The rash of airline-security incidents since the London terror arrests — which has diverted or delayed more than 20 flights all over the world — has more to do with flukes, red herrings or terrorist probes than with actual, imminent threats, intelligence observers and security officials say.
“Alarms were triggered by a range of things: disruptive passengers, suspicious smells, bomb threats that were scribbled on air-sickness bags and anonymous phone calls alleging bomb threats,” said Douglas Hagmann, director of the Northeast Intelligence Network.
“We are constantly being probed by terrorists,” Mr. Hagmann said. “We are going to have a limited number of incidents that are just a ploy, a nonevent as a result of misunderstandings or innocuous activity. You can expect that and factor that in. But the extent we are seeing today — the numbers are well beyond the norm.”
At least 23 incidents worldwide since the Aug. 10 arrests of two dozen suspects have led to 11 emergency landings or flight diversions, four of them escorted by military jets, and 16 arrests.
The majority of disruptions occurred on domestic and inbound international flights. The number of publicly reported security incidents peaked on Aug. 25, with eight incidents on that day, Mr. Hagmann said.
One passenger was removed from an international flight after it was diverted to Bangor, Maine, when his name reportedly was discovered on a terrorist or no-fly watch list. A Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to India returned midway, escorted by a military jet, and 12 Muslim men were arrested but released.
The men boarded moments before takeoff and immediately began passing around cellular phones. The disruption frightened passengers, and the men were subdued by U.S. air marshals.
Laura Mansfield, a counterterrorism consultant and Arabic translator, says many of the incidents involve terrorist sympathizers hoping to divert attention from actual terrorists moving forward with real plots.
“There is a combination of things going on. They are trying to get the threat level reduced by creating a bunch of false alarms so people will be complacent. It’s also a strategy of red herrings and disinformation,” she said.
The aviation threat level in the U.S. went to Code Red, or severe, after the Britain arrests and today remains on Code Orange, or high.
Miss Mansfield said that although the terrorists pay no attention to anniversary dates, recent activity and the release of several tapes indicate that Islamic militants want badly to strike the U.S. before this upcoming September 11.
An example of sympathizer involvement Miss Mansfield cited is a 2004 campaign in which in an Islamist Web site urged Muslim tourists to distract law enforcement by videotaping landmarks, nuclear plants, water-treatment facilities and infrastructure on their vacations.
“The police cannot be everywhere. If they are watching you, then they may not be watching our real projects,” said the posting, which also noted that those participating could not be arrested for the activities.
“The distractions are going well,” the site reported. “The Americans are chasing those with video cameras believing them to be terrorists. That permits us to do our preparations undetected.”
Last year, Miss Mansfield visited a mosque in Georgia that advertised an English and Arabic session on God and family. She attended the Arabic session where a man identified as Khaled recounted a New York flight. He and his friends acted suspicious and made simultaneous restroom runs to frighten passengers.
“He laughed when he described how several women were in tears, and one man sitting near him was praying,” Miss Mansfield later wrote in an account of that meeting on her personal Web site.
“As the meeting drew to a close, the imam gave a brief speech calling for the protection of Allah on the mujahedeen fighting for Islam throughout the world, and reminded everyone that it was their duty as Muslims to continue in the path of jihad, whether it was simple efforts like those of Khaled and his friends, or the actual physical fighting,” Miss Mansfield wrote.
Passengers on seven flights have been forced to disembark while their luggage was inspectedby bomb-sniffing dogs.
Federal air marshals, who reveal their presence only when an aircraft is in danger, have done so twice in as many weeks — against only once previously in the almost five years since the September 11 attacks.
“As our defenses become more elaborate and responsible to the current threat, the terrorists are actually working on methods to circumvent those measures,” Mr. Hagmann said.
A Pakistani woman was detained by screeners Aug. 17 at a West Virginia airport after baby formula tested positive for explosives. The airport was closed for several hours while the FBI searched her home, where explosives residue was detected, Mr. Hagmann said.
Homeland Security officials will say only that the matter remains under investigation.
“We have to keep in mind the terrorists want to strike at our economy, and the airline industry is very weak. These diversions and cancellation of flights cost the airline industry a lot of money, and we have to look at that,” Mr. Hagmann said.
Dave Mackett, an airline pilot and president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, says the diversions are costing airlines millions and leaves the industry vulnerable to lawsuits.
“This cannot be the new norm,” Mr. Mackett said.
Daryle Elizabeth Lademan, an associate with DFI Corporate Services, says the economic threat comes from the burden on passengers who face stricter screening rules.
“The leisure traveler won’t fly as much, the business traveler will teleconference more often or seek private air-travel options like charters, corporate jets, and fractional ownership providers,” she said.