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Do We Need to Protect Airport Public Areas Too?

Does the Moscow Airport Bombing Point to a New Vulnerability that Needs Resolution?

Dead bodies litter the floor at Domodedovo airport immediately after the bomb exploded.

The murky picture is due to the air being filled with debris and dust from the explosion.

Part 4 of a series on alternative and better approaches to US airport security.  See links at bottom for additional parts.



Subsequent to the Moscow airport bombing (detailed immediately below) there have been predictable calls for airport security to be 'improved' - a vague word which is easy to utter but harder to define.

Are there true genuine risks, uniquely applicable to airports - and appropriate solutions that can be implemented - at and for airports?

Or is this merely the latest manifestation of, on the one hand, the many headed hydra of modern day terrorism, and on the other hand, of unrealistic desires to create an impossible fully-risk free environment everywhere in our lives and society?

Ill Informed Knee Jerk Responses

On Monday 24 January, one or two terrorists detonated a bomb at Russia's Domodedovo airport (details below).

Almost before the last echo of the blast had ceased reverberating, there were the predictable calls to 'improve the vulnerability of our airports' by self proclaimed experts venerated by unquestioning media seeking easy stories.

The fact that most of these experts have vested interests or myopic views is seldom considered when uncritically passing on their utterances.

Here's a classic example of such an article and such claims, which struggles to provide some even-handedness while landing firmly in the 'our airports are at risk' camp.

You can pick your own preferred piece of nonsense.  My favorite is suggesting that 'A visible police presence in airport terminals could be a deterrent'.

But the key problem I have is with the title, which suggests terrorists are selectively targeting airports for their attacks, and therefore, by obvious implication, 'something needs to be done' to protect ourselves and the airports we travel through.

Please read on and we'll put this threat into context.

The Bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport

This article is being written a couple of days after a bombing occurred at Russia's largest airport, the Domodedovo airport, one of several serving Moscow, this being the trigger event (if that's not an unfortunate mix of metaphors) that has caused a sudden upsurge in attention to airport security.

Exact details of the bombing are still not confirmed, but it appears most likely that a 30 - 35 yr old suicide bomber/terrorist blew himself up when he (or quite possibly she) detonated a bomb in his/her suitcase while in the group of people waiting in the International Arrivals Hall at the point where arriving passengers emerge from Customs.  This happened at 4.32pm Moscow time, Monday 24 January, 2011.

Current reports suggest that the terrorist may have been a woman, with a male accomplice next to her, and it is further thought there were three more terrorists observing the events from the safety of further away in the airport (and possibly remotely triggering the bomb).

At least 35 people have died so far (either immediately or from mortal wounds, subsequently), with about 100 hospitalized and 80 or so additional people being treated on the scene for lesser injuries.

The bomb is believed to be equivalent to about 7kg/15.5lbs of TNT, and it seems the blast's lethality was augmented by ball bearings, screws, and other objects strapped to the explosive.

Was this the Result of a Security Malfunction at the Airport?

Almost certainly, no it was not the fault of the airport, notwithstanding the populist grandstanding of Russia's Prime Minister and President who have in unison been quick to blame the private airport's management.  Why they choose to do this is unclear, but possibly in the hope of diverting focus away from failures of the government's own internal security forces (such as the formidable FSB, successor to the KGB of Soviet times) at detecting and apprehending the terrorists before they got to the airport.

This failure to apprehend the terrorists in advance is all the more disappointing because credible warnings were received by the FSB weeks before advising them of a suicide bombing team traveling to Moscow.

As best we can determine, Domodedovo had no policy requiring it to screen or control access to its public areas.  The security into its 'secure' areas seems to have not been penetrated at all; the probable scenario is currently thought to be the terrorist simply walked into the airport building, the same as anyone else would do when coming to meet friends arriving from an in-bound flight; went to where the crowd of people were standing by the exit from the Customs area, and detonated their explosive for best effect.

There was no Russian policy requiring airports to screen 'ordinary' people who were simply staying within the public parts of any Russian airport - indeed, that is what a public part of an airport is - an area open to all people without reasonable restriction.

