Dying by the “Book” – Developments in Aviation security

As part of an evolutional process and in view of an analysis of possible courses of action, the “founding fathers of aviation security in Israel” understood that it is necessary to prepare to cope with the new threat and that the answer to the terrorist threats in aviation lies in establishing an orderly, professional security establishment that will systematically cope with the development of terrorism in the world on the one hand, with the aim of not being dragged into transient fashions and adapting the solution to the threat on the other.

On the night of July 22-23, 1968, El Al, Flight 426 from Rome to Israel, was hijacked. The airliner was hijacked by terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, with 38 passengers and ten crewmen aboard, and was forced to land in Algeria. The captives on the aircraft were released after negotiations between the governments of Israel and Algeria and after Israel released 24 terrorists “without blood on their hands”.  This case constituted the basis of what would later be called “aviation security”. It appeared obvious to the leaders of the state that the strength of Palestinian terrorism had just gained ground and it was necessary to cope with the new threat. The Israeli General Security Service was instructed to set up a security establishment with the aim of preventing the recurrence of an attack of this kind.  As part of an evolutionary process, in view of an analysis of possible courses of action, the founding fathers of aviation security in Israel understood that the solution to the hijacking of aircraft could not rely only on an armed security force, but rather a security establishment needed to be founded to process passengers while they were still in the airport, for preventing hijackers from boarding aircraft and/or dispatching a bomb in a passenger’s luggage.

The work assumptions that were made at that time were based on three key elements:

  • First element – the volumes of aviation passengers allowed them to be processed at varying levels of security.
  • Second element – the security worker must be familiar with the normative passenger and thoroughly process any passenger who deviates from the expected norm
  • And lastly – the airport must continue to function regularly despite security checks.

Alongside the forming of an Israeli security establishment in airports in Israel and overseas, a number of attempts were carried out to attack El Al flights that had taken off, mainly from abroad, using passengers who were carrying, with our without their knowledge, explosive devices that were intended to down the jets in the resulting explosions. Each attempt that was carried out was carefully studied and the security processing procedures were upgraded and broadened, with the aim of coping with the terrorist, irrespective of his nationality or ethnicity.

In the last third of the 1980s, the Israeli security establishment failed and a passenger boarded a flight with an explosive device in her luggage. It was due to a technical fault that the device failed to detonate and the passenger was apprehended, by chance, at the port of destination. Or then the security leaders better understood two main insights: One was while the armed security force could cope with terrorists aboard aircraft and at airports with a minimum of casualties, it was not possible to cope with a bomb planted in the deck of an airliner, in which case the result would be catastrophic. The second was that the fear of human error led to the conclusion that the use of security technologies that were the only things that could cope with the human failure had to be expanded.

As opposed to Israel, western countries did not act in a similar manner. The explanations for failing to do so ranged from statements by American sources whereby attacks against airliners were sporadic and that if an incident occurred at one level or another, the solution would be in the form of compensation that would be given to victims by insurance companies.  As a rule, the Europeans adopted the American approach.

The watershed in global aviation was the attack that was carried out in 1988 on a Pan Am jet that crashed above Lockerbie in Scotland. Libyan agents planted an explosive device on the jet. The device detonated and all 270 passengers and aircrew perished. The British were the first to change their worldview and led the western community to state that all luggage carried on airliners would be inspected by a technological system at one level or another.

From the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, no attempts were made to attack civil aviation in Israel or in the world. The absence of attacks and the transformation of global aviation into a popular, readily available tool led to criticism, mainly for Israeli security elements, which mainly involved accusing the security regulation administrators of conceptual stagnation. The criticism dealt with three main aspects:

  • The first, the questioning at airports infringed civil rights.
  • Secondly – the enormous budgets invested in managing the security establishment greatly burdened the state and airlines
  • And thirdly, the operation of airports was compromised by the security checks.

The Israeli security and aviation elements convened for professional discussions, at the end of which they decided to continue to use the questioning tool by security screeners, in view of the working assumption that terrorist organizations in general and world jihad elements in particular were gathering intelligence on the screening processes and security technologies, with the aim of finding and getting through their weaknesses.

