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Threats to Aviation

This information can be found in the National Strategy for Aviation Safety 2018 edition.

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    Terrorists pose a severe threat to Aviation globally by using tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to follow through with their agenda. Since September 11, 2001, terrorists have sought to exploit vulnerabilities in airports, aircraft, and the aviation cyberspace domain in order to conduct lethal attacks. In response, the U.S. has established several authoritative bodies, including the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) tasked with mitigating and preventing the terrorism threat to aviation. 

    Read more about TSA.


    2001: 9/11 Terrorist Attacks

    On September 11, 2001 Islamic extremist group, al Qaeda targeted the United States in a series of airline hijackings and suicide attacks resulting in the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. 19 individuals hijacked four aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and in Stony Creek Township, Pennsylvania. Al-Qaeda terrorists were responsible to taking the lives of 3,000 Americans and international citizens, which prompted vast and enduring anti-terror approaches in the homeland and overseas. Over the past 20 years, advancements in airport security and screening, as well as increased IC-wide interagency collaboration, have enabled more proactive measures to preventing terrorist attacks in Aviation.

    Read more about the 9/11 Investigation.


    2009: “Underwear Bomber” Attempted Attack

    On December 25, 2009, an al Qaeda terrorist attempted to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit, Michigan. Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab traveled to Yemen in August 2009, where he received an explosive device and conspired with al-Qaeda members to bomb a U.S. aircraft over U.S. soil. Abdulmutallab traveled with the bomb concealed in his underwear from Yemen to Africa, and onwards to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, before boarding Northwest Airlines Flight 253 for Detroit, Michigan on Christmas Day. Abdulmutallab detonated the bomb as the aircraft was descending over Detroit Metropolitan Airport, causing a fire, but the device failed to fully explode. In 2012, Abdulmutallab was sentenced to life in prison for the attempted bombing. In 2010, TSA began installing hundreds of advanced imaging technology, known as “full-body scanners,” at U.S. airports, in order to detect non-metallic explosives and other body-worn threats that may evade metal-only detectors.

    Read more about the Underwear Bomber.

    2014: Terrorist Manual Calls for Attacks Against U.S. Aircraft

    In December 2014, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a magazine discussing ways in which to target U.S. aviation entities.  The centerpiece of al Qaeda’s 13th issue of its English language magazine, Inspire, detailed steps to building home-made nonmetallic improved explosive devices (IEDs), which airlines to attack, and where to place devices on an aircraft. The magazine called for lone wolf attacks targeting commercial airlines in the U.S. and other Western countries, to include the United Kingdom and France. In response, TSA launched a series of enhanced screening initiatives at domestic and overseas airports with direct flights to the U.S., leveraging advanced technology and increased security protocols.

    Follow the History of the TSA.

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  • Foreign Intelligence Activities
    Foreign Intelligence Entities – A known or suspected foreign state or non-state organization or person that conducts intelligence activities to acquire U.S. information, block or impair U.S. intelligence collection, influence U.S. policy, or disrupt U.S. systems and programs.  This term includes foreign intelligence services – defined as state intelligence services-and also can pertain to international terrorists, transnational criminal organizations, foreign cyber actors, or foreign corporations or organizations. 

    Source:  National Counterintelligence and Security Center. “Protect Your Organization from the Foreign Intelligence Threat” December 2021


      A Chinese intelligence officer has been convicted by a US jury of plotting to steal secrets from U.S. aviation companies

    Xu Yanjun was found guilty of five counts relating to economic espionage and trade secret theft.  According to the U.S. Justice Department, Xu is a senior member of the Jiangsu branch of China’s Ministry of State Security – the agency responsible for counterintelligence, foreign intelligence and internal security.  Xu targeted employees at several companies in the U.S. since 2013.  He arranged for an employee to travel to China to give a presentation at a university - paying for their travel expenses and stipend.   The following year, Xu asked the employee for “system specifications, design process” information.   The employee was later asked to send a copy of the file directory for his work issued computer.  

    Read more about the Conviction of Chinese Intelligence Officer.

    2019:  Former GE engineer and Chinese Businessman Charged with economic espionage and Theft of GE’s trade secrets. 

    Xiaoqing Zheng  and Zhaoxi Zhang were indicted for economic espionage and conspiring to steal General Electrics (GE’s) trade secrets surrounding turbine technologies, knowing and intending that those stolen trade secrets would be used to benefit the PRC.  Zheng e-mailed and transferred mulitiple electronic files including design models, engineering drawings, configuration files, and material specifications having to various components and testing systems association with GE gas and steam turbines.  Zheng and Zhang used the stole GE trade secrets to advance their own business interests in two Chinese companies, Liaoning Tianyi Aviation Technology Company Ltd.  And Tianyi Avi Tech Company Ltd. which research, develop and manufacture parts for turbines. 

