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Somalia skies darken

With local and international stakeholders now scrambling to tighten security across the industry, there are growing calls for enhanced background checks on airport employees in Mogadishu

Martin Rivers

Anywhere else in the world, the bombing of an international passenger flight would at­tract round-the-clock media coverage and a global manhunt for the perpetrators.

In Somalia, however, more than two decades of brutal civil war have desensitised both the domestic population and the outside world to mass-casualty atrocities. Amid a seemingly endless cycle of indiscriminate violence in the country, even the deadli­est terror attacks fail to hold the attention of the press.

So it was in January, when upwards of 100 Kenyan troops stationed in Somalia were killed in an attack on their army base by Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-linked ter­ror group.

And so it was again on 2nd February, when a sui­cide bomber evaded security screening at Mogadishu Airport and exploded his device aboard Daallo Airlines Flight 159 to Djibouti. Mercifully for the other 73 passen­gers, the detonation occurred before the Airbus A321 had reached its cruising altitude – averting an explosive decompression that would almost certainly have killed everyone on-board.

Despite failing to bring down the plane, the bomb was powerful enough to tear a hole in the fuselage and send suicide bomber Abdullahi Borleh plummeting to his death. His badly burned corpse was recovered near Balad, 19 miles north of Mogadishu.

Investigators quickly realised that Daallo Airlines, a Somali-owned company, was probably not the intend­ed target of the attack.

Almost all of the passengers on Flight 159 – including Borleh – had originally booked themselves onto a Turk­ish Airlines service between Mogadishu and Djibouti. But they were transferred to Daallo at the last minute when Turkey’s flag-carrier grounded its flight, citing “bad weather conditions”

.

“Whenever their passengers are stranded we do whatever we can,” Mohammed Yassin, Daallo’s chief executive, tells The Somalia Investor Magazine. “That is the normal way – not only between us and Turkish Airlines, but between all airlines … We just did what we were supposed to do. “If this passenger [Borleh] was on Turkish Airlines, he would have done the same … He had a Turkish Airlines boarding pass.”

Turkey’s flag-carrier is the only major international air­line that operates to Mogadishu, launching flights from Istanbul in 2012 as part of Ankara’s longstanding com­mitment to development in Somalia. The route later in­corporated a stop in Djibouti and was bolstered to daily frequencies. But cancellations are a regular occurrence as the Turkish authorities respond to intelligence tip-offs and evolving security assessments.

Asked whether he believes that Turkish Airlines can­celled its flight for weather-related reasons – winds of up to 45mph were recorded on the evening of 1st Feb­ruary – Yassin is unequivocal. “I don’t buy that,” he says. “I think either they got a hint about this [plot] or maybe they consider Mogadishu unsafe for whatever reason. But I believe it was a security issue.”

He adds that the subsequent claim of responsibility by Al Shabaab is credible, though there is some “ambi­guity” about the “interlinking” of the perpetrators.

Security analysts describe Al Shabaab as a fractious organisation whose core leadership has limited control over semi-autonomous splinter groups. The recent es­tablishment of an apparent Daesh affiliate, Jahba East Africa, underscores the fragmentary nature of the bat­tlefield in Somalia. Whichever organisation was ulti­mately responsible, Turkish Airlines responded swiftly by suspending its Djibouti-Mogadishu route and im­posing an immediate media blackout. As of April, the flag-carrier is still refusing to confirm or deny plans for a resumption of flights.

“We are satisfied with them, but also they are accountable,” he continues. “Not only AMISON but the government, the airport management – there should be collaboration between all parts involved. Above all, we [Daallo] should have our own security [checks].”


Mohammed Yassin, Daallo’s Chief Executive.

That contrasts with Daallo and its local partner Jubba Airways, which stood their ground by quickly restoring operations after the bombing. The Somalia carriers end­ed two decades of rivalry last year when they merged to form the Africa Aero Alliance. Their combined route network presently centres on three bases – Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Djibouti – from where they serve three international destinations (Jeddah, Nairobi and Dubai) plus domestic points such as Bosaso, Galkayo and Ga­rowe.

