Amid growing concerns over the increased number of foreign fighters leaving their countries for the Middle East to join terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State (ISIS), the United Nations Counterterrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) recently called for the expanded use of advance passenger information (API) to curb the flow of foreign fighters.
“Today, we have indications that more than 25,000 people have travelled abroad from more than 100 States to join terrorists groups, including ISIS,” said Hassan Baage, deputy director of CTED’s Assessment and Technical Assistance Office.
Several months ago, a UN report revealed a 71 percent increase in foreign recruits since the middle of last year—an increase the UN panel of experts referred to as “higher than it has ever been historically.”
These alarming new estimates are raising concerns that the likelihood of terrorist attacks occurring around the globe is increasing, prompting the UN to consider new measures to deter and detect foreign fighters.
One such measure is the use of API, an electronic communications system that collects a passenger’s biographical data and basic flight details provided by an airline carrier. The data is generally collected from the passenger’s passport or other government-issued travel document at the time of check-in, and includes details such as a passenger’s name and date of birth.
According to a report by CTED, the concept of API was developed in 1993 by International Air Transport Association and World Customs Organization to address the dramatic growth in airline passenger transport. The driving force behind the expansion of API has been the threat posed by terrorism, prompting the need for advance warning of persons of interest travelling to a country.
CTED’s report said, “In the absence of API, not only is a government’s border security compromised, but also its border control strategy is largely reactive because its ability to manage risk, gather and analyze intelligence, monitor trends and share passenger information with other countries is significantly diminished.”
Although the UN Security Council passed a resolution in September requiring airlines in member states to provide API to appropriate national authorities, only 12 of these 51 countries have interactive API that are able to conduct passenger risk assessments in near real-time, “alerting border-control agencies and airline carriers to potential FTFs [foreign terrorist fighters] before they board a flight.”
CTED’s report attributes low usage of API to the complexity and cost of the system. In addition, the report stated “the collection and use of passenger information may raise concerns relating to individual privacy rights and may require suitable oversight and regulation by States.”
Responding to the concern for privacy associated with use of API, Baage said “as API being essentially the data contained in the machine-readable zone of a passenger’s passport, the transfer of API to border-control authorities only gives border-control authorities earlier access to passenger data that would otherwise be presented by the passenger to such authorities for inspection upon arrival.”
The UN Security Council has also encouraged use of passenger name record systems, which allows airline operators or their authorized agents to generate a record for each flight booked by, or on behalf of, a passenger. When used effectively, the report states that passenger name record data can supplement API, allowing for better analysis by authorities of the risk that certain passengers represent.
To raise awareness of the benefits of API systems and to strengthen its use among member states in stemming the flow of foreign fighters, CTED provided twelve recommendations including the development – with the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Organization for Migration,WCO, and IATA– of plans and projects, with a particular focus on states affected by the foreign terrorist fighter threat.
The report noted, however, that API is only one element of a more comprehensive border management strategy, stating, “It should be noted that API alone cannot prevent the travel of foreign terrorist fighters. It is one tool that can be used to make it more difficult for fighters to travel freely.”