Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 20, 2006

UK terror watchdog highlights general aviation threat

Filed under: Aviation Security,International HLS — by Christian Beckner on June 20, 2006

The United Kingdom’s top terrorism watchdog, Lord Carlile, released his annual report on the Terrorism Act of 2000 on Monday. At the press conference to release the report, he mentioned a number of concerns with security in the UK, most notably in the area of general aviation. From the Financial Times:

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Private jets could be used to stage terror attacks, Britain’s security watchdog said on Monday in comments that could prompt tighter regulation of the corporate aviation industry.

Security advisers to the Department of Transport have in recent months consulted leaders in the growing global industry about additional policing measures, increased passenger information, and restricting the use of foreign air strips thought particularly vulnerable to terrorist use.

Public concern about vulnerability of the industry to terrorism was aired on Monday by security experts and by Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, the government terror watchdog.

“It is possible to purchase, from reputable companies, piloted flying hours in sophisticated executive jets capable of high-speed travel from continent to continent,” Lord Carlile says in his latest review of government terrorism strategy. “The risk of hijacking is not fanciful.”

Sally Leivesley of Risk Analysis UK, who has undertaken risk assessments on behalf of several governments, said: “Small jet aircraft in the air or on the runway unfortunately do represent a huge risk of al-Qaeda-type terrorism using ‘back-door’ entry – in other words, surprise tactics on apparently secure premises.”

Lord Carlile said he was worried about the potential of terrorists exploiting fractional ownership in which a company or individual buys or leases an interest in an aircraft and in return uses it or a similar aircraft at short notice over a certain number of hours or days per year.

General aviation security is an area of concern in the United States as well. Certain types of large general aviation aircraft are subject to TSA-type screening, but the security of smaller aircraft is largely dependent on voluntary, industry-led efforts. These efforts are effective to an extent, and the clubby nature of the general aviation community makes it easier to detect aberrant or suspicious behavior. Small planes can’t carry out 9/11-type attacks, given the fact that small aircraft have only a small fraction of the kinetic energy of a large commercial plane (cf. the crashes in Tampa and Milan). But there are other threat scenarios where general aviation aircraft could be a deadly tool, potentially used to disperse WMD’s, or crash into high-vulnerability facilities, or smuggle a nuclear device into the United States. The best way to deal with these threats is better intelligence, and a more focused effort in the federal government to detect potential general aviation plots.

For more on general aviation security, check out this CRS report from December 2005.

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