Although Yassin is still working to add Addis Ababa and Entebbe to the network, his attention has now shift­ed to security matters. “This has been a wake-up call for us,” he admits. “Everything that we have taken for grant­ed, not any more.

“We have to continuously improve the security situ­ation, and be proactive about it. [We have to consider] what could happen, where the threats may come from, how about [bombing attempts using] liquids, how about electronics. There are a lot of things now that everybody should look into. Not us only, but overall.”

Within days of the bombing, Vlatko Vodopivec, the pilot of the stricken aircraft, gave an interview to the As­sociated Press in which he described security at Moga­dishu Airport as “zero”.

Yassin refuses to criticise those remarks, stressing that Vodopivec endured a traumatic experience in the cock­pit and should be considered a “hero” for safely landing the aircraft. Even though the pilot is no longer working with Daallo, Yassin has invited him to visit Mogadishu once again so that the Somali people can express their gratitude for his life-saving actions.

When it comes to the pilot’s damning assessment of security at Mogadishu Airport, however, the Daallo chief is unable to concur.

“I disagree to the point that it’s chaotic,” he says. “Mogadishu Airport is a militarised airport, a highly fortified airport … [There are] a lot of layers of security screening. Of course the captain doesn’t know who is who [at the airport], and Mogadishu has certain con­notations of violence. So I think there is a psychological factor [behind Vodopivec’s remarks].”

Yassin also refuses to point the finger of blame at AM­ISOM, the African Union mission that provides security at the gateway.

“We are satisfied with them, but also they are ac­countable,” he continues. “Not only AMISON but the government, the airport management – there should be collaboration between all parts involved. Above all, we [Daallo] should have our own security [checks].”

With local and international stakeholders now scram­bling to tighten security across the industry, there are growing calls for enhanced background checks on air­port employees in Mogadishu.

As was the case with Metrojet Flight 9268, which ex­ploded over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015, killing 224, the attack on Daallo appears to have been an inside job. “Somebody who was working at the airport was in­volved, and that’s what made it possible,” Yassin says, referring to security footage that showed an airport em­ployee helping Borleh bypass security.

Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International magazine, describes this “insider threat” as the subject that “many airport security managers say keeps them awake at night”.

“It’s a much harder problem to address than passen­ger screening,” he says. “When you’ve got employees who are familiar faces around the airport, then you want them to get to work as quickly as possible – not standing in queues – and a lot of the things that they carry are notoriously difficult to inspect … You only need a very small device to bring down a large aircraft.”

Baum calls for social-media monitoring of airport em­ployees coupled with behavioural analysis of everyone at the airport, but he cautions that security breaches are not a solely African affair.

“This is a problem that we face internationally,” he says. “There is criminal activity taking place airside at most major airports around the world.”

Turning to the long-term impact of the attack, Yassin says he is not concerned about a significant downturn in demand. Somalis have grown resilient to security scares after more than two decades of conflict, he notes. None­theless, convincing foreigners that the airport meets global security standards will be difficult – particularly with Turkish Airlines still refusing to disclose its plans.

Should the flag-carrier decide not to resume Moga­dishu flights, the best hope for Somalia may be courting a different operator.

Air Djibouti, the newly resurrected flag-carrier of Dji­bouti, is one possible candidate. The airline presently only operates cargo services, but is aiming to launch passenger flights later this year under a management deal with Wales-based Cardiff Aviation. Entering the Mogadishu market would allow it to swap traffic with Turkish Airlines on the latter’s Istanbul-Djibouti route.

“At the present time we are looking at how to best develop the route network of Air Djibouti,” confirms Ian Patrick, the airline’s commercial director.

“Cooperation with Turkish Airlines is certainly a possi­bility, but only if operating to Mogadishu is both safe and secure. We are currently awaiting a safety and security audit from our operating partner before any decision is made.”

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