A State of Aerial Insecurity

While Egyptian and Russian state security services are quietly, doggedly pursuing the bomb maker whose device brought down a Russian MetroJet flight over the Sinai in October, 2015, events elsewhere demonstrate that airport security is weak/non-existent where it should be otherwise robust, strong.

Daallo A321

As is common practice among smaller air carriers overseas and in the U.S., Daallo Airlines—a Somalia based carrier, was operating its flight #159 on a wet-lease basis with Hermes Airlines. Within the airline industry, a wet lease is a common contractual arrangement whereby a licensed third party provides any/all qualified aircraft crews, airworthy aircraft, and appropriate services to a separate airline company; in this case, Daallo Airlines. On February 2, Daallo—a small Horn of AfricaSomali airline with regional passenger service in eastern Africa, was operating flight #159, an A-321 with 74 passengers from Mogadishu, Somalia to Dijbouti.

Interestingly, Daallo has an agreement with Turkish Airlines that Turkish ticketed passengers can fly on Daallo Airlines flights to/from select eastern African airports when Turkish is otherwise unable to operate its aircraft. On February 2, Turkish was unable to operate into Mogadishu Airport, Somalia. In accordance with their arrangement, Daallo flew Turkish passengers to where they could meet scheduled Turkish service in Dijbouti. There may be more to this story than a trunk line flight that Turkish Airlinesconnects Turkish passengers in one place to Turkish flights somewhere else. Evidence may exist that some portion of Turkish Airlines’ threat mitigation calculus is to leverage smaller airlines in eastern Africa to transport Turkish revenue passengers from a location with one security threat level to another location with a lower threat level.

If this is in fact Turkish’s method, it would raise a question: was Turkish sharing its threat information with the carriers it contracted with to transport Turkish passengers? Was Turkish receiving threat information from government sources—in Turkey, Somalia, or elsewhere? Was anyone sharing relevant intelligence information with the Transportation Ministry in Somalia? Somali authorities indicated that the lone passenger fatality on flight #159—and the person who brought the explosive device onboard #159, an erstwhile laptop computer, was on Turkish’s passenger watchlist. If this is true, did Turkish Airlines outsource its risk to Daallo and in so doing, not prevent an incident but ensure it happened on another airline? With regard to these questions, associated entities are still in the information gathering stage. New facts will likely emerge; others could change.

What is the so what of these two aircraft bombings over the last few months? No organization has yet to claim responsibility for bombing Daallo #159; furthermore, any such claims would have to be examined using contextual intelligence indicators. Many of those contextual indicators point to two plausible explanations for the organization behind the bombing: the Islamic Al-Shabab FlagState (IS) or al-Shabab, an IS waanabe. After the MetroJet bombing, the IS stepped forward and claimed responsibility; a claim not contested by any other organization. Outside of these aircraft bombings there is a hint at linkages between the IS and al-Shabab. The latter having asserted it shares the IS worldview and aspires to the IS’s size and scope. Given flight #159’s origin in Somalia and the presence of al-Shabab in Somalia and neighboring countries, there is a possibility that al-Shabab was involved in the #159 bombing.  On a side note, al-Shabab has an established capability to produce explosive devices.  Barring a visible claim of responsibility and absent any publicly available evidence of direct collaboration between the IS and al-Shabab in the flight #159 incident, we may be left with only deductive capacities to infer linkages otherwise invisible.  Alternatively, it would not strain credulity to suggest that the IS shared its explosive device “know” with al-Shabab; knowledge the IS gained from its internal bomb development and plot execution.

On one hand, there may be two transnational terrorist organizations with recent knowledge and operating experience with foiling airport security in multiple Daallo 159 Aircraftnations. On the other hand, there could be only one organization responsible for aircraft bombings, each separated by 91 days, two time zones, and approximately 2,000 miles. With two incidents of devices successfully smuggled onboard passenger aircraft—one a hull loss, the other a less disastrous outcome, one or more groups are rapidly accumulating experience and proficiency at aerial bombing. Arguably, an art that everyone would like to see extinct.

MetroJet Wreckage

Setting those matters aside, these two incidents point to several takeaways; among them, strengthened airport security is illusory, a chimera. Practically speaking, airport security perhaps never fully improved everywhere it mattered. Moreover, smart, adaptive terrorism organizations teach us that incomplete improvement produces vulnerabilities that terrorists will eventually locate and exploit. Next, one or more terrorism organizations that succeeded in placing viable bombs aboard aircraft suggests an emergent body of device and execution knowledge that could spread, to other organizations and places around the globe. Additionally, there is no evidence that suggests that the IS or al-Shabab consider western airlines out of bounds. In fact, the November attacks in Paris and other sub-tier incidents since suggest a willingness and interest of the IS to take the fight to places of western vulnerability.  And, one should not forget Al Qua’ida motives and capabilities.

Transnational terrorists are demonstrating that despite losses in other areas, they remain fully capable of greater agility and adaptiveness than state regimes and their security measures.  With two events separated by 91 days, no one can claim to be surprised when the next bombing attempt occurs. Nations and companies should proceed with care, and a sense of urgency.

© Copyright 2016 Deeper Think.  All rights reserved.