    More details on the Theft of GE's Trade Secrets.

    2017: Russia uses American business to steal U.S. Military technology.

    Two women working for Alexander Fishenko, owner of Arc Electronics, a Houston, Texas based company, were convicted of assisting Fishenko of smuggling military grade technology to Russia.  The types of technology Arc sent to Russia could have been used for military radar and surveillance systems, and even for missile guidance systems.  Over 10 years, the company shipped more than $50 million work of sensitive technologies to suppliers for Russian intelligence.  The Fishenko case began in between the revelation of a network of 11 Russian spies, the “Illegals Program”, and the arrest of a spy working for a Russian bank in New York.  

    Read the full DOJ Press Release on Convicted Russian Agent.


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  • Hostile Nation States

    As the global landscape of strategic competition and conflict continues to grow, advance, and evolve, so too do the weapons and tactics employed and proliferated within the Air Community. Growing national ambitions and aggression amongst adversary nation-states (e.g., China and Russia) give rise to growing risks across this dynamic domain while new and novel combat capabilities, technology, and tactics (e.g., hypersonic systems, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and artificial intelligence (AI)) extend the projection of power for large and small nation-states alike. The consequence of their employment, narrowing the window for nation-states to respond to and defense against aggression, avoid conflict, and avert disastrous mistakes within the Air Community.


    2021-2020: Second Nagorno-Karabakh War

    Beginning in late-2020, Azerbaijan and Armenia entered into a 44 day conflict which was characterized by one of the first large-scale employments of UAS in combat roles against and between nation-state belligerents. Azerbaijan in particular made significant gains across the battlefield through widespread use of UAS to conduct attack, reconnaissance, and targeting operations to systematically strike and destroy Armenian/Artsakh troop positions, air-defenses, airports, and critical infrastructure.

    Read More about the Azerbaijan-Armenia Conflict

    Additional details on the Military Lessons from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War

    2020: Iran Shoot-down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 

    In January 2020, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force downed a civilian Ukraine International Airlines aircraft outside of Tehran, killing all 176 passengers aboard, after it fired two SA-15 surface-to-air missiles in what Iran eventually blamed on an air defense operator for mistaking the Boeing 737-800 for a U.S. cruise missile. The incident highlighted the risk to civil aviation from nation-state miscalculation.

    Read More about IRGC Miscalculation on Ukrainian Civil Aircraft Attack


    2019: Chinese Military Air Modernization

    The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and PLAN Aviation together constitute the largest aviation force in the region and the third largest in the world, with over 2,800 total aircraft (not including trainer variants or UAVs) of which approximately 2,250 are combat aircraft (including fighters, strategic bombers, tactical bombers, multi-mission tactical, and attack aircraft). In 2019, China declared the PLAAF’s missions and tasks as transitioning from territorial air defense to “offensive and defensive operations.” This ushered in the return of the airborne leg of the PRC’s nuclear triad when later that year the PLAAF publicly revealed the H-6N as its first nuclear-capable air-to-air refuelable bomber.

    Follow DoD 2021 Annual Report on Chinese Military Air Modernization


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  • Cyber Vulnerabilities within the Aviation Ecosystem
    Due to the complex set of interconnections between all components of the aviation ecosystem, which move an enormous amount of diverse data across the ecosystem, this community represents a high profile threat environment from adversary cyber actors.  Additionally, with an increased use of sensors and data acquisition as well as the continuous evolution of technology, there is a vital reliance on radio frequency spectrum within this community.  Examples of such reliant activities include communications, navigation, precision timing, and surveillance.   Actions that disrupt or deny data in these activities can have significant consequences.


    2020: EasyJet

    Easyjet reported in May that in January 2020 customer email addresses and travel details had been stolen and that 2,208 customers had also had their credit and debit card details "accessed".

    Read More on EasyJet 2020 Data Leak

    2020: San Francisco Airport

    Two login portals – one reserved for employees, the other for partners and service providers – at San Francisco International Airport were reportedly hacked in March 2020. Malicious code was injected on these two sites in order to harvest the usernames and passwords used at the time of login. The airport took immediate preventive measures and reset all the passwords of its employees and customers.

    San Francisco Airport Data Breach
    2018: Cathay Pacific

    Cathay Pacific reported the personal data of up to 9.4 million passengers have been accessed including passport details, identity card numbers, travel history and email addresses.

    Cathay Pacific 2018 Data Breach
    2019: GPS Outage

    GPS issues caused hundreds of flights to be canceled, and an estimated 400 flights grounded, in the US from 9-10 June, 2019.

    400 US Flights Cancelled Due to GPS Outage


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  • Insiders

    An insider threat is a security risk that originates from within the targeted organization. It typically involves a current or former employee or business associate who has access to sensitive information or privileged accounts within the network of an organization, and who misuses this access.


