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More travel restrictions – Risk management or fear management?

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by Gail Diamond 08.Jan.10

On December 25, 2009, another attempt at terror in the skies was foiled. Nigerian passenger Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, failed in his bid to self-detonate and to eliminate other Delta 253 passengers, the flight crew and potentially persons on the ground. Even as details emerge and in the midst of the ongoing investigation, the evolving security rules bear consideration.{{more}}

As consumers of air travel we must examine our continuing tolerance for expanding restrictions on liberty and privacy, regulations which change with breathless rapidity, and the fares and fees that accommodate the operational and administrative costs generated by the ‘fixes’. Are we satisfied that the measures increase our safety and well being?

The human fear-barometer shoots up when events such as these take place, and the natural tendency is to fixate on the worst-case outcomes and ‘what ifs’. It is easy to forget that air travel remains the safest form of transport and that the probability of these types of events is actually quite low.

Interestingly, the overall terror-threat level has not been raised, an indication that there might be cause for concern but not alarm. The distinction should also carry over to those immediate measures that are put in place. However, some of the actions seem to be influenced at least in part by other drivers, such as the need to appear to be doing something about the problem, weathering the political pummeling that has ensued about what was missed and why, and satisfying the media curiosity.

Emerging details suggest that existing measures for screening were not carried out in full form. One database indicated that Mr. Abdulmutallab was a person of interest (however mild), in spite of which, there was little interpretive value of this finding.

Questions abound about databases for terror suspects and how this body of information is amalgamated and analysed. Was Mr. Abdulmutallab a terrorist aspirant who was allowed to mushroom into a full-blown operative while details languished in a database? And if so, how do in-flight clampdowns and the increased presence of airport sniffer dogs address the underlying issue? At some point Mr. Abdulmutallab should have come under increased scrutiny. While an outright travel ban might not have been warranted at the time, at the very least why was he allowed to board a flight sans an air marshal? Was it because the flight was destined for a Detroit airport and not the august JFK, Miami International or LAX? Have the terrorists caught on to this selective absence?

Another matter regarding the data exploitation is the apparent lack of cross-pollination of information. The intermediary Netherlands airport, an otherwise gold-standard pass-through, now suffers the indignity and embassasment of ‘a missed one’. This begs the question of how much international cooperation and global information-sharing occur among these security agencies and checkpoints. What did the Netherlands authorities know about this passenger? The United Kingdom advised that Mr. Abdulmutallab was on that country’s no-fly list based on his bogus application to university. Thus, the suspect was profiled as a malignant tumour in one country and in another (USA), a benign cyst. Data collection becomes a meaningless exercise where there is an inadequate determination of the information, and where international cooperation is marginalised.

A red flag was raised by the suspect’s father, who reported to the American authorities concerns about his son’s growing radical views. It was not clear how much was done with this virtual gift to security Intelligence. Did the suspect act in affiliation to Al Qaeda or was he isolated in purpose? And are more or similar type attacks imminent? These probabilities likely contributed to the precautionary shut-downs now in effect. However, over-compensatory measures can be labour intensive, time-consuming, costly, with low benefit-risk returns. Certainly, this should not nullify prudent checks and balances, as vigilance is always necessary. Yet, it must be asked how many of these checks result in meaningful achievement of objectives. The sudden invasive probe of each and every passenger might not be value-added.

The chemical agent PETN used by Mr. Abdulmutallab was the same found on the notorious 2001 shoe bomber, Richard Reid. While global security agents made a fetish of millions of footwear that marched through checkpoints these past eight years, terrorists were evaluating other routes through which the same chemical agent could be slipped. Are shoes the problem? And will blankets and pillows be the new scourge in the middle of winter, given the now in-flight period ban on these items?

Passengers are required to strap themselves in their seats one hour before landing, irrespective of bathroom exigencies, or squealing, restless children, or the need for an item from the overhead compartment. The measure was prompted by Mr. Abdulmutallab’s desire to, on descent, maximise casualties through a spectacular flight disintegration over an urban or residential area. Yet, the change assumes the terrorist’s inability to re-strategise, to make tactical adjustments, and adds but little incremental value to the safety conditions. Consider also that any successful detonation before the seat-confinement hour now possibly means bodies and blackboxes shot into oblivion, with little explanation for the aircraft’s disappearance.

The immediate imposed limit of one carry-on bag on U.S. air carriers (LIAT is already ahead on this front) is questionable for this reason: vials and minuscule but powerful devices remain transferrable, so that short of an outright denouncement of hand luggage, residual exposure is inevitable. The authorities often downplay the fact that foiling every terrorist intent is unlikely, and should be more transparent about what and how much could be done.

It is reported that Mr. Abdulmutallab traveled with only a small carry-on bag. His stated purpose for entry into the United States is not clear, and ordinarily, a passenger on a one-way ticket with a satchel and no other checked bags might generate a few sniffs of suspicion. Now that passengers are trying to worm their way out of airline baggage fees as well as the size and quantity restrictions, this presents as normal behaviour when perhaps it is not. Here lies another unintended consequence of the band-aid approach to air-travel security. Another red flag turned green.

The point is that a holistic approach to assessment and management of the threat might prove a more supportive framework for challenging the terrorist agenda, rather than the rapid-fire policy actions that are gaining ground. For those actions that mitigate the risks as far as is reasonably practicable, the existing support systems should be robustly operationalised or reengineered to efficiency. At an elemental level, an investigation of the root causes of the system failures and inadequacies should take place, prior to implementing additional changes.

It is becoming clearer that proportionally the greater part of the counterterrorism fight belongs off-court, and in this sense outside the airport walls. Terrorism should be tackled using cooperative strategies that will deter the purpose of extremists well before check-in. Quick-fix rules based on the last game tactics of terrorists only indicate that they remain ahead. Furthermore, terrorists groups are likely to be encouraged by these decisions which, in providing an aura of heightened security, unwittingly engender more fear.

A matter which must be concerning to regional authorities is whether Caribbean aviation facilities are positioned to accept, sustain or mirror the demands of the counter-terrorism programme policies of the advanced countries. The Caribbean has its own peculiarities and needs which imply that the anti-terrorism measures, as packaged, might not be readily installed.

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