Securing the Skies: Threats to Civil Aviation From International Terrorism

By Paul Williams
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
1997, Vol. 1996/1997 No. 2 | pg. 1/1

Threats to international security may assume many guises all of which deserve thorough analysis. Indeed, as we approach the new millennium, there are a multitude of ‘morbid symptoms’ which threaten to thwart any attempts at achieving global security; these include international terrorism. Yet despite the obvious hurdles that threats and vulnerabilities present there is, at present, a more fundamental problem which precludes the fulfilment of international security; namely, there is no consensus as to what it is that we seek or how it is to be attained. Like Jason aboard the Argo, we desire the (mythical) I golden fleece’ of global security and have embarked upon the quest accordingly but, as yet, we know not where it lies. For all our efforts without some form of route-map, voyages which set sail for distant utopias are apt to succumb to the perils along the way.

However, there is one area of international security where both the threats and vulnerabilities, are known and the processes for prevention have already been catalogued: civil aviation security. In the wake of such atrocities as the Air India and Lockerbie bombings and the recent destruction of TWA 800, any study of international security which claims to focus on people rather than states must analyse the threats posed to people by international terrorism in all its forms. After outlining the contemporary context in which ‘security’ is sought, this article will explore exactly what threats face those who utilise the civil aviation industry, the nature of existing security countermeasures, and finally consider what steps are necessary to prevent future sabotage.

According to Antonio Gramsci, an interregnum marked a point at which the old is dying and the new cannot be born; from this interregnum “there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.(1) These symptoms represent threats to global security and encompass a wide variety of trends of which international terrorism is but one among many. We live in a world where nation-states are unable to ensure their citizen’s security yet they resist efforts to establish alternative socio- political organisations which desire other than ‘talking-shop’ status.

In the Third World, where the nation-state is largely a juridical myth, civil disorder is rife, old conflicts persist, and debt and poverty breed injustice and so fuel the possibility of violence. The repercussions of violence, however, are not confined to homo sapiens. In a contemporary era where there is a growing culture of mass consumption amid competitive capitalism, the global ecosystem, crucial to our very existence, is beginning to founder under the pressures of the drive to accumulate capital. It is surely the ultimate in blinkered short-termism to jeopardise our survival as a species for the sake of relative economic efficiency.

“The development of civil aviation networks, which defy national-terrestrial boundaries, has created a prime target for terrorist activity”

While such environmental trends emerge relatively slowly, the twentieth century has witnessed an exponential rate of technological change; the globalisation of the local continues at an accelerating pace, so much so that the traditional national boundaries of the globe look increasingly anachronistic in ‘the borderless world’. (2) Human beings, who wield such technology, continue to populate the planet in ways that create new, and exacerbate existing, demographic pressures; the West is struggling to cope with a rapidly ageing population while the Third World suffers the effects of countless young people who face the prospect of a bleak and miserable future at the losers end of competitive capitalism.

Our collective future will increasingly be explicitly shaped by our actions and postures in the present; and given a growing apathy towards ‘politics’ in the developed world, combined with an increasing number of people who regard education as simply a tool to maximise efficiency within a system of competitive capitalism, the prospects are far from bright. All these symptoms of change underpin a contemporary era where there is increasing international traffiking of narcotics, unprecedented flows of refugees, widespread fear at the proliferation of AIDS, and a dramatic increase in international terrorist activity since the late 1960’s. This is the world which Gramsci’s concept ‘interregnum’ captures neatly; it is a world which nation-states cannot manage unilaterally. Transnational problems require transnational solutions.

Attempting to define political concepts, such as terrorism, in a rigid and static manner within such a dynamic environment is not unproblematic yet in order to gain a degree of intellectual coherence as to the relevant subject matter it is also necessary. Therefore, while recognising the arbitrary nature of definitions and the necessary permeability of their boundaries, terrorism, according to Paul Wilkinson, is a special form of political violence, not a political philosophy or a movement. It is premeditated and aims to create a climate of extreme fear. It is directed at a wider audience or target than the immediate victims of the violence. And it inherently involves attacks on random and symbolic targets, including civilians, which is why terrorism constitutes an attack on human rights. (3)

Terrorism has been applied throughout history but its international variant has increased in both regularity and scope to the extent that it now affects over half the countries in the international system. It is therefore now a significant threat to projects aimed at global security and has evolved to such a technologically advanced form that no state acting alone has the ability to solve the conundrum which international terrorism poses.

