« On Great Eastern Street | Main | Theological Speculation »

December 30, 2009



This looks-secure-but-isn't-really approach has long been the response from airport security. Following the drive-in attack on Glasgow airport, Leeds-Bradford (my local) put barriers up to prevent cars from getting close to the terminal. The barriers are massively inconvenient, but no deterrent for a terrorist - driving through, or around, the barriers is too easy.

I guess other airports have similarly useless precautions in place.


The following is a cut&paste of a comment on The New Republic blog which I thought is relevant in response to William's comment above.

"Someone in one of the earlier threads (WandreyCer?) commented that we should all calm down & just learn to accept that some planes will be blown out of the air every so often, just as we accept the fact that auto accidents cannot be prevented & we accept a certain number of casualties there. Those who want to fly will just have to do their own calculated risk calculations.

With all due respect, I would note that a single airline crash generates several orders of magnitude more casualties than an auto crash. And its not just the several hundred passengers on the plane; its also the non flyers on the ground that had the bad fortune to be hanging out where the plane crashed. What risk calculations are they supposed to make? It was reported here in Israel that Abdulmutallab, the 72 virgins stud wannabe, intentionally waited for the last 10 minutes of the flight to ignite in order to maximize the number of ground casualties. It was also reported here that CNN reported (one of you can confirm this) that the quantity & quality of explosives that the bomber had was enough to bring down the plane. In Israel, it would be called a miracle that the plane didn’t go boom.

I would also note that if a way is not found to somehow screen for body bombs of the type used by Abdulmutallab, its use will spread, presumably with the necessary modifications to make sure it does go boom, with all the attendant consequences.

So WandreCer (I am pretty sure it was you) I find your flippancy about human lives astounding and disturbing, particularly from someone who claims to be a liberal progressive social worker (my wife is also a social worker here in Israel) whom I suspect would spare no public expense to universalize health care to save lives etc.. I also suspect that a significant downturn in airline passengers because of fear of blowing up would have a very significant negative effect on the economy (see after 9/11), definitely not what is needed when the economy is already down in the dumps.

Someone also said that no system is foolproof and that some terrorists will eventually get through. In theory I agree with that statement, although it is possible to get the odds very very very low. I assume that no one would quibble with my premise that the holy grail (or perhaps more accurately, the Mecca) of airline & airport terrorist targets is El Al & Ben Gurion Int’l Airport. And yet when was the last time anyone heard of a successful bombing / highjacking of an El Al jet or a successful terrorist attack at B-G Int’l? (kein eine hora, ptooi, ptooi, ptooi – that was in honor of my late beloved grandmother.) I am not saying it can’t or won’t happen here, but clearly it is possible to get the odds way way way down. The track record demonstrates that.

Which brings me to the very insightful (seriously) observation that airline safety, like medical diagnostics & screening, is a question of false positives vs. false negatives, at what cost and what efficiency. An Israeli security expert in a radio interview in the aftermath of the bombing attempt, summed it up very succinctly – The problem with nearly all airport security systems is that they spend 100% of the effort and resources on 100% of the people, because they are screening for objects. Israel focuses 90% of the effort and resources on 10% of the people because we are screening (primarily) people, and consequently the stuff, all of the stuff, associated with those selected for a close check.

I will explain with an analogy. Finding the terrorist is essentially searching for a relatively rare (at least for now) event – it’s the quintessential problem of searching for a single tiny needle in the huge haystack, possibly multiple haystacks. Hypothetically a careful, 100% search of every piece of hay in every part of each haystack should eventually turn up the needle. Problem is that this is simply too massive of a task to be done, as it would take far too long per passenger (think of doing this for a full 747) and would command huge resources. Plus “search fatigue” on the part of those doing the checking would likely result in a higher rate of false negatives, for so rare an event.

