My article about airport security and the difference between Israeli security models and those implemented elsewhere – published in the Oct/Nov 2016 edition of The Counter Terrorist magazine.
And for those who have a hard time reading the article as it was published, this is the text:
From Brussels to Orlando, airports to Disney World: security models that provide a feeling of safety are not necessarily safe
What is the connection between the terror attack in Brussels on March 22, 2016 and the more recent attack at the Pulse Club in Orlando (June 12, 2016)? What do airports have to with Disney World?
What is the difference between all of these and Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport?
Terror in Brussels
On March 22nd, three coordinated bombings occurred in Belgium: two at the Brussels Airport in Zaventem, and one at Maalbeek metro station in Brussels. In these attacks, 32 victims and three perpetrators were killed, and over 300 people were injured. It took over a month to return the airport and the metro station to their previous operational status.
The terror attack in the Brussels airport took place in the departures lounge.
In most airports in the world security measures begin after passenger check in.
Airport security is a vital national interest
Airports are highly sensitive locations. A terror attack on an airport obviously effects the first circle of those directly involved, the hurt, injured and financially damaged but the ramifications do not stop there. An attack on an airport is an attack on the gateway to the country in which the airport is situated thus both the local city and the feeling of freedom in that nation (and around the world) are affected. An effective attack shuts down travel and by extension commerce, at least for a while. The possibility of additional attacks means that travel to other cities is also affected to some extent.
Recognition of this is the impetus for terrorists to target airports (and other transportation hubs). It is not necessary to hijack or blow up an airplane in order to have a dramatic impact. The attack in Brussels was an attack on the airport, on travel, even though the terrorists never got past the check-in counter or anywhere near the airplanes themselves.
The “security race”
9/11 created awareness for the sensitivity of airports. In order to maintain the previous levels of travel and commerce, it was necessary to give the public a sense of security, enabling people to feel that airplanes and airports are safe.
America has invested millions in security technology. After every attempted (or successful) attack the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has added additional security measures.
After the ‘shoe-bomber’ the TSA implemented a rule demanding travelers remove their shoes for the screening of potential explosives.
After a foiled terrorist plot to detonate liquid explosives carried onboard, the TSA banned all liquids, gels, and aerosols from passenger carry-on luggage. A child may not carry a bottle of water to drink while waiting at the gate because, possibly, it might be part of an international terrorist conspiracy. If a traveler forgets that he or she is carrying a liquid this will be discovered at the security screening and various levels of unpleasantness ensue. The screener is not allowed to give the liquid to the traveler to consume prior to proceeding through the checkpoint. At minimum, the traveler must allow the screener to throw the liquid away or, the traveler can choose to be escorted to a location before the checkpoint where the screener will then return the water or cola or yogurt to the traveler. After consuming the liquid the traveler can then reenter the security checkpoint, be screened again and proceed to the gate.
This is an interesting precaution. Will a traveler who drinks the water he or she forgot was in their bag explode on the spot? If it is dangerous to allow the traveler to consume the liquid that was in their bag at the checkpoint, why is it ok to handover the liquid after escorting the traveler to a location before the checkpoint? Both areas are full of travelers…
After the ‘underwear bomber’ tried to get through security with a bomb strategically placed so it would not be found in a normal screening, the TSA implemented fully body scanners. Every single person needs to go in the capsule, raise their arms like a criminal surrendering to the police and undergo a full body scan that shows every contour of the body. Right to privacy? Sure. Unless you want to fly – then your most intimate privacy is stripped away.
There is a race between terrorists and technology. The terrorists strive to circumvent the technology, when they succeed additional technology is added. The investment needed to fund this “security-race” is continually increasing while, at the same time, passenger freedoms are more and more restricted.
European airport security has fewer technology measures than those of their American counterparts. In addition, that “small” issue of freedom of movement between EU countries complicates the matter. It is known, for example, that many European citizens have gone to Syria for ISIS training. It is also known that many of these have returned to Europe. It is not known where exactly these people are.
