Why Do Aviation Security Agencies Miss The Obvious?

It is not often I pose a question regarding airport and aviation security that I don’t know the answer to … or at least have an idea of what the answer should be. If you only like posts that have an answer to the question … then this post isn’t for you.

During my few days away from writing Flying With Fish at the start of this month I continually found myself returning to three prime examples where multiple layers of intelligence and aviation security failed and wondering why they failed. In looking at the information I kept trying to find out how the layers of security failed and rather than finding answers, I found more questions.

Following the September 11 2001 hijacking of four separate flights simultaneously, leading to multiple terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC, airport security as we all know fundamentally changed on a global scale.  Even with the tightening of security,  aviation security and intelligence agencies have continually shown that they are prone to miss the obvious red flags when there is a dangerous person in their midst … despite all the warning signs.

Of these incidents that missed the obvious red flagged threats, three stand out among all others … and these three have been nagging at me, wondering what the international intelligence communities need to do in conjunction with aviation security agencies to prevent would-be terrorists from actually boarding flights.

The first case of post-9/11 lapses in multiple layers of security occurred on the 22nd of December 2001, when Richard Reid boarded American Airlines flight 63 at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International Airport … a day after he was denied boarding on the same flight.  But lets go back to the red flags that appeared prior to the 21st of December 2001.

Richard Reid, a British citizen, traveled Peshawar, Pakistan, an area known as a major hub for Al Qaeda activity, then returns to the UK briefly. In mid-December 2001 Reid travels to Belgium to apply for a duplicate passport, then on the 16th of December 2001 travels by train to Paris, then proceeds to purchase a one-way ticket from Paris to Miami on American Airlines in cash, just 4 days before the flight.

Upon arrival at Charles de Gaulle International Airport on the 21st of December 2001 Reid checked in for Flight 63, but checked no baggage for his 1-way flight, paid for in cash. As Reid attempted to board American Airlines flight 63, he was denied boarding due to his unkempt and unstable appearance. Reid being denied boarding lead to him being interviewed by the National Police. Reid’s interview with the National Police was cut short as police reports indicate he didn’t answer all of the questions asked of him, however he was reissued a ticket for the following day and released.

On the 22nd of December 2001 Reid showed up at the airport, checked in for American Airlines flight 63 and boarded his flight to Miami with no problems … until he tried to detonate an explosive hidden in his shoe that failed to explode.

The red flags that show up in the Richard Reid incident are significant … but lets move onto the second most glaring would-be bomber incident that has even more red flags … Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

I don’t believe there is a better example of multiple international intelligence agencies missing all the red flags that should have prevented Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a flight to Detroit with an incendiary device hidden in his underwear.

The facts are straightforward, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up Delta Air Lines Flight 253 (operated by Northwest Airlines).  On the 25th of December 2009, Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a flight a from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Detroit Michigan with a bomb hidden in his underwear … however Abdulmutallab should not have ever been allowed to have a valid Visa to the United States and should have been subject to significant scrutiny given what was known about him and his activities long before Christmas Day 2009.

Between January 2007 and June 2008 Abdulmutallab popped up on the radar of Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency. On June 12 2008 Abdulmutallab was granted a two-year multiple entry Visa into the United States … and shortly there afterward his Visa to the United Kingdom was revoked.

After leaving the United Kingdom, Abdulmutallab traveled to Yemen from August 2009 to December 2009, where he overstayed his Visa by three months.   During this time period Abdulmutallab’s father a respected and legitimate businessman in Nigeria contacted the United States Embassy in Abuja where he met with U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) agents to inform them that he suspected his son may be engaged in terrorist activities. Following the C.I.A becoming aware of Abdulmutallab activities his name was added to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center database in late November 2009.  Abdulmutallab’s name however was not added to the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Terrorist Screening Database, No Fly List or Secondary Screening list … and Abdulmutallab’s multiple entry Visa to the United States was not revoked.

After all the red flags were sent up the flag pole regarding Abdulmutallab’s he walked into a travel agent in Ghana and purchased a one way ticket from Accra to Lagos to Amsterdam to Detroit in cash, a fare equivalent to approximately US$3,000.  The rest is history … and we move onto the top error in intelligence and security agencies failing to stop a terrorist before they boarded a flight.

What lack of communication and obvious break down in intelligence communications takes the top slot?

Faisal Shahzad boarding Emirates Flight 202 and only being captured seconds before the flight was to take off… literally by seconds.

So what happened with Faisal Shahzad? On May 1st 2010 Shahzad, an American naturalized citizen, attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in Midtown Manhattan. Shahzad’s identity as a suspect quickly became known and on the 3rd of May 2010. his name was placed on the No Fly List at 12:30pm.  At 7:35pm Shahzad purchased a same day ticket on Emirates Flight 202, scheduled to depart New York’s JFK International Airport at 11:00pm.

Shahzad, despite being on the No Fly List, managed to check in for his flight, pass through a TSA checkpoint with Transportation Security Administration Behavioral Detection Officers, have his boarding pass scanned, board a flight and take his seat. Shahzad was only discovered moments before Emirates Flight 202 was to take off, the aircraft was literally making its final turn onto Runway 22R when the aircraft was directed to “go back to the gate immediately.”

So … this leads to the question that I don’t have the answer to … what causes the break down of security across so many agencies and levels to allow blatant glaring security risks to be where they never should be … on planes.

Over the years changes in security and passenger pre-screening have decreased the potential for threats to slip through the cracks, but the fact that major security threats have boarded flights after being red flagged, placed on the no fly list and making ‘high risk’ purchases of one way airline tickets.

I wish I had the answer as to what was wrong with the intelligence and aviation security and the sharing of information. Next time a terrorist with all the red flags boards a flight, a faulty detonator, damp explosives or poorly constructed incendiary device may not foil their plan.

Everyone has something that keeps them up at night from time to time … for me … its this.

Happy Flying!


  1. I think you hit the nail on the head in between describing the second and third incident, “What lack of communication and obvious break down in intelligence communications takes the top slot?” I believe that the lack of communication likely stems from a number of things, but would bet that most of it traces back to heads of departments or “intelligence” communities protecting their turf. Until we can get all of these agencies and people playing together, I think we’ll see more articles from you describing familiar events.

  2. I believe the problem with communication between the different agencies is their egos. All these agencies are egotistical and will not admit that another agency found out some information that they missed.

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