What can we learn from Ben Gurion Airport in Israel to help push aviation security in the U.S. to the next level?
No airport in the world faces terrorist threats more serious than does Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, a focal point for a half-century of violence in the Middle East. Yet Ben Gurion has experienced no serious terrorist incidents for more than 30 years, leading some observers to rank the airport among the most secure in the world.
What can U.S. airports learn from the way Ben Gurion manages aviation security?
According to Raphael “Rafi” Ron, who served as director of security at Ben Gurion for five years, aviation security in the U.S. suffers from two shortcomings that Ben Gurion has dealt with and overcome. First, the U.S. has failed in its efforts to develop comprehensive layered security programs that protect airports in their entirety, from perimeter access roads to passenger checkpoints. Second, airport security directors in the U.S. have failed to come to terms with what Ron calls the human factor — the inescapable fact that terrorist attacks are carried out by people who can be found and stopped by an effective security methodology.
Lately, Ron has been president of New Age Security Solutions, Washington, D.C., a wholly owned subsidiary of Advanced Interactive Systems, a Seattle-based security training firm. Through New Age, Ron now consults on aviation security at Logan International Airport in Boston. His assignment includes helping Logan to develop a comprehensive plan for airport security and to institute programs that address the human faces of terrorism.
Ron acknowledges that specific procedures probably will not transfer directly from Ben Gurion to Logan or to other U.S. airports. Ben Gurion, for example, is relatively small. It deals with 6 to 10 million passengers a year, whereas 25 to 30 million passengers move through Logan. Ron also notes that while the terrorist threat in Israel is similar to the threat posed by terrorists to U.S. airports, the level of intensity is lower in the U.S.
Two assumptions have anchored security at Ben Gurion since 1972, when 24 people died during an attack on the airport by Japanese Red Army militants. “We assumed that before an attack could take place, there had to be a person with the intention of carrying out an attack, and second, there had to be a weapon,” says Ron. “On Sept. 11, we learned that a weapon is not necessary. What remains is the human factor. Without a person who intends to do harm, an attack will not take place.”
Comprehensive Security Planning
The implication of this insight — find the person, and you can stop the attack — has proven enormously difficult to absorb. Since Sept. 11, for example, the U.S. government has spent more than $4 billion on airport security technology designed to detect weapons — and virtually nothing on finding people with hostile intentions inside airports.
Early on, Ben Gurion fell into the same trap. “When Ben Gurion started working on the problem in the early 1970s, we said that intentions are difficult to define and detect, so let's look for the weapon,” Ron says. “It’s a very natural reaction.”
Of course, looking for weapons is important. But then again, the Sept. 11 terrorists didn’t use weapons — they used box cutters. “You must look at the problem of security from 360 degrees and develop procedures that go beyond looking for weapons,” Ron says. “Technology is not a comprehensive tool. It can only do one thing: detect weapons. If you do not develop security procedures that go beyond technology, you are doomed to lose at the end of the day.”
Recent aviation security breaches add weight to Ron’s warning. In August, three fishermen rafting on the Hudson River washed up on the shore at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Looking for help, they wandered the runways at JFK for more than an hour. No one noticed them or questioned them, until they found a police officer and asked for help. In an even more bizarre incident, in September, a man hid inside a cargo container and shipped himself by air from New York to Dallas. “These airports put 10 locks on the front door, but left the back door open,” Ron says.
Neither of these events could have occurred at Ben Gurion, where the airport grounds, cargo areas and other back doors receive intense scrutiny. “Comprehensive security planning means recognizing that a lot of things can happen at an airport that have not happened before,” Ron says. “You have to believe that there is always someone out there watching and waiting for you to make a mistake. I think this attitude dictates many of the security decisions made at Ben Gurion. They know that if they are not good enough, they will be hit.” In short, Ron believes that comprehensive planning must deal with more than screening passengers and baggage, the focus of aviation security in the United States. Instead, aviation security planning must get back to basics and establish exterior perimeters at the access roads, bodies of water and open land surrounding an airport. Planners must create new layers of security inside the perimeters, tightening security as these layers move closer to passenger screening areas in terminals.
To implement an effective layered security program, continues Ron, security directors must consider human factors, which have been virtually ignored in the U.S.
