Aviation has a Low Risk of Terrorist Attack

The Madrid Train Bombing, 2004. Ground transportation is 6 times more likely to be attacked than aviation targets.
Photo: Sergio Barrenechea/EPA, www.theguardian.com
The New Zealand Ministry of Transport recently published a consultation paper reviewing New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Act. Included in that review were proposals to strengthen the powers of the Aviation Security Service (AvSec) because of the risk of terrorist action. Cited in the review was an incident in 2007 where “a vehicle at Glasgow International Airport loaded with propane canisters was driven into the front of the terminal and set ablaze. And on 24 January 2011 a suicide bomber loyal to the Chechen separatist cause detonated explosives in the arrivals hall at Domodedovo International Airport, killing 37 and injuring 173.”

This whitepaper demonstrates that the risk of terrorist attack in aviation is over-stated. Recent data reveals that terrorist actions are 6-7 times more likely in other modes of mass transport than aviation, while non-transport related activity is even more likely to be targeted. If further effort is to be expended on reducing potential terror attacks, little is to be gained by focussing on aviation.

State Department Review for 2013

The US State Department publishes an annual review of terrorist activity around the world. For 2013 the events listed below are particularly notable.[1]
  • On January 9, in Western Paris, Ömer Güney, a 30-year-old ethnic Kurd, killed three Kurdish women activists. On January 21, the French police arrested Güney, and have since held him in solitary confinement.
  • In Germany, the trial against an AQ terrorist cell, which began in July 2012 in Düsseldorf, was ongoing at year’s end. The defendants were accused of conspiring to set off explosives in crowded areas.
  • On January 20, two homemade bombs exploded on the first floor of a shopping center near Athens injuring two private security guards. Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • On November 1, two unidentified persons shot and killed two members of the Golden Dawn political party and injured a third person in front of the party’s office in the Athens suburb Neo Heraklion. The “Militant People’s Revolutionary Forces” claimed responsibility for the attack; police were still investigating it at year’s end.
  • On December 24, a group called Informal Anarchist Federation/International Revolutionary Front threatened to poison certain Coca-Cola products in Greece with hydrochloric acid, causing a recall of those products from store shelves.
  • On December 30, an unknown group fired approximately 60 rounds at the German Ambassador’s residence in Athens. The attackers remained at large at year’s end.
  • Greece’s two largest cities, Athens and Thessaloniki, experienced frequent, relatively small-scale anarchist attacks that used inexpensive and unsophisticated incendiary devices against the properties of political figures, party offices, private bank ATMs, ministries and tax offices, and privately-owned vehicles.
  • In Ireland, there were 250 occasions when Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams were called in response to a report of an improvised explosive device (IED), which resulted in the discovery of 70 viable IEDs disarmed and analyzed by Ireland’s Army bomb disposal teams. On November 22, a car bomb exploded on a housing estate in County Donegal. There were no injuries and Garda sealed off the scene and evacuated a number of homes in the area.
  • On October 21 a female suicide bomber detonated a device on a public bus in Volgograd, killing seven civilians and injuring 32 others.
  • On December 29-30, two suicide attacks occurred within the space of 24 hours, at Volgograd’s main railway station and on a city trolleybus, killing 34 and injuring at least 65. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the Volgograd attacks.
  • On September 3, a cache with ammunition, an explosive device, and a schematic view of a school was found in the Dagestani city of Buinaksk.
  • On October 4, a Tatarstan court sentenced two Islamist militants on charges of planning to detonate IEDs at a shop selling mobile phones and a local police station in the city of Chistopol, central Tatarstan. The court found that the principal defendant had trained in Pakistan, formed a terrorist network upon his return to Tatarstan, and then recruited his co-defendant.
  • On October 15, Russian authorities arrested two men, identified as Islamist radicals from the North Caucasus, for allegedly planning an attack on the Maradykovsky chemical weapons storage and disposal facility in the Kirov region, 620 miles northeast of Moscow.
  • On November 24, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device partially detonated near Victoria Square, the largest and busiest shopping mall in Belfast’s city center. A driver, carjacked by three masked men in the predominantly Catholic Ardoyne district, was forced to deliver the vehicle laden with 60 kg of explosives to the shopping center’s parking garage.
  • In Canada, police charged Chiheb Esseghaier – a Tunisian national – and Raed Jaser – a Palestinian national – with conspiring to derail a VIA Rail passenger train between Toronto and New York City. Neither of the suspects is a Canadian citizen. At year’s end, both men remained in custody and no trial date had been set. In a coordinated arrest, authorities in New York City arrested a third individual, Ahmed Abassi, whom they alleged radicalized Esseghaier and fraudulently applied for a visa to remain in the United States to commit acts of terrorism and develop a network of terrorist recruits.
There were also a large number of incidents related to unresolved regional conflicts, most notably Northern Ireland, Ireland, Central America, and the Middle East. None of these incidents involved air travel.

