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
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
On Monday 24 January, one or two
terrorists detonated a bomb at Russia's Domodedovo airport
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
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
Please read on and we'll put
this threat into context.
The Bombing at Moscow's
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
The Danger of Protecting
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
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
How Terrorists Choose Their
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
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
I'm glad you asked that
question. For an answer to that essential question, please
turn to our article on counter
This is part of a
series on alternatives to present airport security.
Please also see :
Israeli style airport security
2. Profiling passengers
3. The Limitations of the
5. General counter-terrorism measures
5. Sundry other ideas (coming soon)
Related Articles, etc
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28 Jan 2011, last update
21 Jul 2020
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