    2021: Another arrest made, 2 Delta employees fired in gun smuggling case at Atlanta airport​

    In 2021 two Delta Airline employees were arrested and fired in a weapon's related smuggling case at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. According to court documents, a special agent with the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives quoted, "Firearms were recovered concealed within two karaoke boxes, and further concealed within two pieces of checked luggage destined to Saint Martin at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

    Find out more in the article

    2020: Former American Airlines Mechanic Sentenced to Prison for Attempting to Destroy an Aircraft

    In 2020 American Airlines mechanic Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani, 60, was sentenced by after previously pleading guilty to the federal charge of attempted destruction of an aircraft. Alani used his employee access to glue a piece of foam inside the navigation equipment of a Boeing 737 plane parked at the Miami International Airport terminal. Alani attempted to disable a component pilots use to monitor things such as airspeed, altitude and the pitch of an aircraft that was due to travel to Nassau, Bahamas. 

    For the full story click here

    2014: Former baggage handler sentenced for smuggling loaded firearms onto aircraft

    In 2014, Delta Air Lines baggage handler, Eugene Harvey (37), and his coconspirators were arrested and later convicted for smuggling over 135 firearms between Georgia and New York. "The last shipment on December 10, 2014, contained 18 firearms, seven of which were loaded, (www.justice.gov).

    The Full Press Release is Available Here: www.justice.gov


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  • The Spread of Infectious Disease via Air Travel

    The spread of infectious diseases like a pandemic — an ongoing epidemic on two or more continents — can severely impact the Air Community as infected travelers, wittingly or unwittingly, transit the global aviation ecosystem. The expansive global aviation ecosystem makes infectious disease screenings difficult to keep pace with traveler populations. Many countries are challenged with lack of disease screening technologies to help prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of infectious diseases via air travel. Global consequences, despite travel restrictions and quarantines, can include enduring negative impacts on aviation management industries, flight operations as well as air cargo capacity and transport.


    2020: COVID-19 Pandemic

    Originating in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, the COVID-19 virus quickly grew to a pandemic and is the most recent demonstration of the Air Community's collaboration with international communities to respond to threats and prevent the spread.
    2018-2019: Ebola Outbreak

    Originally discovered in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Ebola entered its tenth outbreak in 2018-2019. Prior to the 2018-2019 outbreak, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) commenced a joint ICAO/WHO Ebola Virus Disease Aviation Action Plan focused on Africa to help develop and sustain their preparedness for any future public health event.
    2003: SARS Epidemic

    Discovered in China and spread to more than two dozen countries before containment in mid-2003. Multiple country travel health alerts, restrictions, and quarantines implemented to slow and isolate the spread. ICAO implemented anti-SARS protective measures and guidelines at international airports in SARS-affected areas.

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  • Proliferation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

    The Aviation Community works to protect our borders by preventing malicious use of UAS, such as, smuggling. Guidelines are set to protect bystanders against unauthorized surveillance and for manned aircrafts from aerial hazards.


    2022: Abu Dhabi Airport Strikes

    On 17 January 2022, Houthi forces used cruise missiles and kamikaze UAS to attack multiple infrastructure sites in Abu Dhabi, including an oil refinery and the Abu Dhabi International Airport. The attack resulted in three fatalities and impacted Emirati civilian aviation activity, including flight cancellations.

    2021 Saudi Led-Coalition Launches Airstrikes

    2015: Drone Breaches White House Airspace and Grounds

    26 January 2015, a small civilian-owned and operated quadcopter crashed onto White House grounds after its operator lost control of it. Small UAS, including quadcopters, small size and low flight profile present enduring challenges to facility and infrastructure security.

    Accidental Drone Crash at White House

    2020: Attempted Drone Attack on Electric Grid

    The FBI announced on 2021 that a July 2020 incident, in which a drone crashed into a Pennsylvania electric substation, was an attempt to attack American energy infrastructure. The wide proliferation of civilian UAS provides potential threat actors with a readily available platform for air delivered effects.

    Pennsylvania Attempted Drone Attack on Electric Grid

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  • Criminals

    Criminal organizations seek out vulnerabilities in the aviation industry to facilitate smuggling, cyber-related crimes, etc.


    2021: Transnational Drug Trafficking, Money Laundering, and Financial Crimes

    (TX) - Eight individuals were charged with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute cocaine, commit money laundering, wire fraud, export violations, as well as, conspiracy to commit federal registration violations involving aircraft. According to U.S. Attorney Nicholas J. Ganjei, "The use of United States-registered aircraft by these criminal organization... poses a clear and present danger to the security of our nation."

    Read full Press Release on Eastern District of Texas US Attorney's Office