Terror in Orlando
Reports say that Omar Mateen chose the Pulse nightclub because it was an easier target than Disney World. By chance, I visited Disney World around the same time Mateen was supposedly scouting the territory with his wife.
Israeli reality breeds a reflexive safety vs. threat assessment mechanism. It is not a matter of being in a state of hyper-tension, fear or hysteria. It simply becomes automatic. Going to a new place, the image of how easy/difficult it would be to carry out a terror attack flashes through the mind as a matter of course. An instant later the image is put aside (not forgotten) and the activity at hand is continued with full enjoyment.
Maybe this is why, in general, Israelis scorn measures that are meant to give the feeling of security (while neglecting measures that would provide actual safety). We all want to feel secure but it is more important to actually be secure.
Visiting Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park set off my threat assessment reflex. While I am certain it would be very unusual for Americans visiting Disney to consider the feasibility of a terror attack or a suicide bombing, I would be surprised if most visiting Israelis did not have the thought flash through their minds.
Over 20 million people visited the Magic Kingdom last year. Cursory bag checks have been instated at the park entrance. It is reasonable to assume that this checkpoint instills in most guests the impression of security but we must ask ourselves is this a true reflection of reality?
Entrance to the park does not begin at the checkpoint, it begins in the parking lot. Visitors leave their cars and join a stream of people walking to a boat or the monorail that serve as transportation to the park entrance. At that point, bags are checked and every so often someone is selected for a random screening via a metal detector. Supposedly this procedure ensures visitor safety.
No one seems to have considered that the process of transporting guests via boat or monorail necessarily creates large crowds of people waiting to board their selected form of transportation. Hundreds of visitors gather together at one time, multiple times a day. It would be the simplest place in the world for a suicide bomber to blow him or herself up. Park the car, walk into the crowd with everyone else and… kablooey. Dozens of people would die, many more would be injured, the Disney reputation would be forever damaged and the American economy would take a major hit.
The security model at Disney is very similar to the security model implemented at most airports around the world. It is not necessary to actually enter the Disney Park in order to execute a devastating attack on its visitors and cause irreparable damage to an iconic symbol of America.
Feeling safe and being safe are two very different things.
Prior to entering the Disney Parks, there is an announcement to visitors, explaining what is not allowed within the park. One of the things mentioned is that no one is allowed to wear a mask (unless they are a small child).
I am curious to know what the Disney procedure would be for a visitor wearing a burqa. This version of Islamic dress for women is worn in many places around the world. It is a complete covering where even the eyes are not visible. What is the difference between a burqa and the prohibited masks? It is next to impossible to demand the burqa be removed. Would the Disney security take aside visitors dressed in this manner and check them in a private room? It is very easy to hide anything under a burqa…
I saw a number of religious Muslim families enjoying the Disney parks. The women had headscarves on but their faces were visible and their expressions and body language were very clear. They were all just normal families having a good time – except one. This family stood out. They did not seem to be enjoying themselves. The father, mother, and baby were sitting on the side. The father was involved in something, completely ignoring his family. The mother seemed annoyed but it was difficult to tell because, unlike all the other Muslim women I had seen, she was wearing a niqab which covers the face, leaving only the eyes visible.
This family was not doing anything that could be defined as wrong or even suspicious and yet they stood out. They were out of place, their body language incongruent with being in the “happiest place on earth.” Now I wonder if the people I saw were the Mateen family. Maybe. I don’t know. I do know that their presence raised a lot of questions I don’t hear anyone asking.
What makes Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport different?
Israel’s Ben Gurion airport is world renowned for its safety. Security experts study the Ben Gurion model and yet it is not implemented elsewhere. Why?
The Israeli security model is diametrically opposed to the one employed everywhere else.
While the rest of the world relies on technological solutions for safety, Israel relies first on people who are backed up with technological tools. While the rest of the world begins security measures after the check-in point, Israel’s airport security begins before travelers set foot in the airport.
Machines that scan bags and people, stripping to have articles of clothing scanned and hysteria about nail files and bottles of water may give the impression of security. Feelings are nice but what about facts?
