Washington — Renewed threats of airborne terror have once again drawn attention to Israel’s track record of preventing terror attacks on airplanes.
American commentators and politicians, riled by the recent failure to stop terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab from boarding a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit, have raised calls for “Israelification” of American airports and the adoption of the security model used at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport.
But while Israel does maintain an excellent track record for preventing airplane terrorism, its unique system of security, which leans heavily on personal interaction and on group profiling, cannot easily be emulated by the United States.
“The way things work in the United States is 180 degrees opposite to the way things work in Israel,” said Yuval Bezherano, an executive at an Israeli consulting firm that designs airport security systems. “Adopting the full Israeli system won’t work, because of costs, time and legal differences.”
Abdulmuttalab’s attempt to set off an explosive device strapped to his underwear December 25, minutes before the plane landed in Detroit, revealed a series of gaps in airport security practices, beginning with authorities ignoring alerts about his possible ties with terror groups and ending with security screeners failing to detect the explosive.
While American and European security procedures rely mainly on technological solutions for screening luggage and passengers, Israel’s security philosophy is based on a mix of advanced detection devices and personal interaction with the passengers.
The multi-layer system begins outside Israel’s biggest port of entry — Ben Gurion airport. Cars approaching the terminal are stopped by guards and asked one or two questions, usually about where they are coming from or what is the purpose of their visit. A nervous response, or one revealing an Arab accent, could trigger further scrutiny even before entering the airport.
When walking into the terminal, visitors pass by another set of security agents searching for passengers behaving suspiciously. The next stop for human evaluation is before the check-in counter, where passengers are required to show their travel documents and answer a series of seemingly standard questions from trained security personnel. (Did you pack your bags by yourself? How long did you spend in Israel? What was the purpose of your visit?) Screeners are interested more in the tone and body language than in the content of passengers’ replies.
This is also the point where profiling takes place: While most Jewish Israeli citizens will be waved through after the brief conversation, others, mainly Israeli Arabs and non-Jewish visitors, will be taken aside for lengthy questioning and a thorough luggage and physical check.
An Israeli official aware of the security practices said that profiling is not based solely on ethnic, religious or national affiliation, but rather on a combination of factors that also include behavioral patterns, travel information and previous intelligence.
Adding to the personal screening process, passengers at Ben-Gurion also go through a metal detector, and an X-ray machine checks their luggage.
“We could all do a lot worse than to learn from the Israeli model,” wrote David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee on The Huffington Post. To critics of the Israeli profiling system, Harris replied that it is more sophisticated than simple classification according to groups and that “Israel’s procedures have worked, with a minimum of inconvenience for the vast majority of travelers, who spend no more time at the airport than their American counterparts.”
It is possible to learn from the Israeli model, as Harris suggested, but experts agree adopting it in its entirety would be impractical.
Israel has only one main international airport that serves, at its peak, no more than 10 million passengers a year. This is comparable to an airport the size of the San Juan airport in Puerto Rico and is much smaller than America’s major hubs such as Chicago, Atlanta or Los Angeles, which each see up to 80 million passengers a year.
“If you want to start questioning everyone who goes through U.S. airports, you’ll need to train tens of thousands of employees, to create new procedures and to take into account the impact it will have in terms of money and time,” said Bezherano, senior vice president of New Age Security Solutions, a consulting firm created by former Israeli security officials and based in Washington, D.C. The company revamped security in Boston’s Logan airport after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and has since worked with major American and international airports. The firm tries to adapt the Israeli idea of behavioral screening to the American reality by offering systems that involve personal observation and interaction with airport visitors without actually questioning each and every passenger.
Interest in Israeli security firms peaked after the September 11 terror attacks, and many former counterterrorism professionals from Israel ventured into the growing American security market.
But according to an Israeli involved in the security sector, most Israeli-run security consulting companies have since downsized or left the field of airport security due to the difficulty in overcoming cultural gaps that prevented implementing Israeli methods in American airports. “People simply won’t agree to spend all that time and money,” he said. “You can’t change the way people think.” Bezherano added another factor: “Americans find it hard to swallow a security policy that employs different standards to different groups.”
While for most Jewish Israelis the policy of profiling in airport security is viewed as acceptable, Arab citizens of the country see it as outright discrimination.
“This is the most offensive and humiliating experience I have ever had. I was immediately suspect because I am Arab,” said Saleh Yaaqubi, an Arab-Israeli student chosen to represent Tel Aviv University in an international conference alongside several other students. Yaaqubi’s story was told in a 2006 report prepared by the Arab Association for Human Rights. He said that while all Jewish members of his group passed the security checkpoints quickly, he was taken for further questioning time and again, both when leaving Israel and upon his return.
Non-Jewish tourists and academics visiting Israel also spoke of being singled out from the crowd and asked intrusive questions about their personal lives.
But in the heightened security atmosphere that has prevailed in the United States since the latest terror attempt, some find the practice of profiling based on ethnicity, religion or nationality to be more appealing.
“It’s not racial profiling. It’s profiling just like the Israelis do. Let’s use the same procedures that the Israelis do in El Al,” said Tom McInerney, a retired Air Force general, on Fox News.
And former House speaker Newt Gingrich joined the debate in a column published by the conservative newspaper Human Events: “It is time to know more about would-be terrorists, to profile for terrorists and to actively discriminate based on suspicious terrorist information.”
Since early January, the United States has in fact introduced new requirements based on passengers’ country of origin or citizenship. Travelers from 14 countries — including Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Syria — are now required to undergo an extra search before boarding planes to America.
“We are already hearing calls for profiling, and we will hear more of that,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Alden, who wrote a book about American entrance policies following the September 11 attacks, said profiling “in its crude form” doesn’t work and that it could have negative implications for America in terms of its diplomatic and economic relations with other countries.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org