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Pondering the Israelification of our airports 31, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, UK.
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I wrote an article earlier this week for the Daily News Egypt looking at the trajectory of would-be suicide aviation hijackings. I concluded that authorities need to stop ‘fighting the last war’ as one commentator put it, recognize that our luck after two failed attacks has now ran out and that there needs to be some serious changes in the way that we ‘do’ security. I posited that the argument over profiling needs to be had again. When I say profiling – calm down – I do not mean picking out of a line ever ‘dark colored fellow with a beard’ but an intelligence led assessment by security staff of the people in the airport. In the back of my mind as I wrote this was Israel’s airport security. Cue, bang of time, an article on exactly this topic: the Israelification of western airports.

The article begins by claiming that Western airports should be more like Israel’s because they “deal with far greater terror threat with far less inconvenience.” Leaving aside the problematic question of whether Israel faces a greater threat of airline terrorism, it nevertheless offers an intriguing hypothesis. What is it that Israelis do at their airports? [Also see this]

The chirpy reporter discusses exactly this question with a cowboy of an Israeli security consultant. It is, it seems, all about the layers of security.

  1. Drivers arriving at the airport are automatically asked two questions: How are you, and, where are you from? The trained staff asking these questions are looking for signs of distress – this is the main criteria for their profiling, not race or gender.
  2. Armed guards at the terminal itself pay close attention to all the passengers, again, looking for distress or otherwise curious behavior.
  3. Some passengers are then taken aside and their things searched on a random basis for heavy metals or indeed anything else bizarre.
  4. Passengers then get familiar questions at the check-in counter. However, the article gives the impression that the staff trained in Israel are doing far more than running through the motions, staring into your eyes – apparently (?) – for one thing.
  5. Luggage is then immediately scanned in a bomb-proof area so that if something is seen it can be contained without the whole terminal or airport shutting down.
  6. Then, as you go through into departures, comes the body and luggage check. It is, apparently, very quick in Israel. Instead of focusing on shoes, liquids and tweasers, the guards are concentrating on you as a person, again, profiling you.

All of this means – allegedly – that you can get from car park to duty-free in 25 minutes.

All these measures are in addition to the myriad of checks and routines that Israeli security and intelligence services perform 24/7.

This does, indeed, sound very good. The best thing to be said about it is that it clearly works well so why aren’t we in Europe and the States following such a model for greater security and for less inconvenience?

Israel is a small country with a comparatively tiny amount of international airports and thus an absolute fraction of the staff to train in these profiling arts. It would take a mammoth and hugely expensive effort for, for example, international airports in the US to convert to the Israeli method and the same goes for Europe. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we can not still learn and adapt techniques from Israel. Whilst I am no expert on airport security in the West here are a few things that I suggest:

  • More random, obtrusive bag checks.
  • Whilst there are – I assume – plenty of police at airports ‘profiling’ passengers, the more the merrier.
  • US intelligence dropped the ball to a horrific degree by not getting messages from one end of their security apparatus to the other in the Christmas Day attempted attack. Perhaps if, like in Israel, airport security was under the auspices of, for example, a new branch of the CIA, this would help. (Though I’m sure that this may well open a whole other can of worms that I can’t think of just now…)
  • Have another ring of security and another set of eyes on every car entering the airport. The more trained eyes the better.
  • Don’t invade any more Muslim countries…seriously, that would help.

Many of my suggestions would, I imagine, cost a huge amount of money and involve significant difficulties, of this, I am under no illusion. Please comment below if you’ve got any better ideas.

Hat tip: the not so hidden Imam

Dubai’s press directives exposed? 30, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates.
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Dubai Media Observer cheekily points out a very interesting potential faux pas by The Gulf News. Just below the headline there is the sentence:

Emphasize country’s structure as a federation with different emirates that cooperate and help each other for the common good.

This looks suspiciously as if it is some kind of directive from ‘on high'( i.e. the government) instructing the sub-editor of the Gulf News on what her article should be about or, at very least, what it should emphasize. It could, of course, be totally innocent. Perhaps it is a note written by the author to herself or something like this. However, this really isn’t how it looks.

The article, is, by the way, rubbish.

Plotting the trajectory of airline terrorism 30, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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This article appeared in The Daily News Egypt on the 29/12/2009.

