Istanbul Attack Highlights Vulnerability Of 'Soft Targets' Outside Airport Security
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The attack in Bangladesh comes days after an attack on the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. Turkish authorities say the assailants, who killed 44 people and injured scores more, had initially been turned away at a security checkpoint before they opened fire. It's once again exposed the vulnerability of what security experts call soft targets, areas that are outside the security perimeter. Authorities here have ramped up security at U.S. airports this holiday weekend. But as NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago, securing soft target areas is difficult.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Here at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, there does seem to be a bit more of a visible police and security presence. I've even seen some SWAT team officers wearing green battle fatigues and carrying semi-automatic weapons patrolling up here, around the check-in kiosks and counters, outside at the curbside drop off and check-in, as well as downstairs at the baggage claim areas. And on this busy holiday weekend, many travelers welcome that level of heightened security.
LINDA WILLIAMS: I think it's pretty safe. I see a lot of police walking around, so I think it's pretty safe.
SCHAPER: Linda Williams, who is on her way home to California, isn't the only one who likes what she sees. So, too, does Marian Medina of suburban Wheaton.
MARIAN MEDINA: I think it does make you feel better. You do consider it - right? - when you're checking in and that kind of thing. You think about, yeah, there will be more police at the airport today. And, yes, I do think that gives you a sense that people are watching out for things.
SCHAPER: But ask Wedge Lewison, who is on his way from Abu Dhabi to upstate New York, how concerned is he about airport security.
WEDGE LEWISON: More concerned than I've ever been, but it's everywhere you go - U.S., overseas. It could happen anywhere.
SCHAPER: Lewison says there are greater layers of security in many overseas airports, particularly in the Middle East, where some screening takes place outside of the terminal.
LEWISON: That, to me, makes the most sense. The problem is then you get everybody piled out outside, so a guy could drive by and do something from a drive-by.
SCHAPER: And experts say that's the problem with these soft targets. Move the hard security perimeter further out, and there's still a bottleneck where people are lining up that becomes the new target.
MIKE QUIGLEY: It's getting easier and cheaper to make an attack and more costly and more difficult to defend against them.
SCHAPER: Chicago Congressman Mike Quigley.
QUIGLEY: It's safer than ever to fly, but getting in and out of an airport is what's become the bigger concern.
SCHAPER: Quigley, a Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, notes that security in between the curb and the TSA checkpoints is often done by local police. And he says their homeland security funding has been cut dramatically in recent years. But some experts question the effectiveness of such visible shows of security.
TOM MOCKAITIS: I've seen, in this country, us waste literally millions of dollars on what I call placebo security.
SCHAPER: Tom Mockaitis is a counterterrorism expert at Chicago's DePaul University.
MOCKAITIS: Highly visual measures like armed guards strutting up and down in our airports, you know, look - you know, creating a feeling of well-being and a feeling of security without providing any real added benefit.
SCHAPER: Mockaitis says the more effective security is that which you don't see, including high tech surveillance cameras and undercover agents. Beyond those measures, Mockaitis says, it's even more important to get to those who would do harm long before they reach any target.
MOCKAITIS: You do that with good intelligence work. You try to identify vulnerable people who might be radicalized, counter the radicalization and so on.
SCHAPER: And on that front, Mockaitis says, U.S. intelligence agencies are making significant progress. While soft targets can never be made 100 percent secure, Mockaitis and other security experts say the overall risk is relatively low, meaning it's more important to wear sunscreen and a seat belt this holiday weekend to protect against greater risks. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.