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Practice Makes Terror By: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Weekly Standard | Monday, September 25, 2006

Twelve passengers on Northwest Airlines Flight 42, which departed Amsterdam for Mumbai on August 23, quickly aroused the crew's suspicions. Eyewitnesses reported that the 12 passengers, who were of South Asian descent, attempted to use mobile phones and pass them back and forth as the flight took off. Compounding that suspicious behavior, some of the men began walking in the aisles before the plane's seatbelt signs were off. The flight was escorted back to Dutch airspace by F-16 fighters and the passengers were arrested, but Dutch prosecutors announced the next day that "they found no evidence of a terrorist threat."

This dramatic incident comes amid what has generally been described as a rash of false alarms following the August 10 revelation of a foiled transatlantic air terror plot. Since then, at least 20 public incidents involving airline security have been reported in the United States and Europe. Recent events include a September 1 AirTran flight to San Francisco being diverted after a passenger was seen sniffing a substance in a bag, an August 29 US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Houston being diverted after a "threatening note" prompted a bomb scare, and an August 25 US Airways jet being diverted after a disruptive passenger pushed a flight attendant. The commonly accepted explanation for this spike in incidents is that airline crews and passengers are on a hair trigger. But there may also be casings and dry runs occurring, and it's difficult for an open society to guard against these exercises.

The transatlantic air plot that was disrupted in early August provides the latest evidence of how terrorists probe airline defenses. Intelligence sources report that at least one of the plotters took several flights between Britain and the United States with only one plausible purpose: probing weaknesses in airline security.

But even before that plot became public knowledge, there was good reason to suspect that terrorists trying to probe airline security were among the millions of people who board planes each day. Annie Jacobsen has tirelessly reported about the distressing state of airline security in both a series of articles for WomensWallStreet.com and the book Terror in the Skies: Why 9/11 Could Happen Again. Although she is not without her critics, Jacobsen impressed me as a careful and thorough journalist with an array of knowledgeable sources.

In the course of Jacobsen's investigations, a large number of airline industry personnel and Federal Air Marshals approached her with concerns about suspicious in-flight behavior by Middle Eastern men. She has catalogued many such incidents, but is often unable to report on them because of her sources' concern that they will get in trouble for speaking to the press. (Both airline personnel and Federal Air Marshals are required to enter agreements prohibiting them from doing so.) But the incidents her sources have allowed her to report on provide reason for concern.

One such incident occurred on United Airlines Flight 925, which left London for Washington, D.C. on June 13, 2004. Jacobsen recounts that nine Middle Eastern men arrived late, just minutes before the aircraft doors were set to close. Although the nine men had "arrived independently on separate itineraries from various Middle Eastern countries," after the plane took off it became obvious that at least some of them knew each other. And their behavior was unusual enough to make the crew and captain suspicious:

Once the flight was in the air, a flight attendant in the coach class cabin noticed a bag in the aisle. She asked that the owner of the bag identify him or herself at once. No one came forward to claim the bag. One of the late-arriving Middle Eastern men was seated nearby. The flight attendant asked the man pointedly if the bag was his. He replied "no" in English. Later, this same man approached the flight attendant and said that the bag in the aisle was his bag and that he wanted it back. . . . During the flight, several of the men walked to the mid-section of the plane and stood in a group by the aircraft door. The lead flight attendant notified the Captain. The Air Marshals on board had already been made aware. About the same time, two of the Middle Eastern men, seated in the far rear of the plane, started taking photographs of the aircraft interior. The flight attendants now began closely monitoring what the men were doing. One of the men carried a hand-held mirror as he walked around the plane. According to one flight attendant, the man "was holding [the mirror] and moving it around so he could see what was going on behind him. What he was doing was very suspicious."

Eventually the captain radioed Heathrow airport to ask for the men's names to be re-checked against the no-fly list. He learned that in fact two of the men were on that list. Yet despite the captain's request to have law enforcement on the scene when the plane touched down in Washington, there was reportedly only "one United Airlines supervisor with a clipboard" on hand. All nine suspects were able to walk away without being questioned about their odd behavior.

There have been other incidents of concern. For example, a congressional report entitled "In Plane Sight" about the Federal Air Marshals service documents one instance of a passenger who appeared to be Middle Eastern bumping into a pair of Federal Air Marshals and touching both of them on the chest with an open hand: seemingly an attempt to determine where Federal Air Marshals keep their weapons.

Although there was ample reason before the transatlantic plot to believe that flights were being cased, none of these incidents were remembered as casings. Likewise, the various incidents that have occurred since then may well be remembered as a rash of false alarms.

But some of these alarms may not have been false. In any dry run or casing, terrorists will engage in aberrant behavior similar to that displayed by the passengers aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 42 (or United Airlines Flight 925, for that matter). If terrorists engaged in a dry run or casing have a modicum of foresight, they'll have reasonable explanations for their travel and their behavior. They may in fact not even have to do that much: by August 25, the New York Times declared that the 12 Northwest Airlines Flight 42 passengers were "possibly unaware of international flight rules and security concerns." This seems overly assuming. Is it likely that a dozen international passengers were unaware that they shouldn't use cell phones after takeoff and walk in the aisles with the seatbelt sign still on?

If the terrorists have reasonable stories and don't possess weapons or the means to blow up a flight, their dry run or casing will likely be remembered as nothing more than a false alarm. Actions of this kind are fairly low-risk ventures for terrorists from which they derive two distinct advantages. One is that they can test the limits of our tolerance, determining what behavior will raise red flags and what will not. The second advantage is that, as an increasing number of law enforcement sources suspect, terrorists or their sympathizers may be trying to catch the Federal Air Marshals' attention in order to determine who the marshals are.

The likelihood that terrorists can offer plausible excuses and walk away unscathed when caught in the midst of a casing or dry run points to an inherent point of vulnerability for open societies. Nor is the impact of this vulnerability limited to the informational benefits that terrorists can derive from these actions.

Beside the information that terrorists can gain, suspicious behavior that catches the attention of crews and air marshals may produce alert fatigue. When a number of "false alarms" occur on airplanes, it runs the risk that both airline personnel and the public will become desensitized to future threats. In Preventing Surprise Attacks, Richard Posner refers to this as the "boy crying wolf" cost of announcing terror threats, and warns that false alerts "increase the likelihood that true alarms will be ignored."

In the case of airline alerts, some of these may in fact be true alarms. The suspects may be abetting a terrorist plot--yet catching and punishing them is difficult, since they're only probing defenses, not trying to bring down the flight.

Successfully defending the home front requires us to balance a number of factors: national security, civil liberties, and the risk of tipping our hand regarding our defenses. Often there is no perfect way to strike this balance. But in the case of the recent airline "false alarms," very little thinking has gone into the fact that a problem does exist. It's time for us to recognize it.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior consultant for the Gerard Group International. His first book, My Year Inside Radical Islam, will be published in February 2007 by Tarcher/Penguin. Kyle Dabruzzi provided research assistance for this article.

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