U.S. airport visitors vulnerable, security experts say

An explosion ripped through the international arrivals hall at Moscow's busiest airport on Monday, killing at least 29 people and wounding about 130, officials said. The Russian president called it a terror attack.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 6:41 PM

By midafternoon most days, hundreds of people gather just outside the security perimeter to wait for passengers coming in on international flights at Dulles International Airport.

Just like the dozens killed and injured at a Moscow airport on Monday, they are vulnerable to a terrorist who walks into their midst laden with explosives, said Rafi Ron, the former security chief at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport.

"That becomes a very attractive target to a suicide bomber," Ron said. "The attack in Moscow should draw attention to the need for increased security in these areas."

Spokesmen for the three major Washington-area airports - Dulles, Baltimore-Washington Marshall International and Reagan National - said there were no disruptions in service or changes to security at their facilities. They referred additional questions about their security measures to the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

"We are monitoring the tragedy at Moscow's Domodedovo airport," TSA spokesman Nicolas Kimball said in a written statement. "As always, we are working with our international partners to share information regarding the latest terrorist tactics and security best practices. Passengers may continue to notice unpredictable security measures in all areas of U.S. airports, including before the checkpoint. These measures include explosives-detection technology, canine teams and Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams, among other measures both seen and unseen.

"As always, the safety and security of the American people is our highest priority and we ask the public to remain vigilant and aware of their surroundings and report any suspicious activity to their local authorities," Kimball said.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States has spent billions on aviation security, the vast majority of it intended to thwart those intent on blowing up airplanes in flight. While even the non-secure airport areas are under constant scrutiny, the intensity picks up markedly at security checkpoints and boarding areas.

"It's necessary to reassess, rethink and, perhaps, reallocate aviation security resources," said Richard W. Bloom, an aviation security expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "Why more of what happened in Moscow hasn't happened before is a good question to ask. This demonstrates how easy it is to do this, particularly if you have a suicide bomber."

Security personnel, often accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs, roam the areas outside the security perimeter - the ticketing counters, baggage claim areas and curbside lines - at most major American airports. Those areas, as well as parking lots and garages, also come under the scrutiny of surveillance cameras.

"But the farther you get away from the controlled area, the bigger the drop-off in terms of quality and quantity of security," Bloom said.

Ron, who is a security consultant for U.S. airports, agreed with Bloom on the need to intensify security in those areas. In addition to adding more personnel to the effort, Ron suggested a reexamination of airport design.

"I don't know what the situation was in Moscow, but judging from the large number of casualties I would assume there were a lot of flying objects," he said. "A lot of U.S. airports have a lot of glass elements and partitions, all of which turn into very dangerous projectiles when there is an explosion."

Since a suicide bomber isn't likely to carry enough explosives to bring down a roof, the multiplying effect of things sprayed about by the blast may do more damage than the explosion itself. Airports should be redesigned to mitigate that, Ron said.

Ron said an intense security ring extends well beyond the airport doors in Tel Aviv.

"There is a checkpoint on the main access road to the airport where cars are stopped and searched," he said. "There is security at every entrance, with personnel who are highly trained in suspicious behavior detection and recognition of suspicious items.

"Before a person gets into the terminal, he or she has been under more than a few pairs of eyes, has been spoken to and, if necessary, searched."

Bloom, who also chairs the aviation security committee of the Transportation Research Board, noted that a Moscow taxi driver told authorities he observed the apparent bomber carrying a suitcase into the terminal at Domodedovo Airport.

"I saw the suitcase; the suitcase was on fire," Artyom Zhilenkov, the 35-year-old driver, said, according to an Associated Press report. "So, either the man blew up something, or something went off on the man's body, or the suitcase went off."

Bloom said the man was described as short and with a dark complexion.

"Dark complexion is a tip-off of somebody coming from the Caucasus region," said Bloom, who spent 20 years in U.S. military intelligence.

In fair-skinned Moscow, that may have indicated he came from the Chechen region, where separatists have waged war with Russia. Chechen rebels said they were responsible in 2004 after two female suicide bombers brought down a pair of Russian airliners that took off from Domodedovo, killing 90 people.

"The only thing you can do about a suicide bomber is to get to him before the bomb goes off," Bloom said.

halseya@washpost.com Staff writer Kafia A. Hosh contributed to this report.

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