Armed Hostilities

Human Factors in Aviation: 2016 Brussels Terrorist Attacks


Today the sphere of civil aviation faces a significant threat that comes from the rise of terrorism and the overall complication of the international situation. That is why there are numerous attempts to improve existing security systems and eliminate the majority of vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, there are diverse issues affecting the efficiency of all measures and resulting in the appearance of vulnerabilities that give a change to attackers (Price 2013).

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The human factor is one of these aspects. In this regard, the paper delves into the case of the 2016 Brussels terrorist attacks to reveal the events leading to the accident and the poor affect functioning of the policy, Intelligence and security services, and organisational failures had on the situation. Additionally, assessing the work of specialists involved in the accident, the normalisation of deviance is investigated. The given information is critical to elaborate an efficient approach to prevent these terrorist acts in future.


Previous Events

Investigating the accident mentioned in the case, it is critical to assess all events leading to it and preconditioned the given outcomes. Thus, the 2016 Brussels terrorist attacks could be considered another tragic occurrence in a chain of terrorist acts that were organised by ISIS as a response to the anti-terrorist war in Syria and numerous states attempts to eliminate this source of extremism and radicalism and restore the normal functioning of the region (Braithwaite & Chu, 2017). The November 2015 Paris attacks are closely related to this very event as the same terrorist cell was responsible for the organisation (“Brussels explosions,” 2016).

For this reason, the situation was complex. Belgium, like other states of the European Union, was warned about the high risk of new terrorist acts. At the same time, intelligent services of Germany, France, and the USA emphasised the fact that terrorist cells might be discovered in different cities across the EU and outlined the necessity of specific preventive measures needed to decrease the level of threat and guarantee that no terrorist acts will occur (Fothergill, 2017). Unfortunately, regardless of the fact that Brussels is the place where numerous strategic objects are headquartered (NATOs central office, European Commission, etc.), no specific measures were implemented. It resulted in the emergence of vulnerabilities used by bombers.

Human Factor

Nevertheless, the given terrorist act perfectly proves the idea that the majority of accidents happen because of a careless attitude to responsibilities and errors emerging due to the human factor. In accordance with the relevant statistics, the probability of error because of the given aspect is about 15-30% (Cromie et al., 2015). It means that one-third of the total number of accidents is preconditioned by the given aspect.

At the same time, in the bigger part of cases, a mistake happens when technologies, environment, and human factors impact each other (Cromie et al., 2015). Additionally, the extreme sophistication of tasks and a high level of responsibility become stressors impacting peoples performance levels and outcomes. In this regard, civil aviation becomes extremely vulnerable to the human factor (Dekker & Woods, 2010).

The investigated accident evidences the relevance of this statement. Terrorist attacks in Brussels become possible due to the unique combination of aspects preconditioned by the misconduct or not efficient functioning of diverse services responsible for the organisation of the safe environment and prevention of accidents of this sort. However, speaking about this terrorist attack, both failures in the system and failures of certain specialists should be mentioned as the central factors resulting in the appearance of loopholes used by terrorists.

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Organisational Weakness

Speaking of the organisational weakness and the factors that resulted in the appearance of the threat, several aspects should be mentioned. First of all, the overall functioning of the security and intelligence services in Belgium and Brussels should be doubted. Investigating the case, it becomes apparent that terrorists had enough time to create nail bombs and elaborate on the plan of their attack. They lived in the same flat and used it as their laboratory.

In such a way, there were able to move freely and investigate the area to select the most convenient places to perform their acts. It evidences numerous organisational failures and the inability of intelligence and security services to improve specific measures aimed at the location, monitoring, and detention of criminals (Braithwaite & Chu, 2017). Considering the fact that they were warned about the high risk of terrorist attacks and the existence of new terrorist cells, these services were not able to function appropriately and disregarded these warnings. At the same time, the airport was not equipped with security scanners in specific areas where explosions occurred, and cameras recordings were not analysed appropriately. It also evidences the existence of organisational problems in the civil aviation sphere.

Numerous systemic failures could also be evidenced by the fact that some of the suicide bombers were closely connected with the organisers of the November 2015 attacks in Paris and had several arrests in their past. For instance, Mohamed Abrini, one of the members of this terrorist cell, was a childhood friend of brothers Salah Abdeslam and Brahim Abdeslam, who participated in terrorist attacks in Paris (“Brussels explosions,” 2016).

Moreover, he was suspected of helping Salah to escape and hide after the terrorist act. Another bomber, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, was arrested in Turkey as a suspected terrorist and deported to the EU (“Brussels explosions,” 2016). Belgium security services were informed about the given case, primary causes for the deportation, and El Bakraouis activities. However, they ignored the given warning and did not prevent him from coming to Brussels. These facts evidence the lack of cooperation between organisations and authorities failure to introduce appropriate measures regarding the complex situation.

Normalisation Deviance

One more factor that should be applied to the given case is the normalisation of deviance. It can be defined as the gradual process when unacceptable practices, approaches, or standards turn acceptable and are used by specialists while performing their functions (Lock & Bearman, 2018). One should realise that it could precondition catastrophic results because of the disregard of some elements crucial for acceptable outcomes. As for the terrorist act in Brussels, the normalisation of deviance among security and intelligence services could be observed. The country had no experience in the given sphere as these bombings are the deadliest events in its history (Lock & Bearman, 2018).

