Brussels diamond heist highlights security holes

It was the night of Feb. 18, and it was about to go down.

Armed robbers dressed in police uniforms broke through a hole they had made in the security fence at Brussels Airport and took diamonds worth $50 million as they were being loaded into the cargo hold of a plane.

This diamond heist was only the latest in a long line of airport perimeter breaches.

On Nov. 21, 2011, a car drove through the perimeter fence at Miami International Airport (pictured above). Police found the car near the American Airlines cargo area. On March 1, 2012, a driver accelerated through a gate at Philadelphia International Airport and drove onto airport property as a plane took off. On Aug. 13, 2012, a man swam ashore to Kennedy International Airport, scaled a fence and walked into the airport.

“What gets a lot of times neglected in aviation security seems to be airport perimeter security, and at least in the U.S., we’ve had several incidents,” said Vahid Motevalli, an aviation security expert and the director of Purdue University’s Center for Technology Development. “It wasn’t necessarily terrorism, but it could’ve easily been terrorism, and getting access to the airport that easily is a real concern.”

And now Brussels Airport. As of Tuesday, the thieves have not been apprehended.

“For the most part, airports and aviation tend to focus on the passengers and the cargo and making sure no one’s carrying anything that will explode the plane,” said Brandon Fried, executive director of the U.S. Airforwarders Association. “It’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Securing high-end air cargo is a multi-faceted task. One step is securing the loading zone of the freighter.

Fried said freight forwarders, who frequently ship currency, have their own perimeter within their facilities.

“We constantly have to make sure that our perimeters are secure and our doors are locked and people are challenged in their credentials,” he said.

Russell Cason, spokesperson for Delta Air Lines, said when the airline transports precious cargo, the people shipping the cargo provide their own security.

“Delta itself of course provides security cameras,” Cason said. “We have camera security in our warehouses. Items of high value or what we call extraordinary value are kept in a secure location.”

Shipments of high value are anything valued at $25,000 or more.

Parul Bajaj, spokesperson for FedEx, said the company treats every package like it’s high-value, regardless of what it contains.

“Each plane, each box, each package goes through our secure network,” she said.

Packages are only handled by FedEx employees, who undergo screening when hired, Bajaj said. FedEx even moved the NFL Lombardi Trophy.

Another step of protecting high-end cargo is taking security measures at the airport’s perimeter – something that experts say is lacking.

“As Ranking Member of the House Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management, I have been calling for a more comprehensive approach to airport perimeter security because there remains uneven enforcement from locality to locality,” Massachusetts Rep. Bill Keating said in a March 2012 press release.

And who is the gatekeeper?

Vahid Motevalli

“It’s not the airline’s responsibility, really,” Motevalli said. “It will lie with the airport or airport authority.”

Securing the fenced perimeter at Memphis International Airport is a joint effort between its tenants: FedEx, UPS, the Tennessee National Guard and the airport itself, said John Greaud, vice president of operations at the airport. Out of the nine-mile fence, FedEx is responsible for more than 2.5 miles – almost 30 percent of the fence line.

Greaud said there are cameras and regular patrols inside and outside the fence, and Memphis Airport has a communications center that is the main hub during emergency situations.

“We still have overall responsibility for all of it,” he said. “It’s kind of a shared responsibility along the tenant perimeter fence areas, but the tenant has the first response.”

The airport checks each tenant’s procedures at random, Greaud said.

When it comes to international freight, Miami International Airport ranks No. 1 in the U.S.

“Our cargo operations are very voluminous, and we definitely have to ensure that we’re hardening our perimeter against any types of threat,” said Lauren Stover, director of security at the airport.

A car drove through Miami Airport’s 13.5-mile perimeter fence in 2011, but the airport has overhauled its entire surveillance system, according to Security Info Watch in August 2012.

Stover said there are continuous perimeter patrols, and the fence is reinforced with concrete barriers. Airfield access gates are equipped with hydraulic barriers that can stop any vehicles from barreling through. Thanks to a $10 million grant from the Transportation Security Administration, a ground radar system is in the midst of being deployed. The system will be able to detect any anomalies in the movement on taxiways.

Police officers, guards and canines patrol, and off-duty officers are available for hire to accompany any expensive loads of cargo.

“With all of our layers of security that we have in place, we never can be too sure that everything is 100 percent, so we always have to remain vigilant because we are aware that people are trying to game the system,” Stover said. “There’s the terrorist threat, obviously. There’s the criminal threat.”

Miami Airport is a Category X airport, meaning it is ranked by TSA as one of the nation’s busiest airports in terms of passenger traffic and are potentially attractive targets for criminal and terrorist activity. Philadelphia Airport and Kennedy Airport are also Category X.

The perimeter fence at Miami International Airport. Courtesy of MIA.

Motevalli said perimeter security is an important component of protecting precious cargo – and the entire airport.

“That’s the biggest concern in terms of airport security in general when we worry so much about screening passengers and we spend millions of dollars – billions of dollars, really – on it,” he said. “We put the fence up, but the fences are really there mostly to keep wildlife out or people sort of wondering in. It’s not to prevent this type of threat because somebody determined certainly can cut through a fence or ram it down or whatever.”

One of Motevalli’s suggestions was to dig a ditch around the perimeter. He also pointed out the importance of information security – information such as when precious cargo is being loaded onto a plane and the number of the flight.

He said the thieves in Brussels had obtained this information.

Fried said airports usually have electric monitoring of fences, central control facilities and a warning device for unauthorized entries.

“I think in this case [at the Brussels Airport], we’re looking at a situation where obviously that wasn’t available, wasn’t working or someone just didn’t see it,” he said.

Once the robbers were on the airport property, they wore uniforms and looked official, Fried said.

“If they have the credentials and they’re uniformed, you know that’s an issue,” he said. “From my experience, airport personnel have adopted a culture of challenging those who don’t look like they belong.”

He said the Brussels heist may have been a well-coordinated fluke in security, but there are still steps that must be taken.

“The bad guys only have to be right once, but we in the industry and the airport-planning environment have to rewrite all the time,” he said. “It clearly points to a need for more work to be done here.”

The problem is bigger than the $50 million worth of diamonds stolen from the Brussels Airport, Motevalli said. Though it is expensive to enhance security measures, there is also the potential cost of human life if there is a violent attack.

Fried said the aviation industry will learn from the heist in Brussels.

“I think changes will be made pretty quickly – not only in Brussels, by the way,” he said. “We learn as we go, and I think that this will heighten security elsewhere as well.”

But Motevalli doesn’t feel as sure, he said.

“It’s driven a lot by public perception of things. The public perception of robbery like this is maybe more that it sounds like a movie, and it generates some excitement and so on,” he said. “Less people realize that this has a very relevant and acute security concern, which would impact people’s security, passenger safety. That maybe would then move airports to do something.”

Each airport requires a different solution, and solutions don’t always come cheaply, Motevalli said.

When each airline and airport was asked if the diamond heist in Brussels changed their minds about their security, the answer was always the same: no.

“We don’t have a specific concern based upon what happened,” Greaud said. “If we felt we had some vulnerability, then we would change what we do.”

Motevalli said he takes the security breaches that have happened over the years – and not just in the air cargo industry – as signs.

“Luckily, these are all warnings that are happening without much cost in terms of lives lost or whether accidents or actual attacks happening,” he said. “We’ve got to take good notice of those.”

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