by Nick Hill & Greg Nolan
Image: NYT/Scott Olson/Getty Images
In recent months, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) twice demonstrated their ability to attack airports with devastating effect (read: Brussels Airport in Zaventem, Belgium and Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, Turkey). As shocking as these events were, terrorist attacks at airports are not new to the security landscape. In 1972, gunmen killed 26 people after storming the Lod Aiport in Tel Aviv, Israel. In 1985, terrorists killed 16 people at airports in Rome and Vienna.
Since 9/11, airport security has changed drastically: we now see long security lines before the terminal gates, frequent armed guards patrolling the terminals, and bomb-sniffing dogs in and out of the airport. Today the intercom is frequently reminding folks not to leave unattended baggage, as security will consider such baggage a potential threat. Despite all of these efforts, terrorists continue to carry out successful attacks against Western airports with seemingly robust security. So what makes airports vulnerable to attack and why do terrorists target them despite the increased presence of security?
1. High impact probability.
Terrorist organizations, like ISIS, often seek to kill as many people as possible when they attack. Using suicide bombers is a particularly appealing tactic for these groups because for the price of one or two suicide bombers they stand to achieve significant effects, not just in total casualties, but psychologically as well.
That said suicide bombers are a severely limited resource. It takes time, money, and energy to train and indoctrinate a suicide bomber. Therefore, groups like ISIS who deploy suicide bombers will use this tactic against targets with a high impact probability. An airport presents a consistent “target rich” environment. In other words, large groups of people are frequent in airports at any give time. In major international airports, thousands of people are stuck in lines waiting to check-in, check bags, or go through security – a well placed suicide bomber amongst such massing will have a high probability of success.
2. Easy to conduct reconnaissance.
Conducting a successful suicide attack requires careful planning, training, and a thorough understanding of the target area. More than 60 million people flew through Ataturk airport in 2015. It is the 11th busiest airport in the world. The sheer number of people from all over the world in and around the airport produces a mask of anonymity. Catching a suspicious person scoping out the airport for vulnerabilities could be like finding a needle in a haystack. This doesn’t mean there is nothing security can do to prevent an attack from happening, but rather protecting an airport is uniquely challenging.
3. Global impact.
People from every nationality, faith, and race go to international airports to fly. The horrific attack in Ataturk International Airport in June killed citizens from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Ukraine, Chile, and China, to name a few. This geographically isolated attack had global reach, and that is exactly what ISIS sought to achieve.
In addition to affording terrorist groups like ISIS the opportunity to impact the geopolitical landscape, attacking a multicultural and multinational melting pot such as a major international airport is an effective form of psychological warfare on a global scale. Furthermore, successful attacks fuel their propaganda machine and recruitment efforts on the world stage.
Now that you have an idea of why terrorists target airports, let’s talk about how you can stay safe.
Flying is a part of everyday life and for the vast majority of us flying will continue to be a safe experience. But as we have established, airports present security vulnerabilities. As is our mantra here at G2, we must not be afraid of the threat environment – rather, we must prepare for it. Below are some helpful tips that will increase your safety at airports.
1. Set the conditions for quick passage through the security line.
Airports are very secure at the terminals past the entry control points, or the areas where you take your jacket and shoes off and pass through the metal detector. All of the major attacks at airports have happened in the areas before this security measure. Very few airports have a security check before the entry control point, and this is unlikely to change despite the recent demonstration of attacks in these areas, as moving the security control points further back only moves the target rather than mitigating the risk.
Remember that terrorists typically target large groups of people. If the safest part of the airport is beyond the security entry control point, then your goal is to get through gate security quickly. If you’re serious about improving your personal security, then the extra money for a TSA Pre-Check ticket is worth the investment, as this will expedite your passage through checkpoint (and save you the hassle of long lines, which is a bonus, right?). Even if you don’t want to dish out the extra cash for Pre-Check, you can still reduce your time in the main airport ticketing area and the security checkpoint lines by not checking bags, limiting yourself to a small carry-on, if possible, and checking in for your flight online ahead of time.
2. Trust your gut: report suspicious activity.
CCTV images of the suicide bombers at both Brussels and Istanbul show that none of the attackers had handbags. With the costs of checked baggage skyrocketing, it’s become the norm to travel with at least one carry-on. You may not want to call attention to yourself by reporting something, but signs that say, “If you see something, say something” are there for a reason. In this case, a misunderstanding is better then a missed opportunity to stop an attack. That being said, the absence of a handbag doesn’t automatically mean “terrorist!” but it should cue you in to at least look for other possible abnormalities/deviations from the norm - as the title of this subsection notes, trust your gut.
Profiling is not racist, just make sure you are profiling for the rights things: standing in the checked baggage line next to a middle eastern looking middle aged man shouldn’t make your heart race. But, is someone avoiding eye contact, acting nervous, wearing a hat, and/or sporting a thick coat on a hot summer day? Or, you are curbside and notice that the same car has been parked there for 10 minutes and no one is in the car. Maybe you notice a young man in the checked baggage line with 4 large bags on a cart and he appears to be flying alone. Maybe he is moving or maybe he is a salesman or fashion designer. Nevertheless, odd isn’t it? If you see something, say something.
3. Avoid standing in large groups when possible.
Again, terrorists are looking to target areas with consistently large groups of people. Have you ever noticed the large number of people who wait curbside right after passing through the glass sliding door? There’s a good chance you’ve been one of these people, and it’s only logical as this is the most convenient place to flag down a ride or meet a friend. It takes two minutes to walk down to the end of the terminal or a secondary location and, although it may be harder to find a cab, you effectively increase your safety.
Airports are faced with a complex task every day: efficiently getting millions of people on and off of planes, to and from destinations all over the world, while simultaneously providing security against an often unpredictable and dangerous threat environment. Law enforcement agencies and intelligence organizations will continue to monitor and attempt to preempt threat actors, but a crucial component in foiling terrorist acts at airports lies within each and every traveler’s preparedness and power of observation.
Nick is a global security expert and the primary for G2's Destination Threat Insight operations. He is a former active duty US Marine officer, all-source intelligence officer, who is also the co-founder of Presidio Point Advisory and a travel security consultant for American institutions of higher education.
Greg is the President & CEO of G2 Intelligence Solutions, and a former active duty US Marine officer, counterintelligence agent and human intelligence officer.