Serious gaps in aviation security, say experts

Did Malaysia alert other countries to missing plane, they ask; stolen passports a concern too

Security experts told The Sunday Times that the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has exposed serious security gaps and loopholes in the international aviation system that must be plugged.

A big question, they said, was whether Malaysia alerted its neighbours when the jetliner vanished so that they could take precautions to protect themselves.

If the flight was hijacked, they said, many others in the region - including Singapore - might have been at risk of a terror attack.

Airport and aviation protocols must be revamped after what one expert described as a "turning point in aviation security".

A former senior Israeli counter-terrorism and aviation security officer in the Israel Security Agency, Mr Doron Bergerbest-Eilon, said that aeroplanes are part of the arsenal of global terror and a missing aeroplane could be a sign of a mega security attack.

Any country that loses sight of one of its aircraft must alert other countries, he said.

"Was this done when the aeroplane went missing?" he asked. "Imagine an aeroplane that has taken off in another country landing on Orchard Road. An aircraft is in the hands of a pilot and he could have been incited or motivated. He could take things into his own hands and do something like this."

He described this scenario as a significant one, given the millions living in mega cities, and the horrendous consequences of the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks when 19 Al-Qaeda members hijacked and flew aeroplanes into buildings in New York and Washington, DC.

Referring to MH370's disappearance, he said that an incident of such a magnitude calls for suspicion of malicious intent. "In recent years, air piracy and terrorism have come together in a series of parallel events," he said.

Agreeing with Mr Bergerbest-Eilon's views, counter-terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) called MH370 a "turning point in aviation security and a catalyst that will force governments in Asia to enhance aviation security".

The experts also agreed on another key issue - that one of the most serious security loopholes which must be plugged is the one that allowed two men with stolen passports to board the flight.

They noted that while the two Iranians with stolen passports might not have been connected to the disappearance of the aircraft, it is not unreasonable to expect that any traveller with a fake passport might pop up in future criminal activities. Hence, airport systems must spot and stop them.

Flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing with 239 passengers and crew on March 8. An aviation security analyst said that if the stolen passports had been found out, Malaysian authorities might have been alerted that something was amiss on that flight.

"The security on the ground was not good enough," he said.

Stolen passports present a significant security problem for intelligence agencies.

In many cases, terrorists, drug smugglers and human traffickers use forged passports to move with ease across borders to avoid detection and detention.

One example is the dangerous Al-Qaeda leader Riduan Isamuddin. Also known as Hambali, he was the operations chief of the Jemaah Islamiah terror network, who gave the green light for his members to attack Singapore. Born in Indonesia, he was arrested in Ayutthaya, Thailand, in 2003 with a Spanish passport obtained from a Bangladeshi.

Analysts agreed with Dr Bilveer Singh, who has studied terrorism for over 30 years, that for now, everyone on board MH370 is a suspect.

"Someone on board the aeroplane - the pilot, crew, passengers - had deep knowledge about how to divert it and avoid detection," he said. "That person or persons exploited security failures in the system."

Mr Bergerbest-Eilon said what is needed is thorough and regular updating of the profiles of all air crew. Pilots, in particular, need a higher level of security clearance as they have "tremendous power over the lives of all the passengers on board", he said.

These are some questions that must be asked in updating the profiles of air crew: When was the last vetting done? How has a person's religious or political beliefs changed over the years? Does he make radical statements and when did he start doing so?

"Just because a pilot gets his pilot's licence when he was 27 does not make him a bona fide pilot for the rest of his life," he said.

Another security feature worth looking at anew is the role of air marshals on board flights.

Dr Singh wondered if there was an air marshal on board MH370 and if he could have been overpowered by the perpetrator.

The air marshal programme began in 1970, after a series of airline hijackings, and was expanded after the 9/11 attacks. These officers are trained to safeguard passengers and crew aboard aircraft.

As the mystery of MH370 enters its third week with no clear leads and almost no answers to the key questions about how it vanished, the experts said countries now need to identify and fix systemic failures in aviation security, and the effort has to be comprehensive and multi-layered.

"Tinkering with the system won't fix a failed security system," said the Israeli expert.