Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Hard Truths About 'Soft Targets'
March 24, 2016 -- The only surprise about the attacks in Brussels on Tuesday is that some supposed "experts" were surprised terrorists targeted the airport's public areas and the city's mass-transit system.

If you watched television coverage in the hours after the bombing of a check-in area at Brussels Zaventem Airport and the Maelbeek Metro Station under some of Europe's most important government buildings, you'd think terrorists had invented a clever and devious new method of wreaking havoc on civilized society. Flustered and indignant, the talking heads could not imagine how the bastards got access to our airports and subways.

I guess they forgot an unemployed auto mechanic walked into Los Angeles International Airport with a bag full of semi-automatic weapons in 2013 and murdered a TSA screener at point-blank range and injured seven others. Maybe they didn't remember the attack on Moscow's Domodedovo Airport in 2011 when a suicide bomber massacred 37 people in the arrival hall. Why didn't the networks pull up video of the bizarre 2007 episode when terrorists drove a Jeep full of propane through the glass doors of Glasgow International? Perhaps they never heard of the 2002 shooting spree at El Al's LAX ticket counter where a terrorist killed an El Al agent and a passenger.

The attack on the Brussels Metro was hardly unprecedented, either. London's Underground and its buses were targeted on July 7, 2005. Madrid's trains were bombed the year before. Home-grown Japanese terrorists once hit Tokyo's subway with sarin gas.

The attackers in Brussels on Tuesday weren't even subtle. They loaded huge, heavy bombs onto luggage carts and strolled right into Brussels airport. The explosives were so unwieldy that they couldn't fit all they had prepared into the cab hired to drive them to Zaventem. The cabbie was perplexed by the gigantic bags and he tipped off police after he heard of the bombings.

The point? We've known for years, decades even, that the so-called "landside" public areas of airports before security checkpoints and our mass-transit systems are easy targets for terrorists. Like shopping malls, public squares, hotels, movie theaters and all the venues attacked in Paris last November, they're called "soft targets" for a reason.

Worst of all? It can and, sadly, probably will happen again.

No one knows that better than the tough-as-nails cops who labor to keep New York City safe 15 years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Could a similar assault happen in the United States, NYPD counterterrorism chief James Waters was asked 36 hours after the Brussels horror. "Short answer? Yes, it could," he said bluntly.

Despite what the demagogues shovel this political season, the problem isn't immigrants or a leadership failure. The fix isn't a big, beautiful wall or random surveillance of neighborhoods full of people some consider un-American.

The problem is logistics. The fix? We don't have a truly reliable one yet, which is why we are mourning at least 34 dead and hundreds of wounded in Brussels.

It does seems ridiculous that a trio of terrorists could wheel bulky bombs right into the check-in hall at Zaventem, one of Western Europe's busiest and most important airports. But where would you have proposed stopping them for a preventive security check? Before they got to the ticket counters? Before they entered a terminal building? Perhaps before they even entered the airport grounds?

As you can see anytime you visit an airport, there's a queue in front of the existing security checkpoints. While those checkpoints ensure bad actors can't get unfettered access to departure gates and the aircraft at those gates, they also create lines of unprotected people, something the LAX shooter exploited in the 2013 attack.

Anywhere you erect a security checkpoint will create lines. And anywhere there are lines, there are travelers at risk.

I once thought it absurd that we allowed visitors into airport terminals. Why, I wondered, would you permit people who weren't traveling into a terminal? It seemed "no ticket, no entry" would make for better security. Fewer people inside a terminal meant fewer people to protect and less chance that someone inside wished us ill.

But I lived a no ticket/no entry scenario a few months before the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. I was working in Delhi and driven to Indira Gandhi International for a flight home. But a team of uniformed security guards, sidearms at the ready, blocked the doors to the international departure terminal. Why? They were checking tickets. If you didn't have one, you didn't get into the building. As I stood in a line lengthening into the Delhi night, all I could think was that this queue of impatient travelers made a tempting target for drive-by evildoers.

So is there no hope? Are we doomed to an unending series of attacks on soft targets by terrorists who know crowds at transportation venues make inviting, high-value fodder?

Not necessarily. All the genuine security experts I interview say vigilant, well-trained and well-armed security personnel do make a formidable deterrent. Suicide bombers and other terrorists may not be afraid to surrender their lives, but they don't want to do it in vain. Conspicuous displays of protective force tend to discourage even the most committed killers.

The problem, even in the short term? Training and cost. Arming people without proper training isn't much of a solution. And training security personnel properly in detection and behavioral techniques costs scads of money, much more than most countries can or have been willing to spend. Plus the ongoing price of keeping a large deterrent force at airports, train stations and other transit hubs is prohibitive.

In the long run, virtually all of the pros say, counter-intelligence is the solution. We need to know more about who wishes us harm. And we need to share that data across national borders and across political and governmental silos.

In fact, if there was an unexpected twist in the Brussels attacks, it was the news from Turkey on Wednesday evening. If Turkish president Recep Erdogan is to believed, at least one Brussels bomber was deported to the Netherlands last summer. But he was freed because no one could connect the terrorism dots.


This column is Copyright 2016 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.