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A bright late-afternoon sun heats the Monrovia airport tarmac, yet the 20 Liberians crowded into the back room of the Wings restaurant next door sit in complete darkness. They are studying other people’s passports. A worldly ­selection of travel documents – Belgian, Nigerian, Singaporean, Iraqi – is strewn across tables, but the Liberians train the blue glow of ultraviolet lamps on those from the US. They raise the passports to their eyes as an expert guides them page by page through the security features built into the passport and the best known techniques for faking them.

Despite the furtive ambiance, the gathering was arranged by the US Department of Homeland Security. The instructor is one of the department’s fraudulent-documents specialists. The students are checkpoint screeners, immigration and customs officials from Liberia’s only international airport, receiving their first instruction on how to detect fake papers. The workshop is part of a year-long commitment by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to guide Liberia in the international air-security equivalent of a youth-mentoring programme.

In the US, the agency’s seemingly arbitrary procedures and sometimes schizophrenic policymaking have made it a subject of ridicule. Shortly before the Liberia mission in January, the agency was humiliated when it accidentally released its confidential operating procedures. But the TSA might first salvage its reputation abroad, quietly asserting itself as a force in the developing world and an unlikely agent of low-cost assistance.

“We didn’t have the expertise or the materials,” says Colonel Nyenk Subah, security director at Monrovia’s Roberts International Airport. “It pays off because the airport and government of Liberia don’t have their own people trained to detect fraudulent documents.”

Since creating an Office of Global Strategies in late 2007, the TSA has sent delegations to lead training in more than 30 countries. A 10-day seminar in Libya last autumn was the second formal visit from US ­officials since the countries restored diplomatic relations in 2006.

The 25 December attack by a Nigerian terrorist on an Amsterdam-Detroit flight has given new urgency to the TSA’s ­efforts abroad and particularly in Africa. “It reinforces the idea that this is a global problem that requires a global solution,” says Cindy Farkus, assistant administrator for global strategies at the TSA.

Last summer, just days before Delta was due to introduce a new set of routes, the TSA for the first time blocked a carrier from serving specific airports after concluding that Monrovia and Nairobi failed to meet ­international air-safety standards. Now Delta and the Liberian government – which had identified a trans-Atlantic service as a crucial part of restoring Liberia’s global connections after decades of conflict – are both counting on the TSA to make Roberts International Airport viable again. “The civil war has caused a lot of brain drain for our country,” says transport minister Alphonso Gaye. “For all aspects of aviation, we need people to assist us.”

Roberts International Airport used to be a hub for Pan Am’s extensive African route network, with direct connections to New York, and the runway is among the continent’s longest: Concorde used it for test flights, Nasa as an emergency-landing site for the space shuttle. But that glory is now history. On the runway a Russian executive jet rusts and armed guards defend an empty terminal Pan Am abandoned not long after the country’s 1980 coup. “So much infrastructure was damaged during ­the war,” says acting tourism minister ­Elizabeth Hoff.

When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president in 2005, she made it a priority to increase air services, crucial given Monrovia’s dilapidated port and poor overland connections to its neighbours. When George Bush visited in early 2008, Johnson-Sirleaf put aviation aid on the agenda along with schoolbooks and military support. That October, she announced Delta would introduce a weekly round-trip from Atlanta. One week before the flights were to begin in June 2009, ­however, the TSA announced an unprecedented move: it would deny Delta’s application because Roberts did not meet American security standards.

Roberts had flunked a confidential 2008 audit by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which identified 106 faults from runway lighting to management structure, ­according to Richelieu Williams, the authority’s director general. But many Liberians assumed Johnson-Sirleaf’s political ties to Washington would carry them through. “Their expectations were overblown about the possibility of all this happening,” says US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “The Liberians didn’t really understand how technical this was.”

The government committed to a major overhaul of its aviation practices. Even before formally announcing that it had decided to block the Delta flight, TSA officials travelled to Liberia to offer it a place in the agency’s new Aviation ­Security ­Sustainable International Standards Team (ASSIST) programme, which would include monthly visits that could stretch over nearly two years. In August, the Liberian Civil Aviation Authority hired Lockheed Martin for an initial six-month contract to manage the airport. “There’s still the stigma of war – the stigma that the country is not safe,” says Williams. “With an American company here, with an American carrier, it would send a signal to the rest of the world that it’s OK to go.”

When TSA officials arrived last August on their first monthly visit to Monrovia, they were shocked to find that the airport had never prepared a security plan for emergencies, one of the ICAO requirements.

Subah, a former covert-ops agent, acknowledges that the following month airport security officials were lucky to catch six Pakistani men trying to enter Liberia on fake American passports. When Subah took over the airport’s security in 2006, his staff was still stocked with soldiers and political hires from the days when the airport had been a stronghold for warlord Charles Taylor. Background checks revealed his ranks were filled with drug addicts and human-rights violators who had been hired without literacy or vision tests. Screeners had uniforms but there was no dress code to enforce them. The basic security training offered by the UN mission consisted mainly of first aid.

When a country joins the ASSIST programme, TSA officials show them a ­two-page menu of courses and workshops. Its offerings include “cargo security inspections” and “X-ray image training” led by experts from a variety of federal agencies.

“It just so happens they had the problem with fraudulent passports around the time we showed up,” says Peg Halloran, the TSA’s manager of global capacity development. The Liberians have also requested explosives training, although American laws complicate the agency’s ability to transfer crucial equipment, such as test bombs, abroad.

TSA officials estimate that they’ll spend only $200,000 (€150,000) in Liberia so they seek cheap fixes. They ­rearranged the terminal’s departure side so that passengers no longer have access to their baggage after it was screened. Lockheed consultants required airport staff to keep logs, covering everything from X-ray calibration to staff movements. “We’re logging everything but sunrise and sunset now,” says Lockheed manager Michael O’Toole.

In a dramatic assault on local privilege, the Americans recommended closing a special entrance for political and diplomatic officials to board planes without any screening. “Senior level Liberians didn’t like standing in line,” says Thomas-Greenfield. Now only the president and a handful of top officials are immune from patdowns. Outside, Lockheed turned to stronger cement-block walls and new cameras and lights to secure the airport perimeter.

Last month, the TSA dispatched an inspections team to begin assessing what effect their work has had. The security review is non-binding but will measure the same things that will ultimately determine whether the airport can earn the TSA approval. Delta is hoping good marks could lead to flights as early as June.
At that point, TSA officials will stop visiting Monrovia and start shuttling to the next three countries on the ASSIST programme: Georgia, Guatemala, and Palau.

They are not quite a world’s-neediest-aviation-cases fund but reflect a low-risk, high-reward strategy for international engagement. After all, Delta has yet to earn approval for its proposed Nairobi route and the TSA is wary of making an ongoing commitment to Kenya, where an agency audit documented not just airport failures but “noted security vulnerabilities” in the region. “Can we make a difference?” asks Halloran. The TSA may be learning its limits.

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