The advantage of having efficient functional airports to any country cannot be overestimated. Airports are the gateway to the globalised world. They are absolutely interconnected - means no country can act in isolation in matters related to airport security. This implies any lapses in airport security in country ‘A’ would be a threat to country ‘B’ or some other country elsewhere. Terrorism has no boundaries in this contemporary world. The impact of terrorism is all-pervasive. They proved it with a significant and unprecedented manner by way of attacking World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001 (9/11 attack).
Prof. Paul Wilkinson, British terrorism expert, once made an excellent remark – “fighting terrorism is like being a goalkeeper. You can make a hundred brilliant saves but the only shot that people remember is the one that gets past you”. Security professionals know the value of this maxim more than anyone else. Soon after the 9/11 attack launched by Al-Qaeda, almost all airports in the world (and in the US) strengthened its security. This is due to the fear of a domino effect. Since then much has been done, and much money has been spent.
However one needs to pose the question: Does these security measures make us safe now than we were before 9/11?
I do not intend to discuss the modus operandi of the well-orchestrated terrorist attacks or the mechanisms used by terrorists. But I need you to be placed in their shoes for a while. Any terrorist organisation needs recognition. One of the best tools in achieving this is by way of effective propaganda. Propaganda is essential to achieve the long-term strategy or cause of any terrorist group. The nature and the glamour of a terrorist attack, James-Bond type, will automatically be given a blaze of publicity. This is absolutely true in the light of suicide terrorism. Nearly impossible to thwart once launched, a suicide terrorist attack is one of the most difficult forms of terrorism to counter. Thus it needs to be identified beforehand and must be nipped in the bud. Given the consideration to much wider readership, journalists are eager to write on terror-stricken attacks, rather suicide terrorism which is unequivocally the most brutal in nature. By and large, that’s the job of a journalist.
There is a psychological factor which goes beyond the material damage caused by a terrorist attack. When terrorist acts occur, people generally look for ways to cope with the acute stress and trauma. These are the long-term repercussions. Needless to say, the hijacking of a commercial flight with hundreds of passengers, or use it for a suicide mission equivalent of 9/11 attack, will certainly create a big hue and cry globally. The tsunami killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries whereas the 9/11 attack killed just over 3000 people which is a very low figure in comparison with the former. Nevertheless, the publicity given to the 9/11 attack has been enormous. A plethora of books and articles have been written on the 9/11 attack. Avalanche of counter-terrorism strategies have been formulated by security experts and think-tanks. This is the power and secret behind the art and glamour of attack. The tact and means, articulation of the attack, used to achieve the target matters.
Let that be a lesson to us.
In this context, the best strategy is to apprehend the terrorists prior to executing the attack. This will affect negatively the morale of other terrorist members in the network, sometimes any other terrorist member elsewhere. Most probably this paves the way to cause a change in the mindset of a well-motivated suicide terrorist. He may abandon the plan due to the fear of being caught in advance. Suicide terrorists, driven by fanaticism, would rather prefer being killed than being caught. Hence, it’s the ability of security experts to apprehend the terrorists in advance. But this is similar to the hide-and-seek game in some degree. It’s a never-ending process. It is easy to criticise security systems in place with the benefit of hindsight but there is no one-size-fits-all criterion in security. Security authorities should not treat this as an evasion of their responsibility.
Airport security is the last line of defence, and it is not a very good one. It is as clear as day, but if other lines fail this last line of defence would be decisive. The fact that it is the last line of defence does not mean that we undervalue it. A large number of safe arrivals of airline passengers around the world since the 9/11 attack mean that whatever the annoying and seemingly obtuse airport-security measures may have been, they have been ultimately successful. These are the responses to real threats many of which the public will never know about. But they require passengers to suffer minor hassles for the good of all. Reluctantly, passengers have to do some degree of sacrifice. Surveys show that passengers will accept more inconvenience if it makes them feel safer, and airport security does this.
It’s a fact that airport security measures after 9/11 have been strengthened almost in every airport globally. Even domestic airports followed suit. It has caused lot of difficulties to passengers, I agree. Because of these extra efforts on security we are not exactly aware of the number of attacks given up by terrorists since 9/11. Scores of attacks must have never been attempted due to the stringent security measures in place at airports. Practically speaking, such numbers are not recorded in any statics. You can expect tangible profits in business but not in the business of security. Apparently, most of the results are unseen or unaccounted for. Such is the nature of security management.
Human life is priceless so it cannot be compared with billions of rupees or dollars spend on security. It is undeniable that the cost has been great, but the question is, "Did the changes in airport security after 9/11 do more harm than good?" Every one of us who has flown since then did so safely in the face of dozens of attempted attacks against us. Since the 9/11 attack there has been no recorded suicidal attack by air. Passengers have respected the stringent security measures at the airports. Old-fashioned and ill-adapted security measures at airports were replaced by state-of the-art apparatus and tehniques. Anyway, 9/11 occurred more than a decade ago. Gradually a majority started to believe that changes made to airport security since 9/11 attack have done more harm than good. This is the nature of human beings. Obviously, relaxed security measures enable you as a passenger to enjoy speedy service and convenience atmosphere at airports – a seemingly stupid idea. I have one question for passengers who demand ease of security measures at airports; do you want to be lulled into a false sense of security?
(The writer works for an UN agency and is a humanitarian security professional. He can be reached at