Aviation still prime target for terrorists, report suggests

Noncommercial aircraft most vulnerable, it says


WASHINGTON -- Despite a huge investment in security, the U.S. aviation system remains vulnerable to attack by al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, with noncommercial planes and helicopters offering particularly tempting targets, a confidential government report concludes.

Intelligence indicates that al-Qaida may have discussed plans to hijack chartered airplanes, helicopters and other general aviation aircraft for attacks because they are less well-guarded than commercial airliners, according to a previously undisclosed 24-page special assessment on aviation security by the FBI and the federal Department of Homeland Security two weeks ago.

But commercial airliners are also "likely to remain a target and a platform for terrorists," the report says, and members of al-Qaida appear determined to study and test new U.S. security measures to "uncover weaknesses."

The assessment comes as the Bush administration, with a new intelligence structure and many new counterterrorism leaders in place, is taking stock of terrorists' capabilities and of the country's ability to defend itself.

While the Homeland Security Department and the FBI routinely put out advisories on aviation issues, the special joint assessment is an effort to give a broader picture of the state of knowledge of all issues affecting aviation security, officials said.

The analysis appears to rely on intelligence gathered from sources overseas and elsewhere about al-Qaida and other jihadist and Islamic-based terrorist groups.

Priority setting

A separate report issued last month by Homeland Security concluded that developing a clear framework for prioritizing possible targets -- a task many Democrats say has lagged -- is critical because "it is impossible to protect all of the infrastructure sectors equally across the entire United States."

The aviation sector has received the largest domestic security investment since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with more than $12 billion spent on upgrades such as devices to detect explosives, armored cockpit doors, federalized passenger screeners and additional air marshals.

Indeed, some members of Congress and security experts now consider airplanes to be so well fortified that it is time to shift resources to other vulnerable sectors, such as ports and power plants.

In the area of rail safety, for instance, Democrats are pushing a $1.1 billion plan to plug what they see as glaring vulnerabilities. "This is a disaster waiting to happen," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, said last week at a Senate hearing marking the one-year anniversary of the deadly train bombings in Madrid, Spain.

Still, the new aviation assessment, examining dozens of airline incidents both before and after the Sept. 11 attacks, makes clear that counterterrorism officials still consider the aviation industry to be perhaps the prime target for another major attack because of the spectacular nature of such strikes.

The assessment, which showed that the FBI handled more than 500 criminal investigations involving aircraft in 2003, is likely to serve as a guide for considering further security restrictions in general aviation and other areas considered particularly vulnerable, the officials said.

The report, dated Feb. 25, was distributed internally to federal and state counterterrorism and aviation officials, and a copy was obtained by The New York Times. It warns that security upgrades since the Sept. 11 attacks have "reduced, but not eliminated" the prospect of similar attacks.

The report detailed particular vulnerabilities in what it called "the largely unregulated" area of general aviation, which includes corporate jets, private planes and other unscheduled aircraft.

"As security measures improve at large commercial airports, terrorists may choose to rent or steal general aviation aircraft housed at small airports with little or no security," the report said.

Helicopters considered

The report also said that al-Qaida "has apparently considered the use of helicopters as an alternative to recruiting operatives for fixed-wing aircraft operations."

The maneuverability and "nonthreatening appearance" of helicopters, even when flying at low altitudes above urban areas, make them attractive targets for terrorists to conduct suicide attacks on landmarks or to spray toxins below, the report said.

The assessment does not identify who might be in a position to carry out such domestic attacks.

While law enforcement officials have spoken repeatedly about their concerns over so-called sleeper cells operating within the United States, a separate FBI report first disclosed last week by ABC News indicated that evidence pointing to the existence of such cells was inconclusive.

The question of how well the government is protecting airline travelers surfaced again last month after the disclosure in a Sept. 11 commission investigation that leading up to the attack, federal officials received 52 warnings about al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, some warning specifically about hijackings and suicide operations.

Federal officials say they have taken a number of steps to tighten security for helicopters, chartered flights and the like in response to perceived threats, as they did in August in temporarily ordering federal security guards and tougher screening for helicopter tours in the New York City area.

Rear Adm. David M. Stone, an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security who oversees the Transportation Security Administration, said that "the report validates TSA's sense of urgency in our daily efforts to secure aviation, and that same sense of urgency can be found in our work securing every other mode of transportation."

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