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30 Dec 2009 06:40
The failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day highlighted all the inadequacies of a security system that is based on perception rather than reality. As security has been tightened up over the years in response to different types of incident, the public has sought ever greater reassurance when travelling by air, but that will not necessarily provide the safest option.
The type and level of security checks have tended to be a response to specific kinds of attack.
Therefore, in the 1970s when the “Take me to Havana” type of hijack was in fashion, metal detectors were installed at airports to seek out weapons.
While this approach has been understandable, it is reactive and means that security measures tend to be one step behind rather than ahead of the bombers. It is also a fantastic waste of time and resources even though the public like it because they feel something is being done.
Moreover, it fails in its own terms. The standards vary widely from airport to airport, and the searches are often cursory and ineffective. I have taken water bottles in my hand luggage several times and they have been noticed about half the time. Moreover, it means that all the security effort is concentrated in one place—the departure lounge of airports—when there is no guarantee that attacks will take place there or on the planes people are boarding. Indeed, the obsession of al-Qaeda and its associates with airports and planes is a bonus for the anti-terrorist forces.
And they know it. Senior police officers with whom I have spoken are well aware that much softer targets are as vulnerable as they ever were. That list starts at the airport: while the departure lounges are clearly accessible only to people with tickets, anyone could get to Heathrow with the same type of equipment—or indeed far cruder material—used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and blow themselves up in any crowded part of the airport. The police are actually desperate to create better security at airports in response to such a threat but the number of people who would have to be screened is enormous and the logistics horrendous: checking everyone who was driving anywhere near the airport, let alone all the people accessing it by public transport, would make flying even more of a nightmare than it is already.
And that’s the key point. Whatever the security forces say, there is always going to be a trade-off between security and convenience. The police know that the tube, for example, will always be vulnerable to attack and that there is no way that the near three million daily users of its 250 stations could be screened. There are, of course, even softer targets such as those favoured by the IRA which, after its initial round of attacks in the mid 1970s, largely eschewed mass murder and instead aimed at specific targets or to cause maximum disruption for minimal loss of life.
Now we have a different type of bomber, intent both on causing mass deaths and unconcerned about sacrificing their own lives. The response, therefore, has to be as clever as they are. The Christmas attack is a hugely embarrassing failure of precisely the sort of approach that should be adopted. The intelligence was available that this guy was a risk, but the information was not used properly.
So instead we get the daft result that five-year-olds travelling with their mums and dads on a bucket-and-spade holiday to Majorca are made to pour out their bottled water, while Abdulmutallab, who was known to the authorities to the extent that he was listed on a “terrorist identities” database, was not subjected to a rigorous search.
The answer has to be the use of intelligence to ensure a targeted approach and anti-terrorist police and other agents know that this is the only sensible way to tackle the threat. Abdulmutallab would have been stopped if the knowledge already gleaned about him had been used effectively. It is not more restrictions, machines, and security staff that will make travel safer. - guardian.co.uk
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