THE extraordinary events that unfolded over the skies of Somalia on February 2nd have now become clearer. About 15 minutes after Daallo Airlines Flight 159 departed from Aden Adde International Airport in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, an explosive device carried by Abdullahi Abdisalam Borleh, one of the passengers, blew a gaping hole just above the right wing of the plane (a spot identified in al-Qaeda literature as being the most effective place to detonate a bomb). Mr Borleh, who is suspected of being a suicide bomber, was sucked out of the aircraft and fell to his death. Everyone else survived. Had the incident occurred minutes later, once the plane reached cruising altitude, the resultant explosive decompression would almost certainly have killed all aboard. To say that the 73 innocent passengers on Flight 159 had a lucky escape is an understatement.
Last October, the 224 souls aboard Metrojet Flight 9268 were not so fortunate. A bomb detonated on the Russian charter flight about 20 minutes after its departure from Sharm el Sheikh International Airport on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. A local affiliate of Islamic State (IS) took credit for the atrocity. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the Daallo bombing, although suspicion will inevitably fall on the Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked militant Islamist group based in the Horn of Africa.
Beyond the obvious parallels, these two incidents bear one chilling similarity: both seem to have been perpetrated by airport employees. Although the Egyptian authorities still deny that Flight 9268 was a terrorist attack, Reuters reported last month that a mechanic working for EgyptAir, the country’s flag-carrier, is suspected of planting the device. The nascent Somali investigation, meanwhile, points the finger of blame at an airport employee who was filmed handing what looks like a laptop computer to Mr Borleh before he boarded Flight 159. In both cases, the strategy seems to have been to bypass airport security altogether by using insider knowledge or access. That contrasts with most other attacks on civil aviation since 9/11—the 2001 shoe-bomb plot; the 2006 liquid-bomb plot; the 2009 underpants-bomb plot; and the 2010 cargo-bomb plot—all of which sought to outsmart screening technologies.
It is hard to say what this means for international civil aviation. These two incidents, as harrowing as they are, do not yet constitute a trend. Somalia and Sinai are both troubled parts of the world, so many Westerners would instinctively presume their airports are dangerous places to fly from. Daallo and Metrojet, after all, are hardly household names. Even the pilot of Flight 159—an employee of Hermes Airlines, a Greek company that operates flights on behalf of Daallo—has slammed security protocols at Mogadishu Airport. “The security is zero,” he told the Associated Press. “When we park [the plane] there, some 20 to 30 people come to the tarmac … They can put anything inside when passengers leave the aircraft.”
That may soothe nerves for those flying from London or Washington, DC. But exalting Western aviation security to a higher stratum than that found in Africa is a delusion. African airports are not so ramshackle; Western ones not so impenetrable. Consider how, in 2013, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) removed Mogadishu Airport from its “Zone 5” list of dangerous airports. Or how, last year, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority, which oversees Sharm el Sheikh Airport, passed ICAO’s safety audits with flying colours. As far as ICAO, a United Nations agency, is concerned, Somali and Egyptian airports are up to scratch. Conversely, last year, American airport screeners failed to detect banned weapons planted by undercover agents in 67 out of 70 tests. And, in 2011, Rajib Karim, an employee of British Airways, was jailed for plotting to blow up aircraft with al-Qaeda. “We need to be very careful that we don’t end up just trying to play politics with this,” Philip Baum, editor ofAviation Security International magazine, told your correspondent after the Metrojet disaster. “You can get weapons and explosives in the Western world as well.”
When I visited Mogadishu Airport two years ago, I saw none of the chaotic scenes described by Daallo’s disgruntled pilot. To the contrary, I saw a militarised facility that had redoubled its security diligence out of an acute awareness of its vulnerabilities. It may seem strange to argue that an airport in a war zone is safer than one in a Western capital, but to me the logic rang true. Perhaps I was wrong. Either way, Islamist terrorists will not limit their aspirations to airports on their doorsteps. The airline industry as a whole must digest the news that bombs have detonated on two international flights in the past four months.
source: the Economist