In the wake of the recent terrorist plot in the U.K. to blow up 10 commercial aircraft in midair — a plot uncovered, fortunately, before it could be carried out — we still do not seem to understand aviation security. Discussions focus on security procedures and technology that can now detect the terrorist’s latest tools for raining death and destruction upon the aviation industry — liquid bomb components which, when mixed, could blow an aircraft out of the sky. Talk has even focused on what can be done to “harden” an aircraft to bomb-proof it. Such dialogue fails to focus on countering terrorism at its weakest link.
Arik Arad is one of Israel’s leading security experts. He helped design security for Israel’s El Al Airlines; he established the largest aviation security company in the world 15 years ago; he testified on aviation security before Congress in 1989. He clearly knows the aviation security business.
Years ago, Mr. Arad made an observation on the difference between U.S. and Israeli aviation security that is as accurate today as it was then. He noted while U.S. aviation security focuses on finding the tools of the terrorist’s trade, Israeli security focuses on finding the terrorist. The one and only hijacking of an El Al aircraft occurred in 1968, resulting in a system that virtually remains unchanged to this day, even after the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, and the recent plot in the United Kingdom.
Technology is used in the Israeli aviation security system, but it takes a back seat to the primary defense against terrorism — analyzing human behavior based on intent. A misconception about Israeli security is that it profiles based on ethnicity. It does not. It profiles based on the means by which any passenger might conduct an attack. To make sure security personnel understand the criminal mindset, before being taught to think security, they are trained to think as terrorists. In this manner, they start to identify dozens of behavioral indicators, reflective of criminal intent. They have become so good at this that often criminal activity other than terrorism is uncovered.
Recognizing that an innocent passenger can be duped into carrying an explosive device onboard an aircraft, nullifying the focus of an intent-based behavioral analysis, the Israelis have also incorporated indicators into their system that flag discernible inconsistencies when intent is not a factor. This very effective approach was evidenced in April 1986 when Anne Murphy, a pregnant Irish woman, was duped by her lover into carrying a bomb onboard an El Al flight departing London. This incident involved introduction of a new terrorist tool then as well — plastic explosives — which went undetected by British security.
While even El Al’s X-ray equipment failed to detect it, only Anne Murphy’s answers to a few questions by an Israeli security screener prevented disaster as red flags went up, prompting the screener to more thoroughly check her luggage, locating the bomb in a hidden pocket.
The effectiveness of the Israeli system is perhaps best evidenced by the story about shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Six months before his arrest for attempting to set off a shoe-bomb onboard a U.S. aircraft in December 2001, Reid boarded an El Al flight to Israel to test its system. Israeli behavioral analysis at the airport deemed him suspicious. Security then had to eliminate the mode of operation by which Reid intended to carry out an attack. Looking at the various modes possible as if they were arrows in a quiver, security personnel began removing arrows. There was no gun; there was no explosive device (his shoes had been examined as well), etc. Their final analysis was that, though he remained suspicious, Reid had no arrow in his quiver by which to destroy the aircraft, unless he intended to use his large frame to force his way into the cockpit. He was allowed to board but several Israeli air marshals sat very near to him throughout the flight.
After Reid’s arrest for the U.S. attack, a notebook in which he wrote extensively was found to contain reference to his testing the El Al system and finding it too good to penetrate.
The Israelis have now incorporated behavior analysis into cutting edge technology. Known as Suspect Detection System (SDS), it consists of a booth in which a three-minute polygraph is conducted by a voice recording to discern whether a passenger has criminal intent, based on the principle a terrorist’s fear will be reflected in measurable “psycho-physiological” parameters. More than 6,600 examinees have been tested, with an 85 percent effectiveness in identifying criminal intent test subjects.
Examinees enter the booth, placing their passport on a scanner and hand on a sensor. Asked questions in their native language (determined by passport nationality), SDS collects objective data from the passport identification, analyzing it against subjective data collected during the interview. If the parameters are triggered, the examinee must undergo further screening.
Discovery of the U.K. plot last week was really the result of good intelligence work. It is doubtful, had the terrorists actually made it to the airport, they would have been detected by the current security system that focuses on finding terrorist tools instead of the terrorists themselves.
We need to incorporate the time-tested approach that has served the Israelis so well since 1968. This means focusing on distinguishing between the innocent and the criminal intent of an airline traveler. As long as we fail to do so, the aviation industry will remain exposed to the next innovative tool the terrorist seeks to introduce into the aviation terrorism equation.
James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.