The recent announcement by US and UK intelligence agencies strongly suggesting last week’s Russian passenger jet crash was the result of a bomb somewhere onboard the aircraft has already generated endless hours of media discussion, as well as calls by experts to establish greater scrutiny of the aviation security environment, with accusations that the current system is notably vulnerable.
Events of this nature demand commentary, responsible analysis, and useful— not speculative— responses.
Outrage by those with little knowledge of the global aviation security system and its complexities, finger pointing and critiques regarding the functionality of that network of operations should not lead us to jump to conclusions, and begin summarily revising and reshaping our security practices.
So, what should be the next step following this tragic incident?
Realistically, the next step is to permit the investigation to take its course and enable investigators to gather as many facts as possible. The news that a British team will review the security posture at the airport at Shaim El Sheik is a positive move, and I would venture to suggest it should be welcomed by the Egyptian government. These findings will provide insights into system vulnerabilities, especially if speculation that the crash was a result of an onboard explosive device is validated. The results will, and should, be used to mitigate future threats of this nature.
It is equally important to remember that significant changes do not happen overnight, but rather over the course of time. Yet, let us be clear, changes “do occur” in our aviation security system through careful analysis of a sophisticated security apparatus. The aviation security system has evolved over the course of decades, and to prevent another such catastrophic incident, it must continue to evolve as the threat evolves.
Significant technology developments have mitigated threats, whether in cargo bins or checked and carry-on luggage. The International Civil Aviation Organization has made notable changes to security standards and practices. Individual nations and groups of nations have also instituted policies and practices that have reshaped security in the aviation community.
The threat as we know it today continues to morph in reaction to existing security practices and procedures, as well as developing technology. Terrorist groups upgrade their explosives techniques and tradecraft to defeat advances in technology. However, they remain focused on the weakest link in the aviation security system – the “human factor.”
If ISIS truly was behind this incident, it will add a new twist to the threat everyone, including the United States, will need to look at under a new set of lenses. ISIS’s ability to “radicalize” has added a new dimension to the insider threat faced by the aviation community.
Airports are like small cities with thousands of employees working in large areas. If ISIS used an insider to bypass security and plant a device on the airliner, it will be important to take a very hard look at how the aviation community responds to the issue of an insider threat.
Success in mitigating the insider threat presents enormous challenges around the world. Better employee vetting, including perpetual vetting against existing terrorist and criminal lists, staff screening, unpredictable random inspections at airports and stronger quality assurance programs aimed at the insider, are just a few initiatives that could more effectively mitigate this known threat.
Unfortunately, the vulnerability is not new. I have every expectation terrorists will continue to exploit it. Security professionals understand it is impossible to blanket a system as vast as the global aviation system 24/7, yet, it is possible to mitigate the threat through evolving technologies, policies and standards, better quality assurance of the existing security system and enhanced mitigation of the insider threat.
Whatever the results of the investigation yield, let it take its course before there is a reaction against a system which protects millions of people a day around the world. If this is an insider-based threat conducted by ISIS, then steps must to be taken to strengthen the response.
John Halinski is a former Deputy Administrator for the Transportation Security Administration.