Almost two months after the failed attempt by the Nigerian ‘underwear bomber,’ Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, to blow up the aircraft in which he has flying from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, government officials and security experts around the world are still scurrying to find ways to tighten up airline security to prevent another would-be suicide bomber from succeeding.
The most popular response has been to demand that airline passengers all be screened by full-body scanners that use radar to ‘see’ through their clothing to detect explosives or weapons that might be hidden; these scanners are already being deployed, especially in US airports.
Prompted by the fact that Abdulmutallab spent time studying Arabic in Yemen and was apparently trained and equipped by al-Qa’eda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAB), British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a month ago, that direct flights from Yemen to the UK would be banned until the Yemeni authorities had set up proper security checks in San’a.
Alongside these usual conditioned reflexes of adding technology or stopping high-risk flights, other voices have been calling for the ‘Israelification’ of airline security — focusing on multi-layered security at airports, with trained interviewers questioning every passenger in the check-in queue to identify potential terrorists.
Although these measures, as well as British Prime Minister Brown’s decision to create two levels of no-fly lists for flights into or out of the United Kingdom - a simplified version of the three levels of the black list used by the USA -are all well and good, would they provide the high level of air travel security required in the wake of the 9/11 attacks?
Also, was the failed bombing on Christmas Day really the result of a failure of the existing aviation security system that could have been avoided had the much-vaunted body scanners been installed at Schiphol airport? Bruce Schneier, Chief Security Technology Officer for BT and an internationally recognized expert on security, points out in his blog that even the imperfect security checks which exist at most airports and are likely to detect the known kinds of bombs, forced Abdulmutallab to use a significantly inferior bomb that did not explode properly.
Not only, therefore, was the system working pretty well, but the body scanners would not have been able to detect a bomb, whether made of the PETN, which Abdulmutallab used, or more conventional explosives, if he had concealed it in his anal cavity (the technique used by the terrorist who attempted to assassinate the deputy interior minister of Saudi Arabia last year), or if explosive chemicals had been, say, soaked into the fabric of his clothes.
Scanners are useless against terrorists hiding explosives in body cavities, just as metal detectors used at airports and elsewhere are useless for detecting ceramic-bladed knives. An Austrian physicist, Werner Gruber, went on German TV network ZDF in January to demonstrate to a shocked interviewer and audience that he could stand in front of a body scanner without it detecting the detonators and small containers of thermite that he had stuffed into his jacket pockets and his socks. Thermite, typically a mixture of aluminium and ferric oxide powders that burns at over 2,500 degrees C, cannot be extinguished once alight, and even the small quantities shown by Gruber would have been enough to burn a hole through an aircraft fuselage, big enough to cause serious. and possibly fatal, structural damage. If a terrorist managed to place his thermite bomb on the cabin floor above the fuel tanks usually located where the wings meet the fuselage, the result would be a mid-air explosion blowing the plane and its occupants into small particles.
Moreover, even if the scanner were effective against this kind of bomb, the scanner still has to be used: The AP reported Dec. 31 that the USA had given four full-body scanners to Nigeria for airport security checks, but that the scanner at Lagos international airport was not being deployed as part of standard security measures on every passenger - and further, the level of corruption in Nigeria meant that VIPs could probably walk round the scanner anyway.
The new obsession with body scanners, like the previous ones with forcing passengers to take their shoes off for examination in the wake of shoe bomber Robert Reid, and to carry only minimal amounts of liquids in hand luggage, the result of the foiled attempt to blow up several planes with liquid explosives, is nothing more than security theatre -- the authorities making a show of creating more and more impenetrable security barriers against potential terrorists, preferably with a good selection of high-technology props.
Although there is an element of justification in security theatre - the need to reassure the public that the authorities are not impotent and are doing something to provide security - confusing the image of security with its substance can be dangerous, lulling security professionals into a false sense of complacency.
What makes the new obsession with scanners and other mechanistic security procedures even more sad, although possibly helpful, is the American practice of doing additional security checks on just-landed passengers if they need to use a five-minute shuttle ride to get from Terminal C to Terminal D. In Atlanta, a few days before Christmas 2006, a plane-load of US servicemen just arrived from combat in Iraq for Christmas leave had to undergo the same ritual as the civilians before getting on the shuttle, including having to take off their boots.
What about the watch-lists that Brown decided would be so valuable in stopping terrorists from getting onto planes? Well, Abdulmutallab was already on a US watch-list after his own father informed a CIA representative at the US embassy in Nigeria that he was a dangerous religious fanatic, but this did not stop him from boarding the plane as the passenger manifest was checked against the watch-lists after take-off. Even if flight manifests were always cross-checked before take-off, however, it would not make much difference: watch lists are fundamentally flawed by the commonplace problems of false positives and false negatives. The late Senator Edward Kennedy was prevented more than once from flying because his name was shared by someone on a TSA watch list; the same has happened to other innocent people, such as an American couple whose 10-year-old son has been questioned several times because he has the same name as an Irish terror suspect.
