The Growing Challenge of Aviation Insider Threats by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Sarah Sheafer

The Growing Challenge of Aviation Insider Threats by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Sarah Sheafer

Because they knew the Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW) so well, and enjoyed access that average travellers would never be granted, Nelson Pabon, Domingo Villafane Martinez, and eight of their co-workers thought smuggling methamphetamines — and even weapons — would be easy. They moved the drugs onto commercial flights, using the privileges granted by their positions of employment to evade security measures. Some members of the group served as look-outs, alerting others if it seemed that airport security might uncover their operation.

The members of this conspiracy, all of whom were DFW airport employees, managed to smuggle over 66 grams of what they believed to be methamphetamines before authorities arrested them. The methamphetamines were, in fact, fake. Increasingly aware of insider threats to aviation, authorities had launched a two-year undercover operation. They finally decided to bring the operation to a close, and arrest the perpetrators, after one of the corrupt insiders offered to smuggle firearms and C-4 explosives onto a plane.

That this conspiracy — ten airport employees moving illegal and dangerous items onto flights —occurred in the United States is alarming. Airport employees in the U.S. are relatively well paid, and relatively well screened. Nor is this incident a complete aberration even in America: in 2014 a Delta Air Lines baggage handler helped a former airline employee smuggle 153 firearms, including an AK-47, onto 17 Delta flights out of Atlanta.

If insider threats can be found in the U.S., one would assume, they can occur anywhere. And they do. In this article, we explore the warning signs of aviation insider threats throughout the globe. To understand the trend, we examined 50 different aviation insider threat cases across numerous countries and diverse geographic regions, and pinpointed several key trends.

Who Are the Complicit Insiders?

Complicit insiders can be found in various positions. Some enjoy extraordinary access: security personnel, immigration officers, and flight crew members have all been involved in insider schemes.

But an insider need not have high-level access to spy, sabotage, or otherwise facilitate a conspiracy. Sometimes there is unique value in the innocuous-seeming insider. Baggage handlers, concession and restaurant employees, taxi and shuttle drivers, and cleaning or construction crew members have all provided valuable insider assistance.

Drug-trafficking organisations, for example, have made use of airport restaurant workers and caterers, employing them as mules. One time this came to light was in August 2015, when British authorities arrested a senior Arik Air flight attendant for smuggling drugs from Nigeria in laptop bags. He had been assisted by a caterer who moved drugs onto the plane in catering supplies. In March 2018, Indian authorities busted a gold smuggling ring at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. Indian Express reported that while questioning the smugglers, authorities learned the names of airport employees “responsible for loading and unloading of cargo, maintaining inventory, collecting garbage, and cleaning and supervising maintenance work.”

“…airport employees have observed the timing of randomised employee screenings and identified camera blind spots…”

Their Techniques

Insiders can facilitate illegal schemes in various ways. One method is spying to further a conspiracy, as the DFW insiders who smuggled drugs did. Airport employees have observed the timing of randomised employee screenings and identified camera blind spots. This information allows criminal networks to move drugs, weapons, and other items through airports — for example, by determining ideal hand-off locations.

Using this kind of inside intelligence, airport employees allowed to bypass security have transferred smuggled items to ‘mules’ beyond checkpoints. The mules boarded planes without being searched. Bathrooms are common hand-off spots, as are food courts. Authorities’ awareness of these schemes was sometimes triggered by observing employees lingering in bathrooms, or repeatedly entering and exiting bathrooms.

These examples show the intersection of spying with a second insider technique, the abuse of job status to circumvent security measures. Screeners at X-ray machines have allowed luggage filled with smuggled items to pass through unhindered. Airline employees have smuggled illicit items in their luggage, taking advantage of most airports’ lack of full employee screening. Others have stored smuggled goods in employee lockers.

A third insider technique is tampering and sabotage. Insiders have tampered with rosters, flight lists, luggage tags, and equipment. Some insiders manipulate staff rosters to ensure that complicit insiders are working during the times of smuggling operations. This has been most noticeable when the insider is a screener who wants to allow smuggled items through a machine. Insiders have tampered with flight crew lists and passenger manifestos: when the name of a passenger involved in a smuggling operation is put on the crew list, that passenger can circumvent standard screening.

