THE MAGAZINE

Suicide Bombers at the Gate

By Bob Raffel

A New Model

It is time to adopt an approach that involves going beyond the immediate airport environment. A more more holistic, and far-reaching model is needed. It could entail the following primary elements.

Remote check-in. Remote check-in of baggage is one way to remove an opportunity for an attack. Driven more by private-sector initiatives and capacity issues than security concerns, Orlando International Airport has adopted off-airport baggage check-in procedures. In this model, baggage is collected off site (usually at participating hotels) by airline representatives, secured and transported to remote screening locations, and taken to a baggage sorting system at the airport. Bags are then sorted and loaded onto aircraft.

The efficacy of this system, where it exists, has proven itself. Baggage is kept out of the airport until screening is complete. It results in less congestion within the airport as well as fewer unscreened bags lying about in terminal areas.

Taking this concept a step or two further, there is nothing to preclude a model that facilitates remote screening of passengers and their carry-on baggage. Several remote passenger screening locations would diffuse the concentration of people in any one location and lessen the opportunities for terrorists within the terminal building.

Pursuing this thought a little further, it is not inconceivable to imagine the sterile terminal, wherein all passengers and their baggage, carry-on as well as check-in, have been screened prior to arrival in the building. This approach would not only open the entire area up for movement of people and concessions (a boon to most airports), it would also significantly scale down targets of opportunity for acts of terrorism.

Employee screening. While passengers are all screened, employees are not. Though the issue has again made headlines recently, and a bill is pending, it remains a gaping hole in the security net. Employees represent a serious insider threat. Our sterile airport should be serviced only by screened employees. (It is important to differentiate between the daily screening of employees entering a sterile workplace from the security vetting that is accomplished when they are hired. The latter is a one-time criminal records check that is of limited use in preventing acts of terrorism, or even criminal activity, from occurring in airports.)

Employees should be screened along with passengers, and at other, employee-only locations, such as cargo facilities adjacent to air operations areas, catering houses, and airline operations offices.

Using Orlando International Airport as an example, passengers and workers could go through security at “screening centers” located at the parking areas prior to leaving for the airport. This would coincide nicely with existing facilitation measures already in place,  wherein check-in bags are screened (at a remote location on airport property) prior to being placed on board the aircraft.

Cargo screening. The third consideration is getting the attention it deserves. In the cargo areas, recent TSA screening initiatives could, and are, being expanded to include 100 percent screening of all cargo as called for in the just passed H.R. 1. But there is the risk that the phase-in of this initiative will be slower than promised, as has occurred with many other homeland security programs.

Technologically, access control systems have improved over the years with the advent of biometrics and “smart” camera systems. Overlaying this technology on the airport infrastructure as is being done further enhances airport security.

Intel. But screening and access control measures can only go so far. It is the plan, and the terrorist organization behind it, that need to be interdicted, not the individual. In this regard, surveillance needs to start at our borders, not at airport doorways or curb areas.

Terrorist infrastructures need to be identified and disrupted; organizations infiltrated and turned to our advantage. Hearts and minds need to be won. None of this can take place at an airport.

Meanwhile, we must stop focusing all our efforts on catching the bomb at the x-ray machine within the airport. On the deadly combat field of terrorism, by the time the explosive-laden suicide bomber enters the facility, we’ve already lost that engagement.


Bob Raffel is associate professor in the homeland security department of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. He is a retired colonel from the U.S. Army Reserve. Raffel served 17 years with the FAA and more than five years as senior director of public safety for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

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