Commentary Magazine


Is Diplomacy a Threat to Airline Security?

Media scrutiny boils airline security down to X-ray machines, pat downs, and perhaps some psychological profiling. Even the most thorough American passenger screening, however, does not address the problem of terrorist baggage handlers or employees overseas. In an age of airline alliances and increasing international travel, the real vulnerability to air travel may be overseas.

I have written here before about the problem at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, destination for many European airlines and a frequent hub which I often use during vacations in Beirut or onward travel to Iraq. Hezbollah’s aborted putsch in Beirut in 2008 involved, among other things, control over the lucrative airport. One of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s more short-sighted compromises was to agree to the Doha Accords which empowered Hezbollah in Lebanon’s domestic scene in exchange for quiet. Along the way, Hezbollah regained sway over airport operations, even if its members wear Lebanon Army Uniforms when at the facility. It should give every American chills that many of the airport workers handling Lufthansa, Air France, and other flights which transfer luggage to the United States swear fealty to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

Alas, Beirut is no longer alone. Turkish Air, a member of the Star Alliance and a partner to United Airlines and USAir, has initiated service to Mogadishu, Somalia. Bags checked in Mogadishu can now find their way to New York, Washington, and Los Angeles among other destinations. Simultaneously, Turkey has announced that it is brokering talks with Ash-Shabaab, Somalia’s al-Qaeda’s affiliate, in a move which would see it join the central government and integrate into Somalia’s national security service. What could ever go wrong here?

Diplomats do not want to undermine Lebanon’s shaky political situation by voicing concerns over its airport, nor do they want to undercut their desperate hope for resolution in Somalia by questioning the wisdom of Turkey or its state airline. It seems history, therefore, could very well repeat. The Lockerbie bombing occurred when Libyan agents smuggled a bomb onto a Pan Am feeder flight in Malta. The Malta leak may be plugged, but do American security officials truly believe the same is true in either Beirut or Mogadishu? American airlines remain vulnerable, and despite the TSA’s approach, patting down four-year-olds and strip searching grannies will not be enough to plug the holes.