U.S. Strategies for Combating Terrorist Travel and Enhancing Aviation Security

The White House recently released two national security strategy documents that detail the current Administration’s plans to boost countermeasures for preventing terrorist travel as well as overall aviation security. The reports—titled the “National Strategy to Combat Terrorist Travel” and the “National Strategy for Aviation Security”—chart new approaches for generating a multi-layered secure aviation ecosystem that adequately adapts to exponentially changing threats rooted in new disruptive cyber technologies as well as the growing prevalence of unmanned aviation systems (UAS). Importantly these documents anticipate a rise in government spending for the integration of sophisticated preventive technologies, namely biometrics.

The “National Strategy to Combat Terrorist Travel” details new U.S.-led campaigns to build greater federal, state and local government as well as private-sector capacities to identify and mitigate potential threats before they evolve. To do so, the Administration aims to integrate promising technological solutions as well as expand the capabilities of U.S. counterterrorism partners abroad. Specifically, the report highlights the need for countermeasures that reach the following strategic goals: “Identify and deter terrorists before they travel”; “detect and interdict terrorists during their travel”; and “enhance travel security capabilities and capacity of foreign partners.”

Further, the “National Strategy to Combat Terrorist Travel” provides the following nine guiding principles:

  • “Identify and interdict terrorists as early as possible in the travel process to extend security efforts beyond the United States border;
  • Prioritize activities based on risk and foreign partner capacity;
  • Remain committed to maintaining long-term alliances and partnerships, respect international obligations, and leverage established institutions, information-sharing arrangements, and bilateral and multilateral partnerships;
  • Protect classified information, sensitive sources and methods, and investigations, and operate in accordance with department and agency authorities;
  • Emphasize public awareness, engagement, and community partnerships;
  • Safeguard the integrity and quality of terrorist-related identity data through formal watch listing and screening review processes;
  • Ensure nothing in this Strategy shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals;
  • Implement this strategy subject to the availability of appropriations; and Conduct these activities in a manner that is consistent with the provisions of the Constitution [….]”

The “National Strategy for Aviation Security,” on the other hand, places greater emphasis on the full-spectrum of threats surrounding the U.S. transportation ecosystem and details new countermeasures and policies. Specific threat actors addressed in the report include terrorists, hostile nation-states, criminals, insiders, and foreign intelligence services that may attempt to bomb aircraft or smuggle material or personnel into the United States—among other concerns. Additionally, the report also considers the specter of spreading infectious diseases during air travel.

The report also addresses emerging “disruptive technologies” that include: The increasing prominence of cyber connective technology, such as wifi, on commercial aircraft; the rise of resilient radio frequency (RF) networks; and the prevalence of legally purchased UASs. To mitigate these vulnerabilities, the current Administration aims to enhance domain awareness, resiliency and continuity, security layers, and international cooperation that meet the following strategic goals:

  1. “Protect the United States and its Global Interests in the Aviation Ecosystem
  2. Maximize Aviation Ecosystem Security while Maintaining Aviation Safety and Balancing United States Economic Impact
  3. Enhance Resilience, Mitigate Damage, and Expedite Recovery
  4. Effectively Engage International, Domestic, and Private Sector Partners”

For more information on issues raised in this piece, visit the HSDL featured topics section on global terrorism, border security and unmanned systems.

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