Luck among factors that help U.S. airports avoid terrorism

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TSA checkpoints have had no terrorist incidents occur since 9/11.
TSA checkpoints have had no terrorist incidents occur since 9/11.

Airport security experts last week cited a combination of robust intelligence gathering, advantageous geography and plain old-fashioned luck as key reasons why the U.S. hasn’t experienced a major airport or aviation-related terrorist attack since 9/11.

“What we’re doing right is engaging in intelligence collection and analysis to identify people way before they get to an airport,” said Richard Bloom, the director of Terrorism, Intelligence and Security Studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona.

U.S. intelligence agencies, he said, work globally to determine where potentially threatening people are, what they might do and how they might do it.

“I think we do that more comprehensively and more seriously than many other countries,” Bloom said.

Last month’s bombing attack, claimed by ISIS, on the Brussels airport and a nearby metro station has led to renewed questions about the security of airports, especially in areas outside the checkpoints that in the U.S. are operated by the Transit Security Administration (TSA).

But with the exception of two lone gunman incidents at Los Angeles International Airport — the most recent in 2013 resulted in one fatality and the other in 2002 resulted in two fatalities — the vast network of U.S. airports has been unscathed by violent attacks, including terrorism, in the post-9/11 era.

In addition to the long tentacles of the U.S. intelligence network, analysts, including Gordon Longton of the Minnesota-based consulting firm James L. Johnson Associates, emphasized that increased police vigilance has been a key factor in maintaining the relative security during the past 15 years. As an example, Longton cited Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport, where he headed security in the 1990s. Police staffing there has increased by a third since 9/11, he said.

But Longton also argued that intensified security efforts, both on-site and through intelligence gathering, are just part of why the U.S. aviation network has thus far avoided a major attack. The country, he noted, is also the beneficiary of being far from most of the terrorist bases.

“We have an ocean separating us, which makes us so much different than Europe, where they have lots of people crossing borders,” Longton said.

Analysts also cited simple luck as a third major factor in U.S. airports having largely steered clear of successful terrorist attacks.

“You’re just lucky when you break up something,” said Duane McGray, executive director of the Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network, which comprises industry professionals. “The reality is we’ve been very fortunate, but we’re also very vulnerable.”

The Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network says behavior recognition is a primary tool.
The Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network says behavior recognition is a primary tool.

McGray said airport security teams have just two primary tools at their disposal: behavior recognition and explosives detection with dogs. But those techniques, while important, can’t remove the possibility that an airport will be targeted.

“There’s no way to know who’s driving on those roads coming to your airport,” he said.

He added that it’s wrong to view check-in terminals and other unsecured portions of airports as different from soft targets such as malls, churches, movie theaters or New York’s Times Square, where a car bomb attack was foiled by two street vendors in May 2010.

“Any place where the public gathers is vulnerable,” McGray said.

But, like other security experts, McGray said that pushing checkpoints back behind areas that are now public sections of airports would not be effective. The reason, he said, is that terrorists like choke points where people gather. Moving the checkpoints, or adding new ones, would merely create a new choke point and therefore a new target-rich location.

Indeed, said Philip Baum, the U.K.-based editor of the magazine Aviation Security International and author of the recently released book, “Violence in the Skies: A History of Aircraft Hijacking and Bombing,” the crowds at existing TSA checkpoints are already a deep concern.

“I am appalled when I go through the United States by the overt levels of security that one witnesses,” he said. “It is, to me, so tick-box focused — just following guidelines. The huge queues of people waiting to go through security lines is not a good form of security.”

Baum said while it is true that U.S. airports have avoided successful terrorist attacks since 9/11, Europe is not far behind.

The Brussels airport attack, coupled with the November attacks on the Stade de France as well as cafes, restaurants and a concert hall in Paris, have heightened the sense that Europe has come under heavy terrorist-network assaults. But prior to Brussels, the most recent attack on a European airport was the unsuccessful 2007 assault on Glasgow Airport in which two assailants drove a Jeep Cherokee filled with propane canisters through the terminal’s glass doors in an attempt to set the facility ablaze. Five people were injured, but the only fatality was one of the suicide bombers.

Like many security experts, Baum lauded the security network that protects Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport as a model for airports everywhere, and he touted Israel’s controversial tactic of profiling airline passengers.

“I am not talking about racial profiling,” he said. “I am talking about observing people. Observing their behavior. Inspecting travel documents when we need to.”

Like McGray, Baum noted that U.S. airport security teams already engage in behavioral recognition. But he said that deployment should be broader, with undercover officers monitoring taxi stands, airport entrances and even train stations that lead to airports. That way, plotters can’t prepare to evade screeners at predictable locations.

Still, Baum said, at some point the U.S.’s run of luck will end.

“It would be foolish for us to believe that American aviation is not going to be targeted again,” he said.

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