Op-Ed: Identity, aviation security and the response to terrorism

A dozen years ago, I wrote my Master of Arts dissertation on how to deter acts of terrorism. More than a decade later, I find myself revisiting these deeply complicated questions as an aviation journalist in the wake of the apparent bombing of Metrojet flight 7K-9268 from Sharm el Sheikh and the coordinated attacks on Paris.

More widely, the outrage that we feel, the reaction to the targeting of an airliner just like the ones we’ve flown on or the ones flying overhead, the reaction that we feel when a city with which we are familiar from vacations, conferences, or even just the movies, is attacked, when civilians who are having dinner in a restaurant or watching a concert or enjoying a football game or going about daily lives that we feel are familiar with our own are brutally murdered — it is that most human desire for vengeance and retribution, that sense of rage with its undercurrent of fear, which the cold calculations of terrorists want to spark.

If terrorism is a type of political violence that is not carried out by states, war is the type of political violence that is. And a key way to stop wars — often before they begin — is deterrence. The path to deterring a state by the threat of retaliation is relatively simple, since states (and the people leading them) usually have a lot to lose from a retaliatory strike. That realisation struck me this September, as I visited the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, where a launch control center and a launch facility that provided thirty years of nuclear deterrence were deactivated as part of the START nuclear arms reduction treaty. Astoundingly, the world managed not to assure our mutual destruction during the Cold War. Of course, relatively rational actors in Washington and Moscow behaved in ways that were predictable in a different paradigm to what we faced with al Qaeda when I wrote my dissertation, and to what we face today with Daesh.

An amorphous network of purposefully separated cells, even one with a notional headquarters (whether that is in Afghanistan or Syria), is nearly impossible to retaliate against, which makes deterrence by retaliation problematic. As much as France bombs Raqqa, it is unlikely to have any noticeable effect on the ability of largely European nationals to attack Paris in the name of IS than American or international security was improved attacking Baghdad, four hundred miles downstream on the banks of the Euphrates. Indeed, the opposite was true: the history of Daesh is one of organisations affiliated with the previous decade’s foe, al Qaeda (literally, “the base”), and many of its fighters joined during the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation as extremist Islam reorganised.

The fact is, military responses to a non-militarised foe have a poor historical record. Deterring terrorism is multi-faceted: yes, take out the command and control functions of terrorist groups, strengthen intelligence gathering that has been proven to work, guard high-profile targets, but also deter by denial of effect. 

Deterrence by denial of effect requires that we understand that the purpose of this sort of Islamic terrorism is to spark a reaction that is perceived by Muslims as excessive. If we can refrain from that reaction, that’s the first step.

The next step is deterring motivations, both in terms of ensuring that home populations feel like valued members of society rather than becoming radicalised, and in terms of what is essentially PR to the rest of the world: public diplomacy. It is about getting believable messengers to speak in the cultural language of the target audience, which is a task as difficult as it is vital. Think about the international reputation (or lack thereof) of Kremlin mouthpiece RT outside Russia.

There is significant opportunity here in terms of public diplomacy, yet actions speak louder than the Voice of America or the BBC World Service. The failure to gain results from public diplomacy over the twelve years since I wrote my dissertation, the significant cuts to public diplomacy budgets, and the fact that this problem is clearly not going away mean that we need to act.

There is also work to be done around coming to an understanding of the “dread risk” of terrorism — the kind of infinitesimally low likelihood yet very high consequence action that tends to threaten aviation.

Aviation is, has been, and is likely to remain a key terrorist target. Yet we continue to fly, we strengthen aviation security, and in cases like Egypt other governments and airlines can ban flights until security can be assured.

Not all of that strengthening is risk-based. The significant security theater that continues to be implemented regardless of properly assessed risk is a serious issue for aviation. Terrorism is incredibly rare. The movie-plot terrorism that people fear is even more rare.

We are in a world where we have fortified airports, of which there are just a handful in even the largest city, to the point where softer targets like bars, shopping malls and concert venues are more attractive targets. That’s a benefit for aviation, but is it a benefit to society when suicide bombers and gunmen can kill as many people in Paris or Mumbai or any city in the world as are carried on board a narrowbody aircraft?

We calculate these risks as societies all the time, yet we do not talk openly about them. Our perception of the risk from death or injury in automobile accidents is clearly not sufficient to dissuade us from driving. We accept those risks for the convenience and utility that the automobile can bring. The US’ acceptance of the clearly demonstrated consequences of widespread firearm ownership baffles many international observers, who highlight the enormously costly US response to a relatively small number of terrorism deaths in comparison with the lack of any significant response to a uniquely massive number of firearm deaths. Examples abound.

We need the strong political will to take real, risk-based decisions based on the intelligence that is gathered, enabling societies to go about their daily business with an understanding that intelligent, considered actions are being taken for their safety. We need a media that informs and educates rather than driving traffic through a morally bankrupt race to have the most gory pictures, the most heartwrenching stories, the first sobbing relative.

Let us stand in Facebook solidarity with France, while also realising that there are other attacks happening in the world that are more removed from our experience. Let us help people who are fleeing this selfsame enemy that is attacking us, welcoming them into our societies and showing them kindness. Let us look, in hours of darkness, as US educator Fred Rogers said, for the people who are running to help.

And let us come to accept and understand that one of the ramifications of living in open, pluralist, accepting societies — the very societies that religious extremists of all types condemn — is that we can be targets, infinitesimally small though the risk may be to us individually, and as much as we do to stop it. No security is perfect, no matter how draconian, and we are the poorer for living in an atmosphere of anything but quiet defiance and a resolution to live our lives on our own terms.

Three quarters of a million refugees have been settled in the United States since September 11th, 2001. Not one has been arrested on terrorism charges. It would seem, initially, that the number of homegrown extremist terrorists in the Paris attacks vastly outnumbers any overseas nationals who might have slipped through (or who might have had fake documentation planted on them). 

If we change who we are as societies and how we live our lives to such an extent that we no longer recognise the best of our societal values — if the United States turns back the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free; if Einigkeit and Recht and Freiheit are discarded in the name of Germany’s security; if France’s terrorist manhunt compromises liberté, égalité and fraternité; if the dirt streets of Raqqa sound like a better deal to anyone than England’s green and pleasant land — then we have truly lost.