The Fox 9 Investigators learned that of three men recruited from Minnesota to fight for either ISIS or al-Shabaab all once held jobs at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and each hold security clearances that gave them access to parts of the airport a traveler will never see. When exactly these men were radicalized is unclear.
The good news: It doesn't appear the airport was ever their intended target.
The bad news: Experts fear that scenario may be just a matter of time.
Side-by-side with a future terrorist
It's like a small city that never really sleeps. It's in constant motion. It's our gateway to the world and back home again. Behind the scenes at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, of the people who keep everything moving -- more than 17,500 workers -- 11,000 have security clearance and wear what's called a SIDA Badge that provides access to the most secure and vulnerable areas of the airport. Everyone from pilots and mechanics, to those who feed, fuel and clean the planes can have them. One man, whose identity is being concealed, worked several years cleaning planes for minimum wage.
"They just would hire anyone who could do the job," he said.
He never imagined he'd be working side-by-side with a future terrorist, Abdirahmaan Muhumed, the Minneapolis father of nine who died in Syria earlier this year fighting for ISIS.
"He could have planted a weapon on the aircraft easily. He was the one they trusted to secure the aircraft," he said.
At the airport, he went by his given name, Abdifatah Ahmed, and held a SIDA Badge that gave him access to the airfield. Three years ago, he was working as an airplane cleaner. For a decade prior to that, he put fuel in airplanes. Both jobs gave him access to planes anywhere on the tarmac.
"There's so many places they could easily hide something," the unidentified airplane cleaner said. "Places people don't want to touch because they think it's gross."
An unclassified terror task force intelligence brief obtained by Fox 9 News says, "There was no evidence [Ahmed] intended to misuse this access." However, it "highlights the potential recruitment of insiders," calling them the "greatest threat to aviation." A "homegrown" or "lone wolf" who could smuggle an "improvised explosive device." It specifically mentions taxi and limousine drivers, sanitation and food service workers and baggage handlers.
More workers with terrorist ties
The Fox 9 Investigators have learned Ahmed isn't the only airport worker with terror ties. There is Shirwa Ahmed, an airport cart driver who shuttled passengers to their gates, and at some point, joined al-Shabaab, four years later becoming the first America suicide bomber in Somalia.
He wasn't the last.
Abdisalan Hussein Ali blew himself up four years ago at a military checkpoint in Mogadishu. Just four years earlier, he was serving coffee at the airport Caribou Coffee in the G concourse, right across from customs.
All three men, two becoming suicide bombers, held security clearance at the airport.
"We devote a lot of resources and spend a lot of time looking for things that quite frankly aren't that big a deal getting on board the aircraft," Ken Kasprisin
, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security. He once led TSA both nationally and at MSP.
Kasprisin says for all the time spent screening passengers for knives and guns, he can't understand why there isn't better screening of insiders who could be hiding in plain sight.
What can one do to keep an insider from keeping an explosive on a plane?
"I think you've hit the essence of the question. I don't think you can get it to zero," he said. "But, you can start by reducing the access points to the security at the airport."
INSIDER THREAT NOTES
Abdisalan Hussein Ali
MSP Employment: Issued a Sterile Area badge for Caribou Coffee at MSP dated Oct. 2006 to Oct. 2007. His last city of residence on record at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) Police Department was Minneapolis, MN.
Terror Connection: Left Minnesota in 2008 to fight for al-Shabaab. Became a suicide bomber in October 2011. Killing 10 African Union soldiers in a suicide bombing attack in Mogadishu.
Abdifatah Ahmed (aka Abdirahmaan Muhumed)
MSP Employment: Last city of residence on record at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) Police Department was Minneapolis, MN, worked at MSP at various times between Nov. 2001 and May 2011. Mr. Abdifatah held a Secure Identification Display Area (SIDA) security badge intermittently between Nov. 2001 and Oct. 2010 to perform work as a fueler for ASIG (later known as Servisair). Mr. Abdifatah was again issued a SIDA badge in Nov. 2010 to work as a cleaner for Delta Global Services. He has not held a security badge to work at MSP since May 2011. Delta Air Lines switched its aircraft cleaner services at MSP from Delta Global Services to Airserve earlier this year. I don't know what drove the change, though. I'd have to defer to Delta for that.
Terror Connection: Father of 9 is believed to have been killed in Syria fighting for ISIS in August 2014. Reportedly killed in the same battle as Douglas McCain, who was originally from Minnesota.
MSP Employment: Last city of residence on record at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) Police Department was Columbia Heights, MN, worked at MSP sometime between June 2003 and June 2004. Mr. Ahmed held a Sterile Area security badge to perform work as a cart driver for Globe Services. He has not held a security badge to work at MSP since June of 2004.
Terror Connection: One of the first American suicide bombers. Left to fight for al-Shabaab and was killed on October 28th, 2008, when he drove a truck loaded with explosives into a government compound in Puntland.
Employee bags seldom checked
When Kasprisin ran TSA in the Twin Cities, he cut the number of employee access points in half, but he said there are still gaps. Consider Checkpoint 222, where most airport cleaners enter the airport. There is usually a cursory search around the vehicle, sometimes they might look under it, but employee bags are seldom checked.
"In the years I'd been there I'd never been searched, never, never," the unidentified cleaner said.
There was also the time the whistleblower caught the security guard asleep in the booth. The guard has since been fired. Kasprisin believes there should be more random searches of vehicles with explosive detection devices and bomb-sniffing dogs.
According to TSA's own security brief, there are things they're looking for with the "insider threat," like workers who try to access sensitive areas that have nothing to do with their job, the restaurant worker who suddenly wants access to the tarmac, and workers who might make anti-government or violent statements, like the day Osama bin Laden was killed. Someone scrawled graffiti on a water tank that said "Our blood for Osama bin Laden."
"You could see irritation and anger in a lot of their faces," the cleaner said.
The airport workforce is like a small United Nations, with 25 percent of the workforce born in 140 other countries. Most are from Ethiopia -- 1,673 -- and 676 are from Somalia
"The high percentage of those folks are working in the low paying jobs that have access to cleaning and food service," Kasprisin said.
'Real problem is on legal rights'
Before a worker gets a SIDA badge, TSA does a criminal background check, and what they call a "Security Threat Assessment." Fingerprints and names are matched against federal and state databases, but if a worker was born overseas, sometimes there's little information from their country of origin, and Kasparian worries his old agency isn't performing the necessary periodic reviews or digging deep enough and looking for connections and associations with known or suspected terrorists, especially in Minnesota, which has become a hot spot for recruiting jihadists.
"The real problem is on legal rights, is how far can you go to preclude them from a certain position," Kasprisin said.
The answer to that concept may be critical. No one wants to be prejudiced, or paranoid, but there are more than 500 separate companies operating at MSP Airport – contractors, vendors and tenants. Even TSA believes the greatest threat ot aviation may already be here; someone, somewhere working behind the scenes.
What TSA says
TSA declined an on-camera interview for this story, but a spokesperson says they have specific security measures to deal with the insider threat. TSA calls it a layered system of random and unpredictable searches, one the public never sees.