Egypt Air Plane Crash – The Yet-To-Be Learned Lesson

Airport authorities have yet realize that it is not enough to check for weapons. Without verifying the intentions of the passengers, aircrew, pilots and even the airport employees – it will remain very difficult to thwart attacks on civil aircraft. Opinion

Egypt Air Plane Crash – The Yet-To-Be Learned Lesson

If indeed a terror attack led to the Egypt Air plane crash, this unfortunate event demonstrates yet again that the lesson of all terror attacks on aviation has not been learned.

One would expect that the 9/11 attack and its dramatic effect on civil aviation, global economy and the growth of the global Jihad movement will lead airports authorities to the right conclusion. The crash of the Egyptian plane this week and the Russian aircraft a few months ago, the Christmas bomber in 2009 and other terrorist attacks prove that the aviation industry has not learned the almost trivial lesson: Explosives and metals detection is essential but is far from being sufficient. Since September 11, looking only for weapons or explosives has repeatedly failed to prevent terrorists from carrying out their schemes.

There are several reasons why weapon detection is not enough. An Efficient attack on an aircraft does not require even a single gram of explosive or any kind of weapon. Moreover, even unsophisticated terrorists will manage to smuggle improvised explosive devices through any existing security measures. In reality, only a few attempts to smuggle explosives for the purpose of terrorist attack were thwarted. In tests conducted in 2015, TSA employees have failed to detect smuggled explosives in 95% of the cases.

Airport employees can be even more effective than passengers in smuggling explosives on board a plane. Cleaning or catering contractor's employees, which are not on any intelligence agencies' "blacklist", can easily conceal an IED inside a metal vacuum cleaner or a metal catering cart.

Assuming explosives or weapons detection is not enough, what can be done in order to prevent terrorist attacks in aviation?

In order to carry out a terrorist attack, three basic precondition must exist: intent, capability and opportunity. When one has intention to attack, the capability and opportunity will present themselves eventually. Therefore, aviation security agencies must identify the intent of terrorists to carry out attacks, rather than just search for weapons, metals, bottles of liquid or improvised explosive.

While the TSA and other aviation security authorities around the world fail to realize this basic lesson, Israeli security agencies are among the few that are not satisfied with explosives detection and invest efforts to discover the intentions of the terrorists. El-Al's officers (known as "Selectors") are looking for suspicious signs amidst passengers and trying to decipher their intentions. A similar method is also practiced at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam (It was implemented by the Israeli airport security company ICTS twenty years ago). In most of the airports worldwide, however, the focus remains solely on the detection of terrorist means.

Passengers are not the only ones who can endanger an aircraft. Recruited or indoctrinated aircrew or ground staff are possible risks, which might be more effective than the passengers in realizing an attack. At least four planes were crashed down in recent years by malicious pilots. It was a can of soft drink laced with explosives, smuggled by an airport employee, that caused the Russian plane to crash in the Sinai Peninsula. It can be projected that attacks conducted with participation of airport workers with access to airplanes will reoccur in the coming years. Airlines and airport employees can be either conscious terrorists or manipulated collaborators.

The basic way to detect terrorist's hostile intent (passengers and airport employees alike) is by utilizing intelligence. In many cases, however, intelligence measures are limited.

It is tempting to criticize ​​aviation security authorities but it is difficult to offer operational solutions. It turns out that there are already technological measures to effectively and realistically detect a hostile intent of a passenger or an airport employee and prevent them from attacking. Automated questioning systems allow authorities to know if a certain passenger or employee is harboring hostile intent and may endanger the airplane. 

Applying these rapid interrogation-questioning technologies enables authorities to automatically interview people in all languages, ​​obviating the need of human officers. The automated interrogation systems are using artificial intelligence algorithms and analyze psychophysical indication of the sympathetic nerve system (similar to polygraph). 

Such systems can question employees, contract workers or passenger and find if any of them joined or collaborated with ISIS, for example. At present, at least three Israeli companies sell such technology-based products, which are deployed in countries such as Singapore, Mexico and India. Even American Airlines check their employees in Latin America (but not in US mainland). Western Europe countries and the United States have not adopted such technologies. The argument raised by the decision-makers in western countries is that such technologies invade the privacy of a subject and conflict with his/her human rights. Bridging the gap between the concern for individual human rights and the safety of the travelers is the challenge of these advance technologies.


Mr. Shabtai Shoval is an associate researcher in the International Institute for Counter Terrorism in the IDC and Co-Founder of Suspect Detection Systems Company