The Israeli approach to reduce the number and size of the haystacks to be checked in detail by doing an initial low-level screen (call it profiling if you want, but it is not simplistically a “racial” profiling) of all the passengers, eliminating those who are extremely unlikely to be carrying weapons or bombs, either wittingly or unwittingly. The passengers triaged based on a brief interview by a screener who asks all sorts of questions & examines passenger’s passports to see where they have been & decides who continues to check-in, who’s baggage is imaged, and (in part) whose baggage is searched thoroughly (and I mean thoroughly). In a few cases passengers may be taken to a room for strip searching.

They are screening not only for the jihadi hell bent on getting his (or her) 72 virgins, but also for those who may have unwittingly accepted a package etc. that has the capacity to go boom.

In short find the needle by greatly reducing the quantity of passengers needing to be searched with 10% of the resources, and then focus remaining resources on the 10% of passengers needing closer (to varying degrees) scrutiny.

An illustrative story:

Before Richard Ried, the infamous shoe-bomber, did his deed over the Atlantic, he was sent to Israel by al Qaeda to feel out Israel's airport security. They wanted to see if Reid, a Brit, traveling on a British passport, not carrying any suspicious or forbidden objects, would nonetheless be tagged as suspicious by Israeli airport security. So Reid flew to Israel, spent few days or a week here and then returned to the airport to fly back to Merrye Olde Englande.

Sure enough, between a check of his passport and his answers to the screener's questions Reid was tagged as highly suspicious. He and his possessions were thoroughly searched, down to his underwear. He came out clean but security was still concerned. So they quickly arranged for whoever was supposed to sit next to Reid to get a sudden upgrade to business class and had a plain clothes, but armed, security person be assigned to the seat next to Reid. Just in case.

He was harmless on his round trip back to Britain because he was instructed to be harmless. But had he been on a Abdulmutallab -like mission or simply the same shoe-bomb that he tried using on the Paris-USA flight, he probably would have been flagged & the bomb identified. Probably. Nothing is 100% & so the name of the game is to improve the odds of detection.

One more thing. Screeners and airport security personnel in general in Israel do not come from the bottom rungs of society. They are typically university students (actual or headed in that direction) with above average intelligence who are earning good money to finance their education. They are all IDF graduates, mostly from combat units, often from elite units with more advanced training. Candidates for armed airport security slots then undergo several months of additional training run by the GSS (Israel's FBI equivalent) that focuses on the specifics of airport security needs, including (for those designated to carry weapons like the plainclothes, undercover security personnel who wander around the airport looking like travelers) accurate shooting at targets in a crowd when you want to avoid hitting innocent bystanders.

You get what you pay for, if you spend the money wisely and realistically, uninhibited by the strictures of P.C. dogma.

One other important benefit of the Israeli system. Not only will it find the needle in the haystack (Israeli security experts are convinced that Abdulmutallab would have been nailed on the ground here) but it also creates a deterrent against attempting the attack because of its highly probable futility.

Enough said for now. Perhaps more later as I hear about some of the absurdly ridiculous additional security measures put in place in the USA & elsewhere."


Mick H

Interesting. Thanks, Noga.


Mick & Noga: while I am not arguing with the general thrust of the Israeli screening methods and its (touch wood) so far mainly successful record, there is a huge difference to consider: the passengers' volume. The main Israeli airport "throughput" is an order of magnitude, at least, less than that for a busy European one or an average one in US.

The sheer challenge of providing security personnel of a level needed for Israeli-style screening is, I am afraid, insurmountable for a medium-size, not to speak about large, country.


Political Correctness is going down. Cant happen fast enough for me.


The demographics of passengers is also an issue - Israeli airport passengers are for the most part either natives or Anglophone tourists so all you need are staff who can speak Hebrew, Arabic and English - and there is no great problem finding security staff who can speak two or three of these languages.

In UK and US international hub airports a far higher percentage of passengers have limited or no English and nobody is going to pay the inordinate costs of employing multilingual security staff competent to carry out proper screening.

To replicate the Israeli system here you'd need the features of Israeli society that make it possible - a polyglot and cosmopolitan population, national service and last but not least expensive air travel to pay for it all.

Most of us would rather accept an almost infinitesimal chance of being blown up and carry on getting our £9.99 flights from Gatwick to Glasgow.

The comments to this entry are closed.