The hijacking to Cyprus of an EgyptAir flight from Alexandria to Cairo on Monday soon turned out to be a desperate attempt by a psychologically unstable man who was anxious to see his ex-wife and his children, not an act of terror. But the fact that Seif Eddin Mustafa, 59, was able to board the plane with a fake suicide vest and to divert the flight from its course says something about Egypt’s shaky security situation and returns the focus to the safety of the airline industry.
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After the wave of hijackings and plane explosions in the 1970s and ‘80s, it appeared that airport security had been heightened sufficiently to block terror organizations. This sense of security was shaken by the 9/11 attacks of 2001, but new security procedures introduced in their wake were again deemed to be sufficient. This week’s hijacking wasn’t connected to the Islamic State organization or any other terror network. Its main damage is to the Egyptian tourism sector.
For the past five years, since the 2011 revolution, it has been reeling from crisis to crisis. Tourism in the country has yet to recover from the Russian Metrojet flight that disintegrated above Sinai five months ago, killing all 224 people onboard. This week’s hijacking came just six days after the suicide bombing at the main airport of Brussels. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for both the Metrojet crash and the Brussels explosions.
Do these events point to a security problem in the global air travel industry? Most likely not. Putting the airliner disasters in the past two years in perspective, the conclusion is that crashes have happened for two main reasons. First of all the human factor, as in the case of the co-pilot of a Germanwings flight who deliberately crashed the plane into the side of a mountain, killing all 150 passengers and crew members. The co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, had been treated for severe depression and suicidal tendencies. Additional human factors, such as shoddy maintenance and overworked pilots, have contributed to crashes in places like Russia and Iran, where the main problem is patchy enforcement by local civil aviation authorities. Personal issues of one of the pilots could well have been at the root of the unsolved disappearance of the Malaysian Airways Boeing 777 with 239 people two years ago.
The other main cause of crashes is regional conflicts, such as the one between Egypt and the local affiliate of Islamic State, which took advantage of the poor security procedures at Sharm el-Sheikh airport to smuggle a bomb aboard the Metrojet plane. The ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia was behind the downing, by pro-Russian separatists, of a second Malaysian Airways flight above eastern Ukraine.
Last week’s suicide bombings in Brussels renewed the debate over whether security checks should be added at the entrance to airport terminals or whether the procedures after check-in and before boarding are sufficient. There doesn’t seem to be much appetite in the West to adopt the layered approach of Israeli airport security, with checkpoints on access roads to the terminal, both because of the heavy cost and the delay in passenger flow. Even if security was greatly enhanced, Islamic State bombers could always find other crowded locations to blow up, and no European country has the resources to secure every subway station for long. Neither will most Western countries begin using racial profiling, as they do in Israel. (Profiling is the reason passengers on most flights from Israel are allowed to take liquids onboard.) Such methods are still much too toxic to be adopted in today’s political climate, at least not officially. There is also a reluctance in general in the West to create a security environment that will feel too obtrusive and intrusive. The solution can only come from beefing up intelligence capabilities in general, in order to locate the potential bombers in advance.
Ultimately, all the advanced security methods at airports cannot replace a much wider security and intelligence structure, based on long-term surveillance and infiltration of terror networks, and of course cooperation between states. Only such an infrastructure can prevent Islamic State from carrying out attacks on civil aviation, long before an Islamic State bomber even gets close to an airport. The lack of this infrastructure in countries like Egypt and Belgium allowed the bombing of the Metrojet airliner and of Brussels Airport last week.