Flight 804: Slipping Through the Cracks
Airports are supposed to be some of the most secure places on earth. If an Egyptian airliner was brought down by terrorists after leaving Paris, authorities will face the grim reality that they aren’t safe enough.
For airport officials, the ultimate nightmare scenario is to have their own employees plot with terrorists to circumvent security procedures and help bring down an airplane.
If EgyptAir Flight 804 was destroyed by terrorists, as intelligence officials increasingly believe, authorities around the world will have to confront the fact that the last line of defense against such an attack would have been at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, nominally one of the most secure facilities in Europe. And they’ll have to confront the sobering reality that security at one of the continent’s busiest and best-protected airports failed.
After taking off from Paris on the way to Cairo, Flight 804 — with 56 passengers and 10 crew on board — disappeared off the radar Thursday over the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The plane was at 37,000 feet before it swerved twice and then quickly plunged to 15,000 feet, according to Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos.
The wreckage of the plane has yet to be recovered, and officials in Washington and Paris said it remained unclear if the plane was brought down by terrorists, though suspicions are running high. No terrorist groups have yet claimed responsibility.
Before it took off from France, the doomed plane made stops in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara; Cairo; Tunis; and Cairo again before heading to Paris. Experts say security is less rigorous at those airports, but flights that connect in Paris are meant to receive such stringent security checks there that explosives smuggled on board the plane or concealed on the body of a passenger would be detected before they could detonate.
Passengers and airliners passing through Paris and other major European airports have been subject to ever stricter security in the years since the 9/11 attacks and the months since the Paris and Brussels attacks. Under EU rules, planes arriving from outside the European Union must be searched after landing, from the cargo hold to the cockpit to the toilets, according to Norman Shanks, the former head of airport security at Heathrow Airport in London and a consultant on airport security.
The responsibility for the searches falls to the airline that operates the plane and not to local police or airport security, and often airlines hire contractors to carry out the search, Shanks said.
The constant concern for airport security officials is the potential for a “turncoat,” an airport employee or contractor with a security firm that is secretly plotting with criminal or terrorist networks, he said.
“The thing that worries me is the so-called ‘insider threat,’ where you have people working in secure areas. They may have been screened and their backgrounds checked, but you can never tell where their loyalties lie,” Shanks told Foreign Policy.
The background checks turn up past convictions, but someone with a clean record could easily slip through the cracks, he said.
At Charles de Gaulle Airport, security has been markedly stepped up since the attack on the editorial offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. Armed French troops pace the terminal corridors, and police examine the papers of each passenger arriving from Middle Eastern airports.
But the possibility that militants from groups like the Islamic State, which was responsible for the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130, could have sympathizers working at the airport — and willing to act on their behalf — has remained a constant concern for authorities.
Between January and November 2015, French officials said 57 people working at the airport had their security clearances revoked. French police official Philippe Riffaut told French media last year that the security review had found signs of “radicalization” among airport workers and that some male staff members had declined to work alongside female colleagues. Police also searched thousands of employee lockers looking for not only drugs and weapons but also extremist religious “propaganda,” according to Riffaut.
After the Paris attacks, authorities announced they were reviewing the files of about 86,000 employees at Charles de Gaulle who had permits to enter a secure “reserved zone.” Based on the review, officials reportedly rescinded the security clearances of about a dozen staff members. The step was taken due to “their links to Islamism and for some of them groups linked to terrorism,” Jean-Charles Brisard, the chairman of the Center for Terrorism Analysis in Paris, told Time.
If terrorism is confirmed to have downed the plane, it would represent a new, and dangerous, escalation of the militants’ ability to hit the West. The Islamic State attacks in Paris in November and Brussels in March struck soft targets — including cafes, concert halls, and subway stations — that aren’t walled off and guarded by armed security personnel. Airport terminals are, which means that terrorists would have found a way to breach multiple layers of security checks and screening procedures. A successful attack on an airliner flying out of Paris would undercut widespread assumptions about airport security in Europe and the West.
“If terrorism was indeed the cause, it would reveal a whole new level of vulnerability to aircraft — not only from those flights originating in the Middle East, but to those departing from the heart of Europe and with, at least in theory, far better airport defenses,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
Schiff said terrorism could not be ruled out given the October bombing of a Russian plane that took off from the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh and was claimed by the Islamic State’s branch in the Sinai Peninsula.
“We are scouring our intelligence resources to see if we can aid in the determination of what happened to the plane,” he said.
Airports in the United States, which are widely considered the most secure in the world, have not been immune to insider plots.
In 2014, a former employee for Delta Airlines and a baggage handler at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta worked together to smuggle guns and ammunition on more than a dozen flights bound for New York. In 2013, an avionics technician employed at an airport in Wichita, Kansas, was charged with planning a suicide bombing after a FBI sting operation.
Not long after Flight 804 was reported missing Thursday, Egyptian Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy said that an act of terrorism was “more likely” the cause of the plane’s disappearance than a technical failure.
Fathy’s comments were a stark contrast to how Egyptian officials responded to the October downing of the Russian airliner over Sinai. In that case, Cairo officials waited months to acknowledge that the plane had been the target of a terrorist attack, one that the Islamic State had claimed from the outset.
The quick reaction suggested Egyptian officials were keen to focus any blame for possible security failures on Europe. After the bombing of the Russian airliner, European officials had voiced concerns about possible security gaps at airports in North Africa, including Tunisia, as well as at Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh airport. International investigators suspect an airport employee likely helped the militants smuggle a small explosive onto the Russian plane, which had 224 people on board when it went down. And the Islamic State has claimed in propaganda that the bomb was concealed in a Schweppes soft drink can.
“That they were able to smuggle this soda can bomb onto the plane suggests that security at that airport in Egypt is not fool-proof,” said Matthew Levitt, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior U.S. official who worked on counterterrorism at the Treasury Department.
The day the EgyptAir plane landed in Paris, it had flown in three other countries — Egypt, Tunisia, and Eritrea — where airport security procedures are much less stringent than inside the European Union or most other industrialized states.
The fact that the plane was in several airports on the same day “significantly increases the number of potential vulnerabilities,” Levitt told FP.
One year ago, the U.S. State Department published an advisory warning that security at Asmara International Airport could be “unpredictable” and added that there was a “lack of efficiency and consistency” in the screening of passengers.
To counter potential terrorist threats for U.S.-bound flights, American officials have adopted additional security precautions at airports abroad to check planes and passengers en route to the United States. The measures were introduced at airports in Ireland, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada, and the United Arab Emirates. The Department of Homeland Security has also carried out assessments and offered advice to aviation authorities in other countries, officials said.
FP staff writer Elias Groll contributed to this article.
Photo credit: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images