News / Middle East

Foiled Detroit Airport Attack Highlights Israel's Security Success

Scene at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport
Scene at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport


Israel has what security experts say is perhaps the world's most effective system of screening air passengers.  Despite constant threats from Palestinian terrorist groups, no flight from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport has ever been blown up or hijacked, and the airport has not been attacked since the early 1970s.  This success is due to a sophisticated system that combines intelligence reporting, profiling, and state-of-the-art technology for detecting weapons and explosives.  

It's another day of stringent security checks at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport.

About a million passengers pass through the airport each month, on average. But here, the lines move quickly thanks to what Israeli security experts say is an approach that - unlike other countries - relies more on eye contact with passengers and less on technology.

Pini Schiff is one of the founders of Israel's airport security division and was formerly in charge of security at Ben Gurion airport. He now heads a security company that advises the Israeli government. "We are focusing on the passenger.  Who is the passenger.  If the passenger is bona fide by his background, his suitcase does not have to be checked very carefully.  If the suspect is characterized as a suspect passenger, he will be checked deeply," he said.  

Most people clear security within 30 minutes. Here, not everyone has to take off their shoes,  dump their water bottles, or go through body scans.  

This reporter was not allowed to video the screening process. It includes a 25-second interview in which agents determine why a passenger has come to the airport, where he or she has been and is going, and the person's general background.  "Your aim is to locate, to find the one passenger that is a terrorist and is carrying explosive material under his possession. You have to characterize the passengers and  to focus on those who are suspected and it's less than one percent," Schiff said.

Narrowing the number of people to scrutinize means agents can clear thousands of passengers more quickly than if every one has to undergo thorough body and luggage searches. 

Israeli security agents say it would probably be impossible for someone like the suspected Christmas day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board an airplane at Ben Gurion without being stopped.  He was a 23-year-old Muslim male traveling alone, without checked luggage, and a ticket paid in cash.

Israeli security experts say their profiling system is complex and does not single out Muslims specifically.

Nir Ran, head of the Homeland Security Academy near Tel Aviv is a former head of aviation security at the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security agency. He also directed security operations at the Israeli airline, El Al. "The passenger himself, arriving to the flight with a bomb in his suitcase will not necessarily be a Muslim, will not necessarily be a young man, or the terrorist himself. On the contrary, in most of the cases, past experience teaches us that the people carrying the bomb to the plane were non-Muslim young women," he said.

Palestinians complain about the profiling and rarely use Ben Gurion airport, opting instead to fly from Amman in neighboring Jordan where they usually face less scrutiny.

Some of the scanners and detectors currently being promoted have been developed in Israel.  Pini Schiff says they are effective but technology alone cannot do the job. "The right thing to do is to put the technology as a circle in order to complete the profile system.  Profiling and technology together gives you the best result in checking outgoing passengers from the country," he said.

Israel's system might be in some ways controversial, but it has made for a near-perfect record.

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