Istanbul attack shows airports still the 'most vulnerable' soft target

The carnage left in the wake of the deadly attacks on Turkey's busiest airport has forced nations around the world to face the discomforting reality that travellers and bystanders are relatively easy targets for those looking to spread violence and sow fear.

'Security theatre' not enough to keep airports safe for travellers, specialists say

Security specialists say that while armed guards can be effective in some circumstances, they won't necessarily deter 'professional attackers' from targeting people gathered at checkpoints and screening areas. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

The carnage left in the wake of the deadly attacks on Turkey's busiest airport has forced nations around the world to face the discomforting reality that travellers and bystanders are relatively easy targets for those looking to sow fear and spread violence and chaos, security experts say.

Tuesday's attack at Ataturk airport in Istanbul was carried out by three men armed with automatic weapons and strapped with explosives. At least 43 people were killed, and more than 230 were wounded.

While the investigation is in its early stages, it's clear that the attack was meticulously planned and executed. The assailants arrived in a taxi and went straight for one of the busiest areas of the airport. They also managed to overcome heightened security put in place at Ataturk after the March assault on the Brussels airport.

Regardless of any boosted security measures, however, airports are among the "most vulnerable" soft targets and likely always will be, according to Will Geddes, a security specialist based in London.

The problem is simple: airports are extremely busy, and security checkpoints and screening areas create masses of travellers standing around waiting to be processed. There's really no effective way to avoid it. 

Ataturk, Europe's third busiest airport, reopened just hours after Tuesday's attack. Travellers assembled around security barriers make easy targets for an attacker armed with an automatic weapon or an explosive device. (Gokhan Tan/Getty)

Sure, moving checkpoints farther from terminals would help preserve the infrastructure, but it would do little to protect human life.

"You're just moving the target," says Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence firm headquartered in Austin, Texas. 

"They're looking at killing people, that's the intent."

'Just as good a target'

Often security experts will consider an airport in two parts: the hard section that's protected behind checkpoints, and the soft section unprotected by the safety provided by those kinds of impediments. Stratfor advises clients to minimize the time they spend on the soft side, no matter the country or airport. 

Ataturk has at least two rings of security, with armed guards positioned at entrances, as well as at checkpoints inside the international terminal. Turkish officials credited airport security with forcing the attackers to split up and detonate their devices earlier than planned. 

Friends and family of victims of Tuesday's attacks gathered to say goodbye to their loved ones this week. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

One of the attackers was shot dead as he headed toward a large group of people in the arrivals area on the ground floor. He still managed to detonate a suicide bomb, but the death toll could have been far higher, officials said. 

"The aviation-security industry has been saying for years that eventually someone is going to figure out that 500 people standing in line at the checkpoint is just as good a target as if they get through [the checkpoint] and get to an airplane," Jeffrey Price, a professor of aviation science at Metropolitan State University of Denver, told The Associated Press.

'Security theatre'

But despite warnings, preventing an attack like the one in Turkey is an extremely difficult task, and increased firepower will only go so far. 

Geddes says the presence of heavily armed security serves two purposes: to "provide reassurance to all the travellers in that airport that there is a more serious approach to security and an amped-up level of security" and to give those charged with protecting travellers and bystanders a better chance at successfully engaging with an attacker. 

Stewart, though, says it really amounts to a show of "security theatre."

After the attack on the Brussels airport in March, armed guards were added to the perimeter doors around the international terminal at Ataturk. It's believed that the attackers in Turkey were forced to split up and detonate their explosive devices earlier than planned because guards engaged them as they entered the airport. (Ozan Kose/Getty)

"It may be a deterrent against some low-level assailants, but against experienced attackers it's really not all that effective," he says, adding that the key to preventing the kind of carnage seen at Ataturk is picking up on plans for an attack before it happens. 

Easier said than done, surely, but not impossible, he says. Even though the enemy is amorphous and able to focus on a wide array of soft targets, they must still go through what analysts call the "terrorist attack planning cycle."

"There are places along that cycle when they are vulnerable to detection," says Stewart.

The attack at Ataturk, for example, was likely the culmination of weeks or months of preparation that would have included the acquisition of automatic weapons and explosive devices and, perhaps most importantly, multiple reconnaissance trips. 

The presence of security forces well trained in detecting "hostile reconnaissance" is the most potent method for stopping attacks without the loss of civilian life, Geddes and Stewart agree.

Israel's Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, considered one of the safest airports in the world, is flush with undercover personnel who work exclusively at watching for this kind of activity. 

'Responsive but not reactive'

There is, however, also a need to balance safety with protecting the rights of law-abiding travellers, and it's a fine line to walk. 

Micheal Vonn, policy director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, says upgraded security should be "responsive but not reactive."

There's no doubt  airport security is an important public good, she says, and it's normal to have a heightened sense of security risk in that kind of environment. But a considered approach to safety is still needed.

"Too often we're susceptible to the notion when something terrible happens and people feel the normal human response of empathy and horror, that we must do something. This is not correct. We must do the right thing, and we might already be doing the right thing."

With files from The Associated Press