|What effect will the attacks in Brussels have on aviation security? Screenings in |
pre-security airport areas have been uncommon, but may become standard practice
Will the Brussels airport attack herald a new era of aviation security? Like the bombing of Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in 2011, the Brussels attack took place “landside”, meaning that security precautions would have been low-key and limited to spot checks and the general watchfulness of police officers for unusual behaviour.
Combination of security techniques
Even the tabloid press has had the sense not to second-guess Belgian authorities and ask why there were no metal detectors and body scanners at the departure hall. Only airports with particularly chequered pasts in terms of terrorism and sectarian violence (Istanbul, Nairobi and Mumbai) have screening operations at pre-security areas. However, unless their aim is to undermine public confidence by evading security measures or taking control of a plane, it makes little difference to terrorists exactly where they kill aviation passengers.
CCTV still images from Brussels, which flashed around the world shortly after the attacks, showed Najim Laachraoui, who blew himself up at the airport. We now know that Laachraoui not only made the Brussels bombs but probably also made the suicide vests used in Paris back in November – fragments recovered there contained his DNA.
A mug shot identifying Laachraoui as a significant terrorist suspect had been distributed by Belgium Federal Police only days before the attack in their capital. Consider the imaginary scenario of a comprehensive database of possible jihadists shared by transport hubs all around Europe. Combine that with perfect facial recognition CCTV (from all angles), not just airside but in the departure hall. And assume the resulting information is actionable quickly enough to intercept attackers. Then and only then would the Belgian airport trio have been halted.
Video analytics for airport security
Clearly this is the stuff of fantasy, though I’m aware of current progress and invite facial recognition vendors to weigh in. But here’s a sobering statistic from London: the Metropolitan Police’s forensic imaging team has admitted that, of the 4,000 images entered onto their database after the 2011 riots in the UK, only one person has been recognised solely by facial geometry.
More generalised video analytics have a definite role to play in protecting airports; there are algorithms that will alarm on unusual direction of movement and loitering when other passengers are flowing through the site. Yes, there were peculiar aspects to the bombers. Two of them were wearing a glove on one hand only (concealing links to detonation devices), and they had large suitcases but no carry-on luggage. But this is the kind of atypical behaviour that is likely to register with human rather than artificial intelligence. I concede that analytics can do much to reveal an abnormal gait that might indicate the weight of a bomb vest but would challenge any movement algorithm developer to report much about a passenger when they are pushing a trolley.
Explosive device detection
The immediate potential for improving security throughout airport premises probably lies with alerts on explosives through trace (minute particulate) detection. Military-grade explosives are a rarer commodity now than 10 years ago (the physical security sector can take some credit for this) and without sponsorship by a rogue state, the terrorist’s current explosive of choice is triacetone triperoxide (TATP).
A crystalline powder, TATP is a synthesis of three commonly available materials – hydrogen peroxide and acetone (staples of the beauty industry) and mineral acid. Known to bomb-makers as “The Mother of Satan” because of its volatility, TATP is also a nightmare for security since (unlike fertiliser bombs) it contains no nitrogen that can be detected with relative ease. TATP has been used by terrorists ranging from “shoe bomber” Richard Reid to the jihadists in London on 7/7 and more recently in Paris and Brussels.
One of the bombs carried into the Brussels airport remained undetonated within a suitcase, and authorities found it to be composed of metal bolts and nails with TATP as the explosive. A handheld device from Oregon-based FLIR Systems can now collect particulates from surfaces and create a noticeable change in fluorescence signal when TATP is detected. Most explosive materials tend to be sticky and will defeat attempts to prevent them from collecting on clothes and hair by all but the most determined and skilled bomber.
Challenges for European security community
Other detection methods include CT (computerised tomography) scanning to compare the density of items in bags and suitcases with the density values of substances known to pose a threat of explosion. Adding TATP to libraries of suspicious density values has been a logical and fairly easy step by manufacturers. As TATP detection devices become cheaper, more portable and unobtrusive it will be possible to use them extensively in transport locations.
Few analysts would have failed to note that the Brussels bombings came four days after the capture of Salah Abdeslam, who is suspected of having masterminded the Paris attacks. Abdeslam’s lawyer has said that his client is cooperating with authorities in Belgium. The Brussels airport and Metro attacks were improvised measures by a cell who knew they were in imminent danger of capture. The bombers had another target in mind, and given more time would have mounted a more concerted operation.
Speculation can of course be feverish, but there have been suggestions that the real target was one of Belgium’s seven nuclear reactors or the UEFA Euro 2016 soccer championship to be held in France this summer. The enormity of the two possible targets is worrying, but security professionals may be equally concerned by the fact that these are such different threats. Both concern perimeter protection but of an almost diametrically opposite kind. The range of challenges facing the European security community is dizzying.