Furthermore, it is totally unrealistic and unreasonable to argue that airport security staff should have noted the terrorists acting suspiciously prior to him exploding their bomb.

For all we know, they entered the airport from an entrance less than 100 ft from where they detonated the bomb, walked straight to a pre-selected spot with the greatest number of people nearby, and then immediately detonated the bomb.  The entire attack could have been done in less than a minute - way too soon for any 'behavior detection officer' (or any other police/security forces) to react and respond to whatever possible faint signs of suspicion might have been associated with the terrorists.

It is also relevant to note that in the international arrivals hall of a busy airport, there is such a wide mix of people and races from all around the world, some bleary eyed, semi-dazed, and jetlagged, some drunk, others delirious with joy at meeting long separated loved ones, it is extremely hard to identify any sort of 'normal' or any sort of deviation from normality.

This attack was possible, and successful, because it is nearly universal policy at all airports, everywhere in the world, to allow unrestricted access to the public parts of the terminal buildings.  Domodedovo Airport can't be blamed for this at all.

Other Airport Attacks

While definitely the most recent, this is far from the only occasion when airports have been subject to terrorist attacks.

Indeed, back in 2002 Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) had its own minor brush with terror when an Egyptian Muslim with Al-Qaeda connections, Hesham Mohamed Ali Hadayet, opened fire at the El Al check-in counter, killing two and wounding three before being himself killed by El Al's head of airport security.

This was a comparatively low body count compared to, for example, an attack at Rome's airport in 1985 when a group of terrorists associated with the Abu Nidal group killed 16 and wounded more than 100 in an attack featuring grenades and semi-automatic weapons - again at the El Al counter.  A second group of terrorists struck at the same time at Vienna's airport, killing three and wounding 39.

There are plenty of other examples of attacks on airports.  In the recent past, in September 2010 Muslim extremists attacked the Mogadishu Airport in Somalia, killing at least nine people.

Not Just Inside the Terminal But Outside Too

Airport attacks are not confined to only within the terminal buildings.

In 2007, there was an attempted carbombing at Glasgow's airport when two Muslim terrorists drove a Jeep Cherokee into the main entry doors to the terminal.

The bomb failed to explode.

In 2007, the FBI foiled a plot by four Muslim terrorists associated with Al Qaeda to blow up jet fuel tanks and pipelines on the grounds of JFK in New York.

These are far from the only examples of attacks on the inside of airport buildings and outside the buildings within their grounds as well.

Are Airports at Greater Risk?

Maybe yes, maybe no.  We'll look at reasons why first, then at reasons why not second.

Reasons why terrorists like airports

It is true that terrorists continue to focus on anything to do with the world's aviation system as being a prime target to attack, and there are some reasons why this makes sense to terrorists.

Mass transportation offers concentrations of people that mean single explosions of moderate power (and therefore readily concealable and transportable) can have maximum impact in terms of casualties.

Furthermore, a successful attack on a major transportation facility not only kills people, but it does two other things as well.  It can disrupt an important part of the economic and social infrastructure of the city/region/country (although in the Domodedovo bombing, the airport only closed down briefly for a few hours before reopening for normal operations again).

It also intimidates everyone else who has used that facility in the past (or who plan to use it in the future) - such people may think 'My gosh, I was there just xx days before, that could have been me', and it discomforts the more nervous of them enormously.

Even more than that, an attack on one airport terminal, or on one metro train (or train station) also worries everyone who uses any other airport terminal or train (or train station).  They can think 'maybe next time it will be at the facility I use'.

Lastly, these are difficult attacks to defend against, because any sort of response/'hardening' of a mass transport facility will be both very expensive and very inconvenient to the society using it.

Reasons why airports are at no greater risk

It is a bit harder to prove a negative.  But in reality, few terrorists are focused on exclusively attacking airports, and airports get only a small percentage of all terrorist attacks.  Terrorists will choose the easiest to access places which in turn offer the best chance of maximum impact as a result of their actions.

Here in the US we have had two Muslim terrorist attacks in 2010, both of which were unsuccessful.  One involved blowing up a car bomb in Times Square, New York.  This failed because the bomb did not explode as it should have.  The other involved a plot to explode a bomb at the Portland OR Christmas Tree lighting celebration - this failed due to the FBI catching the terrorist before he succeeded in completing his plot.

