Updated: 2:31 pm MST:
Based on the first reports, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive in the terminal building at the Moscow Domodedovo Airport. The explosion occurred near the the international arrivals section of the airport. We are now hearing that there may have been two bombers. Click here for USAToday report. Early reports is that at least 32 have died and an additional 130 are injured. Industry security experts have warned against this type of attack for several years, and this is not the first time airport terminals have been targets.
In addition to airport bombings in 1973 and 1975 at LAX and LaGuardia, respectively, in 1985 armed gunmen with assault rifles and grenades stormed the public terminal areas in the Rome and Vienna Airports, in an active shooter attack. To this day in Rome’s Leonardo daVinci Airport, heavily armed and armored police officers with automatic weapons patrol the terminal areas on catwalks, protected by bulletproof glass and hard points. U.S. airports, and many other airports throughout the U.S. are not as well prepared.
Some will say that the defense against a suicide bomber in the terminal building is to move the screening checkpoints into the ticketing areas, or even at the front door of the terminal, however, this only relocates the same threat, it doesn’t mitigate or deter it. Others will say that a suicide bomber cannot be stopped. They are also wrong.
So, how do we stop this threat?
The easiest way is to stop the threat in the planning stages. No one just wakes up in the morning, builds a bomb and heads to the airport. There are bomb makers involved, individuals who must acquire bomb making materials, surveillance personnel, drivers, safe house operatives, and handlers all involved in the operation. What seems to be a random event is actually a carefully planned operation that CAN be detected ahead of time. Good behavior detection and suspicious awareness training can help detect when an operation is in the planning stages, such as detecting pre-incident surveillance.
What if that fails?
Israel has developed personal defense training for their police officers, which includes taking down a suicide bomber. This is not to say it isn’t VERY dangerous but consider that the alternative is to likely die in the blast anyway, it’s best to have some skills to try to keep that from happening. Immediate, armed intervention can stop an active shooter event, and police officers who are alert and aware of what is happening in the terminal building can deter or rapidly respond to a suicide bomber threat. However, most U.S. police officers are not trained on how to take on a suicide bomber. They need to be, particularly at our nation’s airports.
The last line of defense, is response. When the event has happened, the best thing to do is to rapidly respond to the event and get the airport back up and running. While the loss of life is always tragic, it’s also important to remember the real motive for the attack, which is to cripple economies, change the way of life for the nation’s citizens, eat away our personal rights and privacy’s, and ultimately change our country for the worse. The quicker we can bounce back, the more resilient we are against these threats.
A key line of defense is deterrence. An alert, well-trained, well-equipped police force patrolling the public areas of a terminal building, like they do in Rome, can be a huge deterrent to a suicide bomber. Suicide bombers fear only one thing more than death, and that is failure. They don’t want to get caught before they’ve had a chance to press the trigger. When conducting surveillance, an airport whose police and security personnel are alert, well-equipped with modern radios and weapons, and who are watching over the public areas closely, will be a huge deterrent to the bad guys planning to do harm. They’d rather find a terminal building where the cops have Retired On Active Duty, are rarely seen and when seen, are not in shape, nor alert and are carrying an aging revolver that hasn’t seen the outside of the holster in five years. If you’re the bad guy, which airport are you heading to?
If rapid response is our last line of defense, what is our first? Fortunately, there are a few. First, there is intelligence gathering and human operatives in the field from the CIA, FBI, DOD, foreign governments friendly to the U.S., and other agencies. The Yemen air cargo printer bombs were discovered by Saudi intelligence and the London liquid bomb plot in 2006 was also discovered by intel operatives, in Great Britain, before the operation had a chance to move forward. Next, there is border security. While some attackers may already be U.S. citizens, it is likely that they have traveled at some point in time outside of the U.S., which means there should be a record of their departure and arrival. While it may not seem that difficult, it actually can be hard getting into the U.S. You can talk to me about the porous border between Mexico and the U.S. but with UAV’s, agents on horseback and plenty of other personnel and technology, not just anyone can wander over. Plus, if you’ve been out of the country getting terrorist training, the last thing you want to do is to get caught coming back into the country, which means you may use false travel documents if flying commercially, or you may engage the services of a guide to smuggle you back into the U.S., both options mean that even more people are now part of your plot.
Once back in the U.S. a bomber must be equipped and most suicide bombers are not bomb makers. It can be hard to find recruits to be suicide bombers as well, as you have to find someone willing to die for the cause. It’s harder to do that than it is to find someone willing to kill for the cause. Suicide bombers will have handlers that keep them separate from family and friends (i.e. any reasons to live), and continue to coach them from training, waiting and right to their target site. In some cases, the handler may even have a device where he or she can remote/command detonate the suicide bomber’s device just in case the bomber is interfered with or loses their will to carry out the mission.
Another point is that suicide bombings can happen anywhere, what makes an airport so special? The fact is that when you bomb an airport, you shut down commerce for that immediate area, you disrupt commerce throughout the world for a period of time, and eventually, with aviation security such a hot button topic, the bad guys know that we will spend billions trying to prevent that type of attack from happening again. Where will that money come from? A key goal of terrorism is to make a country suffer economically, bankrupt it if possible. Currently, the national debt is $14 Trillion dollars – where will the billions or even trillions more come from to prevent the next type of attack?
Should we be worried about a similar situation taking place here in the US? It is a concern but there are things we can do to prevent it from happening and we should start looking at that now, rather than waiting until it does happen. Without spending billions in technology, we can instead spend millions in training – training of airport personnel in suspicious awareness, training of police officers in suicide bomber takedowns, and training of police officers in active shooter response – some semi-automatic weapons like the ones the Boston/Logan police carry around would be a wise investment as well.
The last major aviation security incident in Russia was in 2004 when two female Chechan suicide bombers bribed airline employees to obtain boarding passes for two departing flights. Over 80 were killed when both aircraft were downed by the explosives.