While Israel has cutting-edge technology available to enhance security, the first line of security consists of well trained, experienced, people. It is the ability to recognize someone who is behaving suspiciously that makes the difference. It then becomes possible to further investigate that specific person, define their threat level and when needed, remove the threat.
It is not necessary to treat everyone like criminals in order to keep the public safe.
It is not technology that makes a person dangerous or assures detection of a danger. The 9/11 hijackers used box-cutters, not high powered rifles. The problem was not their weapons but the unprepared flight crew who did not have the knowledge, training or skills to deal with the threat. That and the civilians who sat quietly while they were being hijacked… It wasn’t technology that prevented Flight 93 from being used to crash into another building and wreck more terror on America. It was people. It was Todd Beamer and the men with him who, with no weapons, decided to storm the cockpit and take down the terrorists.
Where there is a will, there is a way and frankly, the terrorists have a lot more will than the minimum wage, (often) poorly educated, low interest employees working in airport security around the world.
To oversimplify, while airport security around the world strives to detect “ways” that passengers can be hurt, things that can be used as weapons and bombs, Israeli security detects people who have the will to commit acts of terrorism.
But this means profiling and profiling is racist… right?
Profiling is the extrapolation of information about something, based on known qualities. When applied to security this means, detecting people who may pose a threat, based on known behaviors and tendencies of people who have, in the past, been dangerous to the public. This is called learning from experience.
When someone behaving suspiciously is detected they can then be taken aside, further questioned and inspected. This allows security to focus in-depth on the few who could be a problem, without creating a burden on those who are not.
The profile of a potential terrorist is complicated, some of its elements I am familiar with, more I am not. (Similarly many Israeli security measures are seen while others remain unseen.) It is worth pointing out that potential terrorists are not necessarily Arabs or Muslims. Most Arabs and Muslims will move freely through Ben Gurion airport, without undergoing in-depth security checks because they are law abiding citizens that pose no threat. Potentially dangerous people do not necessarily have any religious or ethnic ties to Islam. They can even be innocent people who, because of their naiveté became, unbeknownst to them, carriers of bombs set to explode at a later time (for example mid-flight).
Elsewhere, so as not to appear “racist,” people are chosen for random additional security checks. In a world terrified of offending, it is considered better to subject everyone to offensive, intrusive and cumbersome inspections than to actually identify potential dangers. It is better to focus on giving the feeling of security than being actually secure.
And it is much more “fun,” or politically expedient, to point at Israel and accuse Israelis of racism and prejudice than to learn from our experience.
Israel was saddened by the attacks in Brussels. We know the pain caused by terrorism and empathize with the victims. At the same time ,it was Israel who warned that the security measures in the Brussels airport were inadequate. What a pity this advice was not applied in time…
It is Israeli experts who investigate all the airports where flights depart to Tel Aviv and analyze their security measures. Think about that – Israeli airport security does not begin just at the checkpoint everyone passes driving in to Ben Gurion, it begins at the foreign airports where there are flights destined for Tel Aviv.
The general public does not see most of the measures taken to keep travelers to and from Israel safe. The emphasis is on actual security, not the illusion or feeling of security. The emphasis is on detecting potential threats, on the people with the desire to commit attacks, rather than finding all the possible methods of committing an attack. People before technology.
This takes us back to Orlando and a gut wrenching question that must be asked: how is it possible that so many people in the Pulse club just lay down to die?
The concept of security is a life and death issue. What provides security? Technology or people? Laws or individuals? There will always be a way to get around technology. People who want to commit acts of terrorism will not be bothered by the restrictions of the law. Who provides security? The “authorities” or people? Regular folks? Waiting for the “authorities” to come and save them killed 49 people at the Pulse. On the other hand, the club bouncer, Imran Yousuf, a 24-year-old Hindu and former Marine, did not wait for rescue, instead, he rescued not only himself but also some 50 or 60, possibly 70 additional people.
There is a big difference between feeling secure and being secure. The Israeli model focuses on actual security over the feeling of security, focusing always on people over technology. The Israeli model dictates that the security authorities are responsible but individuals must do their own part to help save themselves and save each other.
It is up to security experts everywhere to decide which model to implement.