Sunday, December 23, 2018

23-Dec-18: In the UK, what we used to know about airport safety suddenly looks so 1990s

Massive disruption at Gatwick this week [Image Source]
As the UK deals with the strange and unsettling experience of one of its most strategically important airports being left in a state of total paralysis as the holiday travel season reaches its peak, thoughtful Brits will be contemplating some even fresher - and certainly no less disturbing - news.

Gatwick Airport, the UK's second-busiest, was the scene of a still-perplexing series of massive anxiety attacks this week:
After rogue drones forced it to close for 32 hours this week, the airport, one of Europe’s busiest, reopened Friday morning and had a nearly 12-hour uninterrupted run of takeoffs and landings. Then came an unconfirmed drone sighting, forcing the airport to close yet again, although briefly, leaving planes circling above and travelers fuming in the terminals. And by the time flights resumed Friday night, many questions remained: What was behind the incursions? Why couldn’t they be stopped more quickly? And is Britain doing enough to keep the devices away from airports and other sensitive spots? Early Saturday, the police in Sussex announced that they had arrested a man and a woman on suspicion on the “criminal use” of the drones... ["Two Arrests, and Many Questions, as Gatwick Reopens After Drone Threat", New York Times, December 21, 2018]
The answers, when they come, are unlikely to calm the fears of rational Brits. It's clear enough that the huge disruption at Gatwick, whatever its actual details (which at this stage are sketchy) can be reproduced and exacerbated at will by any trouble-minded copy-cat; sustainable protective and defensive measures are almost certainly on the agenda of the authorities but in the nature of things, are unlikely to be implemented as rapidly as they are needed.

But then what if people with serious and deadly malice on their minds, let's say, read the news reports and decide to test those not-yet-in-place defences? And not necessarily in the UK, or in the UK only, but elsewhere?

The issue is far from speculative and not at all fanciful. Underscoring the potential for serious trouble, a Times of London report under the byline of its political editor, Tim Shipman, this morning makes that painfully clear. 

Highlights to mull:
  • The UK's Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime Ben Wallace met with senior UK airport managers a week ago, prior to the Gatwick chaos, in order to to discuss what's now known about threats to their facilities including the “insider threat” of jihadist sleeper agents working undercover at airports.
  • "Al-Qaeda is resurgent and seeking to carry out new terrorist atrocities against airliners and airports, [he] warned last night. The terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks in 2001 poses a growing threat that is keeping ministers “awake at night”, he told The Sunday Times... They have reorganised. They are pushing more and more plots towards Europe and have become familiar with new methods and still aspire to aviation attacks.”
  • "...The decline of Isis meant al-Qaeda would seek to reassert itself as the world’s leading terror group and an aviation spectacular would be its calling card.... al-Qaeda is developing technology to bring down passenger jets using miniaturised bombs and drones packed with explosives." 
  • "Security sources say sketches of drones designed to deliver bombs were discovered during a recent terrorist investigation in the UK. British businesses have also been warned that Islamist terrorists are seeking to mount attacks using a drone armed with explosives or chemicals."
  • "British intelligence chiefs are concerned that Donald Trump’s decision last week to withdraw US troops from Syria will create a new safe haven for Islamists to launch attacks on the West. The UK found out about his decision only when he tweeted it on Wednesday."
  • Especially depressing is his advice about how useful current, and very intrusive, security arrangements directed at ordinary travelers are. "Wallace said improvements in airport security meant terrorists were less likely to smuggle explosive through terminal security systems: “They have explored other ways of getting bombs on planes. We’ve talked publicly about an insider threat issue. If you can’t get in the front door, you’re going to try to get in the back door.”" ["Al-Qaeda terror group returns to target airliners and airports", Times of London, December 23, 2018]
Meanwhile, UK travelers are still absorbing the scale of the impact on their lives from what, at least at this moment, looks like a criminal offence at worst with no immediate connection to terrorism:
The drone sightings had forced the cancellation or diversion of more than 1,000 flights over three days, affecting some 140,000 people, officials said. On Saturday, Gatwick warned passengers to expect still more delays and cancellations and to check their flight status before going to the airport... [British] officials identified the two [suspects] as Paul Gait, 47, and his wife Elaine Kirk, 54... from Crawley, a town just south of the airport. The couple are suspected of disrupting civil aviation services and endangering people or operations — offenses that carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, according to the police. They have not been formally charged and are still in custody, but the police did not release further details. The incident exposed the vulnerabilities of the airport to outside interference and drew attention to the limitations of security officials responding to such a threat at a peak travel time... ["Married Couple Arrested Over Drone Incursions at Gatwick Airport", New York Times, December 22, 2018]
It's evident that whatever the solution, technology will be part, but only part, of fighting back. We noticed some reporting in a Russian source about the things technology can potentially do in ameliorating the drome threat:
UK authorities could use an Israeli-made "Drone Dome" system that the British army acquired in August 2018 to take down the drones, which had been disrupting Gatwick Airport's operations for the last two days. The equipment, seen on the rooftop of a building near the airport and operated by the UK police looks just like the "Drone Dome" components in the photos, published in 2016 by several media platforms. The DJI system is capable of not just detecting drones and hijacking their controls, but also of tracking down the person, who controlled it. Its major downside is that it is not compatible with all drones. On the other hand, "Drone Dome" can take down any drone, by either hacking and landing it or by shooting it down with powerful laser. ["What is 'Drone Dome' That UK Could Have Used to Take Down Gatwick UAV", Sputnik News, December 22, 2018]
What the Russian report calls "Drone Dome", a system developed by two of Israel's major defense firms Rafael and RADA, is described in this recent Times of Israel report: "UK army said to use Israeli-made system to end drone chaos at London airport".

UPDATE Sunday December 23, 2018 at 2:30 pm: So who is actually behind the drone assault (if that's what it was) on Gatwick? At this point, and despite the certainty generated by a proliferation of news reports referring to a specific couple, it seems ["Gatwick drones pair 'no longer suspects'", BBC, this afternoon] no one actually knows:
A man and woman arrested in connection with drone sightings that grounded flights at Gatwick Airport have been released without charge. The 47-year-old man and 54-year-old woman, from Crawley, West Sussex, were arrested on Friday night on suspicion of "the criminal use of drones"... Sussex Police said the pair were no longer suspects. Det Ch Supt Jason Tingley said: "Both people have fully co-operated with our inquiries and I am satisfied that they are no longer suspects in the drone incidents at Gatwick... "Our inquiry continues at a pace to locate those responsible for the drone incursions, and we continue to actively follow lines of investigation."

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