However, the authority in the Israeli security community decided that it was possible to make changes in the screening process, subject to two work assumptions: firstly, passengers would continue to meet a security agent before checking in their suitcases for loading. Secondly – the technological screening would be increased and used in a manner that would provide proper technological solutions, to bridge, in certain cases, the depth of questioning.

It is emphasized that according to the Israeli concept, questioning is a key element in determining the degree of processing of passengers. This process known around the world as profiling became the basis for the Predictive Passenger Screening (PPS) methodology.

Past events and stringent processing of passengers, who were later found to have been related to terrorist organizations, showed that this tool was both effective and professional. It was explained to the people who complained of invasion of privacy that questioning was based on the attributes of the normative passenger and the professional impression made by the screener. The impression is a human element that may, with the right direction, be managed in a manner that is both professional and pertinent. Ignoring the fact that we all make impressions of the people standing before us is like a child who covers his eyes with his hands and is sure that nobody can see him.

With four decades of successful implementation behind it, Predictive Passenger Screening (PPS) is a system designed to complement the abilities of technology in identifying the potential threat. It is based on the understanding that the adversary produces subtle yet predictable and recognizable behavioral patterns when engaged in the contemplation of an attack and while nearing its execution. Being human, the adversary has only a limited capacity of hiding such behavioral patterns from a keen, well trained observer.

Ongoing analysis of past incidents shows that virtually all terror attacks were preceded by such warning signs; security deployments that were able to look out for specific behavioral anomalies (termed “Bytes”), that had the means to detect them and the procedures to guide them once such anomalies surfaced were also able to thwart a planned attack well in advance, thus avoiding both the lethal consequences of the attack and the negative publicity that would have come with it; based on patterns of observed behavior rather than on a customer’s origin, nationality or religious background, the PPS system is free of racial bias and prejudice. One of the main benefits of the PPS program is the shift in mindset of the security personnel from a “fisherman” mentality that sits and waits for the attacker to pass by and then catches him (which rarely happens) to a hunter’s mentality in which our security guard is forever searching for the adversary using different techniques. It should be notes for those that are alarmed that a hunter’s mentality does not impede the customer service but in actuality even supports the system as we have vigilant personnel that aren’t sleeping on the job.

While the bombing of the Pan Am jet in 1988 was the first watershed, the 9/11 attacks in 2001 were the second watershed.  It seems that it may be stated that if in the U.S. they would have used the PPS tool, it would have been likely that the attacks would have been prevented.  The 1911 terrorists used a weapon, a box cutter that was allowed into the aircraft cabin according to the regulations. It may therefore be sarcastically said that all the victims “died by the book”.

The professional insight of the Americans in particular and of western elements in general, was deepening the screening of all passengers, to the same degree. This professional statement is deficient, because: it makes it impossible to focus on anomalies, when all passengers are screened to the same degree. In addition, the terrorist and his dispatchers know how to gather intelligence on screening procedures and technologies and penetrate the failure points, and in the end the depth of the screening affects the operation of the airport and imposes a huge financial burden on countries.

The success of smuggling explosives on the Delta Airlines jet in December 2009 shows that the western world must adopt a new set of rules in aviation security. It must be realized that explosive devices to not arrive at the airport all by themselves and therefore it is necessary to deal first with the potential terrorist and only afterward with the bomb. Professional management of security impressions, adaptation of the impression making tool to the local culture, in each individual country, and systematic tracking of the development of terrorism in the world, will allow for professional, effective coping with terrorist threats in aviation.




Co-authored by Mr. Oded Raz and Mr. Dotan Sagi

Mr. Oded Raz – Oded Raz, is a former senior ranking security official of the Israeli Security Agency (ISA). His most recent position with the ISA was as deputy head of the protection and security division. Mr. Raz advises clients on strategic tactics for security preparedness and assists companies in both identifying alternative uses for technologies to enhance homeland security defense and integrating them into the security marketplace. oded@lotansecurity.com

Mr. Dotan Sagi (Co-CEO Lotan Security) – Served a 13 years term in the El-Al Airlines security department, in his last position Mr. Sagi served as the head of the instruction and training department for El-Al security. In that position he was responsible for the management of the school of aviation security, among other things. dotan@lotansecurity.com


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16 Responses to Dying by the “Book” – Developments in Aviation security

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