The terrorists’ challenge: Catch me if you can

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In the aftermath of the failed attempt by the “underwear bomber” on Christmas Day to destroy an airborne commercial aircraft, an honest assessment of aviation security holds good news and bad.

The good news: Since 9/11, terrorists have respect for the ability of airport security to find the tools of their trade. They sense increased security levels at checkpoints have made likely the detection of more common and truly destructive explosive devices used for bringing an aircraft down. This has forced terrorists, as we have seen with both the underwear bomber last year and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in 2001, to focus more on concealment of explosive devices than on their firepower. The former comes at the expense of the latter.

The bad news: Since 9/11, terrorists still lack respect for the ability of airport security to identify bomb carriers. Security efforts focused primarily on finding the terrorist’s tools comes at the expense of finding the terrorist. Thus, a terrorist approaches airport security checkpoints with confidence he will not be caught. Much like the old English children’s story about a gingerbread man coming to life and challenging anyone to catch him, the terrorist extends a similar taunt to airport security. The need to respond to that challenge is underscored by the terrorist’s creativity. For, in time, it will give rise to a low-tech, easily concealable, and highly destructive explosive device successfully being smuggled through security.

The solution to preventing this lies with a systematic approach to airport security that many of us apply regularly, albeit subconsciously, at home when we hear a knock at our door. We look to see who is there, and, if it’s a stranger, we immediately start assessing whether we invite him/her in. Questions about the stranger arise in our mind as we try to determine if it is safe to do so. In deciding, we evaluate many different factors or “indicators” we observe. If resolved, we invite the stranger in; if some remain “suspicious,” we exercise caution.

What we are conducting is threat analysis.

Such a threat analysis is “profiling.” It is an approach that has taken a bum rap, as some critics suggest it contains racial overtones—but this simply is inaccurate. At airports where security personnel have mastered its principles, profiling is purely a threat analysis approach devoid of racial indicators. In fact, the Israelis—who were first to develop the profiling method—quickly found that basing such an approach on ethnic or racial overtones left huge vulnerabilities. Thus, efforts were devoted toward developing a proactive screening method focusing on indicators of both terrorist tactics (modus operandi) and behavior. Such profiling became threat-based, avoiding a need to consider a passenger’s sex, race, age, religion, etc.

The process for developing an unbiased profiling system was not dissimilar from that employed by gambling casinos to ensure the security of their games. Experts familiar with tactics used by cheaters constantly evaluate gaming procedures to find weak links. To do so, they must think as the cheater thinks. But it is the cheater’s suspect tactics—not race, religion, sex etc.—that create reliable indicators of a possible threat to circumvent security measures on which attention can then be focused. Airport security profiling is no different, as terrorism experts have identified suspicious, purely threat-based, tactical and behavioral indicators upon which attention can be focused.

The terrorist attack of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 prompted the U.S. government to closely examine limited application of Israel’s threat-based screening system. Ten years later, that led to adoption of the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System (CAPPS) for U.S. air carriers as a tool for identifying potentially dangerous airline passengers. Ironically, CAPPS resulted, on 9/11, in nine of the 19 terrorists actually involved being stopped and made to undergo additional screening. But because the U.S. security system lacked personnel trained to connect terrorist tactics with suspicious behavior, the hijackers were allowed to continue on to their planes—with disastrous consequences.

The terrorist is well aware that where profiling is not applied or where its application is limited in scope, he has a better chance of penetrating airport security. Some profiling systems, such as TSA’s Behavior Detection Officer (BDO) program, represent a good start, but fail to focus on all “suspicious indicators.” BDO solely looks to behavior pattern recognition—i.e., body language, appearance and physiological indicators—to identify a “nervous” passenger. Obviously, one can be nervous for non-hostile reasons, thus requiring resolution of suspicious indicators before allowing the passenger to continue. However, as described above, effective profiling goes beyond behavior analysis—combining it with a tactical analysis. Today, not a single U.S. airport security checkpoint incorporates the entire profiling procedure that has so effectively served Israel for decades. Had this been done, as per the recommendations given by one of the authors during his 1989 Congressional testimony, then the terrorist attacks of 9/11, shoe bomber Richard Reid, and the underwear bomber would all have been foiled before the aircraft was boarded. (Interestingly, five months prior to Reid’s shoe bombing escapade, he was identified during the boarding process for an El Al flight as a potential danger, resulting in an air marshal accompanying him—without his knowledge—on the flight to monitor his activities. Reid later acknowledged the questioning to which he was subjected by El Al made him extremely nervous. )

Profiling is not new. The FBI has been using it—with tremendous success—in bringing criminals to justice based on identified behavior patterns. It is inconceivable that profiling has failed to meet the same level of acceptance for airport security as a tool in preventing the crime of terrorism—before it can happen—as it has gained for police work as an investigative tool in identifying the perpetrator of a crime—after it has happened. Additionally, such threat analysis to find hostile intent is actually easier than finding the tools of a terrorist’s trade, as a very creative and determined terrorist could use authorized items found in a carry-on bag or on the aircraft itself as a means for conducting an attack. Historically, all terrorist attacks stopped by airport security before the aircraft could be boarded were the result not of uncovering a weapon, but of uncovering hostile intent.

For an experienced airport security profiler conducting questioning of a passenger where suspicious indicators have arisen, each encounter is unique. The direction the questioning takes depends on the observations the profiler makes. But training on how and what to ask is critical, so that the profiler becomes very effective at tripping up the terrorist on things that are virtually impossible to hide. It empowers the profiler to effectively identify inconsistencies in the terrorist’s cover story, constantly monitoring the passenger for other telltale signs of deceit. When effectively used, this questioning brings about a role reversal between security personnel and terrorist—the former taking the offensive and the latter the defensive.

In the children’s story about the gingerbread man, the protagonist meets his end at the jaws of a wily fox. A similar fate must be provided for the terrorist by wily airport security personnel experienced in identifying behavioral and tactical suspicious indicators.

Lt. Col. James Zumwalt is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the 1989 intervention into Panama and Desert Storm. An author, speaker and business executive, he also currently heads a security consulting firm named after his father—Admiral Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc.

Arik Arad has over 30 years of experience in the security and defense sectors, where he has been instrumental in creating and implementing new security guidelines, programs and concepts in the international, domestic, and private sector, as well as collaboration with governmental entities in Israel, the U.S., and Canada.

Previous positions include Head of Security for El Al, Ben Gurion Airport; Head of Security for the Shopping Centers Associations of Israel; CEO, International Consultants on Targeted Security (ICTS) USA; and Israeli Consul for Special Missions, Israeli Consulate, Canada. Mr. Arad also brings a wealth of business development experience including identifying potential acquisitions, conducting due diligence as well as managing acquired companies. At the request of former President Bush (Sr.), Mr. Arad served on the Presidential Committee on Aviation, and participated in several congressional committee hearings on the subject.