Why do some hobbies appear to be geopolitical risky? In 2001, British and Dutch plane spotters were arrested in Greece and accused of espionage.
The case was made worse by the heightened tensions following the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the US which had placed pressures on all governments to ‘harden’ their approach to security in and around airports. While some British newspapers complained about the Greek authorities not understanding a peculiar and harmless ‘British hobby’, others were less sympathetic accusing the arrested British and Dutch citizens of choosing to ignore warnings not to engage in their potentially troublesome pastime. A Greek appeal court eventually freed them in 2002.
In March last year, three British citizens were arrested in the United Arab Emirates and accused of violating national security protocols after taking notes and photographs of plane movements close to Fujairah International Airport. The most recent case occurred in March this year when four British plane spotters were arrested in Kenya and fined for trespassing close to an airport in the Nairobi area. The airport in question was not Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, but rather a smaller local hub called Wilson. Established in 1933 as the Nairobi Aerodrome, the airport (renamed in the 1960s after a female pioneer of Kenyan aviation, Florence Kerr Wilson) has an interesting colonial history as it was established by Imperial Airways as part of its trans-African airmail services. It served as a stepping stone for travel between London, Egypt, Kenya and southern Africa.
The four arrested men claimed that they were given permission to film and record flight movements of regional and international air traffic around the airport, but the Kenyan authorities dispute this, and latest reports claim they have each been sentenced to a year in prison. Some British newspapers were also reporting that the legal representatives for the four men had complained that ‘confessions’ had been extracted from them by the authorities only because the nature of the charges they were facing related to security and terrorism legislation.
In other words, while plane spotting might be thought of as merely a ‘hobby’ by some, foreign governments and their airport/policing authorities treat it very differently. In truth, this should come as no surprise. Even before the 9/11 attacks, airports attracted some of the most intense security architectures and practices that most are likely to encounter in everyday life. We are confronted with multiple warnings about where to go and, more importantly, where not to go. As we enter the airport perimeter area, we are aware that surveillance and evaluation of our behaviour may occur if we do not follow accepted or expected norms. In countries, with ongoing experience of terrorism and or regional instability such as Kenya, it is perhaps not surprising that there is extreme sensitivity to what people, regardless of their origin and ostensible purpose, are doing near to national airports.
“While plane spotting might be thought of as merely a ‘hobby’ by some, foreign governments and their airport/policing authorities treat it very differently”
In February, the Kenyan Aviation Authority (KAA) was caught up in controversy when media organisations released a story about a report secretly warning of a possible terrorist attack at the main international airport in Nairobi. The source of anxiety was Al Shabaab, a terror organisation originating in neighbouring Somalia. The KAA was then forced to issue repeated messages reassuring the public that they were entering and leaving environments that were more than adequately secure.
Kenya has had a history of terrorist attacks, some successful, others less so in the sense that intended targets were missed or operations foiled. In November 2002, a missile attack was carried out against an Israeli passenger airliner as it took off from Moi International Airport in Mombasa. Fortunately the two missiles failed to hit their target. Others were more deadly, such as the 2013 Westgate Mall and the 2015 Garissa University College attacks, both of which were devastating in terms of loss of life.
Plane spotting, however apparently trivial, poses a potential ‘test’ to security authorities. What happens if the plane spotter is not a person simply wanting to collect tail numbers? For a country that is dependent on tourism, the Kenyan government has a vested interested in perpetuating a ‘calming atmosphere’ for the visitor, one that starts and ends at the airport. Perhaps what made the case of the four arrested Britons worse was the news that some of their photos and accounts of previous episodes of plane spotting were posted on social media sites such as Facebook.
What worries me about these sorts of stories is not the plane spotting per se. I continue to look to the skies myself and every time I do so I think of my late father and his adventures as part of 849 Naval Air Squadron. But I do my plane spotting discreetly and anywhere I go I follow local security instructions very carefully. My advice therefore is simple – when in any doubt, leave the camera in the bag.
This was published in the May 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.