The terrorist who attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day did so with 80g of explosives. Considering that 100g of this explosive — pentaerythritol trinitrate or PETN — is capable of destroying a car, as one expert put it, 80g would easily have ripped a gaping hole in the fuselage. Whether the pilot could have subsequently landed the plane is a moot point. What is of infinitely more concern is the next attack and what methods it will employ. One way of pondering such questions is to place this latest attempted outrage in its historical context and to try to extrapolate some kind of evolutionary trajectory.

Christmas Eve 1994 saw the first hijacking of a plane where the intention was to use it as a weapon. Thankfully, the Air France plane hijacked in Algiers landed in Marseilles on Christmas Day where it was stormed by French GIGN Special Forces ending the siege and killing the terrorists, thwarting their plans to blow up the plane over the Eiffel Tower. In 1995, thanks to an accidental explosion at an apartment in the Philippines, Operation Bonjika was discovered and stopped. This was an audacious attempt to hijack and destroy up to 12 intercontinental airplanes with American affiliation over the ocean. The terrorists planned to use liquid explosives stored in contact-lens solution bottles. Had they succeeded, up to 4,000 people could have been killed.

These examples of terrorism are all but forgotten in the face of the 9/11 attacks where all it took were some box cutters. These attacks ushered in a new era of terrorism and a new era of countermeasures. Yet, come 22nd December 2001 and Richard Reid attempted to circumvent these by concealing explosives in his shoes. He too was — thankfully — thwarted and this led to all shoes being x-rayed in American airports and many out with the US too. 2006 saw the arrest of several British citizens when their plan to blow up several transatlantic airliners using liquid explosives was discovered. This resulted in liquids being banned from being taken on planes.

There is an obvious pattern of after the fact catch up in these examples by the security transport authorities. Nevertheless, the failure of these three post-9/11 attacks appears to have relied more on luck than any particular countermeasure.

In the past week, hand baggage has been restricted, GPS positioning entertainment features are being switched off, passengers are not being allowed to get up in the last half hour of the flight and blankets are not allowed to be kept on laps. These measures may well contribute to thwarting someone trying to do exactly the same things as previous failed attempts, but authorities need to seek to plan for the next, modified attack.

At the end of August 2009 a terrorist came to Saudi Arabian Interior Minister Prince Nayef to give himself up, as is often the custom. After going through security and sitting across from Prince Nayef for several minutes the man then exploded, his arm getting embedded in the ceiling. Nayef emerged with only a scratch on his cheek and his hand. It soon transpired that the man had fashioned presumably the world’s first ‘bum bomb’ and had anywhere up to 500g of explosives secreted inside himself. Therefore, when the explosives were detonated, the overstuffed couch and his body absorbed practically all of the energy.

It would be wrong to think that terrorists are intrinsically either irrational or stupid because of what they do. The cliché that they are all poor, uneducated men is also not true:  the recent would-be bomber had a degree from one of the UK’s best institutions. It would be prudent to assume, therefore, that it is but a matter of time before PETA explosives and the idea of secreting them inside one’s body are married together.

In recent days many people have been highlighting the efficacy of full-body scanners. They are quicker and arguably more effective than methods currently employed but the machines are quite expensive (around $170,000) and civil liberties groups are vocally against their introduction. In the most recent example, it is likely (though not certain) that such a scanner would have seen the small package near hidden in the terrorist’s clothing but would be highly unlikely to see anything inside a body cavity.

The only way to avoid this persistent game of attack, response, change, attack, is to stop thinking purely technologically. Of course, scanners and the like will be a key way of mitigating such threats, but whatever technological impediment is placed in front of a terrorist will — eventually — be circumvented, necessity being the mother of all invention. In short, the human part of the equation must not be forgotten and ugly arguments about profiling need to be rehashed. I am not referring to blanket ‘stop him, he’s got a beard’ profiling, but nuanced profiling linked up with already existing intelligence information.

I would suggest that a well-trained official, versed in subtle interrogation and questioning techniques and cognisant of his past would have, at the very least, remanded the terrorist on flight 253 to stricter security measures. Needless to say, this is no panacea and it would be expensive and problematic to train sufficient security staff, but a more nuanced approach is needed as surely with three failed attempts in recent years our luck has nearly run out.

