Airport full-body slam hurts civilians, not terrorists

3 August 2011

The problem with full-body scanners is that almost no security measures beyond explosive trace detection, metal detectors and X-ray machines for bags - all of which already exist - make us safer from airborne terrorism.

Additional measures may in fact increase aviation's attractiveness to terrorists. Terrorist networks' main problem in attacking countries like Australia is getting people and weapons into the country, or equipping and training recruits already here.

Since foreign groups like al-Qaeda don't have easy access to targets, every attack has to count. As a result, since 9/11 terrorists in Western countries have largely gone for spectacular attacks against symbolic targets. Public shows of security at airports are supposed to deter terrorists from attacking.

But while this likely deters low-motivation criminals, it does not deter terrorists who are willing to die for their cause and can analyse security patterns. A successful attack against a hardened target has greater symbolic value.

In 2003, for example, Jemaah Islamiyah hit the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta with a car bomb. After Marriott imposed impressive-looking airport-like security, JI successfully bombed the Marriott again in 2009, just to show that it could. Likewise aviation security theatre makes aeroplanes more attractive to terrorists.

Security techniques are supposed to increase the probability of terrorists being captured or stopped before they detonate. But extreme, reactive technological responses to every perceived threat against planes demonstrate one thing to terrorist strategists: we are not thinking intelligently.

Rather than playing the odds, terrorists adapt and develop new techniques that find the security holes and bypass the technology. During the UK's fight against the Provisional IRA, the new technology to deactivate radio bomb detonators simply led the group to adopt non-electronic detonators.

If a terrorist gets to the point where they are attempting to board a plane with a viable weapon, a number of security agencies have already failed to adapt. More security theatre at the airport just highlights this.

On a plane, there is only one group of people who adapt more quickly than terrorists: Passengers. This was amply demonstrated on 9/11 when United 93 passengers fought back, foiling al-Qaeda's plan even as it was unfolding.

The government's $200 million budget for increased aviation security would be better spent on intelligence gathering and law enforcement to stop terrorists before they get to airports. Basic screening aside, these are the only measures that will defeat determined terrorists.

Dr Justin Hastings is a terrorism specialist from the Department of Government and International Relations.

Contact: Kate Mayor

Phone: 02 9351 2208

Email: 1a09402d61281748052b325c0a5c374e3d571c113a7f172f