Further, even small spelling errors in a name, or variations in the spelling of foreign names, can mean that a potential terrorist is not detected in time.
More importantly, all an aspiring shahid needs to do to avoid being caught by the watch-lists is to get a false passport with a different name, something that is not difficult to accomplish in countries such as Yemen. It does not even need to be a false passport from a third-world country: Although it may not still be the case, only a few years ago, anyone in the United Kingdom could change his name legally and get a new passport several times a year without there being any central real-time record of the history of names and documents. The investigative reporter who exposed this situation travelled to Morocco four times in the same year under different identities, all completely legal, in order to prove the point.
Given this problem, it would seem that the half-million names on the US ‘Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment’ (why do US bureaucrats invent such awful names?) and the considerably smaller numbers on the Terrorist Watchlist and the ‘No-Fly’ list, to say nothing of Gordon Brown’s two new watch- lists, may be largely irrelevant. To be fair, none of this institutionalised bureaucracy invalidates the use of technology in airline security. Full-body scanners do detect concealed weapons; X-ray scanners and explosive-sniffers can and should be used to detect bombs hidden in baggage; chemical detection wipes should continue to be used to check the carry-on bags, and sometimes the hands, of passengers; and passports should be scanned for forgeries.
Passports should also be cross-checked in real time against Interpol’s database of thirteen million stolen and lost travel documents, but they are not. As far as I am aware, Switzerland is the only country that checks against the SLTD, but at its border control points, not at airport check-in desks.
Fingerprints and other biometric markers can also be a useful way to know who someone is and where he has been.
The most effective check, as many analysts have commented, remains the human one, Israeli-style, designed to detect bombers rather than bombs. The system works: every passenger in the queue for the check-in at Ben-Gurion airport, or for any El Al flight elsewhere, is questioned, if only for a few seconds, by a trained ‘selector,’ who can basically conclude within a few seconds from someone’s reactions - body language and facial expressions more than verbal responses - to questions such as ‘Where did you come from just now?’ and ‘Did you pack your bags yourself and did anyone give you anything to take to someone else at your destination?’ who might be a potential threat from who is just the average tourist. This leaves time to ask people who might be a threat more searching questions before even considering whether to search them and their bags or not. As Daniel Pipes reminds us in an article almost 21 years ago, this is what saved an El Al flight from London in April 1986 from being blown up by the completely unwitting Ann-Marie Murphy, in whose luggage her Arab boyfriend had hidden a bomb.
‘Israeli’ does not, of course, mean ‘foolproof.’ Israeli media investigations have shown occasional weaknesses, such as when an Israeli-run security company, ICTS, headquartered in the Netherlands, came in for criticism about its possible responsibility for a security failure at Schiphol. On the basis of some familiarity with ICTS’ work, however -- which includes serious training in behavioural profiling of passengers and members of the general public at airports -- the failure might possibly have been that of the Dutch security firm in implementing the Israeli methodology.
The most effective security measure at airports is not racial profiling, but behavioral profiling.
Although, as commentators have pointed out, not all Muslims are terrorists, unfortunately all the terrorists involved in recent outrages against Western targets - the USA, Britain, Spain and so on -- have been Muslims. Not everyone with an Arab name is Muslim - many are Christians, Druze, or from other backgrounds. Similarly, not every fanatical Muslim is dark or wears Arab robes: some of the most fanatical members of the jihadi movement are light-skinned converts who may have blond hair and blue eyes, and who for the purpose of carrying out an attack will wear Western clothes and use the names they bore before converting to Islam.
The human rights lobby is wasting its breath condemning calls for racial profiling as insulting to all Muslims: Racial profiling does not work. Ironically, more Arabs -- and non-Arab Muslims -- than ‘Westerners’ have been the innocent victims of Islamic terrorists.
Whatever name, religion, skin colour or clothes you bear passing through airports and their security checks, your behavior is the most telling. If you are planning to blow yourself up together with two or three hundred other people, you are anxious that you are going to succeed without first getting caught, and concerned that Allah’s heaven will match the glowing descriptions on which you have been fed by your instructor or imam: the stress does show -- which is why there is a good chance that you will get caught.
The most serious threat to air travellers, however, and their collateral victims on the ground does not come from a lone plane bomber, or a quartet of terrorists wielding box cutters. Islamic terror groups are growing more sophisticated; because of the relative lack of success over the last few years against iconic Western targets, they are likely to attempt even more daring, if technically difficult, attacks. Western intelligence and security services should be particularly worried about terrorist groups acquiring shoulder-launched heat-seeking anti-aircraft rockets. London’s Heathrow airport, especially, has a long approach path from Europe: it crosses the whole of the city, unlike in the USA, where the sky over city centers is off-limits to civil aviation. Shoulder-to-air missiles of this kind can easily be launched from any window, balcony or rooftop.
If a terrorist group manages to pull off such an attack, and if the burning wreckage and fuel were to land on particularly significant targets such as the Houses of Parliament, the damage to the West could be incalculable.