Drones, lasers seen as key aviation terrorism threats

An in-depth review of trends in aviation terrorism newly published by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) identifies drones, lasers and airport employees who have been radicalized but remain unidentified as such by law enforcement agencies as significant potential threats.

The 21-page review, written by three authors, entitled ‘Trends in Aviation Terrorism’ and published by Israel-based ICT on 10 August, identifies a wide variety of potential threats.

Some threats are infrastructural and aim to exploit weaknesses in identifying potential terrorists, sharing information on known or suspected terrorists, and preventing them from flying. These weaknesses include imperfect international communication and cooperation among the law-enforcement and security agencies of different countries.

Other threats include the use of aircraft and aviation-system simulators by terrorist organizations to train their cadres to understand the aviation industry in order to exploit weaknesses, how to use (and even make) anti-aircraft missiles – many shoulder-launched – and to perform cyber-attacks on the computerized systems used by airports, airlines and aircraft.

kontron newestThe ICT report particularly focuses on radio-controlled drones as an emerging technology which terrorist organizations believe they can use to their advantage to create aviation terrorism.

“Terrorist organizations do not hide their motivation to make use of this technology,” note the report’s authors. In April, jihadists used the Telegram encrypted messaging app to recommend that terrorists use remote-controlled drones carrying explosives in order to attack aircraft.

Another post on a jihadist Web forum suggested that the Islamic State establish a production line for gliders to be used for terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, the owners of the “Mujahideen Secrets” (Asrar al-Mujahideen) channel on the Telegram app posted a message claiming small, simple drones can carry 300 grams of C4 explosive, “sufficient to crash a plane on the airfield”.

According to the report, terrorist organizations have also increasingly used drones since 2014 to collect intelligence. The most significant use of drones in collecting terrorism intelligence has occurred in Syria, followed by Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Additionally, says ICT, the Islamic State and its various branches use more drones than any other terrorist organization.

Regarding lasers, the report states: “Although no real damage has yet been caused by the laser threat against airplanes, the possibility cannot be ignored that terrorist organization will use laser beams against pilots in order to carry out a terror attack. This issue becomes even more significant in light of the fact that … particularly powerful laser devices … can be found in the possession of terrorist organizations.”

In discussing the dangers posed by radicalized airport employees, the review notes that a 2015 ICT study found Facebook profiles “that belonged to employees of airports throughout Europe who had access to secure areas of commercial and cargo flights and who had posted Islamic-jihadist content.” Moreover, despite airports’ strict security policies, “there has been an increase in the number of incidents in which deficiencies in the employment process were found.”

The report concludes:

Despite the changes that have been made in Europe and the United States in an attempt to cope with recent terror attacks against the aviation industry, efforts are needed to promote international cooperation with regard to passenger records and the implementation of biometric identification, with emphasis on the continuous security surveillance of transportation infrastructure employees.

In the wake of the growing competition between terrorist organizations and security officials, it is evident that a comprehensive approach is needed, one which integrates the promotion of capabilities at various security layers, from the individual level to the implementation of advanced technologies.

Extensively supported by citations from news stories sourced throughout the world, ‘Trends in Aviation Terrorism’ can be read and also downloaded as a PDF file here.