This has been a test of the aviation security system

Remember when the Emergency Broadcast System would do those tests on TV? They still do from time to time, but without the threat of being annihilated by Soviet ballistic missiles, we don’t seem then much anymore. However, terrorists and bad guys continue to conduct tests of aviation security, and they just did another one. Click here for details.

When two men were apprehended in Amsterdam after traveling from Birmingham, AL to Chicago and Dulles, were found to have several items such as cell phones, watches, liquid bottles and box cutters taped together in their checked luggage your first thought should be that they were testing the aviation security in preparation for a future attack. Whether they were testing for a future bombing or hijacking attempt or just to be stupid, it was still a test.

The fact that there were air marshals on the flight increases the likelihood that not only was this a test but that the U.S. government may have already known about these guys and were tracking their movements. While the FAM’s don’t release statistics on how many air marshals are out there, the numbers are too few for it to be a coincidence that they were on the same flight.

The items themselves are not prohibited in checked luggage. However, the manner in which they were found is suspicious. Additionally, not a lot of people toss their cell phones into their checked bag. Most passengers take their cell phones everywhere. If the TSA was aware of the individuals and ensured that air marshals were on the flight to monitor their behavior, then the system likely worked. It’s a process known as authorize-and-monitor (sometimes called “approve-and-monitor”), where suspected bad guys are allowed to continue about their business but are kept under surveillance. The process is used when someone hasn’t done something bad yet, and therefore can’t be arrested (yet), or when the good guys hope the bad guy will unknowingly provide them more information about a planned operation. For it to work, the bad guys can’t know they are being tracked.

The “underwear bomber” from last Christmas showed that terrorists are still interested in attacking aviation. Past history shows that terrorists rarely deviate too far from the playbook that has made them successful, unless those past avenues of attack are completely closed off. In other words, if bombing a flight worked before, the same methods will continue to be used until enough protections are put into place to deter that type of attack from working again. Liquids, box cutters, cell phones which can be used to trigger an improvised explosive device, are items that we are looking for. It makes sense that the bad guys will try to determine how effective we are at detecting them before trying an attack using such items.

What also makes this odd is the box cutters. Passengers cannot access checked bags during flight. It seems that these items were carefully constructed to attract the attention of screeners. If they would have gotten through, that’s valuable information for the bad guys. If they are caught, that is just as valuable information for the bad guys.

I have received various information about the bad guys testing our aviation security systems. I have heard that U.S. airport plans and maps have been found in terrorist hideouts Afghanistan. While I cannot confirm this myself, I consider my sources to be competent and accurate. Make no mistake — this was a test or dry run. Aviation will continue to be attacked — the 9/11 attacks will turn 9 years old soon and although we’ve made great strides, we have not turned terrorists away from aviation as a target. Let’s remember that while rail, bus and other forms of transportation must also be protected, aviation is how we move in this country. It’s our Achilles heel.

It will be interesting to see the facts of this case come out. In the Times Square bomber and the Christmas Day bomber the attackers own incompetence ensured a tragedy did not happen. It would be nice to see if the fact show that we actually caught these guys on a dry run or system test through our own competence.


10 Responses to This has been a test of the aviation security system

  1. TSA should cut out the customer service, political correctness and take actions to arrest this people before they even get a chance to board the airplane.
    Now the Dutch have freed the two men who carried out a “dry run “, oh yes this was a ‘dry run”. Who in their right mind tapes cell phones and bottles together and put them in their lugage along with knives and boxcutters.

  2. I agree with Jeff on this. Aviation is our Achilles heel. As long as we continue to fly there will continue to be a threat to security of the skies. He was right when he said that people are going to continue doing what they know will work. As long as our security systems are missing these peoples “dry runs” they will continue trying to do things like making explosives to blow up our planes. Its like the saying; if it’s isnt broke, don’t fix it. The only way we are going to be able to prevent these sort of thing from getting through our systems is a higher level of security and to take action to catch those who try “dry runs” to begin with.

  3. It is true that they are testing our security system and are trying to see what works. I think that they focus on the mass amount of loss of life when they plan an attack. I say this because if they really wanted they could perform an attack with a business jet. They leave out of GA airports and the security is so minimal there that it is unbelievable. The cold water is that those jets can do just about a great amount of damage than the commercial airliners can.

    • TSA has done the physics of testing this theory and while that report remains classified some private entities have conducted their own research. What you say is correct, so an extent. In looking at the size and kinetic energy available to a business jet, you’re looking at aircraft above 75,000 to 100,000 lbs + before you’re going to get something that can cause “airliner-level” damage. Most of the smaller stuff will take out small buildings (i.e. the IRS building in Austin, TX) or a floor of an apartment complex (i.e. the Cory Liddle crash in Manhattan) but not a full sized structure.

  4. I find it very interesting and somewhat disturbing that the TSA has a policy of monitoring suspicious behavior instead of directly confronting the individuals. Why would they risk letting these individuals aboard a flight while possessing illegal contraband? It seems strange that this would happen simply as an opportunity to understand the methods of potential terrorists. Hopefully the security measures in place such as “approve-and-monitor” will not sacrifice the safety of passengers on the flight.

    • Very important point. There are some 4th Amendment issues here as well. Unfortunately, there is a dangerous game that sometimes must be played in aviation security and in counterterrorism. We had to play the same game back in my old Coast Guard days of narcotics interdiction. You have to grab onto someone in the organization and hope they lead you farther up the chain to get those that are really behind everything. Otherwise, you spend all of your time catching small fish.

  5. This blog is defintely my favorite that I’ve read so far, it reveals so much important information about aviation security and how terrorists are still out there to test the aviation industry and its airports by creating secret strategies to test the airports security levels. Although it isn’t finalized as being as dry run, the information and objects these guys used made me believe that it most certainly had to be a dry run. Jeffery made such a good point about the use of the box cutters, it makes perfect sense that terrorist could use such objects like box cutters to test the security levels when there bags go through security by seeing if the box cutters are detected or not. If they aren’t then it tells them that they might be able to keep more valuable items in their bags that are much more dangerous that box cutters. The fact that they taped these objects together leads us to believe it may have been some kind of plan to test the security as well.

    • Even if it wasn’t a formal dry run, it will be analyzed from that perspective by those that want to do bad things to nice people.

  6. ” I have heard that U.S. airport plans and maps have been found in terrorist hideouts Afghanistan.”-that is a very scary thought. There is probably a really good reason why i haven’t heard it in the news at all. A statement like that would scare fliers and make them not want to go to certain airports.

    • You know, I think they should make that more public. People need to realize that there still is a threat out there and that we still need to take this issue seriously. We were SO caught off guard on 9/11 even though the indicators had been there for years.

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