While technological advances undoubtedly contribute to the increased sophistication of terrorist arsenals and the dissemination of their political objectives via the world’s media network, it has also provided such organisations with new and lucrative targets. The civil aviation industry, stolen vehicles containing explosives (so-called ‘car-bombs’), and public transportation systems are but three prominent examples. The development of civil aviation networks, which defy national-terrestrial boundaries, has created a prime target for terrorist activity.

The mid-flight sabotage of a single plane allows terrorist organisations access to both worldwide media exposure for their cause, and the knowledge that they have successfully managed to infiltrate what is proudly advertised as a secure means of transportation by numerous governments. It is therefore two main factors which attract terrorists to civil aviation sabotage: the publicity which such an act generates; and the growing attraction of terrorists to ‘soft’ (civilian) targets since many high-prestige targets (military and diplomatic institutions) have been ‘hardened’. But why is it that some terrorist organisations should view civil aircraft as ‘soft’ targets? How is it that the slaughter of several hundred civilians (a Boeing 747 has a capacity of approximately 450) can be considered relatively simple by terrorist groups? Surely there are stringent counter-terrorist measures in place worldwide to combat such a threat?

Despite security measures of varying degrees of stringency, the recent history of terrorist attacks against the world’s airlines appears to highlight a worrying trend, instances of successful mid-air sabotages have been all too common. Indeed, by the late 1980’s they were so numerous as to warrant an enquiry with the ultimate aim of restructuring the entire system of aviation security in the United States. In 1989, in reaction to the Lockerbie atrocity of 21 December 1988, the President of the United States, George Bush, commissioned The President’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism. Its mandate was to be ‘…a comprehensive study and appraisal of the practices and policy options with respect to preventing terrorist acts involving aviation. (4)

The list of sabotages in recent years makes for grim reading. Between 1949-1989 there were 95 officially recognised and documented explosions aboard aircraft, and in the period from 1985-1989 there were 1,237 fatalities. Perhaps the most infamous of these were the Air India bombings of 23 June 1985 in which 329 people died off the coast of Ireland; the Korean Air disaster of 29 November 1987 in which 115 were killed; Pan-Am flight 103 of 21 December 1988 which was destroyed over Lockerbie resulting in the deaths of 270 people; the mid-air explosion on 19 September 1989 of the French UTA flight over the Niger desert in which 171 people lost their lives; and the bombing of the Columbian Avianca on 27 November 1989 near Bogota in which 107 people were killed. In addition to these sabotages there were other documented failed attempts; 17 between 1982-1987 in the President’s Commission alone. (5)

Even this selective list makes several observations possible. Firstly, no state, regardless of its status in the international system, is immune to terrorist activity. Therefore, in order to delineate any comprehensive strategy to combat international aviation terrorism, states must work within multilateral forums which have the ability to operate and transfer information at a supra-national level. The very nature of the aviation industry renders traditional national-based strategies anachronistic. Secondly, the sheer magnitude of the problem is much greater than present efforts at security would tend to suggest. Although the risk of injury or death is far greater from road accidents or violent crime than air travel, the latter is the site of a significant proportion of international terrorist activity. In fact, as Paul Wilkinson demonstrates, in 1989 deaths caused by terrorist attacks on civil aviation accounted for 70 per cent of the fatalities from international terrorism in all its forms.’

Given the seductiveness of civil aircraft as terrorist targets, the international community should give aviation security the priority it so obviously warrants. Finally, when assessing the casualties of air disasters, the list of victims is almost entirely constituted of civilians. This may indicate that the desire of terrorist organisations to limit their campaigns to high-prestige targets is waning. Instead, tactics which result in maximum carnage and generate maximum publicity seem to be preferred; and in scenes of carnage it is usually the innocent who are the first victims. For whatever reason, be it revenge, politics or otherwise, the history of the aviation industry is littered with examples of what some may choose to call victories of terrorism and others may denote as lapses in aviation security systems.

This brief chronology of recent terrorist attacks on civil aircraft highlights the fact that there are a number of terrorist organisations (complete with state sponsors on many occasions) who have not only a proven resume of merciless behaviour but also possess concrete knowledge of the vulnerabilities and loopholes of existing civil aviation security systems. The selection of incidents listed above are proof that present security measures are not watertight. This point will be tragically reinforced if it is subsequently revealed that it was sabotage which brought down TWA flight 800 over the Atlantic on 17 July 1996 killing 230 people. Given the apparently permanent fallibility of existing security systems, exactly how is it that terrorists are consistently succeeding in their grotesque operations?