Facing The Human Factor
Late last year, Logan International became the first airport in the nation to move beyond technology and look terrorism in the eye. With Ron’s help, Logan implemented a program developed at Ben Gurion and designed to ferret out people who may intend to do harm at the airport.
Called behavior pattern recognition or BPR, the program has trained more than 100 state police troopers who provide security inside and around the airport. “Our troopers are in a proactive mode, using their skills and training to observe passenger behavior,” says State Police Major Thomas Robbins, director of aviation security for the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), which owns and operates Logan.
Troopers look for people behaving in unusual ways. For example, troopers would question a person buttoned up in a trench coat on a 100-degree day. Troopers would also approach a person with no baggage buying a ticket at the international travel counter. “There may be nothing wrong, but this behavior would attract our attention,” Robbins says.
Troopers interview people who catch their attention. Questions include the purpose of the person’s visit to Boston and his or her destination. Along the way, troopers ask for identification and check the person’s ticket and passport. Troopers are trained to handle interviews in a friendly manner, designed both to avoid giving offense and to put interviewees at ease and off guard.
General interview questions — "What did you see in Boston?" — raise follow-up questions: "Oh, you’ve been sightseeing. What did you like best?" Follow up questions help verify answers to the initial ones. Interviews conclude with one of four results. The trooper may wish the passenger a good trip. If suspicions arise, the trooper may recommend Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel pay close attention to the person at the screening checkpoint. More serious suspicions will lead troopers to recommend that the airlines refuse to let the passenger fly. Finally, the person may be arrested. Regardless of the result, troopers record the interviews along with a description of the person. Interviews that raise suspicions receive note in formal field interview and observation reports, which are forwarded to a Joint Terrorist Task Force, an information sharing organization composed of local, state and federal law enforcement officials.
Robbins declines to provide statistics related to how many interviews have been conducted over the past six months or the results of those interviews. But he does say that interviews have produced each of the four possible results.
At Logan, state troopers interview people inside the airport, outside along entrance walkways, in parking lots and during random roadblocks set up at the airport’s numerous access roads, forming layers of security similar to those used at Ben Gurion.
There are significant differences. At Ben Gurion, for example, all vehicles traveling on airport access roads must stop at booths staffed by security people. “I would love to model Logan after Ben Gurion,” Robbins says. “But with 25 million passengers, we can’t talk to everyone. If we tried, it would cause gridlock.”
Since Robbins' troopers cannot talk to everyone, they have to pick and choose. How they pick and choose is the subject of a Constitutional debate.
Racial Profiling Vs. Behavior Pattern Recognition
For years, police departments across the country have been struggling with accusations related to racial profiling. Racial profiling is the illegal act of an officer stopping and questioning someone based on ethnic appearance.
On the other hand, "reasonable suspicion" is deemed acceptable in a court of law. More than a hunch but legally less than probable cause, reasonable suspicion relates to patterns of behavior that a trained police officer might want to question.
Ron and Robbins have labored to fit behavior pattern recognition to this standard at Logan, not only to satisfy civil liberties questions, but also to meet their security goals.
At Logan, for instance, people can refuse interview requests from state troopers, however, doing so will produce more scrutiny at other security checkpoints, Robbins says.
More importantly, both Ron and Robbins say racial profiling does not serve airport security goals. Ben Gurion Airport security personnel have long faced accusations of racial profiling. Critics argue that many more Arab people are questioned than other ethnic groups. Ron denies the profiling charge. “Speaking from a security point of view, it would be professionally stupid to divert attention from non-Arab people,” he says. “For example, the worst attack on Ben Gurion was carried out by Japanese in 1972. If we focus on ethnic groups, we will miss what the enemy already understands: using a non-Arab person to carry out an attack might succeed.”
Robbins agrees, calling behavior pattern recognition the opposite of racial profiling. “With profiling, you select a group of people and just look at those people,” he says. “That won’t work. For example, you probably wouldn’t talk to a Tim McVeigh. You have to take the focus off profiling and analyze behaviors. This is what will help us to keep our airport safe.”
Logan’s behavior pattern recognition program has begun to catch the attention of airport security directors around the country. According to Robbins, several dozen requests for information are streaming in from large and small airports around the country. The TSA has also made inquiries.
If Logan’s program succeeds, behavior pattern recognition may become the next major step in U.S. aviation security.

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