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The possibility that Islamic terrorists smuggled a bomb onto a Russian jet flying home from Egypt highlights a new area of worry for aviation security: the insider threat.
Instead of focusing on a small cadre of al-Qaeda forces trying to place explosives on planes, aviation security agencies may have to defend against far greater numbers of radicalized enemies—including some who may be working at airports—if suspicions about the crash prove true, according to two former U.S. security officials.
Sympathizers of ISIS, an acronym for Islamic State, a group fighting against governments in Iraq and Syria, are suspected of being behind the explosion that tore to pieces an Airbus A321 operated by Russia’s Metrojet over the Sinai peninsula on Oct. 31, according to U.S. officials, who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak about the investigation. The crash killed all 224 aboard.
“If they decide that this is ISIS and this was a bomb on the aircraft, this creates a new threat to aviation,” John Halinski, a former chief of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s foreign operations, said in an interview.
Smaller airports around the world, including Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport, departure point for the doomed Metrojet plane, often lack rigorous screening for workers and have poor internal security measures, he said. Halinski, who was TSA’s deputy administrator for two years and is now a consultant, previously oversaw the agency’s inspections of security measures outside the U.S.
Airport employees in the U.S. must renew security credentials as often as every six months, Halinski said. By contrast, outside of the U.S., Canada and Europe, airport workers only need to get background checks reviewed every five years. Other measures, such as performing random spot checks on workers, also aren’t enforced overseas, he said.
A senior U.S. lawmaker said an attack motivated by Islamic State should prompt a review of aviation security.
“If it turns out to have been a terrorist attack, we will have to, I think, do a fresh look at airport security around the world and what steps should be taken to improve that security,” said Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee. “I don’t know if it is a management problem or a training issue or technological challenge.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday that U.S. had not yet made its own determination about the cause of the Metrojet crash, and refused to share details of what intelligence had been gathered.
Earnest said an “ongoing process” was under way at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the TSA, to review “a number of different steps we can take to enhance security for commercial flights bound for the United States from certain foreign airports.”
When new security measures are finalized, the government will work with air carriers and foreign governments to implement them, Earnest said.
The primary worry when it came to smuggling explosives onto a plane in recent years has been al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a militant group based in Yemen. Still, while the group possesses sophisticated bomb-making abilities, AQAP operates in a limited geographic region and has relatively few members.
If a group such as Islamic State is involved in the latest attack, that is a new and worrisome challenge for aviation security, said Stewart Verdery, former assistant secretary for the DHS. Islamic State has lured thousands of westerners to the Middle East to join its fight or to receive terror training, he said.
“A new generation of bomb makers and the foreign fighter situation—that obviously should be of great concern,” Verdery said.
Halinski said that while the worry over Islamic State-inspired plots is greatest at airports in hot spots such as Egypt, the U.S. and Europe aren’t immune to inside plotters.
The TSA may want to increase its security reviews of airport workers, said Halinski. Currently, most employees at airports don’t undergo physical screening when they enter sensitive airport grounds.
With commercial airports employing tens of thousands of workers, from cleaning crews to aircraft food vendors, the task of monitoring them more closely would add costs as well as complexity to airport security, he said.
“It’s very, very difficult to mitigate that type of threat,” said Halinski.
—With assistance from Del Quentin Wilber in Washington.
This article was written by Alan Levin and Chris Strohm from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.