The quick answer to the question of whether the threat to commercial aviation will continue is yes. At the AAAE/TSA/DHS Annual Aviation Security Summit in Washington DC in December 2017, Kevin K. McAleenan, Acting Commissioner, CBP, stated that commercial aviation security threats “…have been a constant since before 9/11. Our most consistent adversaries see aviation as their #1 target… it most advances their strategy.”

Unfortunately, the same technology that helps protect the U.S. also helps the terrorists. McAleenan notes that the most knowledgeable bomb makers in al Qaeda and ISIS can now share the secrets of their craft around the world via the Internet. And while the main core of ISIS has been eradicated, the survivors who had come from all over the world to train in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have now gone back home or onto other conflicts with knowledge gained. This may enable them to target international aviation from different aspects, bringing air cargo such as express consignment and international mail, into possible ways to get bombs on planes.

Nancy Nykamp, TSA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Intelligence & Analysis, says that the threat today is far more complicated than it has been in the past. She notes that ISIS and al Qaeda are exceptionally skilled in communications, particularly using the internet and social media. Nykamp noted three types of attacks being communicated – directed, enabled and inspired. Directed types of attacks are more ‘hands-on’ with direct support of ISIS or al Qaeda operatives. Enabled attacks result from individuals learning about how to carry out attacks by reading terrorist publications, like al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine or ISIS’s Rumiyah online magazine (which seems to have replaced their previous publication, Dabiq.) To expand on the content being shared, Inspire magazine has published 17 featured articles on how to build IEDs that can evade detection by airport screening equipment and where to best sit on an airplane for the bomb to get mass destruction.

Nykamp notes that it is the inspired threat that is the most dangerous due to very few early warning indicators before the attack and fewer communications with associates. “It’s a far less predictable threat than we faced 15 years ago.” The inspired threat is where someone with no direct connection with any terrorist group or individual gets motivated to carry out terrorist activities by way of the internet, then proceeds to educate themselves on the types of attacks to carry out, then heads out one day and executes their plot.

Craig Lynes, TSA’s Director of Global Compliance/Global Strategies, noted that “we face an adaptive, patient and agile enemy: They have developed innovative methods…such as the laptop threat, and let us not forget insider threat and hijacking.” I was glad to hear that Lynes is bringing hijacking back to the aviation security conversation. It’s been wrongly assumed that hijackings are a thing of the past. This mistaken assumption is what led to the tragedies of September 11th.

While the threat to security continues within commercial aviation, our emphasis on training and technology should also continue. To learn more about programs offered by Leading Edge Strategies, visit


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