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International Programs Needed for Continuing Terrorist Threat to Global Aviation

Marc Frey
Security Debrief Blog
September 24, 2010

Secretary Napolitano’s recent Senate testimony focused on the myriad threats to the homeland and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) efforts to address them. Much of the session focused on the increased threat from homegrown radicals and the diversification of terrorist tactics. However, as the Secretary also emphasized, the terrorist threat to global aviation continues to be significant, as commercial aviation remains a favored target. Indeed, following the December 25, 2009, attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate an explosive aboard Northwest Flight 253, DHS has devoted considerable energy to addressing the vulnerabilities in the international aviation system.

Immediately following the Christmas Day incident, the Department announced that enhanced security measures would be put in place for people with passports from, or itineraries showing travel through, any of 14 countries. DHS has since rightly shifted away from a focus on national identity and more towards a person-by-person risk-based assessment. At the same time, DHS correctly continues to assess, on a country-by-country basis, overall aviation security posture and compliance with both DHS-led aviation security initiatives and international standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

For last-point-of-departure flights to the United States, for example, DHS examines the screening and security programs of each country to determine to what extent a country mitigates threats to civil aviation. This would include whether a country has installed advanced technology to screen passengers and baggage; shares threat information with partners; and performs additional physical screening, such as full-body pat-downs and close inspection of carry-on luggage. Similarly, the ICAO General Assembly is poised to approve several new aviation security standards.

The ultimate goal of both DHS and the international community should be an aviation security regime based on an individualized, threat-based approach using advance information, enhanced targeting, and an interactive system to prohibit boarding or to designate individuals for additional screening measures prior to boarding. Any regime also must allow for sufficient randomness in screening procedures to make it as difficult as possible for terrorist groups to anticipate and evade security measures.

A number of programs that are now underway contribute to that aviation security regime. For example, DHS draws on intelligence and law enforcement databases that search more than just biographical information to make connections between travelers and those known or suspected to be of security concern. In addition to using cutting-edge technology to identify potential bad guys, DHS has implemented “trusted traveler” programs – such as Global Entry or NEXUS – that facilitate the entry of low-risk travelers. DHS should look to expand these types of programs.

Currently, the benefits of Global Entry are open only to citizens of a limited (although growing) number of partner countries. Trusted traveler programs provide government officials with more reliable and timely information to make risk assessments. Additional countries should be incentivized to upgrade their security infrastructure, databases, and technologies to be eligible for trusted traveler status.

The improved collection and analysis of derogatory information on travelers and the identification of low-risk passengers are complementary approaches. Both contribute to securing the flow of people through the global aviation system and across international borders.