On February 25, British counterterrorism officers raided a British Airways call center in Newcastle and arrested an employee on suspicions of terrorist fundraising. The suspect, “thought to be from an Asian background and aged 30,” was questioned for six days, after which an extension was granted to keep him locked up. The suspect’s home was also searched.
When the words “terror suspect” and “airline employee” appear in the same sentence, alarm bells inevitably sound. In the case of a worker at a call center, there’s an argument that the suspect’s place of employment could be considered incidental. “Staff can access to details of thousands of flights and are familiar with basic security procedures,” the Daily Telegraph reported. But, as the argument goes, lots of people can become familiar with “basic security procedures” in the far-reaching airline industry
Then, last week, a second British Airways employee who was apparently part of the same plot was taken into police custody. This man worked at Heathrow Airport — one of the busiest international airports in the world. “No specific target has emerged but the airport link is obviously on our minds,” a security official told the Sun. But more arrests may be coming, the official added.
This second man, whose name has not been released, is not the first jihadist to work at an airport. Jawad Akbar, one of the five men convicted in 2007 of plotting to blow up the Ministry of Sound nightclub with fertilizer bombs, worked part-time at Gatwick Airport and had a security clearance “for working airside.” One of the members of the cell that planned August 2006 London plane bombing plot worked at Heathrow Airport with an all-area access pass.
In 2006, German authorities foiled a terror plot involving the Frankfurt Airport, an Israeli airplane, and a suitcase bomb. A terror cell of six German jihadists attempted to bribe an airport worker into smuggling a bomb onto a plane. “Several of the accused approached a person with security clearance at [Frankfurt] Airport last summer, who agreed to smuggle an explosives-filled bag onto a plane in exchange for money,” federal prosecutors explained.
Separate from those German jihadists, another bomb plot suspect in Germany, identified as Adem Yilmaz, worked at the Frankfurt Airport from 1997-2002. As an employee for German railways, Yilmaz worked at the rail station at the airport. The terror cell he was part of planned “massive attacks” throughout Germany, including the U.S. military base at Ramstein. On March 4, 2010, Yilmaz and three co-conspirators were found guilty of plotting a thwarted attack that the presiding judge said would have resulted in a “terrible bloodbath.”
Then there is convicted al-Qaeda member Dhiren Barot, who worked for Air Malta in its central London office from 1991-1995. Barot appealed to the air carrier to transfer him to the company’s Heathrow Airport office, but his transfer application was turned down. During his trial, Scotland Yard called Barot a “determined and experienced terrorist,” whose plans included setting off a dirty bomb in London and detonating a bomb under the Thames River in order to flood the subways system and drown thousands of commuters. Whether or not Barot had plans to attack an airline is unknown; evidence as such never materialized during the trial.
American airports are not immune to having terrorists as employees. In the 2006 book Lightning Out of Lebanon: Hezbollah Terrorists on American Soil, Tom Diaz and Barbara Newman write about FBI Special Agent Thomas Powers’ admission that in 1996 the FBI was watching a known member of the terrorist organization Hezbollah who was a baggage handler at Logan Airport in Boston. According to Powers, the baggage handler was legally in the country at the time. Because of this, there was no official reason to arrest him. This was before 9/11.
This newest plot no doubt has counterterrorism officials, as well as British Airways employees and shareholders, concerned. “We take all matters relating to security extremely seriously and as a responsible company always fully cooperate with the police,” a British Airways spokesman said.