjets and executive jets
  • Medivac and executive helicopters

In such cases there are no passengers with which to contend, only the desired flight deck crew. Such flights do not have to emanate from US soil to create a threat to targets here. For example, a B727 with bladder tanks for extended range went missing from Luanda Airport in Angola in May 2003:

Fully fueled and perhaps retrofitted with portable fuel bladders and a cloned radar transponder this aircraft has the range to reach any area in the continental US along with a significant payload. The disappearance touched off searches across the continent and, in the post-Sept. 11 era, prompted worries about why the plane was taken, probably for use in a terrorist attack.

Thought to be in terrorist hands, it was spotted more than a month later in Conakry, Guinea resprayed and with new registration. (Planes go missing frequently in Africa and many flights around the continent carry arms, contraband, and drugs. The fact that this aircraft "was said to be owned by a member of West Africa's Lebanese business community, and was being used to shuttle goods between Beirut and Conakry" could just as easily indicate that it was used to move cargo for al Qaeda affiliates in West Africa. It or another plane just like it could just as easily been on its way to East Coast CONUS.

Cargo flights inbound from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and Canada are potential candidates as are "airliners transiting near or flying over the continental United States, but not destined to land at U.S. airports" until hijacked. It has been my experience that this freight area has been a bit of an unprotected underbelly, especially in its late night/off hours operations. Even more so for departure areas whose airfield security controls are presumably more lax and much more open to bribery than US airports.

In the above cases, hijackers have to take over a lightly manned aircraft, but in bizjet and executive jet air charter, timeshare or fractionally owned aircraft, the terrorist is invited aboard as a pampered guest:

Advocates say private jets are looking even more attractive for time poor executives, due to greater air traffic, long waits and exhaustive security searches for major hub-to-hub travel. Timeshare jets typically land at smaller, private airports such as RAF Northolt outside London and Teterboro in New Jersey, thus avoiding the traffic congestion associated with large hubs such as JFK airport or Heathrow.

Rigorous TSA-style inspections, or any inspections at all, for passengers and baggage are frequently nonexistent in this luxury service sector, and, in fact, luxury and freedom from inspection are frequent selling points.

Helicopters are as lethal as light jets and often able to fly at lower, evasive altitudes:

The Democratic National Convention in Boston forgot to lock down [helicopters] which flew to the hospitals adjacent to the Fleet Center and a general "36-mile no-fly zone" around the Fleet Center was useless feel good security as a 7300-pound MedFlight Dauphin II flying over 200 mph with 2000+ pounds of cargo and 350 gallons of fuel would cover "the entire six-mile by six-mile "no-fly zone" in less then 90 seconds."... And who in those few seconds would want to shoot down what might be a clearly marked medical flight entering a dense hospital area?

In these cases, access to aircraft and flight deck are easier than for commercial aviation.

Terror By Flight (Video)
Report: Al Qaeda may be focusing on small aircraft for use in terror attacks
ABC News
14 March, 2005

Government Report on U.S. Aviation Warns of Security Holes
New York Times
March 14, 2005

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  Terrorism Public  


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