x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Weaknesses in airline security exposed by plot

The latest version of the "underwear bomb", just revealed, raises some hard questions about how to keep airliners safe.

The threat keeps evolving. A story first reported on Monday as a plan to bring down a US-bound airliner has taken a twist because the would-be "bomber" was in fact an undercover informer working with Saudi and US intelligence services.

What has remained constant, however, is a serious point: the bomb was a more sophisticated version of the plastic-explosive device worn by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called "underwear bomber", in his failed attempt to bring down an airliner in 2009. The same bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan Al Asiri from Saudi Arabia, is blamed for both devices but more details are needed to flesh out the picture.

Reportedly, this new bomb could pass undetected through metal detectors and, possibly, other airport-security measures. If this is true, it will have wide-ranging consequences for commercial aviation; and, quite probably, Arabs and South Asians will be those affected most.

Most aviation security is focused at the airport, based on the premise that dangerous items - knives, guns, bomb components - will trigger metal detectors. That premise, as was perhaps inevitable, is now seriously in doubt. Very quickly, we may see entirely new security protocols come into force worldwide.

A handful of misguided, murderous extremists pose a major threat to aviation, which has become a basic fact of modern life. That, in itself, is a misfortune. It is incumbent on security officials, and indeed passengers, to respond intelligently to minimise that threat, and also to avoid the kneejerk response that could make the situation worse.

People from the Middle East and South Asia are already painfully familiar with discrimination at airports. When Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan cannot make it through a US airport unmolested (after making a movie, My Name is Khan, about just such discrimination), it is clear that immigration security in the West foolishly relies on racial profiling to screen passengers, and makes incredible errors when doing so.

The first response of governments, especially in the United States and Europe, will be to target Arabs, or South Asians, or Muslims, or anyone who looks like they might be Arab or South Asian or Muslim, ... in short, a stupid approach, both offensive and ineffective.

There are better solutions available, if implemented correctly. Passenger registration could assist the security process well before the airport queue. Security officials need more nuanced tools, including the behavioural profiling that is so effective at catching drug traffickers. This latest failed plan, which appears to have gathered information on a dangerous terrorist, Al Asiri, shows the role intelligence can play.

A new generation of bombs is a serious threat, requiring an intelligent response against a handful of terrorists, not a catch-all spasm of fear. We are, after all, up in the air together.