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After Istanbul, airport security and Islamist extremism will both grow

By Peter Jennings

The terror attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport is a tragedy, destroying tens of innocent lives and physically and mentally scarring hundreds more forever.

But none of that will alter the broader pattern of air travel, or the functioning of thousands of airports around the world, few of which have security systems better than Ataturk International.

The first attacker detonated his bomb before reaching the security scanners or ‘x-ray’ machines. This allowed the second attacker to move past security check-points into the departure terminal where he detonated his device.

The third attacker waited outside the departure terminal, clearly with the intent of killing more people as they fled from the earlier bombs.

This wasn’t a random attack of mentally unbalanced lone-wolves. The bombers’ strategy was well-coordinated and shows an ability to learn from the experience of past attacks, including the one on Brussels airport last March.

The attackers must have had organisational back-up providing them with a plan of attack, tactical training to keep them going through the shock of the detonations and the right weapons.

The attack was simple in concept, but executing simple plans isn’t necessarily easy, particularly when it had to be done avoiding detection. It’s not surprising that Turkish authorities suspect the Islamic State’s involvement.

The terror group hasn’t followed up yet with fresh propaganda as it did after attacks in Paris and elsewhere, but that is likely to happen in coming days.

There are many lessons we should draw from the airport attack. Regrettably most of them point to the need for strengthened security against a persistent, indeed growing threat.

Airport security will come under a harsh spotlight. At most Australian airports security screening happens only after people have checked in baggage, well inside departure terminals.

Older airports can be even less protected. Berlin’s Tegal Airport, for example processes people through security only at their flight departure gate, with thousands of unchecked individuals milling through a shopping concourse just meters away.

Airport security involves a trade-off between convenience and risk. It’s physically possible to push security perimeters out to control, say, the flow of vehicles into airport precincts.

That used to happen at Tokyo’s Narita Airport where vehicles were halted and passports checked several kilometres from the terminal. In 2015 Narita Airport replaced this manual check with a camera-based surveillance systems using face-recognition technology.

Greater security around airports will only come at a cost which ultimately will be paid by travellers in higher airfares and longer delays.

While travellers may be prepared to individually run the small risk of being caught in a terror incident, airport authorities and Governments will struggle to claim that current security systems are adequate to the threat posed by suicide bombers.

And beyond airports the constant drumbeat of terror attacks, magnified in significance by global media coverage, will force businesses to reconsider the security of malls, dance clubs, stadiums, cinemas, any places that people gather.

One outcome from the attack is that countries with the capacity to heighten security precautions will do so, driven by popular expectation and government and business caution.

It’s true that no complete security guarantee can ever be offered. If airports are made more secure terrorists may turn to attacking bus stations instead. But no government can use that dismal reality as an excuse not to bother.

The future of airport security will look more like Israel’s Ben Gurion International, which requires a vehicle security check before entering the airport compound.  Armed guards view personal identification and question all visitors to the airport.

Armed security personnel stationed at Ben Gurion’s terminal entrances watch those who enter the buildings. Plainclothes and uniformed security personnel patrol inside the terminal, backed up with surveillance cameras and biometric face-recognition technology.

Departing passengers are personally questioned by security agents before check-in. There is detailed physical examination of luggage and travellers, including devices to pressure test checked bags that can trigger explosives.

These measures make it high likely that an Ataturk Airport-style attack would have been quashed at Ben Gurion International.

More broadly the security levels in modern day Jerusalem could well become a more widely adopted measure in central business districts. Doing travel and business will take more time, there will be a heavier security presence and a more pervasive sense of being on the alert.

It’s been 11 years since security at Australian airports was reviewed by Sir John Wheeler. A new review is needed. It could advise on how far airports should go in adopting new security regimes.

A second dispiriting conclusion from the attack at Ataturk International is that the heavy battlefield reverses given to the Islamic State group in Iraq is not weakening the attraction of its ideology to potential Islamist extremists.

Islamic State may have been pushed out of the town of Fallujah, but even while suffering some battlefield reverses IS continues to promote its successful trade-mark brand of social media and Islamist extremist ideology.

The Fallujah defeat can be used by IS as a recruitment incentive, focussing on allegations of torture and other mistreatment handed out by the Iranian-backed Shia ‘Popular Mobilisation Units’ to local Sunni males suspected of being IS sympathisers.

After two years of heavy fighting against IS, it’s clear that the number of individuals susceptible to radicalisation and willing to go to their own death supporting Islamist extremism is not rapidly diminishing , even after 13,400 airstrikes have killed more than ten thousand IS fighters.

Foreign fighters are finding it harder to reach Syria and Iraq, but locals continue to be recruited and IS seems to be expanding its influence in Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Turkish authorities claim the bombers were citizens of Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which demonstrates the widespread attraction of the extremist jihadist ideology. It may be these individuals had been unable to cross from Turkey into Syria.

Violent radicalisation is not limited to the Middle East but global. Thus far Southeast Asia has escaped relatively lightly, but we should worry that the potential for a flare-up of Islamist extremism in our region is quickly growing.

No country has yet developed effective counter-radicalisation strategies. Police and security agencies in Australia try to span tasks ranging from hard-knock arrests of terrorist plotters to providing pastoral care of ‘at risk’ youth.

Politicians in many countries struggle to find the right phrases even to talk about radicalisation. Barak Obama resists using the term ‘Islamist extremism’ out of a sensible wish not to needlessly offend, but such an ideology is overwhelmingly the core of the problem.

After the Paris attacks of November 2015 I wrote in The Inquirer that police and security forces would have no option other than to use more pre-emptive raids and arrests to shut down potential terrorist plots.

Along with that comes the need for broader legal powers of search and arrest and the capacity to detain individuals for longer on suspicion of terrorist involvement.

The rapid detention by Turkish police of thirteen suspects including three foreign nationals shows that the authorities were tracking extremists. The challenge for police is in knowing when to detain individuals who might, or might not, be planning attacks

In responding to actual terrorist events police and security forces have little choice other than to kill attackers rather than hope to stop attacks with minimum force.

This is exactly what has happened. For the most part our communities have accepted that personal freedoms may have to be compromised to achieve greater security.

The Ataturk Airport attack will accelerate this trend even at the same time that Governments scratch their heads looking for softer solutions to counter radicalisation.

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

This piece originally published: The Weekend Australian. 2 July 2016.