In order to infiltrate a security system, with the aim of inserting an improvised explosive device (IED) onto an aircraft, a potential terrorist has a number of options:

  1. “The inserted unaccompanied bag” – usually displaying an interline routing tag the bag is introduced to the baggage stream by either airport staff or baggage handlers. It was allegedly this method which the two Libyan suspects employed to insert the bomb which destroyed flight PA 103 over Lockerbie.
  2. "The disappearing passenger unaccompanied bag” – usually tagged for an interline route with at least two airports, this occurs when a passenger fails to report for the subsequent leg of an interline route. However, the passenger’s pre-tagged baggage is nonetheless transferred to the next outgoing flight on the itinerary. If the passenger checks-in but does not board the outgoing flight this is called a “gate no show.”
  3. "The unwitting accomplice” – a passenger is duped into carrying an illegal item in their cabin or hold baggage. In some circumstances passengers may opt to pool their baggage in order to avoid excess charges - this has a similar effect.
  4. “The suicide bomber” – a passenger knowingly carries an illegal item within their cabin or hold baggage.

In practice IEDs have been infiltrated into both airline baggage and cargo systems. Until the 1990s systems to ensure cargo security were noticeably underdeveloped, as Rodney Wallis explains, ‘airlines that had spent large sums of money to security-screen passengers and their baggage were content to carry tons of unscreened cargo on the same aircraft.” Indeed, such an omission has been utilised by Columbian drug traffickers among others to pedal their illicit cargo. If drugs can be smuggled aboard aircraft cargo, what is to prevent explosives travelling in a similar fashion, as was the case in the destruction of the Air Lanka Tristar in 1986? As long as cargo security remains a secondary concern amongst airline security programs terrorists are bound to exploit any potential weaknesses, for example, shipments of mail.

The record of aviation history reveals that while cargo security is indeed a potential liability, in practice passengers and their baggage remain the major security threat to airlines. While passenger and hand- baggage screening represents the most visible aspect of airline security to the travelling public it is by no means infallible. In this process X-rays and open searches (of a recommended 10 per cent of all hand baggage) form the basis of the security system. However, both the TWA (2 April 1986) and Korean Air 858 (29 November 1987) airline bombings resulted from IEDs taken aboard the aircraft in hand baggage. More generally, this process also suffers from the fact that, put bluntly, the larger the bag the less likely one is to discover anything.

In Annex 17 of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) network of international legislation (which governs aviation security), governments are called upon to protect civil aviation against the possibility of terrorist incidents through the mandatory standards and recommended practices outlined therein. As of 19 December 1987 the following standard has been applicable and documented as Annex 17 (4.3. 1):

Each Contracting State [there are 162] shall establish measures to ensure that operators when providing a service from that State do not transport the baggage of passengers who are not on board the aircraft unless the baggage separated from passengers is subjected to other security control measures.’

Unfortunately this procedure has not always been followed. At a recent one-day symposium, ‘Safe Bags? – Safe Cargo?’ Rodney Wallis opened with the grim assertion that some 8,000 bags around the world are mishandled ever day.(9) Whatever the reason for such lapses, and given that no state is immune to acts of terrorism, it seems sheer lunacy not to embark wholeheartedly upon a program to close such a security loophole. As David Joyce, the British Airways security chief in the late 1980s argued, baggage reconciliation is ‘the bedrock of the anti-sabotage program.”‘ Not only is such reconciliation the foundation of anti-sabotage programs it also offers increased economic efficiency to scheduled carriers. Recovery programs for lost baggage cost airlines US$400 million in 1988 alone.”

Therefore, effective reconciliation would eliminate not only a major vulnerability from the industry’s security system but also the vast majority of its lost baggage. Of course implementation of an adequate automated system would require a capital investment (of approximately US$400 millionftnt12c which may be beyond the means of many poorer nations but it would both increase passenger morale, by avoiding personal litigation cases, and redress a major source of unnecessary airline expenditure. In short, the case for reconciling baggage and passengers is overwhelming yet its implementation continues to be delayed.

The reasons given for not yet achieving 100 per cent baggage reconciliation are few and unconvincing. One tactic is to argue, as UK Minister for Aviation, Lord Brabazon of Tara did in 1991, that extensive reconciliation of all transfer bags would bring civil aviation networks grinding to a halt. However, given the existence of fully automated baggagereconciliation technology’. based on personal computers -and the humble bar-code, in June 1988 this hardly seems plausible.” A more plausible excuse, for poorer nations at least, is finance. But while poorer nations must address the matter of priorities the majority of developed countries are not hampered by such financial constraints.

