No fly? No problem!

Governments around the world have adopted a number of strategies to deal with their citizens who want to engage in terrorism.  At the far end of the scale investigations are carried out, arrests are made, trials are held and guilty parties are put in prison.  On the other end of the scale early intervention and counter radicalisation programmes are starting to roll out.  Most of our collective efforts on the former are successful while our work on the latter still needs to be assessed.

When it comes to those who seek to travel abroad to join terrorist groups there are also some tools that have been developed.  Some countries seize passports. Others revoke the citizenship of the ones that evade detection and make it overseas.  But far and above the most widely used, and for some the most widely reviled, measure is the so-called no-fly list.

This programme was initially designed in the post 9/11 era to prevent threats to airplanes.  The thinking went that the attacks in New York and Washington had changed the calculus of terrorism in the air from hijackings to the use of aircraft as human missiles.  Hence it made sense for the state to prevent those whose intent it was to emulate the 9/11 MO from boarding planes.

As time went on, however, the purpose evolved. The tool is now applied much more widely and appears to be used to stop any terrorist – or suspected terrorist – from flying anywhere irrespective of their goals.  And the scope goes beyond that.  The US system prohibits terrorists from crossing US airspace.  This means that individuals seeking to fly to a specific destination cannot do so on any carrier if the flight in question at any point enters the airspace defined as part of the US.  In light of not just 9/11 but also the 2009 “underwear bomber”, who was on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, this policy could be seen as reasonable at first blush.

So, does the no-fly regime work?  Yes, and no.  Aside from the all too frequent stories of 5-year  olds refused boarding because they happen to share the same name as someone on the list, the size of which is not known exactly but is estimated in the tens of thousands, it is valid to question whether the regime is preventing terrorism.  In a strict sense the answer is yes: among the false positives it is fairly certain that real terrorists have had their plans to travel to cause death and destruction diverted.  We can only applaud this achievement.

On the other hand, the no-fly list merely serves to redirect those whose terrorist designs are so strong that they will go to great lengths to fulfill them.  Some dedicated terrorists who know, or suspect, that they are on the list will alter their travel plans to take flights that avoid US airspace.  We saw this earlier this week in a story that Ottawa terrorist Ashton Larmond looked into traveling to Alaska, crossing into Russia by boat and making his way to Afghanistan.  There are some who would see these efforts as far-fetched but in my time at CSIS I saw several similar attempts at creativity. Where there is a will there is a way as they say.

The second problem with no-fly lists (and passport seizures by the way) is that it can actually increase the terrorist threat locally.  Those inhibited from leaving can redirect their terrorist intent inwardly and plan attacks in their home countries.  We in Canada saw this in October of 2014 when both Martin Couture-Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau elected to strike in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa respectively when their foreign plans were thwarted.

What then to do with the no-fly initiative?  The programme is a worthy one but must be revised.  There are far too many names on the list and far too  many false positives.  There has to be a way to more efficiently remove the names of those who clearly have nothing to do with terrorism (the use of more information, perhaps to include biometrics, could help in this regard).

In the end, however, states have an obligation to prevent their citizens from traveling to execute terrorist attacks abroad, even is this does ratchet up the threat in their own backyards.  Yes, strong-willed extremists will find ways around the system, but this does not mean it should be scrapped. Just made better.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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