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Terrorism: How Safe Is Air Travel?

WOLE SHADARE writes that since the incident of a Nigerian who plotted to bomb an American aircraft occurred, countries are beginning to review security procedures at airports that would encourage people to take to the air, as the latest incident is capable of scaring people away from air travel.

Frightening, isn't it? A sophisticated incendiary device made it through airport security in Lagos, Nigeria, which just passed a United States security assessment in November, and Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.

The U.S. terrorism watch-list apparently may have had the name of the 23-year-old Nigerian man, identified as Abdul Mudallad Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, but didn't trigger secondary screening.

The Christmas Day attempt to bring down a wide-body jet also raises questions of whether full-body scanners will ultimately be needed for effective airport security, despite privacy concerns about security officials getting a revealing look at people's bodies.

Large numbers of people pass through airports. Such gatherings present a target for terrorism and other forms of crime due to the number of people located in a small area.

Similarly, the high concentration of people on large airliners, the potential high lethality rate of attacks on aircraft, and the ability to use a hijacked airplane as a lethal weapon provide an alluring target for terrorism.

Airport security provides defence by attempting to stop would-be attackers from bringing weapons or bombs into the airport. If they can succeed in this, then the chances of these devices getting on to aircraft are greatly reduced. As such, airport security serves two purposes: To protect the airport from attacks and crime and to protect the aircraft from attack.

A shocked President Barack Obama, on vacation in his birthplace of Hawaii, acknowledged the attack showed the need to increase the United States' defences. He detailed the pair of reviews that he has ordered to determine whether changes are needed in either the watch-list system or airport screening procedures.

"This was a serious reminder of the dangers that we face," he said. "It's absolutely critical that we learn from this incident."

Ever since the September 11, 2001 terrorist hijackings of four commercial jetliners and sending two of them crashing like missiles into the World Trade Center, New York and one into the Pentagon at Arlington, Virginia (with the fourth missing its target and crashing into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania), air travel has never been the same again.

Despite new security measures put in place since then at airports around the world, the question remains as to how safe is air travel today.

Last week alone, two major breaches of airport security occurred. First, 25-year old Habib, an Indian national from somehow managed to board an Air India flight from Saudi Arabia to Jaipur in India. Nothing unusual about that surely, except that Habib did not have a ticket or a passport with him.

Habib works with a Saudi ground handling company at Medina Airport in Saudi Arabia. He got onboard the Air India flight by pretending to clean the plane. Once onboard he hid in the toilet. Thirty minutes after the flight took off; the stowaway was discovered by a passenger who went to the toilet. Police were alerted at the airport in Jaipur and Habib was arrested.

Had Habib been a terrorist, the Air India plane could have be destroyed. The jetliner was carrying 273 Hajj pilgrims back home. This surely must be a serious breach of airline security.

The other major breach of airport security is more serious. 23-year old Nigerian engineering graduate, Abdulmutallab was charged by U.S authorities with trying to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day as Delta Airways flight 253 with 278 passengers onboard was about to land at Detroit. The flight originated in Amsterdam.

Investigations revealed that Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab went to the plane's toilet and stayed for approximately 20 minutes. On returning to his window seat, he claimed to have a stomach upset and pulled a blanket over his body. Shortly after that, other passengers were shocked to hear a sound resembling a firecracker in a pillowcase.

Jasper Schuringa, a fellow passenger who was the first to tackle Abdul Farouk Abdulmuttallab described what happened: "A fire started under his seat. I was calling for water, water. But then the fire was getting a little worse. So I grabbed the suspect out of the seat, because, if there was any more explosives on him, that would have been very dangerous. And then the flight attendants came. We took him to first class cabin and stripped him to make sure he had no more weapons on him. It was very quick. Everyone was panicking."

What was Abdul Farouk Abdulmuttallab's reaction? Jasper Schuringa said: "He was shaking. He didn't resist anything. It is just hard to believe that he was trying to blow up this plane. He was in a trance. He was very afraid."

Abdulmuttallab apparently injected a detonating liquid into the PETN with a syringe. This probably was intended to cause an explosion, but something went wrong - it caused a fire instead, he ended up with third degree burns on his legs.

So how did Abdul Farouk Abdulmuttallab manage to breach airport security and board a flight to the U.S.? He went on a one-way ticket from Nigeria to Amsterdam, paid for in cash, then transferred to the Delta flight with no checked in luggage. These are highly suspicious flags.

The Christmas Day attempt to bring down a wide-body jet also raises questions of whether full-body scanners will ultimately be needed for effective airport security, despite privacy concerns about security officials getting a revealing look at people's bodies.

In several instances around the world, terrorists have used their bodies, not their bags, to transport explosives. Drug smugglers figured that out a long time ago. While it may be there were simply blatant security failures along Mr. Muttalab's trip from Nigeria through Amsterdam, it's more likely he simply walked through undetected.

And so something more than metal detectors may be needed to check passengers. More pat-downs are likely, too. In the past, passengers on U.S.-bound flights have been subjected to more random screening at gates and during the boarding process.

But is there any comfort to be found in this terrorism attempt? Sure-it didn't work. That may have just been luck, but more likely the security regime that is in place forced the device's maker into trade-offs and compromises that made the explosive less effective and harder to detonate.

As with the 100-milliliter liquid restriction, the goal of security is not to apprehend every ounce of dangerous liquids, but to make it too difficult to build a bomb that will work on a jet. That may well have been the case this time. The terrorist, or terrorists, had to compromise the effectiveness of the device in order to sneak it through security.

Serious questions need to be asked about the inadequacies in security that allowed a would-be suicide bomber to board Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit.

The incident has not only embarrassed intelligence services on both sides of the Atlantic, but has also provided an insight into how formidable and sophisticated the terrorist threat has become.

Authorities are particularly concerned that Farouk Abdumuallab was already registered as a suspected terrorist but not prevented from flying or put on an official "watch-list" because of insufficient information. He was allowed to board the flight to the U.S.

Now, travellers to the U.S. will be confined to their seats for the last hour of their flights. During this one-hour period, passengers will be prevented from accessing overhead lockers and cabin baggage or having blankets, pillows or belongings on their laps. And of course, travellers will be subject to long check-in delays, as pre-boarding security screening becomes more thorough. Think about it. How safe is air travel nowadays?

Source: Guardian

Tags:Terrorism: How safe is air travel?, Terrorism: How Safe Is Air Travel?
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