The Global Terrorism Database

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Global Terrorism Database (GTD) lists and categorises all known terrorist and potential terrorist attacks since 1970.[2] In the years 2006-2013 inclusive there were 45,819 events globally, of which 1,347 (2.9%) occurred in Australasia, North America, Oceania, or Western Europe. The majority of those attacks occurred in countries that have ongoing issues with sectarian violence: Greece (341), Ireland (70), Northern Ireland (324), Corsica (113), and Spain (101). These countries collectively accounted for 949 or 70% of the 1,347 events.

The GTD lists twelve events as having occurred in Australia or New Zealand in the period 2006-2013 (Table 1). Four of the twelve events involved explosives. None of the twelve events were linked with aviation or airports.

Of the 1,347 events occurring in the listed regions, seven (0.5%) were aviation related (Table 2) of which 4 were potential bombings. Conversely, 41 events (3.0%) were targeted at other modes of transportation including trains, subways, and buses, and 28 of those events were bombings or attempted bombings. On the basis of this data, the risk of a terrorism related event is nearly 6 times higher on modes of transport other than aviation, and the risk of bombing is 7 times higher on modes of transport other than aviation.

Furthermore, the 1,347 events in the GTD included: 86 events involving banks; 40 events involving Retail/Grocery/ Bakery; 26 events involving multinational corporations; 20 events involving restaurants, bars, and cafés; and 18 events involving Entertainment/Cultural/Stadiums/Casinos. This clearly suggests that commerce and shopping or entertainment venues are more likely to be targeted than aviation.


The overwhelming majority of terrorist incidents are not aviation-focussed, and the risk of attacks on other modes of transportation is some 6-7 times higher than for aviation. The current level of scrutiny makes aviation targets more difficult than equally high profile public spaces that are not subject to heavy surveillance. In the absence of specific information to the contrary, there is no evidence to suggest that security currently needs to be further enhanced at New Zealand airports.

The terror potential of airports is primarily related to the potential to “bring down” an airliner full of passengers. Cockpit security measures now mean that it is highly unlikely (although still possible) that passengers will be able to gain control of an aircraft, so terror measures are primarily focussed on explosives that will detonate in mid-air. Beyond the fact that an airport is a location providing physical access to aeroplanes, an airport may be a target because of the high concentration of people. Shopping malls are an alternative and possibly easier target than airports that also have a high concentration of people. In addition, as shown by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, popular sporting events may also be a target. This position is supported by the data.

There is no evidence to suggest a general need for paranoia or significant additional security measures. The same security measures that apply at malls, supermarkets, and sporting events can reasonably apply at airports. Any heightened security over and above that should be carefully considered in response to specific threats and make use of applicable Police and other security forces.
The landside part of an aerodrome is potentially no more a significant terror target than is a shopping mall or a complex such as the Sky Tower. Providing for more extensive security checks at the landside part of aerodromes than is required at other sites of high concentration of people is unnecessary and unwarranted.

Andrew Shelley


Table 1: Terrorist Events Occuring in Australia and New Zealand, 2006-2013, Global Terrorism Database
04/08/2006: The mobile phone shop of former Shapelle Corby backer Ron Bakir was firebombed at 6:00 a.m. when a man bashed the glass doors of the shop with a rock before dropping a cigarette into a canister of fuel on the footpath outside in Broadbeach, Australia. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
08/01/2006: A group of Middle Eastern men stoned Sydney, Australia’s Parramatta Synagogue’s roof and windows and damaged cars nearby. No group has claimed responsiblity for this attack.
04/15/2008: In Conventry Road, in Hastings, New Zealand, six pipe bombs were found and dismantled by the Army's bomb disposal units at Cash for Scrap. No casualties or damage resulted from the attempted attack. No motive was reported and no group claimed responsibility.
04/21/2008: A 30 mm pipe bomb rigged with external batteries and a mobile phone was detonated by the police bomb squad unit after it was found by council workers in Federation Park on the Drayton Connection Road, near Vale View south of Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia. No claim of responsibility was made for the attempted bombing, however on 04/22/2008 on Tuesday, executed a search warrant at a home in Kent Street at Oakey and allegedly found evidence of a home-made explosive device. A 21-year-old man was arrested and charged with one count of attempting to damage property by explosives.
6/24/2008: A letter containing 1080 poison was sent to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry building in Wellington, Wellington State, New Zealand. The 1080 poison is used as a pesticide. No casualties were reported and no claim of responsibility was made for the incident.
6/24/2008: A letter containing 1080 poison was sent to the Parliament building in Wellington, Wellington State, New Zealand. The 1080 poison is used as a pesticide. No casualties were reported and no claim of responsibility was made for the incident.
6/24/2008: A letter containing 1080 poison was sent to the Government Reserve Bank in Wellington, Wellington State, New Zealand. The 1080 poison is used as a pesticide. No casualties were reported and no claim of responsibility was made for the incident.
08/13/2008: A white powder was found in an envelope in the party offices of the Prime Minister Helen Clark in Wellington, New Zealand. The area was evacuated and decontaminated though the nature of the powder has not been confirmed. Douglas Hancock pleaded guilty to sending the letter.
12/08/2008: A Holden Rodeo ute vehicle carrying a 220-liter fuel tank was backed into the Joondalup police station and set aflame. The attack damaged two offices, one of which was the inspector's District Office. No casualties were reported.
12/10/2008: At 0235 in the morning, two private vehicles belonging to Warwick police officers were firebombed in Joondalup, Western Australia, Oceania, Australia.
04/16/2009: At around 0830 in the morning, assailants detonated an explosive device in waters off Australia's north-west coast, killing 3 asylum-seekers and injuring 50. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
10/08/2009: At 0100 in the morning, in Market Street in Condell park, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, an improvised explosive device placed on the hood of a car detonated, smashing the windows of two townhouses and destroying the vehicle. Investigator Mark Smith says it is not clear if the device was intended for the vehicle or the townhouses 10-15 meters away. No group claimed responsibility.
02/04/2010: On Thursday night, in Queens Park, Perth, Western Australia, Australia, armed assailants fired upon a mosque, damaging the mosque but causing no casualties. No group claimed responsibility, although authorities believed Combat 18 was responsible.