Insiders have tampered with luggage tags, placing stickers on luggage indicating that security had cleared it. The insiders would then put the luggage with other bags already checked by security. Another method involves duplicating domestic luggage labels, placing them on bags filled with smuggled items, and loading them onto international flights. Domestic luggage generally undergoes less stringent inspection than baggage bound for foreign countries. Complicit baggage handlers have also placed luggage with smuggled goods arriving from another country onto domestic arrival carousels. An accomplice would claim the luggage on the domestic carousel, avoiding customs inspections.

“…they discovered a group of women transiting Delhi airport on their way to Dubai with stamps in their travel documents, even though they had not cleared immigration. The employees had sold the forged documents for $90 per person…”

Insiders have also sabotaged equipment and computer systems. This was used to hamper a joint U.K.-Ghanaian effort to stem the flow of drugs from Ghana into Europe when complicit Ghanaian officials sabotaged British drug scanners in Accra. Further, in 2016 Malaysian authorities found that immigration personnel had not only assisted human traffickers by giving visas and stamped passports to undocumented migrants, but also tampered with the immigration system at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, causing frequent breakdowns.
How do these techniques look in practice? We now turn to concrete illustrations of the insider threat: gold and migrant smuggling in Asia, and drug smuggling in Latin America.

Gold and Migrant Smuggling in Asia

Gold demand is high in Asia due to the metal’s usefulness in hedging against inflation and economic uncertainties, and its cultural cache. The region constitutes two-thirds of global consumer demand for gold. New import duties and taxes can make gold profitable for criminals to smuggle from countries lacking a sales tax to those with high import duties, a classic arbitrage scheme.

Smugglers have devised numerous creative ways of transporting gold on commercial flights, including moulding it into the shape of keys, then painting the keys silver. They have also, naturally, relied on complicit insiders.

Airports in India have experienced numerous gold smuggling cases involving insiders in recent years. The trend began around 2014, a year that may be an inflection point due to a gold import duty increase in 2013. Gold smugglers have employed various insiders at Indian airports, including employees responsible for cleaning, maintenance, inventory, garbage collection, and loading and unloading cargo. In August 2017, Indian authorities arrested two people for smuggling gold from Kuala Lumpur to Chennai International Airport. After a smuggler arrived, he handed smuggled gold to an employee of a company in charge of airport housekeeping and escalator and lift maintenance. The employee had intended to bypass customs and transfer the gold back to the passenger in the airport’s parking.

Gold smugglers have also used complicit immigration officials. In June 2017, Indian authorities arrested one such official moments before he was going to hand off smuggled gold to a passenger at the Tiruchirappalli International Airport (Trichy). The passenger had first transferred the gold to that official before reaching the customs area, with the precious metal disguised as a smartphone with a flip cover.

The use of customs officials to facilitate the transfer of smuggled gold continues to plague Indian airports. In August 2018, Indian authorities raided the Trichy airport’s customs office, detaining six customs officials, after discovering that ground-handling employees had helped smuggle gold into the country.

In addition to gold smuggling, complicit insiders have facilitated the smuggling of migrants through Indian airports. In July 2015, authorities arrested two Air India employees at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport for their role in a migrant-smuggling scheme. Most of the migrants were women affected by the devastating April 2015 earthquake in Nepal, which killed thousands and left millions homeless. Indian authorities uncovered the operation when they discovered a group of women transiting Delhi airport on their way to Dubai with stamps in their travel documents, even though they had not cleared immigration. The employees had sold the forged documents for $90 per person.

Southeast Asian countries serve as a particularly important source, transit, and destination for migrant smuggling. Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) stands out prominently for insider threats. In 2016, a staggering figure of over 50% of KLIA immigration officials were replaced in a matter of months, with several personnel charged with human trafficking. Investigations revealed that immigration officials had worked directly for migrant smuggling syndicates, fraudulently providing visas, stamping the passports of people on an immigration blacklist, and tampering with the immigration system’s data. They had also sabotaged the digital Malaysian Immigration System, allowing thousands of unmonitored foreigner entries during periods of suspicious breakdown. Despite the 2016 crackdown, KLIA has continued to experience migrant smuggling cases involving insiders.

