Thursday, July 12, 2012

New resarch of ‘Underwear bomber’ sheds light on complexities of airport security

By Dr. Coen van Gulijk

A new case study developed by Safety Science group at the Delft University of Technology focusing in detail on the lead-up to a Christmas Day of terror in 2009 sheds light on the complexities and barriers of airport security.

Developed by Ph.D candidate Hinke Andriessen and financed by the BEMOSA (Behaviour Modelling for Security in Airports) consortium with an EU Grant, the case study will be used to enhance security education. Students in a variety of disciplines, including safety science, security, criminology, complex transport systems and human factors, will be able to benefit from its insights.

The study is based on a young Nigerian Muslim, who quickly became known worldwide as the Christmas Terror Bomber. Twenty-three year old Umar Faroush Abdulmuttab tried unsuccessfully to blow up a North Western Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit that safely landed in the US on Christmas Day, 2009.

Despite the safe landing, the case study asks how Abdulmuttab managed to board two different international flights, pass security checks in Africa and Europe and fail to set off any of the global warning mechanisms in place, even though he was on a US watch list and while he was carrying substances that could be potentially fatal. 

The study, which is examines the story chronologically and includes newspaper articles and eyewitness testimonies, shows that securing air transport is a complex problem. 

First, says the author, air travel is international. She points out that not only were there 27 different nationalities on board flight NW 253 but also Abdulmuttab’s trip included stops in four nations: Ghana, Nigeria, and Amsterdam to America. In addition, attempts to ignite the bomb took place in Canadian airspace. 

Secondly, the security barriers installed worldwide to detect suspected passengers do not always perform in the way in the way they are supposed to. In this case the use of several databases failed to identify Abdulmuttab as a terrorist, several detectors failed to identify the bomb, and he was not singled out by security staff. 

Third, risk detection, as an activity for air transport, is a complex matter. It depends on technology and interconnected systems sharing information but the there is an important role for the human to interpret the analyses. Additionally, a bomb is just one of many ways in which air transport can be threatened by terrorists. 

Fourth, with an increasing number of security barriers, it becomes harder to manage them as a coherent system and while international legislation forms the backbone for management putting it into action is no easy feat.

According to the case study’s authors, this incident forces us to rethink security for global air traffic. That a suspected terrorist was able to travel halfway round the world with a bomb,
 interact with stewardesses, evade being caught by security staff, able to lie to a profiler and travel with hundreds of fellow travellers raises many new issues in airport security. Despite the failures of technology, the plane did not explode because of the actions of alertness of passengers. 

In conclusion, the authors point out that this case demonstrates that we should take human factors more seriously in airport security. Any willing person can contribute to security. Maybe, in addition to watching the X-ray screen for explosives the security officer should watch the passenger. After defining the passenger as suspicious he can check his bags. After that, any staff on airports and passengers alike could be instruments for security. They can be trained to recognize threats, talk with their colleagues, act when required and call security when they do not trust the situation. 

“Human behavior and decision-making processes are elements of human factors that, when properly trained and applied, can increase the level of security in air transport,” concludes the study.


The case study was performed by Hinke Andriessen and she was supervised by Coen van Gulijk, both work for the BEMOSA project. 

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