Table 2: Aviation-Related Terrorist Events Occurring in Australasia, North America, Oceania and Western Europe, 2006-2013, Global Terrorism Database
04/14/2006: A home-made explosive device was found in Biarritz-Parme Airport in Bayonne, France, between 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. following a telephone call made by a man who was apparently a sympathizer with the separatist cause.
06/30/2007: Two men, reportedly linked to Al-Qa`ida in Iraq, rammed a flaming Jeep Cherokee filled with gasoline and explosives into Scotland's largest airport on Saturday. The two men--Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed--were apprehended in the attack. Abdulla was a legal medical doctor while Ahmed was an aeronautical engineer. Bilal was captured as was Ahmed; who died on August 2, 2007 from burns he received in the attack. A police officer and a civililian were also wounded in the attack. No claim of responsibility was reported.
12/25/2009: On Friday morning, in Detroit, Michigan, United States, as the plane was approaching the destination, a would-be suicide bomber, identified as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian national, on board of Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam, Netherlands detonated a device that was attached to his body while on the plane. The bomb was a six inch packet of high explosives containing pentaerythritol, Triacetone Triperoxide, other materials and a syringe. The explosives were sewn into his underwear. The assailant was wounded and damage was done to the aircraft. A passenger who tried to put the explosion out was also injured. 290 people in total were on board. No other injuries or casualties were reported. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility.
10/29/2010: On Friday night around 0330, in East Midlands Airport in Lockington, Leicestershire, Great Britain, British authorities conducted a search of UPS Flight 232, which had been bound for the United States and was diverted to East Midlands Airport after authorities were alerted by Saudi intelligence that there were parcels carrying explosive devices on board. Officials located and safely defused an improvised explosive device, reportedly not long before it was set to detonate. The IED was a package containing PETN hidden inside a printer cartridge. The packages were sent from Yemen, addressed to synagogues in Chicago. Four militants were arrested in connection with the incident, which was linked to a similar attempt on a FedEx cargo plane that was grounded in Dubai. Al Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the attack.
01/05/2011: On Wednesday, in Oslo city, Oslo, Norway, a Turkish national stormed the cockpit of a Turkish Airlines plane less than one hour before its arrival in Istanbul, Turkey, and demanded that the aircraft return to Oslo, Norway, while waving what he claimed to be an explosive device. However, passengers overpowered the hijacker and the aircraft landed safely in Istanbul. The man was taken into custody by security forces. The explosive device claim was discovered to be false. No casualties or damages were reported and no group has claimed responsibility for the attempted hijacking.
04/18/2013: An explosive device was discovered at the airport in McCook city, Nebraska state, United States. The device was safely defused without incident. No group claimed responsibility for the unsuccessful attack.
11/01/2013: Gunman opened fire on Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents in a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Los Angeles city, California state, United States. One TSA agent was killed and two others were wounded in the attack. Additionally, five civilians suffered injuries in the attack. When officers returned fire, an assailant was injured. Paul Ciancia claimed responsibility for the incident, stating, in a note found in his apartment, that he wanted to kill and to instill fear in TSA officers.

[1] US Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2013, Bureau of Counterterrorism, Released April 2014. Available online at http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2013/index.htm.
[2] The Global Terrorism Database is available for download from http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/contact/.