Security and Defense: Staying a step ahead

After every averted attack on planes or airports, int'l experts declare that Israel would have handled things better. We’ve learned the hard way.

Airport Security 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Airport Security 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
It happens after every foiled attack involving the aviation world. Headlines across the globe quickly declare that in Israel it just wouldn’t have happened.
This country, these newspaper articles claim, would have prevented Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, from boarding a Detroit-bound flight with explosives in his underwear last year. It, they claim, would have detected the sophisticated bombs which an apparent al-Qaida cell hid inside printer cartridges and sent to Chicago-area synagogues last week. Reportedly, one of the bombs was defused only 17 minutes before it was timed to explode.
Ask the officials in charge of security at Ben-Gurion Airport, however, and they are quick to point out that the country does not have the best security in the world. It has the best security for Israel and on Tuesday, in a rare tour of the airport, it became quite apparent why.
In general, Ben-Gurion has three layers of security.
The first is on its perimeter, which can be accessed by two gates manned by guards, armed with M16 assault rifles, who require drivers to roll down their windows and tell them where they are coming from. The idea is to single out potential attackers before they reach the terminal, which is also under the watchful eye of plainclothes security guards, many of them standing along the curb outside innocently listening to an iPod or pushing a cart with luggage.
The second layer is the questioning or profiling of passengers once they enter the terminal. There are several methods to do this including the use of sophisticated technology and sensors, but anyone who ever flew out of Ben-Gurion is familiar with the young security guards waiting at check-in lines who ask questions along the lines of “What is/was the purpose of your trip? Who packed your bags? Did anyone give you anything to take for them?” The guards are mostly students who have completed full military service and undergo an additional three months of training before they speak to their first passenger.
The third layer is the most obvious, and includes metal detectors and CT scans for luggage and people.
Sometimes, more sophisticated explosive-detecting machines are also used.
What makes Ben-Gurion unique in comparison to other airports, though, is that all security-related work is done by a single organization – its Security Division, which operates under the supervision and direction of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
IN COMPARISON, at the entrance to LAX, the Los Angeles international airport, there is a checkpoint manned by regular airport policemen. After check-in which is done by civilian airline employees, passengers go through a security checkpoint manned by Transportation Security Administration officers.
What this means is that every passenger has three different encounters with an airport official, but each is not connected to the next. The police who man the checkpoint work for the city, the TSA works for the Department of Homeland Security and the check-in process is conducted by airline employees without security training.
At Ben-Gurion, the guards at the entrance are from the Security Division, the guards who question passengers in check-in lines are from the Security Division as are the guards who conduct the physical security checks after check-in and before passport control.
One organization oversees and does everything.
Another advantage is that the Shin Bet, which oversees the division, also serves as both an intelligence- gathering and an operational agency. The Security Division does not rely on receiving intelligence on potential attacks from another agency and then having to wait to receive instructions on how to act from someone else, problems discovered by the 9/11 Commission established to draw up a list of recommendations to prevent similar attacks. This problem still exists for the TSA, which is dependent on other US agencies to provide it with intelligence.
“The Israeli structure minimizes the possibility that intelligence received by an intelligence agency will not make it to us when we need it,” explained one of the heads of the Security Division.
This was exactly the problem that US President Barack Obama referred to after December’s attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253.
“The US government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack,” Obama said at the time. “This was not a failure to collect intelligence; it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had.”
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shmuel Zakai, a former commander of the Gaza Division, is head of the Ben-Gurion Security Division. He is constantly on the lookout for new technology and methods that can make the system more effective. He is, for example, a member of a board which brings all European airport security chiefs together.
“Aviation security is not a problem for Israel but for the entire world,” Zakai is known to say. But even he knows that this country’s system is only suitable for here.
The profiling is possible because there are only about 30,000 people going through the airport every day. Heathrow in London, for example, has around 250,000 passengers, many of them from Arab, Asian and African countries. It is impossible to profile them all.
Either way, the Shin Bet does not believe the country is immune from potential aviation terror attacks.
ISRAEL HAS LEARNED how to do airport security the hard way, after experiencing lethal terrorist attacks – some inside the airport, like the 1972 “Lod Airport Massacre” when terrorists from the Japanese Red Army attacked the terminal with assault rifles and killed 26 – and hijackings like the famous taking of Air France Flight 139 which led to the rescue operation in Entebbe, Uganda.
While it is still unclear if the bombs discovered by the US and Britain with the assistance of Saudi Arabia last weekend were actually intended to arrive at the Chicago institutions and then blow up or to detonate aboard the planes carrying them from Yemen, Ben-Gurion Airport has already carefully studied the case and made necessary adjustments to its security protocols.
The system for inspecting cargo – on cargo planes and passenger planes alike – is similar to the way passengers are checked, with the main theme being profiling. This is mainly done by the selectors who stand at the checkpoint outside the airport and question passengers at check-in lines inside.
While cargo cannot talk, its point of origin, contents and destination can provide clues. Printer cartridges sent from Yemen to Chicago synagogues are out of the ordinary and would have likely set off some alarms at Ben-Gurion Airport, which also uses a number of systems to inspect cargo.
Some is placed inside pressurized containers – simulating a pressurized airplane cargo hold – to see if bombs planted inside will detonate.
The terrorists’ success in getting their bombs past security in Yemen and onto planes heading to the US demonstrates the determination of al-Qaida to continue to pose a threat to civil aviation.
For a group like al-Qaida, one Israeli official explained this week, the aviation world symbolizes everything it is opposed to – globalization, modernity and economic power. That is why the real test for the West will be not in learning from the last foiled attack but preparing for the next one.
“The threat to world aviation is real and they will continue to attack,” the official said.