Security experts warn that Monday’s suicide bombing in Moscow exposed every airport’s Achilles’ heel: the vulnerable areas outside interior screening checkpoints where typically hundreds of people roam freely before boarding a plane or picking up a loved one.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev today blamed the attack at Domodedovo Airport, which killed 35 people and wounded more than 150, partly on “breaches in security.” The explosives were carried in a suitcase and detonated in the arrivals hall in the airport’s international terminal.
Airport officials have placed some metal detectors around some of the perimeter of Domodedovo Airport, but they are apparently used only occasionally. But even if the metal detectors had been in operation, there may have been enough entrances without them where terrorists could have slipped in.
In the U.S., the Transportation Security Administration has developed the controversial SPOT program in which 3,000 undercover “spotters” roam American airports, scanning people’s facial microexpressions and body language for signs they could be terrorists.
But SPOT has been criticized for methods that have not been proved to be scientific. In addition, at least 17 known terrorists have successfully gone through airport security where SPOT scanners were known to be in place, ABC News reported today.
How can airport security be improved?
AOL News spoke today with Ramy Gershon, a former commander of an elite counterterrorism unit in the Israeli Army who is now with the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism near Tel Aviv, about protecting airports from terrorist attacks.
Gershon, an expert in airport security, was also an airport marshal and air marshal trainer at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, considered the safest airport in the world.
Gershon said attention should be paid to a report from RIA Novosti, the Russian news agency, which quoted an unofficial source as saying that law enforcement officials had been tipped off in advance that three men would attack the airport Monday — but were apparently unable to stop it.
AOL News: What could have been done better, if anything, to protect Domodedovo Airport from attack on Monday?
Gershon: Intelligence. That’s the name of the game.
AOL News: What do you mean?
Gershon: Read the papers! They knew this was going to happen. The most important tool to prevent terrorism is the proper intelligence.
AOL News: We don’t have proof yet that they knew. Anyway, what about all the times when there is no intelligence in advance of an attack?
Gershon: About 97 to 98 percent of all terrorist attacks are known about to intelligence beforehand. If that weren’t true, bombs would be exploding all over the world every two minutes. Intelligence officers work all around the world and in collaboration with each other.
AOL News: That sounds a little simplistic.
Gershon: If I was thinking like a terrorist, I could blow up the world. They are not free to do everything they want, you know. The reason why is intelligence. It’s true, it’s always possible to have the lone lunatic who decides to go crazy and set off a bomb or shoot people. But they are not who we are really up against.
AOL News: Wasn’t the big problem at Domodedovo Airport the fact that it’s so difficult to secure the big areas inside the airport before you go through security?
Gershon: It’s the huge hole in the security fence, so to speak, yes.
AOL News: Ben Gurion in Israel is the safest airport in the world. What do you do there to make it so safe?
Gershon: Simple. We have have checkpoints two miles before the airport entrance. We’ve been dealing with terrorism a long time, remember. We’re at a whole other level in this ballgame.
AOL News: What are these checkpoints like? Do you have to allow an extraordinary amount of time to get to an Israeli airport?
Gershon: Not at all. It’s very smooth and easy and quick. We don’t take people out of their cars. Our men and women look inside, they are polite, they are armed. They ask a few questions. They are trained to know what to look for. It takes about 60 seconds and you’re on your way.
AOL News: Would this type of checkpoint system work at other airports around the world?
Gershon: I spoke about this once to a colleague in London and he just laughed. He said, can you imagine what kind of traffic jam that would cause here? It’s the same thing if you were to try it in New York or Los Angeles. There are just too many people coming to those airports.
AOL News: Do you have any other security measures that would be wise for big airports around the world to enact?Gershon: I can’t say everything that is in place at Israeli airports. We have officers in uniform but also have many more undercover officers at our airports. From as far as I can see, Russia was only checking suitcases. I’d advise them to get technological devices to detect explosives and metal devices. Get marshals with sniffer dogs at the airport.
AOL News: What are the safest big airports?
Gershon: JFK and Newark are good. Las Vegas is pretty good. Heathrow and De Gaulle are OK. Berlin is OK. Munich is OK.
AOL News: And the least safe airports?
Gershon: I’m not going to give you names but they can be found in Africa, some former Eastern Bloc countries and some developing countries in the Far East. They either don’t have the technology or the money or don’t realize what they need to do.