Understanding Terrorism, Part 1

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Terrorism 360° - understanding terrorism in three parts

I. The characteristics of terrorism

One can say that Europe is going through rough times these days when it concerns the security state of citizens all over the continent. What started as a well-established threats by the Islamic state on western countries within the EU, has become reality in the form of terror attacks in major cities such as: Brussels, Paris and Copenhagen – not exactly the first locations that pop in mind if you were asked 6 months ago, where would it be possible that terror attacks will occur over the world.

This article, doesn’t aim to be the standard text, which will explain in detail what terrorism is and what its goals are! I leave that for you and Google, this way, you would be able to create your own opinion about terrorism and understand its substance.

The main question that is being asked is: Why choosing the way of terrorism? It is obvious that the answer to this question is the current political situation as well as the balance of forces. But is it the correct answer? Does the ideology that served the IRA will have the same effect on organizations such as Al Qaeda? Of course not.

So what are the characteristics of terrorism? That is a very good question that will help us understanding the life (or death) cycle of terrorism. In the following series of articles, I will try to shade more light on that topic, focusing on the challenges, which terrorism is presenting to aviation security.

A terrorist was not born as a terrorist! He or she are going through a process of self-recognition and recognition of an ideology, to which he or she can identify with, an ideology that embraces the use of power and violence in order to promote the groups interests. That is a short and precise description of the organization related terrorist. But what about terrorists who, ideologically, do not identify themselves with any terror group? Are the executers of shooting attacks in schools (Sandy Hall School) and universities (VA Tech) in the US, qualify’’ as terrorists or are they psychotic criminals? A very interesting question with a much more interesting answer - whereas prior to a criminal executing a deadly shooting or uses explosives in order to kill citizens or law enforcement officers , an act of crime, such as robbery or drug deal is being committed, the terrorist is on a one way killing journey as from the very first second of the execution of the terror attack, and as seen many times in the aviation, it doesn’t matter if the reasons for that are ideological or mental illness related. Do all terrorists use guns and explosives? Cyber terrorism has shown us that a keyboard, a mouse and internet access along with high end cyber knowledge can also make powerful weapons, not the kind of weapons for which the PFLP terrorists were known for back in the 70’s. It shows us only that keeping an open mind in understanding the modus operandi of terrorist is useful when trying to analyze the risk or threat assessment.

Terrorism and aviation security

Not many terror attacks (also called in the AVSEC lexicon as act of unlawful interference) ended up in terrorists flying jets into sky scrapers or blowing them up at 33.000 feet. There are records of hundreds of terror attacks which did not end up in destroying the aircraft. In some of the hijacks of aircrafts no weapons were even involved, only by the force of threatening the crew and passengers, the terrorists took command over the aircraft.

What is it than that so called ,,secret ingredient’’ on which every terror attack or act of unlawful interference is based upon? The ideology changes according to the characteristics of the executing group, weapons are nice to have, but not always necessary. So what is it, that special element in the evolution of a terror attack? It is the critical and exact moment in which the terrorists took the decision to execute the attack! As from that stage there is no point of return, the terrorists took the decision which in fact empowers them (or him) with all the advantages over the ,,good guys’’ – the terrorists can choose where, when and how to operate and execute their plan. All the AVSEC guys can do is try to prepare to the moment and minimize the impact of the attack, that’s called: risk based analysis or threat based assessment. But as of this point on, the terrorists are programmed as if on ,, auto pilot’’, the ideology and cause are not relevant anymore, only the act itself is to be considered. This is why the moment of deciding on the execution is the most important in the chain of terrorism.

Why are aircrafts so attractive for terrorists?

The question should be changed into – why is aviation so attractive to terrorists? The answer that was given back in the 70’s and 80’s used to state that because aviation is the most modern and safest means of transportation, hitting that transportation channel will influence governments and will affect the public. In a way it can be said that this answer is still valid, the echo of terror attacks over the media will still serve it’s purpose. But are only aircrafts stand as a target for terrorists or does aviation infrastructure represents in a way attraction for attackers? The answer is again to be found at the terrorists’ end of the game, and what are their goals when they consider executing such an attack. Whereas an aircraft can be multi-utilized either as a weapon (as seen on 09/11), being bombed either by introducing explosives by cargo or hold baggage into it, or being hijacked in order to negotiate the release of prisoners or for asylum, the impact of the press is limited and the leverage on the economics of the targeted country is limited. An airport on the other hand is listed in most of the countries as ,,critical infrastructure’’ and is of most valuable importance in terms of economics to the respective countries. Although the modus operandi while attacking an airport is limited to ground attack or missile attacks (Arkia 757 being targeted in Kenya back in 2002), the impact of a terror attack can be enormous due to shutting down the airport, which means in many countries the closure of the international aviation gateway, a situation that will impact the economics of that county in terms of tourism, import/export and will affect the public opinion of the country. The common thing, which the two kind of attacks share, is the international response of the targeted country in which the airport is located or to whom the airline belongs.

When did it all start?

Since the Wright brothers took off until the aviation Big Bang (see part 2 of this series on aviation terrorism), hundreds of attacks on the aviation took place worldwide! The first reported act of unlawful interference goes back to 1931, where in Peru, a group of rebels hijacked an aircraft on the Lima-Arequipa line and threatened the captain (capt. Ricards) to fly to another destination. A modest start to an era of violence and brutality in the sky, which caused the world to hold it’s breath while history was written during the IDF operation in Uganda to free the hostages of the hijacked Air France plane, or the taking over of the hijacked Sabena aircraft in Israel (which had a brief stopover in Vienna prior to being hijacked en route to Lod), to wonder on the cruelty of the PFLP terrorist, Hindawy, who sent his pregnant partner to board an El Al plane in London while carrying a bomb in her hold baggage, to cry with the families of the PAN AM 103 (Lockerbie) victims or to stand for hours in disbelief in front of the screen during the 09/11 terror attacks.

Terrorists, mentally ill people, asylum seekers and criminals are the main actors, as background there will always an airplane or an airport to be found and the modus operandi varies from hot and cold weapons, laser guided missiles, bombs, bomb packages and bomb cars – the repertoire of the possible modus operandi can inspire many Hollywood action film producers, but in this case, in reality, people get hurt, families lose their dearests.
In the evolution of aviation terrorism, 2 incidents occurred which changed or had a hugh impact on the way security tackles the threat, both will be the issues of the brief overview in the 2 following parts of this mission:

  1. Aviations Big Bang – How did 09/11 attacks created a tabula rasa for aviation security
  2. Operation Hammorage – invest 4000$ and impact the world at 50 Billion $

Text: Elad Gadot, certified ECAC AVSEC manager and an ACC3 validator

Hinweis: „Punktlandungen” sind Kommentare einzelner Autoren, die nicht zwingend die Meinung der Austrian Wings-Redaktion wiedergeben.