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Terrorism and Airport Security – A Short Guide

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Terrorists are a looming threat, and airports are one of their most desirable targets. Why? Because they are easily accessible, gather many people in one place, and don’t employ too many protection staff or the right equipment. Terrorism and airport security are worth discussing in any situation, especially when security officers fail to respond appropriately.

Terrorists don’t have to get past check-ins and TSA screens to hurt dozens of people. A grim example of this is the Glasgow Airport Attack from 2007. On June 30, terrorists drove a dark green Jeep Cherokee at the Glasgow Airport terminal’s glass doors, injuring five people.

However, when terrorists get through security checkpoints, they can cause a lot more damage. A prominent example of this is the hijacking of four U.S. airliners on September 11, 2001. The attacks resulted in 2,977 people killed and more than 6,000 injured.

One way hijackers took control over the four planes was by using knives. But how did they get through airport checkpoints? Well, security camera footage later showed that some hijackers had box cutters clipped to their back pockets. As it turns out, box cutters and similar small knives were allowed on board some aircraft back then.

Apart from standard metal detectors, many airports in the U.S. now use full-body scanning machines. Upon entry, they screen passengers to check for potential hidden weapons or explosives.

However, there was an issue with all this. Original TSA screeners were showing a person’s naked body. Yet, newer versions only alert TSA screeners if the screened person is hiding an unknown substance or item.

Although many deemed the introduction of such measures as controversial, they have seemingly delivered the expected results.

Rethinking Terrorism and Airport Security

It may sound counterintuitive, but ordinary passengers can do a lot to prevent terrorist attacks. Usually, they are the first ones to notice something suspicious going on in their surroundings.

But first, let’s investigate what terrorist attacks entail. According to the European Union, terrorist offenses are acts that people commit with the aim of:

  • Seriously intimidating a population, or
  • Unduly compelling a government or international organization to perform or abstain from performing any act, or
  • Seriously destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic, or social structures of a country or an international organization.

We can all agree that hijacking planes or running vehicles into airports ticks some or all the boxes.

Since 2015, the EU has faced an increase in religiously-inspired terrorism. Experts believe that about 5,000 individuals from the EU have traveled to conflict areas in Syria and Iraq by 2017. There, they join jihadist terrorist groups, with most never returning to Europe.

Drug Cartels Are (Not) Terrorists

To expand on the topic, certain security specialists believe terrorism needs redefining to include some types of criminal behavior. According to some, the tactics, strategy, organization, and goals of the Mexican drug cartels are similar to those of terrorists. But with a sidenote that cartels lack the motivating political or religious doctrine that most terrorist groups exhibit.

It should suffice to mention the Juárez airport attack, where assassins opened fire, possibly targeting a Mexican town mayor. Or the slaying of three police officers at Mexico City airport. Reportedly, other uniformed individuals killed them.

terrorism and airport security
Source: The Straits Times

With 26.4 million passengers yearly, the Benito Juárez International Airport attack constituted a display of brute force and terrorist-like behavior.

Furthermore, the Guadalajara airport was closed after seven people were gunned down in what seemed to be a drug-related conflict. These attacks demonstrate the severity of terrorist-like shootouts and how damaging they can prove to international air safety.

What To Do in a Terrorist Attack

There are no hard and fast ways to behave during a terrorist attack. That applies especially to airports, where the building restricts the movement of passengers and staff alike.

To worsen the situation, airport security is often slow to respond and may even prove to be part of the problem. Remember that many countries outsourced security services to private companies. It was private organizations, and not the government, who oversaw airport screening.

For this reason, continuous training and rethinking airport regulation is essential. Can you imagine that some countries had none or only random security checks for domestic flights before 2001? These include Norway, Finland, Sweden, and others.

So, what can people do to protect themselves and others with nowhere to go except for hiding under a tabletop?

The few simple things to keep us all safe include:

  • Being mentally prepared to act quickly and run in case an unexpected shootout begins,
  • Looking out for unattended suitcases,
  • Reporting someone with a conspicuous level of interest in the security of a building,
  • Checking the location of emergency exits in every building you enter,
  • Being particularly observant in places with large crowds, like train stations, festivals, and the likes.

Additionally, our articles on What To Do In An Active Shooter Situation and The Ins and Outs of Active Shooter Protection could prove valuable as well.

According to one report, Given the interconnectedness of the air transportation system, a sufficiently high level of security must be provided throughout the entire system. Flexibility to respond quickly to new information about aviation security threats is a must. Although constrained by regulations at multiple levels, airport authorities will need to expand capacity to keep up with current and future demand.

Summing Up on Terrorism and Airport Security

Different governments apply various methods to keep up with the terrorist menace. However, some approaches that authorities have used consistently include the following:

  • Hardening cockpit doors,
  • Federalization of airport security screening staff,
  • Creating a government-led body to handle transportation security issues,
  • Implementing new detection equipment and methods, like advanced imaging technology,
  • Increasing the amount of screening for cargo,
  • Introducing explosive trace detection systems and behavioral detection officers,
  • Enhancing scrutiny for visa applicants outside of Europe and North America,
  • Using watch lists to screen for terrorists to prevent them from boarding flights or from gaining employment in airlines or airports.

In conclusion, terrorists aren’t going anywhere, although deaths from terrorism are declining.

Training airport security and putting the right measures in place will prove invaluable anywhere and everywhere. Both in times of peace and terrorist attacks ― even though it isn’t always clear which of the two are currently taking the lead.

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