Modern problems: ISIS training fighters in commercial flight simulators

Late last year we began hearing rumors that ISIS had captured some Syrian fighter jets and even wilder stories of how they were training some of their fighters in Russian made planes. At the time I found myself taking such reports with a grain of salt. Mounting an air war of any significant power takes a lot more than rounding up some fanatics, handing out rifles and loading up a bunch of Toyota pickup trucks. Maintenance of a fleet of modern jets is expensive and technically complex, not to mention needing an air base to launch them from. (Those are rather hard to hide from satellites.) And even if you manage all of that, you still need pilots capable of manning them. Where do a bunch of terrorists learn to fly and operate a vehicle that sophisticated? Or even a commercial jet liner?

The Daily Caller has a chilling answer to that question. The terrorists may have gotten their hands on some top of the line simulators.

Islamic State militants in Libya are learning how to fly commercial jets in large simulators imported from abroad, according to reports from Arabic media.

ISIS is reportedly training pilots in the Libyan city Sirte using large and comprehensive flight simulators, Libyan officials told an Arabic daily Wednesday according to Ynetnews. ISIS has an estimated 3,000 fighters in Libya and has controlled Sirte for several months.

“The simulator is about as large as a small car, and simulates every facet of flight including air-to-ground communications,” the sources said. A group of ISIS commanders reportedly obtained the simulator in October and have at least one other simulator, which they are using to train fighter pilots.

If ISIS strengthens its hold in Sirte, it could gain direct access to the Mediterranean and southern Europe.

I suppose we shouldn’t be all that shocked. Terrorists have been finding ways to learn to fly since well before the current era of simulators. Back in the 90s, Hani Hanjour, along with other 9/11 hijackers, trained at an Arizona flight school and completed the program despite five complaints filed by the school’s administrators saying that his command of English was too poor to understand flight instructions. That door was supposedly slammed shut after the attacks, but there are always loopholes in the rules. As recently as 2012 there were concerns raised that people on the terror watch list were still able to enroll in US flight schools. (US News & World Report)

More than a decade after 9/11, a new Government Accountability Office report has found significant loopholes that could allow terrorists to learn to fly in U.S. flight schools.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the TSA created the Alien Flight Student Program, a screening process that requires non-citizens or permanent residents to undergo a “security threat assessment” before being cleared to attend flight school.

The government watchdog found that of the 26,000 foreign nationals who completed flight training in the U.S. between January 2006 and September 2011, “some … had not applied to the AFSP or been vetted by TSA before taking flight training and receiving an FAA airman certificate” and that others “had not been successfully vetted or received permission from TSA to begin flight training.”

But what if you can’t get into a flight school? These days it’s not as much of a problem because you can learn most of what you need to know without ever coming within a hundred miles of an airport. Advanced flight simulation trainers are established technology. Companies such as L-3 Link offer fantastic contraptions which train prospective pilots in fixed wing, rotary wing and even drone operation. But I expect that the government keeps at least somewhat of a close eye on who is buying them. Still, those aren’t the only outlets for the gear. Strangely enough, you only need to Google for a few minutes to locate a place where you can purchase a fighter jet flight simulator cockpit for the bargain basement price of a quarter million dollars. Sure, that’s outside the budget of most of your friends who just want to play Desert Eagle on their Playstation 4, but it’s a drop in the bucket to ISIS.

Granted, a simulator isn’t going to prepare you to just hop into the cockpit and be an expert, but it will give you a huge leg up when the time comes to actually take the stick. And now it seems that ISIS is onto the idea. If these guys are “contained” then I’d hate to see what they do when they’re really cut loose.