Since September 11 suicide bombings of WTC in the US, aviation security has received much attention and huge resources have been spent to make both the domestic and global aviation systems safer. But analysts maintain that notwithstanding the huge outlay in security systems the only effective way to prevent terror attacks is to be proactive. IME AKPAN reports
Prior to September 11, 2001, there was no reason to screen baggage for bombs, safe for making sure every bag in the cargo hold belonged to someone on the passenger deck.
But the situation changed in the morning of September 11, when terrorists hijacked four United States airlines, flew two into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre (WTC) in New York, while one crashed into the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C. The fourth slammed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers fought to regain control of the aircraft and in a matter of two hours of the attacks, both towers of the WTC came crashing down. About 3,000 souls perished.
Shortly after the incident 10 years today, several measures have been put in place to checkmate terrorist attacks or threat to aviation safety. These include more thorough screening procedures for passengers and their baggage whereby passengers go through metal detectors; carry-on bags are x-rayed, checked baggage passes through an explosive detection system, and passengers are required to remove their shoes while carry-on liquids are prohibited.
Several new measures designed to prevent hijackings also have been adopted. These include fortified cockpit doors, armed pilots on some flights, and an expansion of the US Federal Air Marshals programme, which places armed undercover officers on passenger flights. Experts say another important change in aviation security is an adjustment in passenger behaviour. Since the 9/11 attacks, passengers are taking on a more active role in preventing terrorists from carrying out their plots aboard airplanes.
The various screening measures were taken one after the other. It started with travellers passing through metal detectors while their carry-on luggage went through x-ray machines.
After a Briton, Richard Colvin Reid, also known as the Shoe Bomber, on a Paris-to-Miami flight attempted to light explosives hidden in his shoes in early 2002, new screening procedures required passengers to remove their shoes and send them through the x-ray machines.
After a group of British men conspired to use liquid explosives to down a US-bound aircraft in 2006, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) of the United States first banned liquids in carry-on luggage, and then instituted the 3-1-1 rule. Passengers may carry liquids in 3-ounce bottles, all of which must fit in one clear plastic bag with a capacity of one quart.
After a Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear on a Detroit-bound flight on Day 25, 2009, the TSA rolled out advanced scanners for screening passengers for non-metallic threats, including explosives hidden in or under their clothing. Travellers randomly selected for the scan, which has been called a “virtual strip search” by critics, can opt out by undergoing a thorough pat-down search, which has been criticised by some as too intimate.
Commenting on the installation of scanning gadgets at the Nigerian airports, the director of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Dr. Harold Demuren said: “In combating the new trend of terrorism as unfolded recently, the Nigerian government has approved that we upgrade our security screening system to 3-D total body imaging scanners. No person including crew members should be allowed to board an aircraft without passing through all aviation security screening procedures and formalities and 100 per cent examination is mandatory for all passengers”, Demuren added.
He explained that “this declarative and enhanced security screening system to be effected at the airports, is to ensure that the country does not witness another attempt of terrorism, excessive drug smuggling, and misdemeanours from travellers.”
The managing director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Mr. Richard Aisuebeogun said safety and security at the airports remain a top priority for the agency. He said FAAN took delivery of 10 modern fire tenders (under the World Bank assisted programme) and new security screening equipment, including 10 units of the 3D full body screening machines, between 2010 and early 2011. He said all the equipment had been deployed to the international airports in Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt with adequate manpower and back-ups.
“Because effective aviation security must begin beyond our borders, and as a result of extraordinary cooperation from our global aviation partners, TSA is mandating that every individual flying into the US from anywhere in the world travelling from or through nations that are state sponsors of terrorism or other countries of interest will be required to go through enhanced screening,” said TSA.
However, the real change, according to George Naccara, federal security director at Boston’s Logan Airport, has been the institution of “many layers of security,” including measures that go beyond passenger screening, such as heightened police presence outside of airports and increased cooperation between airlines and security officials.
“TSA has taken significant steps to keep Americans safe. The security of our land is considerably stronger than it was 10 years ago,” said a spokesman of the agency, Ann Davis.
But that has come at a price, both in tax dollar and in the sacrifice of convenience and, to some degree, privacy.
Davis stated that since it was passed into law on November 19, 2001, TSA has spent $56.8 billion on aviation security, including passenger and baggage screening. Some of that money, according to her, comes from federal tax dollars and some of it from security fees paid by airline passengers. The agency’s yearly budget is about $8 billion.
At T.F. Green, the exact cost of ramped-up security is difficult to say, according to Kevin A. Dillon, president of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, the state agency that runs Green. “We’ve had to add a number of security people as a result of it. The airport has spent at least $25 million of its money on new security equipment, he said.
However, the new security screening has become controversial, because many questions about the safety, privacy, efficacy and implications of these scanners remain unanswered. The 3-D full-body security scanners display a detailed image of a passenger’s body on a computer screen.
