Brussels Zaventem: the front-of-house attack becomes reality

Few security analysts can claim to be surprised by the atrocities perpetrated against both the airport and the metro system in Brussels on Tuesday 22nd March 2016; neither by the targets selected, nor by the method of attack, and nor by the willingness of individuals to commit suicide in such a manner.

In the case of the perpetrators, we know that they were just a few of the thousands of brainwashed individuals prepared to die in the name of Islamic State. There are plenty more who would willingly respond to such calls to action by leaders, teachers, and spiritual guides who are infecting their vulnerable followers with their warped ideological viewpoints and promises of an existence of paradise in the hereafter. Addressing radicalisation is no longer some peripheral topic worthy of cursory discussion by government, schools and religious institutions, but rather an international priority in order to protect society, both by alerting children and their families to the dangers of fundamentalist influencers and by encouraging a reporting culture. Many states have now developed powerful programmes and created effective whistleblowing processes, but we should not become complacent.

Scanning internet forums responding to the multitude of articles written on the subject, the scapegoats appear to be the thousands of innocent and desperate migrants fleeing conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa and making their way to Europe. Whilst there will be, within their number, radicalised individuals travelling under the guise of being victims of conflict but who are, in reality, using the crisis to conceal their movement towards their targets, there are, as we have seen in Belgium, also those who were born and bred in Europe who are prepared to kill their fellow countrymen. Indeed, the lesson is, in part, that we simply must find a way of welcoming and integrating immigrants into society in order that future generations do not feel alienated and, in turn, elect to express their hopelessness by committing acts of violence. Some of the rhetoric, which is now commonplace on the internet and spoken about in hushed tones (as it’s oh so politically incorrect) amongst friends and family, is, in itself, terrifying as entire communities are being tarnished with wild accusations of being complicit in, or sympathetic to, the type of attack we have just witnessed.

The acts of terrorism being perpetrated against the aviation industry are becoming simpler and simpler in nature; the enemy has grasped the KISS Principle – Keep it simple, stupid. The security checkpoint is certainly being perceived as an effective countermeasure, so those with ill-intent are either bypassing it by the use of insiders or carrying out their attacks in advance of the screening checkpoint with a front-of-house assault.

On the surface, the easy solution would be either to move the existing security checkpoint to the entrance of the terminal building, or to add an additional checkpoint to screen people entering the building. This would be short-sighted if it consists of X-ray machines and metal detectors for routine inspections. The number of people we are now screening to go from landside to airside areas of terminals is far lower than the number we would have to screen at the terminal entrance – so the queues would become longer, creating a fresh target in the process. We must strive to avoid creating situations whereby large numbers of people will gather in one location. The death toll from the Glasgow Airport attack in 2007 was one – a terrorist – when a vehicle laden with liquid explosives was driven into the building; imagine how much higher the body count would have been had there been a queue of people waiting to enter the terminal building at the time. I’m all for additional checks at entrances to buildings – not only airports, but also train stations, shopping malls, sports stadia and theatres – but they must not be allowed to become chokepoints or to delay access or egress.

So what kind of checks can we carry out? Few would be surprised to hear me argue the case, once again, for behavioural analysis. Whether we are dealing with a Daallo Airlines-style insider threat (possibly also a Metrojet one), or a Germanwings-style suicidal pilot, a Northwest Airlines-style underpants bomber or a Zaventem-style front-of-house attack, it is the one security process we can say addresses the broad range of threats we face today, as well as many of those of tomorrow. Many airports do use such techniques – but such programmes are often watered down, often to the point of being totally ineffective. Examples of this include: having one or two people on patrol at peak hours, providing their services are not required elsewhere; delegating the responsibility to the police; allowing officers to stand and chat with each other whilst supposedly carrying out surveillance. We need to maintain that sense of crisis 24/7 so, in the same way that we would never abandon a checkpoint, we should never be downgrading the value of the eyes and ears patrolling the entrances to our terminals and our public areas. Regulators often view behavioural analysis with disdain because it is a subjective technique which is very hard to test; the testing becomes even harder if it is a process we are only doing some of the time with inadequate staffing levels. Does it cost? Sure it does, but what is the cost of failure?