To Prevent a Terrorist Attack, Officials Are Working to Improve Airport Security Worldwide

From U.S. Department of State


Media – The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Counter-Terrorism Working Group (CTWG) held a virtual workshop on “Soft Target Protection in an Aviation Ecosystem” to address terrorist attacks in airports. Organized by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT Bureau) and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, the workshop brought together APEC member economies and working groups, regional and international organizations, and law enforcement and industry partners to discuss the challenges of soft target protection in the commercial aviation sector and shared best practices for responding to and recovering from terrorist attacks.

Hillary Batjer Johnson, Deputy Coordinator for Homeland Security, Screening, and Designations for the CT Bureau outlined how the aviation sector remains an attractive terrorist target due to its importance to the global economy and the opportunity to inflict mass casualties. APEC and industry panelists shared that planes and terminals, as well as publicly accessible areas such as airport dining and shopping areas, parking lots, hotels, and adjacent mass transit systems, are all vulnerable locations for potential terrorist attacks.

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Participants reviewed recommendations from a previous APEC-hosted workshop on soft target protection and conferred on how to apply these tenets to the aviation sector. The 2018 recommendations brought to the fore the importance of comprehensive risk assessments, information sharing, business and community resilience, and public-private partnerships, all of which can easily be applied to the aviation sector.

Panelists from international organizations shared information on aviation ecosystem-specific security standards, best practices, and relevant resources on soft target protection. As one example, the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s (GCTF) Good Practices on the Protection of Soft Targets in a Counterterrorism Context were cited as a comprehensive resource providing best practices on soft target protection. In addition, the Organization of American States Inter-American Committee against Terrorism (CICTE) also shared findings, recommendations, and lessons learned in the tourism and crowded spaces security sector in the Americas and the Caribbean.

APEC member economies and industry panelists agreed that crisis preparedness was essential to threat mitigation. All agreed on the need for increased collaboration between airport personnel – such as civil aviation authorities, law enforcement, and the private sector – and local government agencies. Conducting local risk assessments and deploying multi-layered airport security and screening procedures are also critical to reducing vulnerabilities in airports. Participants discussed how to use technology driven, non-invasive security measures for passengers, and smart security measures, such as biometrics and remote bag drop facilities, as ways to mitigate vulnerabilities and improve the passenger experience. Participants also discussed the importance of restricting terminal access to ticketed passengers and authorized personnel and institutionalizing an airport security committee comprised of relevant public and private stakeholders.

Panelists agreed that local risk and vulnerability assessments are a critical foundation to determine which security strategies and countermeasures to employ at an airport, particularly in light of ever-changing terrorist tactics and resource constraints. Also, regular review and exercises of an airport’s contingency plans are essential elements to improve preparedness.

The Road to Recovery

Wilfried Covent, the Former Head of Security for Brussels Airport in Belgium, provided a case study of the landside bombing that took place on March 22, 2016 at Brussels Airport, to include lessons learned and the airport’s road to recovery.

In that attack, 16 people were killed and 150 injured, with parts of the airport terminal severely damaged. However, within 12 days, Brussels Airport was able to reopen with temporary structures and a symbolic first flight. In addition to describing the immediate lifesaving response and investigative procedures following the attack, Covent emphasized the importance of taking care of passengers and employees and immediately launching a restart plan with adapted security measures to restore airport operations and begin the recovery process.

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Every terrorist attack is a learning opportunity, and security measures must evolve as the threats change. The APEC Counterterrorism Working Group (CTWG), and related cross-fora workshops on aviation security afforded a wide variety of stakeholders and experts the opportunity to share best practices and lessons learned which will inform and improve counterterrorism strategies, plans, and procedures to protect soft targets and the traveling public. The United States is proud to contribute to APEC’s continuing efforts to counter terrorism, learn from our shared experiences, challenges, and current practices, and promote regional collaboration and cooperation on topics of importance to APEC member economies.

About the Author: Laura Miller is an Office of Homeland Security Intern in the Bureau of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State.

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