KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's airport security has come under scrutiny following last month's arrest of an airport security guard for suspected links to Islamic State (IS).
He is believed to be the second airport personnel to be arrested by the Royal Malaysian Police in the past two years, a development counter-terrorism police and experts called a concern.
While initial investigations showed he was not planning any terror attack, he had plans to go to Syria to join IS, according to police.
SUSPECT HAD "FULL ACCESS ... TO MALAYSIA AIRLINES AIRCRAFT"
The suspect was a security guard at Kuantan airport and had been responsible for Malaysia Airlines aircraft safety. “The suspect’s scope of duties … for the airline’s safety operations was anti-pilferage, anti-sabotage, anti-hijacking,” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, deputy commissioner of the Royal Malaysia Police Special Branch's counter-terrorism unit, told Channel NewsAsia.
“He had full access to ... Malaysia Airlines aircraft, including the cockpit, to carry out inspections.” He was also responsible for sealing and locking up aircraft parked overnight at the airport until they took off the next day, said Mr Ayob.
The suspect had worked at Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Kuantan airport in Pahang since October 2015, according to police. Prior to that, he had worked for Malaysia Airlines from September 2004 to September 2015 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).
"It is dangerous to have someone turn radical who has access to an entire airport and its aircraft," said Mr Ayob.
"You must remember that IS had called for those who are not able to travel to Syria to conduct attacks in their home countries," he added.
Counter-terrorism expert Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, who heads policy at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, called the incident a “classic case of an insider threat” where airport security may be compromised by radicalised “insiders working within the system”.
“The Russian Metrojet crash in the Sinai desert in October 2015 claimed (by IS) is one example of how deadly insider threats can be,” Assoc Prof Kumar added. An aircraft mechanic was believed to have planted the bomb on the Russian Metrojet, killing 224 people on board.
Asked whether IS was targeting people who work in strategic places for recruitment, Mr Kumar said: “This is not the first time such insiders have been identified. In addition, as ISIS comes under strategic pressure in the Middle East, it has called upon its supporters worldwide to conduct lone wolf attacks wherever they are, and some of these lone wolves could well be self-radicalized insiders such as airport workers, commercial pilots and military personnel."
In 2015, an auxiliary police officer at KLIA was arrested for helping his brother-in-law, an IS member, pass through immigration checks to go to Syria.
SECURITY SCREENING FOR AIRPORT EMPLOYEES
Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd (MAHB), which operates KLIA, told Channel NewsAsia its employees’ airport security passes are issued for only one year.
All employees are required to resubmit an application for an airport pass each year when the current one expires, said an MAHB spokesperson.
Applications for the airport passes are vetted by the Chief Government Security Office (CGSO), which is responsible for security over all government assets, said MAHB.
“MAHB works very closely with CGSO and PDRM (Royal Malaysia Police) in ensuring the security and safety of the airports,” said MAHB’s spokesperson.
Malaysia Airlines told Channel NewsAsia that newly recruited staff and key staff from selected departments undergo stringent background checks and recurrent checks conducted by the CGSO.
“We (also) require staff and vendors to attend security awareness briefings which is part of the Malaysia Airlines’ security programme, which includes subjects on … security processes and insider threats,” said Malaysia Airlines.
EMPLOYERS SHOULD LOOK OUT FOR SIGNS OF RADICALISATION
Assoc Prof Kumar said the screening of employees in sensitive jobs needs to be conducted more frequently.
“Screening … must be done more regularly, perhaps once every six months … as individuals can become radicalised after the initial screening process. This would entail additional time and resources but I believe we have little choice given how the threat has become more complex over time,” he said.
Mr Ayob also called for supervisors to pay greater attention to their staff to identify red flags and early signs of radicalisation, especially for staff working in sensitive positions.
He said that supervisors should look out for red flags such as if an employee frequently fails to turn up for work without a good reason, or starts to distance him or herself from other staff.
Mr Ayob added that supervisors should also look out for early signs of radicalisation.
Radicalised individuals may express hatred towards those who do not share their views and spend long periods chatting on social media platforms such as Facebook and Telegram at the onset. They may also challenge authorities, promote violence or possess IS-related symbols such as the IS flag, said Mr Ayob.IS supporters are also known to liquidate their assets to raise money to fund their passage to Syria.
“Supervisors tend to see this as a security issue to be handled by the police, hence such monitoring is currently lacking,” said Mr Ayob.
Malaysian police currently conduct security check on new applicants entering the civil service, military, police force, airlines and airport service.
“After the applicants get the job, their supervisors are responsible for monitoring them,” said Mr Ayob. He also suggested that employees working in critical places should have their smartphones checked.
“There is also a need to monitor senior employees. When they joined years ago, IS did not exist,” said Mr Ayob.