For this reason, the majority of critical approaches were disregarded, and security services did not act appropriately; using standard and simplified methods, they were not able to discover the existence of the threat and prevented terrorists from performing their attacks. In such a way, the normalisation of deviance could be evidenced by the police, authorities, and security services functioning as no new and efficient measures were introduced.

Perrows Theory

Moreover, the terrorist attack in Brussels could also be investigated using Perrows normal accident theory and his perspective on the human factor. The given approach states that normal accidents or system accidents are inevitable because of the extremely complex and sophisticated systems consisting of multiple elements that interact with each other and result in the appearance of failures (Perrow, 1999). From this very perspective, every big accident occurs due to the combination of smaller beginnings impacting the evolution of the situation (Perrow, 1999). Therefore, the model presupposes that there are three conditions for systems to experience the risk of Normal Accidents.

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They should be complex, tightly coupled, and have catastrophic potential (Perrow, 1999). All these features are present in civil aviation, which means that Perrows model is applicable here. The complexity of the modern aviation sphere and the need for the use of innovative technologies result in a high probability of error. At the same time, it has a catastrophic potential because of numerous individuals using its services. From Perrows perspective, the inability of the intelligence services to discover the terrorist cell responsible for the organisation of the terrorist act and the inactivity of the police while visiting the terrorists flat became those smaller events that triggered the development of the situation.


In such a way, the central human factor concerns related to the terrorist attacks in Brussels are the normalisation of deviance among authorities and specific organisations, poor functioning of security and intelligence services, and numerous organisational failures regarding the preservation of the efficiency of measures to struggle against terrorists, their monitoring, and detention. For this reason, the mitigation strategy and solutions should be focused on the improvement of these issues to ensure better outcomes and prevent terrorists from organising new attacks.

First of all, it is critical to align the improved cooperation between the local and international security services to ensure that the latest data about terrorist attacks and their organisers will be shared globally and used to prevent their emergence (Fothergill, 2017). It will also help to introduce appropriate responses to minimise the probability of threat and create a new, safer environment (ICAO, 2016). Moreover, the given collaboration will help to acquire new experiences in struggling against terrorism and other threats.

At the same time, the police officers inability to recognise smells that can be associated with the manufacturing of explosives evidence the lack of preparedness, low competence, and inability to think in critical situations. For this reason, it becomes critical to introduce additional training focused on anti-terrorist activities (Huber, Wijgerden, de Witt, & Dekker, 2008). It will result in the improved ability to resist threats that are associated with the rise of terrorism and discover malefactors more efficiently (Fothergill, 2017). At the same time, this training should also include new cooperation models for police and intelligence services officers to interact and elaborate on new, more efficient methods to detect attackers.

Finally, the elimination of organisational failures could be achieved by the reconsideration of the existing approach to the authorities functioning regarding the high probability of new terrorist attacks or warnings about the risk of existing terrorist cells. The given reorganisation should include the invitation of specialists who have a better experience in the sphere.


Altogether, the given case perfectly demonstrates a significant role the human factor plays in the sphere of civil aviation today. Despite numerous attempts to create perfect security systems and eliminate existing loopholes, errors resulting from specialists poor functioning or other factors might precondition the appearance of multiple accidents. The terrorist act in Brussels became the deadliest attack in Belgium and resulted in the appearance of numerous concerns related to the functioning of airports, intelligence and security services, and local authorities.

Investigating the central causes for the emergence of this situation, the human factor is considered the fundamental one as terrorists acquire the opportunity to act due to the specialists inability to recognise and eliminate threats. In this regard, the investigation of the 2016 Brussels bombings becomes central for the further development of airport security and improvement of the approach to human factor management. It is critical to ensure that all individuals working in the sphere are provided with additional training and possess the needed levels of competence to classify threats and act appropriately. In conclusion, collaboration and further development of anti-terrorist methods become the central concerns of the modern civil aviation sphere essential for its development.


Braithwaite, A., & Chu, T. (2017). Civil conflicts abroad, foreign fighters, and terrorism at home. Journal of Conflict Resolution. Web.

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Brussels explosions: What we know about airport and metro attacks. (2016). BBC. Web.

Cromie, S., Ross, D., Corrigan, S., Liston, P., Darragh, L., & Demosthenous, E. (2015). Integrating human factors training into safety management and risk management: A case study from aviation maintenance. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part O: Journal of Risk and Reliability, 229(3), 266-274. Web.

Dekker, S., & Woods, D. (2010). The high reliability organization perspective. In E. Salas & D. Maurino (Eds.), Human factors in aviation (123-143). New York, NY: Elsevier.

Fothergill, S. (2017). Challenges when university researchers work collaboratively with industry in aviation safety: Why can’t we all just get along? Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 61(1), 1614-1618. Web.

Huber, S., Wijgerden, I., de Witt, A., & Dekker, S. (2008). Learning from organizational incidents: Resilience engineering for high-risk process environments. Process Safety Progress, 28(1), 90-95.

ICAO. (2016). Safety report. Web.

Lock, J., & Bearman, C. (2018). Normalization of deviation: Quotation error in human factors. Human Factors, 60(3), 293-304. Web.

Perrow, C. (1999). Normal accidents: Living with high-risk technologies. New York, NY: Princeton University Press.

Price, J. (2013). Practical aviation security, second edition: Predicting and preventing future threats. New York, NY: Butterworth-Heinemann.

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