In contrast to this, we have had no recent terrorist attacks on airports.

We even had a Muslim terrorist attack on an Army base at Fort Hood in November 2009 (13 killed, 29 wounded), and some years before had a pair of Muslim snipers killing 11 and wounding six in the DC area in 2002 (plus killing at least two others and wounding two more prior to their DC area rampage).

It hasn't all been Muslims, either.  Let's not forget the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 (168 killed, 680 injured), although there have been some allegations of links to Muslim terrorists with that event too.

Russia itself has had many more attacks on its subway system, and on its trains, and massively more lethal attacks on other parts of the country - schools (over 380 killed at Beslan), theaters (over 130 killed at the Nord-Ost theater) and several apartment buildings) than on airports.

And even Britain's single unsuccessful airport attack is more than counterbalanced by the multiple train and bus bombings in London several years earlier.  And by the countless IRA bombs of past decades - an era which now seems amazingly to have been 'kinder and gentler'.

While an airport is a tempting target, so too are hundreds, thousands, and maybe even millions of other places and things in any country.  And many of these other places are at least as vulnerable as airports, and are attacked at least as often.

Which leads to the next point.

The Danger of Protecting Airports

Let's say our authorities, so as to 'better protect us', create some sort of impenetrable security shield all the way around airports and their related territories (but look on a map to get a feeling for the vast size of the perimeter of a typical major airport and its related service facilities - this is a non-trivial task).

What happens then?  One of two things - either the would-be terrorists give up, disillusioned, and return back to their home country where they retire and become peace-loving citizens.

Or do they do a U-turn at the entrance to the fortified airport compound, and head instead to a nearby sports stadium, or school, or picture theater, or any other place where people concentrate, and blow themselves up there instead?

My money is on the second outcome, don't you agree?  In other words, if we spend money and resource and allocate tens of thousands of people to single-mindedly protect our airports, we are scoring an own goal, for two reasons.

First, all that money and all those people who are now protecting airports represent a loss of money and resource to protect the rest of our country.

Secondly, these people are not catching terrorists, they are merely causing the terrorists to switch to a different vulnerability in our country, with that different vulnerability being an as yet unidentified vulnerability which is also now being less protected than before (because everyone who would protect it is instead standing shoulder to shoulder around a many mile perimeter fence at the local airport).

How Terrorists Choose Their Targets

Being a terrorist is not rocket science, neither is understanding the terrorist mindset.

Terrorists choose their targets based on how a target scores on three criteria.

  • A specific target that has a special meaning of significance either to the terrorists or the society they are terrorizing

  • Targets that are easy and vulnerable

  • Targets that offer the highest profile and most desirable outcome from an attack

For example, the White House scores highly on the first and third points, but extremely low on the second.  An airplane scores neutral on the first, high on the third, and these days, reasonably low on the second.  An airport is again neutral on the first, not as high as an airplane on the third, but much higher on the second.

But if an airport starts to become less easy and vulnerable, terrorists will simply shift their focus to something that is more vulnerable.

The Bottom Line

There are more targets in the US (and any other country) that terrorists could attack than there are people to protect them.

We need a total paradigm shift in our approach to counter-terrorism.  Any investment in further 'airport security' measures will distract from this necessary change in strategy, while simply encouraging terrorists to shift their focus to schools, office buildings, theaters, sports stadiums, and who knows what else, where else.

Protecting our airports won't buy us any extra safety, but it surely will cost us a great deal more in terms of time and hassle to get in and out of the airport grounds and buildings, and in terms of the dollars to pay for all the new staff and equipment.

The Better Option

So what should we do instead?

I'm glad you asked that question.  For an answer to that essential question, please turn to our article on counter terrorism measures.

This is part of a series on alternatives to present airport security.  Please also see :

1.  Israeli style airport security
2.  Profiling passengers
3.  The Limitations of the TSA
4.  Protecting Airports
5.  General counter-terrorism measures
5.  Sundry other ideas (coming soon)

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 28 Jan 2011, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.



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