The bomb scare which forced Air France Flight 463 from Mauritius to Paris into an emergency landing in Kenya only days before Christmas was an indication of how nervous airlines are in the new age of Islamic State-branded terror.
It was a clumsily produced faux bomb that brought down AF463, but only two months after the actual (suspected) bombing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, airlines and their passengers are jittery.
A former police officer, 56, and his wife, were questioned by French police following their arrival at Charles De Gaulle airport and were later released. Neither of the pair were charged and investigations into the incident continue, but it was the third time in 15 days that Air France jets were diverted due to a bomb scare.
The public perception of the danger, however, far outweighs the true risk, according to security experts.
Terrorist attacks have marked 2015 from its beginning almost to its end.
From the Charlie Hebdo/Hyper Kacher attacks in Paris, on January 7, to the November mass shootings, also in Paris, that killed 131 people, a terrifying sequence of assaults by the Islamic State (ISIS) have distorted public perception about the real threat stemming from the Syrian civil war, now in its fifth year.
No real surge of terror exists, Charles Burbridge, Managing Director of G4S Risk Consulting, told The Media Line. “Terrorism, particularly international terrorism, very rarely occurs in waves, it is usually not as coordinated as that.” He explained that the effort, resources, and planning – all undertaken covertly – make it difficult for terrorists to conduct activities on such a massive scale.
Air France’s decision to divert three passenger planes at a significant cost reveals mostly how cautious the industry is being. “Airlines get threats quite a lot, the fact that Air France chose this as a credible threat is no doubt an internal matter, that they would rather err on the side of caution,” says Mark Feldman, CEO of Jerusalem’s Zion Tours travel agency.
“The main problem is that it is so easy to bring down an aircraft in midair,” says Aviv Oreg, a former senior security officer for El Al Israel Airlines and for John F Kennedy Airport “All you have to do is somehow smuggle a box of 300 or 200 grams [of explosives] onto the aircraft,” he told The Media Line. Once a plane is at high altitude and in low air pressure a relatively small explosion can be enough to cause a fatal crash.
Despite the vulnerability, air travel remains the “safest mode of transportation,” Feldman pointed out to The Media Line. The cause for the imbalance between actual and perceived risk is simple, Burbridge says: it’s the death toll. When an airplane crashes the casualties are high and news coverage vast, but years may pass between successful attacks against airliners.
New media has also had an impact. “A second thing that has contributed to that [perception] is the availability of information and the way in which images are available to the public which convey… the barbarity of some of these events,” Burbridge says.
That said, the real risk may not have shifted over time. “Terrorists’ capability has increased markedly, but generally speaking, it is in line with our security architecture’s ability to deal with it,” Burbridge says.
Bruce Schneier, the Chief Technology Officer at www.resilientsystems.com also pointed at media as a source of misperception “The news has to report terrorism – and the more breathless the reporting, the better,” Schneier, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center, told The Media Line. The more journalists and politicians talk about terror the more the perception of its danger grows, he said, adding “we are all complicit in its effectiveness.”
The ISIS threat to aviation is no greater than it was from other terrorist groups in the past, Oreg, a former expert on jihadism for Israel’s military intelligence, estimates.
The only difference between the 1970s and now, he says, is ISIS branding many Islamist militants seek to emulate. Unrelated attacks around the world are attributed to the group even in the absence of a direct link. Attacks such at the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA, create the false impression of a wave of attacks which is not truly there. “People think ISIS is everywhere and suddenly able to put explosives on board an aircraft and are more alarmed,” he said.