Holocaust survivor on hunger strike 29, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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An 85-year-old Holocaust survivor is about to begin a hunger strike to pressure Egyptian authorities to let through Gaza Freedom Marcher participants into Gaza itself. That is an exceedingly powerful gesture.

100,000,000 Iraqi dinars reward for information 29, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iraq.
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An Iraqi man has just been given 100m Iraqi dinars ($85,000) for a tip-off of the place and timing of a suicide car bombing. This is part of a campaign by the Iraqi government to up reward money for such tip offs as well as for information more generally.

A few thoughts:

1) This seems like a good idea to me. I am sure that it may well save many lives.

2) It is – I fear – only a matter of time before the first snitch dies a really rather awful death once s/he is found out. I imagine that such a such influx of cash to the average Iraqi household would be extraordinarily difficult to keep ‘under wraps’.

Al Hurra gets more funding 29, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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Al Hurra, the US Government’s attempt at winning the hearts and minds of the Middle East by founding and running an Arab TV news channel, has received another $112m from Congress. This is despite Al Hurra being condemned as all but useless by a raft of commentators. It is widely (and correctly) seen as little more than US government propaganda. Witness, for example, Al Hurra’s ridiculous decision to continue to show a cooking programme when news that the founder of Hamas Sheikh Ahmad Yassin had been  assassinated by an Israeli air strike was breaking. Yet, because of governmental inertia when it comes to projects such as these and sunk-cost accounting there is no end in sight for the $650,000,000 white elephant.

Hat tip: al bab

Desalinated water causes hair loss 28, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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At last ex-pats who have maintained for years that living in the Gulf means that they lose an inordinate amount of hair appear to have some science on their side. The culprit, according to a report, is the desalinated water. It’s got something to do with total dissolved solids in the water…

Hat tip: the balding hidden Imam

US Universities in Dubai struggling 28, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, The Emirates.
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The NYT has an interesting if unsurprising article discussing the seemingly grim future of US educational institutions in Dubai. I can’t help but note that this article comes around the same time as the Financial Times runs an article entitled ‘Qatar embraces the extravagant’, discussing (amongst other things) Qatar’s opulent housing-island development The Pearl. That, and the relatively rude health of Qatar’s education city with talk of expansion, suggests that the chasm between Qatar and Dubai appears to be growing.

Hat tip on Dubai’s University challenges: Abstract JK

Post apocalyptic Dubai 28, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates.
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…is the setting for a new first person shoot’em’up computer game. The trailer, below, is curiously beautiful and extremely well done. Though, as has been said, I doubt whether that will be appreciated in Dubai when the game goes on sale there.

Hat tip: Dr. Chris Davidson

KAUST: a summary 27, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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I have commented many a time on Saudi’s new high-tech University (here, here, here and here) but Saudi Jeans offers a pithy, concise summary of the state of play so far, concentrating on the back-tracking of the great and the good in Saudi as soon as it became clear that King Abdullah really wasn’t joking when he said that it would be a ‘liberal’ coeducational  institution.

Before KAUST, segregation was the norm and mixing was haraam. Then KAUST happened, and suddenly mixing turns out to be okay. Al-Shethri opened his mouth. He was sacked. The others got the message.

The new Minister of Justice explained in detail how segregation is a foreign concept and mixing is actually cool. Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, head of haya’a in Makkah, gave a lengthy interview to Okaz where he basically said that there is nothing wrong with mixing and those who oppose it are opposing Sharia. Meanwhile, his organization continue to terrorize people in other parts of the country.

Clown Mohammed al-Nujaimi before KAUST was inaugurated stressed the importance of segregation in education, something he described as one of the fundamentals on which the Saudi state was built. Few weeks later, after al-Shethri was sacked, he took a full U-turn.

Problem is, apologists like Jamal Khashoggi now have to make up lies to make this sounds normal. Mixing at KAUST is very restricted, he says, that a Venezuelan student can’t have his Mexican female friend over at his place.

Is that true, Nathan? I know you threw a nice Thanksgiving party earlier this year, and from the pics I can see you had some girls over. I hope you didn’t get any trouble after that party.

So confusion prevails. In the past we were told mixing is sinful. Now we are told it is alright. Those who don’t want to appear contradicted talk about good mixing and bad mixing. Are we supposed to believe the “mixers,” the “segregationists,” or the “hypocrites”? Such a dilemma…