Airlines still face terrorist threat

Airliners flying to and from the United States are still at risk of being hijacked by terrorists, more than five years after the September 11 attacks, a US government auditor warned.

Government efforts have made great progress in securing commercial aviation since the 2001 strikes, but the industry remains a high-risk target, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said.

Vulnerable areas include the process of matching names of possible terrorists to passenger lists, and authorities need to invest in more high-tech methods for detecting explosives in baggage, the report said.

The need for prompt action was underscored by the foiling of an alleged plot last year to blow up multiple US airliners heading from Britain to the United States with liquid explosives, the report said.

The GAO report to Congress noted that passengers on international flights to or from the United States undergo screening by US customs authorities.

“However, this process poses challenges because these flights are allowed to take off before the passenger identify matching process has been completed,” the report said.

“Such flights therefore remain vulnerable to a terrorist take-over and other risks,” the report said.

The report did note significant improvements since the 2001 strikes which saw 19 Al-Qaeda hijackers seize four US airliners and steer them at targets in New York and Washington, killing nearly 3,000 people.

For instance, all of airline passengers checked baggage is now screened, the report said, compared to just a fraction before the attacks.

The visa process has been significantly secured, but one area vulnerable to terrorists is the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens from 27 countries to visit America without a visa for 90 days or less for tourism or business.

“This program carries inherent security, law enforcement, and illegal immigration risks,” the report said, pointing out that would-be Al-Qaeda suicide pilot, Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen, jailed for life last year over the September 11 strikes, entered the United States under the scheme.

The GAO also recommended that nations in the program should be required to provide to the United States and Interpol, details of all lost or stolen passports.

“Some visa waiver countries have been reluctant to provide this information,” the report said.

Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse