The Irish approach to the global problem


When you pass through Irish airports, hidden cameras might be tracking you and the metal detector might ping even if you don’t set it off. So how will the Detroit scare affect the way you travel, asks GERRY BYRNE

LAST WEEK’S scare about explosives being allowed aboard a Dublin-bound aircraft from Slovakia following a security audit gone wrong raises major questions about the efficacy of airport security. While the ineptitude of Slovak airport security is now hardly in doubt, one must ask: could it happen at Dublin? And, are many of the things passengers are asked to do – such as sporadically removing shoes and belts at security – simply a charade, aimed at fooling potential terrorists into thinking Irish security leaves no stone unturned?

At Dublin, if you are checking suitcases into the hold, you will be asked if you packed it yourself. Expect many further questions if your answer is no. This is due to the incident in 1986, when Dublin woman Anne Marie Murphy was detained at Heathrow after a parcel containing a bomb, which was planted by her fiancé, was found in her luggage.

Deep in the bowels of the aiport, another team is at work, X-raying every checked-in bag. If anything suspicious is spotted, the bag may be opened for a further check, and if the team is still unhappy, the passenger may be brought in to explain its contents.

Explosives sniffers exist that can further analyse a bag’s contents, but whether they are routinely used at Dublin is not divulged. However, modern X-ray equipment is able to help security gauge the density of suspect objects and anything approximating explosive compounds such as Semtex is usually worth a further look.

It was recently alleged on Today FM’s The Last Wordthat only 10 per cent of Dublin’s bags are checked, but this is hard to believe given that the level of security at Irish airports is regularly checked by the Department of Transport and the EU. Both bodies routinely send agents travelling incognito, carrying forbidden items such as knives and replica guns – and even, it is rumoured, explosives like the material that sparked off this week’s Slovak controversy. Occasionally these checks unearth significant weaknesses in airport security, such as when an EU team discovered significant shortcomings that in April 2005 forced Dublin airport to increase passenger security checks by 45 per cent.

At the pre-boarding security channel, the chore of occasionally removing your shoes was necessitated by the exploits of Richard Reid, who attempted to detonate a bomb concealed in his sneakers aboard a Paris-New York flight by setting fire to his shoelaces. As in the case of the Detroit underpants bomber at Christmas, alert passengers, not security men, foiled that one.

The extent of security checks depends on the so-called threat level, and even in Dublin, it has been increased by the Detroit bomb attempt. Many passengers on Aer Lingus flights to the US will now undergo random body searches prior to boarding. Even non-US passengers can be frisked, even though they carry no metal objects. The metal detector arch is often programmed to ping occasionally even though nothing is detected, and this depends on the level of perceived threat. A terrorist could, for example, have emulated his caveman ancestors and have a sharpened knife made from flint, which doesn’t set off the metal arch. Even though you cannot see them, hidden cameras are constantly surveying passengers, looking for someone acting strangely or, perhaps, following the movements of passengers on an Interpol “watch list”.

Being asked to surrender your nail file or pen knife dates from 9/11 and, with hindsight, it beggars belief that the hijackers were allowed aboard carrying Stanley knives. It is also shocking that security worldwide hitherto operated on the assumption that no terrorist would blow himself up, an action that now occurs on an almost daily basis in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

So, there is a historical precedent for each security action. The restrictions on liquids or gels date from the 2006 UK police discovery of an extremist Islamist plot to blow up aircraft using bombs assembled on board from a cocktail of everyday chemicals, included the main ingredient in hair bleach. Some experts say this ban should have been implemented as early as 1995, when an al-Qaeda cell in the Philippines was discovered to have had plans to assemble similar bombs. Eleven airliners were to be targeted, with the aim of killing 4,000. The liquids and gels restriction has, however, been repeatedly ridiculed by Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary.

AIRPORT SECURITYreally kicked off in 1970, after the PLO hijacked five jets, three of which it later blew up after releasing the passengers. Inadequate security allowed the hijackers to board carrying pistols. Metal detection was the main component of subsequent security screening; its main task to uncover hidden firearms. Later, following successful bombings, it was extended to include explosives.

The events of 9/11 highlighted the fact that airport security is simply playing catch-up, something illustrated by how most successful hijacks and bombings have usually leapfrogged existing preventative measures. We’re asked to remove our shoes to prevent another shoe bomber, but the mind boggles at what we might be asked to do to prevent another Detroit underpants attack.

There’s a lot of talk about body scanners being the magic solution, but security analysts are widely predicting that the next big terrorist quantum leap undetectable by modern security will be the surgery bomber, where a terrorist will have his bomb sewn inside his body either with a built-in timer or with miniature wires led under the skin to which he can attach a detonator using needles.

And though it goes against the Hippocratic Oath, two doctors have already been involved in terrorist acts – one, Dr Kafeel Ahmed, rammed Glasgow airport’s main entrance in 2007 with a blazing 4x4 loaded with nails and gas cylinders, and more recently, Dr Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi blew up himself and seven CIA agents in Jordan.

It is perhaps inevitable that body scanners will eventually be introduced at Dublin airport, because not having them will mean passengers connecting with a further flight at, say, Heathrow, where they are being installed, might have to undergo further security checks if they have come from an airport without the technology.

But, like the metal arches and the X-ray machines, they may only deter terrorists from using more traditional methods of attack. And don’t be surprised if the security man asks you if you’ve recently had an operation. And can he see the scar, please?