An alternative place of refuge is to arrogantly adopt an ‘it-will-never- happen-to-us’ mentality. But given that immunisation from international terrorism is a chimera such an attitude is positively dangerous. Finally, there are those who seek recourse to the sanctuary of relativity; again Lord Brabazon, ‘no other nation has achieved this [reconciliation of unaccompanied bags] for airports with any substantial volume of traffic.”‘ This is tantamount to arguing that we will not protect our passengers because no one else has protected theirs. Moreover, not only is baggage reconciliation the task of the airline, not the airport, but Swissair has managed to apply the reconciliation process to Switzerland’s principal airport. This distinct lack of plausible opposition to calls for full reconciliation should have been overcome by 1996, yet there still exists the bizarre situation that not all passengers are being afforded the protection that they have had the legal right to expect since 19 December 1987.

At this point it is necessary to draw some observations. We have seen that the record of aviation security history reveals that on many occasions such sabotage attempts have been successful thus highlighting the fallibility of existing airline security systems. Despite various counter-measures there is still the potential for successful sabotage, the most recent example being the destruction (possibly sabotage) of TWA 800 over the Atlantic on 17 July 1996. Secondly, there are numerous ways to infiltrate an airline security system whether the target for the IED is cargo or passenger baggage.

In practice, the latter appears to be responsible for the largest area of vulnerability and accordingly attempts have been made to provide, and subsequently strengthen, international legislation aimed at both the screening and reconciling of passengers and their baggage. However, implementation of this legislation has not been universally forthcoming from the members of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) or the contracting states of ICAO. It is therefore in the interests of the travelling public to ask: why full implementation of the existing international legislation has not occurred?

Although the threat to civil aviation from terrorist attack is relatively low level, the midair sabotage of an aircraft represents the most dramatic and visible face of international terrorism. This alone should be incentive enough to ensure that any international legislation is fully implemented. However, despite mandatory ICAO legislation the majority of contracting states are yet to provide reconciliation standards which comply with Annex 17 (4.3.1). This means that airlines who continue to carry unaccompanied baggage without subjecting it to other security control measures are failing to comply with ICAO legislation which was applicable as of 19 December 1987.

Such a procedure is undoubtedly reckless and in the event of an IED disaster constitutes wilful misconduct with its unlimited liability consequences. This verdict befell Pan-American following the Lockerbie atrocity. At present a wide variety of security standards exist within both the world’s airports and airlines. The crucial point for passengers is that these do not fall below a prescribed international level. ICAOs Annex 17 was drafted by experts to facilitate development of such a ‘floor’ but their recommendations have little value unless they are implemented. Considering that effective passenger/baggage reconciliation will reduce not only the inconvenience of lost bags but also the possibility of mid- air sabotage, its immediate and universal implementation should be one of the top priorities for both national governments and the world’s airlines.


  1. Quoted in Booth, K. (ed) New Thinking about Strategy and International Security (HarperCollins, London: 199 1) p. 1.
  2. See Kenichi Ohmae The Borderless World: Power and Strategy in the Global Marketplace (HarperCollins, 1994).
  3. Wilkinson, P. ‘How to combat the reign of terror’ New Statesman 2 August 1996, p. 12.
  4. Report of the President’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, By Executi@ Order 12686 of 4 August 1989, (Washington, D.C. 1990).
  5. ibid, Appendix E.
  6. Wilkinson, P. ‘International Terrorism: New Risks to World Order’ in Baylis, J. & Rengger, N.J. (eds) Dilemmas of World Politics: International Issues in a Changing World (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1992) p.238
  7. Wallis, R. Combatn Air Terrorism (Brassey’s US: 1993) p.77. , I 9
  8. Annex 17, International Standards and Recommended Practices, Security, Safeguarding International Civil Aviation Against Acts of Unlawful Interference, 4th edition, Oct. 1989. Chapter 4: Preventative Security Measures, 4.3. 1.
  9. Quoted in Richard Rowe,’Safety in Numbers’Airports International May 1996, p.13.
  10. Quoted in Wallis, R. op cit, note 7, p.75.
  11. Wallis, R. Presentation to the Airport Systems Conference on Passenger/Baggage Reconciliation, Orlando, Florida, 19 April 199 1, p.7.
  12. This was ICAOs estimate for worldwide compliance in the first year. Quoted in ibid, pp.6-7.
  13. See details of this system’s launch in ‘Carriers check out flexible reconciliation system’Airports International November 1988, p.40.
  14. Quoted in Wallis, R. op cit, note 7, p.75.

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