Security and Defense: Learning to fly, Israeli-style

Security and Defense Le

'Should the United States and other countries adopt the Israeli model?" asked an article in the Financial Times. "Aviation security and the Israeli model," was a headline in The New York Times. "Learn a lesson from Israel," said an opinion piece in Canada's National Post. "Security the Israeli way" was the headline of an editorial in a California newspaper. Interest in the way Ben-Gurion International Airport is secured peaked this week after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, tried blowing up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit by mixing different explosive substances and lighting them under a blanket. The amounts, however, were apparently incorrect and the plane, and its 278 passengers, were saved. The timing of the incident - the end of a decade with the 9/11 terror attacks near its start - has raised fresh questions about airport security and the continued threat that terrorists pose to civil aviation. The key question that many around the world are now asking is what they can learn from Israeli security measures that would have likely prevented Abdulmutallab from even getting on the plane. It is widely agreed that El Al is the safest airline in the world, and Ben-Gurion the safest airport. This has to do with the stringent security measures used mostly at its home base, but also at all of its overseas bases as well. Israel learned its lessons the hard way. On May 31, 1972, in what became known as the "Lod Airport Massacre," terrorists from the Japanese Red Army - working on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - attacked the terminal with assault rifles, killing 26 people and wounding close to 80. Thirteen years later, terrorists simultaneously attacked El Al ticket counters at the Rome and Vienna airports with assault rifles and grenades, killing 19 people. Israel has also experienced more than its fair share of hijackings. In 1968, the PFLP hijacked an El Al flight that took off from London's Heathrow. The plane was diverted to Algeria and the Israeli nationals were only released more than a month later. Possibly the most famous hijacking was Air France flight 139, which was taken to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. The IDF launched an extraordinary commando operation during which it killed the hijackers and released almost all of the hostages. The most recent case of a hijacking involving Israel was in 2000, when a Russian charter plane was hijacked with a fake bomb. The hijacker, identified as a Chechen in his 20s, demanded that the plane be taken to Israel, which allowed it to land at an air force base near Eilat. After a short standoff, the man surrendered. BEN-GURION AIRPORT has three layers of security. The first is on the perimeter, which can be accessed only by two gates that are manned by guards - armed with M-16s - who make you roll down your car window and tell them where you are coming from. The idea is to prevent cars filled with explosives or gunmen from entering the airport and attacking a terminal. The second layer is the profiling of passengers. There are several methods, although the most common is the questions asked by security guards as you wait at the check-in counter along the lines of, "Who packed your suitcases?" and "What is the purpose of your trip?" The questioning varies for the type of passenger. Starting in the 1970s, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), which oversees airport security, created different categories for types of people that require a more thorough inspection. This was based on an analysis of all known acts of aviation terror. "People think that profiling is old fashioned and invasive, but it saves the day," said Pini Schiff, who served for close to 30 years in the Ben-Gurion security division. "The Nigerian terrorist would have undergone comprehensive inspections at Ben-Gurion Airport, and without a doubt I can tell you that the explosives he was carrying would have been discovered." Schiff's proof is the Hindawi affair. On April 17, 1986, a pregnant Irishwoman, Anne-Marie Murphy, arrived at Heathrow Airport with a large bag to catch El Al flight 016 to Tel Aviv. Her bag, Schiff said, had been checked by British airport security and passed, but during the standard questioning, the El Al security guard decided to check it once more. "Her answers to our questions just didn't add up," Schiff recalled. A second inspection of the bag discovered a sophisticated bomb made up of Semtex plastic explosives with a detonator hidden inside a calculator that was set to activate when the plane reached a cruising attitude of 39,000 feet. During her subsequent interrogation, Murphy spoke about her Jordanian boyfriend, Nizar Hindawi, who, together with the Syrian Embassy in London, it turned out, had planned the attack. Murphy, who was carrying Hindawi's child, was entirely unaware that he had been sending her to her death. "Profiling makes the biggest difference," explained another Israeli aviation official. "A man with the name of Umar flying out of Tel Aviv, whether he is American or British, is going to get checked seven times." The third layer of security at Ben-Gurion consists of the CT scans and metal detectors that luggage and people go through which can detect explosives and weapons. In addition, there are more sophisticated explosive-detecting machines that are used infrequently. The American Transportation Security Administration is now considering purchasing full-body scanners that will be able to reveal the type of explosives that Abdulmutallab was carrying under his clothes. According to Schiff, the trick is how to use all of the different methods and to create a modus operandi that balances between security and the need to be able to keep on operating an airport with high-quality service. "You cannot use all of the methods on all of the passengers," he said. "If you decided that everyone is suspicious, the real suspect would get lost and get away." This is why, he said, profiling is the key, since it enables the airport security teams to put their focus where it is most needed. "Security is first and foremost based on common sense, which is supposed to provide you with the right intelligence, technology and modus operandi," he said. "It is all about brains, since if you do everything automatic, it won't work." This, for example, is one of the main reasons why not all of the passengers going through Ben-Gurion security are required to take off their shoes, in contrast to the US where it is mandatory for everyone, no matter how old or young. Besides demonstrating poor airport security, the Abdulmutallab case also demonstrated something of even more concern for the US - that after an almost nine-year hiatus, terror may be knocking on America's shores again. Further, the use of a suicide terrorist on a plane - like the 9/11 model - has not been abandoned by al-Qaida and its affiliates.