Insiders at other Southeast Asian airports have also aided in migrant smuggling and human trafficking. In January 2017, Philippine authorities detained two female immigration officers and several recruiters at Kalibo International Airport after one trafficking victim bound for Kuala Lumpur told police that she never went through the secondary inspection required to depart the country. The female victims did not have the paperwork required to work abroad, yet recruiters instructed them to line up at corrupt immigration officers’ stations, allowing them to receive passport stamps.

Drug Smuggling Through Mexican and Latin American Airports

Mexican and Latin American airports are known for drug smuggling cases involving insiders. While smugglers primarily transport cocaine and other drugs to the United States overland, they first move the drugs to their transit points by sea or air, sometimes using commercial flights. But they more frequently use South American aviation insiders to move drugs to Europe.

Mexico’s Federal Police reported last year that cartels have used aviation insiders to traffic drugs through Mexico City’s international airport (AICM). Past cases involving AICM insiders have turned violent. In June 2012, when authorities tried to arrest two federal police officers at AICM for ties to drug trafficking, the two men fired on other officers, killing three. Two months later, authorities replaced all 348 officers assigned to AICM security details.

In November 2017, Colombian authorities arrested six people, including five airline employees, for smuggling cocaine in vests from Bogatá’s El Dorado International Airport to the U.K., France, and Dominican Republic. The employees used their access to international terminal boarding lounges to give mules cocaine-filled vests, exchanging them in bathrooms close to flight gates.

One of the most widely used transit points for drugs in South America is Brazil. In December 2017, authorities busted a drug smuggling ring at the Rio de Janeiro airport, arresting 27 people, including airline and airport employees. In addition to cocaine, some arrestees had smuggled electronic devices past customs to circumvent import duties.

“…a staggering figure of over 50% of KLIA immigration officials were replaced in a matter of months, with several personnel charged with human trafficking…”

Another Brazil-based operation came to light in June 2017. Smugglers had exploited corrupt customs brokers to illegally ship around 1,000 rifles and 300,000 pieces of ammunition from the Miami airport to Rio de Janeiro between 2014 and 2017. Using code words like flechas (arrows) for rifles and biscoitos (cookies) for cartridges, the smugglers maintained this scheme until authorities discovered weapons in gutted pool heaters in the Rio de Janeiro airport.

The smugglers had begun the operation in 2014 by incorporating a pool supply company in Miami that was designed to illegally export weapons to Brazil. To evade scrutiny, the smugglers gutted swimming pool heating units, refilling them to their original weight with assault rifles and ammunition. They used unsuspecting U.S. shipping companies to transport the cargo to Brazil. Once in Rio de Janeiro, customs agents with access to airport cargo facilities forged import tickets bearing the names of legitimate Brazilian shipping companies. They then sold the weapons to middlemen, who in turn placed them with Brazil’s top criminal factions.


This article details just a few of the many cases of aviation insider threats globally. Other examples abound. The Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (LMMIA) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is another airport of concern, with law enforcement uncovering a number of drug smuggling operations involving insiders at LMMIA in recent years.

However, this article does not cover the full extent of the threat. Aviation insiders susceptible to working for smugglers could also potentially be recruited by terrorist organisations; insiders seemingly played a key role in two major recent plots, helping operatives to move bombs past security. Most significant is the 2015 bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268 out of Egypt’s Sinai, which killed all 224 people aboard. A suicide operative was also able to move a bomb past security with apparent inside assistance in the 2016 bombing of Daallo Airlines Flight 159 out of Mogadishu, though he fortunately only succeeded in killing himself.

The U.S. Congress has recently called for better security measures to mitigate the aviation insider threat. American airports are indeed improving their security measures, albeit not enough to fully negate this threat; and elsewhere the risks posed by aviation insiders is more acute. Understanding how criminal and militant organisations can exploit complicit insiders is an essential aspect of addressing the challenge.

Daveed Gartenstein Ross and Sarah Sheafer

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a non-resident fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the chief executive officer of the private firm Valens Global, which addresses a variety of twenty-first century challenges, including threats to aviation.
Sarah Sheafer is an analyst at Valens Global.

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