Keeping our Aviation System Safe from the Inside(r) Out
Updated April, 2015
Originally published in the Van Nuys Airport ALERT! Newsletter 1st Quarter 2009
NOTE: I decided to reprint and update this post because the insider threat continues to play a significant role in how we develop our counter-terrorism strategies. With the rise of ISIS and other terrorist organizations that are using social media and the internet in a manner that has not been seen before - even by a large organization like Al Qaeda - the threat of this propaganda reaching one of your employees is no longer unthinkable, but highly probable.
In 2009, there were a flurry of news articles and investigations concerning the number of American men of African and Middle Eastern decent going missing, in particular from the Minneapolis and Virginia/Washington D.C. areas. These young men, all with American passports and valid visas, were either born in the United States or became naturalized citizens at a very early age. They were usually reported missing by their families or captured allegedly attempting to attend terrorist training camps overseas. It was believed that they were provided passage to Somalia and other terrorist locations by known terrorist groups with links to al-Qaeda that are recruiting converts in the US. Their purpose is to train these young men, who in theory can gain easy access back into the United States, to carry out “Jihad” – defined as a Muslim holy war or spiritual struggle against infidels (non-believers) of Islam against their enemies – against US targets. Now we have ISIS that is recruiting young men and women via Facebook and Twitter.
Two of these young men have been of particular interest to the United States. In December of 2008, Daniel Joseph Maldonado, a U.S. citizen was arrested for undergoing terrorist training in Somalia. It was reported that he had been moved by a terrorist transportation network to the training camps. Even more disturbing is the fact that another young man was involved in a suicide terrorist bombing in Somalia. He is believed to be the first American citizen to participate in this extreme form of murder. As to the others that are believed to be receiving training in Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere – will there come a day when one of them will successfully return to the US to commit terrorist attacks in their home country?
This is not an entirely new phenomenon. We are familiar with Adam Gadahn who occasionally appears on national television in traditional Arab garb, pointing his finger and accusing the United States and its citizens of being complicit in the oppression of Muslims throughout the world. John Walker Lindh, dubbed “The American Taliban”, was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 fighting as an enemy combatant. Locally, in Torrance, California, an apparent terrorist cell called Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, or JIS – which was born in our prison system – was disrupted in 2005 just days short of launching a terrorist attack against several prominent targets in the Los Angeles area including LAX, military recruiting facilities and the Israeli Consulate. The group was foiled in July of 2005 when two of their members were arrested after committing an armed robbery. All but one of the cell members was American born; the other a naturalized citizen. Most of these men had very little prior religious upbringing and had recently joined a local mosque. One member was a former concessions employee at LAX and a college student. Members that were recruited on the “outside” of prison were specifically chosen because they did not have criminal records and could pass law enforcement scrutiny if challenged. The leader of the group was recently sentenced to 16 years in federal prison for this plot.
Now more than a notional idea, as the above examples suggest, we are seeing an increasing number of westernized men and women willing to kill innocent people and give their lives for a cause they have only recently been associated with. NYPD issued a report in August of 2007, coining this phenomenon “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat.” In the NYPD report, the authors cite the fact that people who are transitioning into radical ideologies begin as “unremarkable”; generally have no, or very little criminal background; and no prior propensity to violence. In addition, they are generally recent converts to the religion or group they have pledged loyalty to and have no criminal record.
Being a part of the aviation community, which is still considered to be a “lucrative” target for terrorist attacks, we must scrutinize our employees and others from the standpoint of pre-employment screening, and continue to monitor their behavior to ensure their ideologies have not taken an 180 degree shift that could possibly cause harm to the aviation industry and your business. We must also take into account the current dire financial picture which is impacting everyone; in particular the aviation industry. This may encourage employees and others to more readily engage in, or support unlawful and/or terrorist activities to help resolve their individual money problems.
In April of 2012, a number of current and former TSA agents were arrested for taking bribes and helping drug smugglers transport narcotics and other contraband through the passenger screening process undetected at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and in New Haven, Connecticut. These were some of the most trusted airport employees, our last line of defense, who have the specific responsibility of ensuring everyone is properly screened. How easily could those suitcases have contained a weapon or explosive device as the screeners looked the other way? This does not infer that everyone is subject to becoming a terrorist; far from it. However, what it does denote is the fact each of us must be capable of discerning the signs of terrorism and identify suspicious and/or out of the ordinary, out of character behavior that would be indicative of terrorist, and/or criminal activity and report it immediately. Some of these signs are:
Missing keys or other access control devices from the work facility
Possession of maps, blueprints, etc., when it is not a job requirement
Thefts of equipment or uniforms
Multiple addresses or frequent moves
Eliciting information that is not appropriate for their job classification
Bringing unknown persons onto the job site
Suspicious bags/backpacks that are always carried into the workplace
Coming on property unauthorized and/or after hours
Inordinate amount of absences from work coupled with the other signs mentioned
Ultimately, the key is community policing/security and engaging everyone in the airport's safety and security processes. Airports must encourage a shared partnership for security with our public safety partners, tenants and employees, as well as the community at large. They are are in the best position to look for and report suspicious procurements, activities, smells and other incidents that would be indicative of an impending attack. This constant coordination and dialogue is crucial.
Inform your employees, facility users and sub-tenants to be on the look out for these types of activities in their work environments and the communities in which they live and work. And, if something just doesn’t seem right, don’t be afraid to contact the local law enforcement to investigate. Airport Police and local law enforcement are here to serve the aviation industry. If you see something, say something!