How can you avoid a Brussels-style attack?
The attack on Brussels Airport in March 2016 exposed gaping holes in that facility’s security. But Israeli airports, despite facing greater threats, haven’t seen a terrorist attack in years. Exclusively for International Airport Review, journalist Phil Fine has conducted an interview with Dr Amira Halperin looking into how airports can thwart terrorist attacks…
Dr Amira Halperin is an associate researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Truman Institute, who studies Mideast politics and media, as well as Islamic radicalism.
Q. You say airport security in Israel is something other countries might well copy. What do Israeli officials now do that most other countries don’t?
For starters, they stop and check all vehicles at the entrance to the airport. For example, at Ben-Gurion, Israel’s main facility, people are actually asked why they’re coming to the airport. They’re also asked tame questions so security officials can zero in on such things as body language.
This initial check gives Ben-Gurion a second layer of security. And it’s a layer that’s proved its worth. I can’t recall any incident there when potential terrorists have managed to slip through. But in most other airports, security only starts when a traveller nears the check-in desk.
Q. Why hasn’t the rest of the world followed Israel’s example?
Because it can be cumbersome. Many of Europe’s airports – Heathrow (London), Charles de Gaulle (Paris) and Schiphol (Amsterdam) – are much bigger than Ben-Gurion. So stopping all cars and vehicles can delay travellers. And Europe’s airports don’t want to make travellers uncomfortable.
But Israel has faced – and continues to face – threats to its very existence. So it’s had to sacrifice the comfort of the travelling public to its need for watertight security.
Q. What else does Israel do that many other airports likely don’t?
It makes extensive use of ethnic profiling. Europe, by contrast, has been reluctant to do so, lest it be accused of racism. Indeed, Europeans have had to tread a fine line between airport security and passengers’ rights.
But Israel has had no such qualms. Moreover, it’s managed to do its profiling with a minimum amount of disruption, although it does subject Arab travellers to strict security checks.
Q. You also say European airports must vet their employees more closely.
With good reason. Remember Asif Hanif? He was the 22-year-old bomber who blew himself up outside Mike’s Place, a Tel Aviv bar, in April 2003, killing three and wounding 50. Hanif had been working at Heathrow for more than two years. Even more frightening, he’d been working at a duty-free shop just yards from gates where millions of passengers boarded international flights. He also reportedly had a special badge that allowed him to wander at will through the terminal.
Q. The Brussels bombing, the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the assault at the Paris rock concert. When it comes to terrorist attacks on airports, we might be excused in focusing on Europe at the expense of other corners of the world.
But that would be a mistake. Given the global links that now exist among terrorist groups, terrorists could just as easily attack an airport in Asia or the U.S., as in Europe. And these groups are now international. Although Hamas, for example, is always associated with Gaza, it operates globally.
Q. But in the meantime, Europe’s security services have started working more closely with their Israeli counterparts.
And those links should be strengthened. Moreover, Europe’s airports should segregate passengers headed to or from the Mideast from passengers travelling elsewhere. EU member states must also make it easier for their border guards to check travellers’ identities against Interpol’s data base. No such links now exist. And, of course, European countries must now be careful that terrorists don’t sneak in among the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees now swarming across the Continent. Indeed, some EU member states are calling for the revision, or even abolition, of the Schengen Agreement of 1985 which effectively erased borders among European countries.
Phil Fine, who’s based in Israel, has over 16 years’ experience as a professional journalist, most recently as editor of Investor’s Digest of Canada in Toronto. Perhaps more important, he’s had a lifelong fascination with airports – particularly now that air travel is exploding across Asia and mega-airports are becoming the norm in cities such as Istanbul, Dubai and Singapore.