Proponents say the scanners have a lot of pluses. The devices will spot non-metallic objects and liquids that metal detectors might miss, they say, and they will also largely eliminate the need for pat-down searches for airline passengers with joint replacements, prosthetics and other medical devices that can set off metal detectors.
The machines create a three-dimensional image of an air traveller by beaming a radio wave at them from two rotating antennae, creating an image “that resembles a fuzzy photo negative” of the person’s body.
TSA claims that such passengers can be scanned in just 15 seconds, as opposed to the two to four minutes it would take to search them by hand.
It also claims that the machine emits 10,000 times less energy than a cell phone transmission.
“We, and all objects around us, generate millimetre wave energy and we are exposed to it every single day,” said TSA.
For the privacy conscious, critics point to one glaring downside: security officials will get a chance to see what you look like naked.
Demuren said passengers should put their lives first before privacy. “I can understand about privacy, but you must have your life first before you talk about privacy. If you are dead, even dogs will look at you and walk across you. So, it’s important that you have to be alive, and to be alive, we must stop these terrorists before they kill us,” he said.
Plastic surgeons believe that there are potential counter-measures that terrorists might employ to defeat the scanner and smuggle a bomb or weapon onto an aircraft.
Terrorists, they said, have become very clever when it comes to devising new methods of attack. The 9/11 suicide bombers, according to intelligence reports, did it for years by frequenting strip clubs and drinking alcohol in the run-up to d-day--all in the name of assimilation. And there is no shortage of physicians who are terrorist sympathisers or even terrorists themselves.
Experts in anatomy say the body scan machines will do nothing to protect against the inevitable shift to body-cavity-placed explosives. They explain that doctor-terrorists are more than capable of popping some implants into an eager small-breasted terrorist.
“All our surgically-enhanced terrorist needs is a small amount of liquid accelerant. She sits in 31B waiting for the flight attendants to pass out the overpriced unappetizing airplane food and pretends to pick up a fork off the floor only to substitute it for a pen filled with the missing ingredient.
“When no one is looking, she jabs it into her explosive-filled breast...Mr. Abdulmutallab only had a few grammes of pentaerythritol tetra-nitrate (PETN); a breast implant can easily hold a few hundred grammes - more than enough to bring down the largest commercial airliner,” they declare.
They further explain that it does not require a board-certified surgeon to make a skin incision, place a sterile bag filled with explosive material in the subcutaneous fatty tissue and then close the wound with some fishing line. This could be done not just in the breasts but almost anywhere in the body including arm, belly and thigh, among others. Bruce Schneier, author, security expert and chief technology security officer for global telecom-internet giant BT, argue that even if absolute primo, state-of-the-art scanning technology devices were installed at airports and prevent weapons and bombs from being hidden in clothing, terrorists would simply adopt new tactics or shift to different targets.“Defending against tactics and targets makes sense only if there are a few of each. The reality is that there are 10 million targets... We put scanners in airports because terrorists attacked airplanes last time. We’re screening for liquids because terrorists used liquid explosives in the past, not because they’re more effective than solids, which they aren’t. We take off our shoes and not our underwear because that’s where Richard Reid hid explosives, not because shoes are better. We take away guns and bombs, and they use box cutters. We take that away, and they’ll use something else. This is a stupid game, and we should stop playing it,” he contends.
There are also concerns over the potential of an attack by terrorists using a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile. In 2002 terrorists fired such a missile at an Israeli charter jet as it took off from Mombasa, Kenya.
Aviation security experts believe that there is no one answers to the problem, that the first step of the process should always be the proper use of the human brain: people making an intelligent decision as to which security lane a passenger goes down.
Igor Livits and Sushant Deb argued that technology is important, but it cannot be left to be a single point of detection.
“All other steps to a successful security system such as profiling and professionally trained personnel to question and interact with passengers are equally, if not more important,” they said.
“Live training scenarios are crucial for successful security operations. Simply watching a video or taking computer based tests of explosives and terrorist attacks does not make a security officer qualified to do the job. This appears to be the current trend in airport security training,” the duo added.
Schneier argued that the only really effective way to prevent terror attacks is to be proactive. “Intelligence, investigation, pre-emption—they work, no matter what the target or tactics,” he said.
Eben Kaplan, a writer for the Council on Foreign Relations said airliners remain an attractive target for terrorists, as evidenced by the revelation in August 2006 of a plot to simultaneously down as many as ten of them over the Atlantic Ocean.
On why terrorists target airliners, Steven Simon, the former senior director for counter-terrorism at the National Security Council said: “You get a lot of victims at once. There is a lot of bang for the buck.”
“There is a particular horror attached to transportation attacks because passengers are in effect helpless in a situation like that. In addition, the dramatic nature of airliner attacks attracts media attention and can help inspire fear in the populace, two major aims of most terrorist operations,” he added.