A dozen operators sit transfixed staring at TV monitors in a dingy room at the back of a Heathrow terminal. Protected by thickened glass to shut out the thundering clatter of a rolling conveyor belt laden with line after line of suitcases, they watch for suspicious objects as they pass through their X-ray machine.
But despite their best endeavours, regular screen breaks and close supervision, the odds are stacked against them stopping the breach of security that could lead to an aircraft being blown from the sky.
I would regularly visit Heathrow to see how the security measures planned at Scotland Yard were working when I was the head of the Met’s counter-terrorism operations. I was not always reassured. The search regimes were tested by undercover security staff posing as travellers — and occasionally they managed to smuggle dangerous objects through the system.
That’s why we should not regard body scanners — though a welcome addition to the counter-terrorism armoury — as an infallible way of stopping a repeat of the Christmas Day bomb attempt. Regardless of how well designed this new kit is, it will always be dependent on imperfect humans. And the sheer numbers of passengers and pieces of baggage that need checking would push any technology to its limits.
So, if we cannot entirely rely on technology, what about improved “watchlists”? The watchlist will only ever be as good as what the authorities know — and how good they are at sharing the information on them. Watchlists, of course, are dependent on the human factor: it needs people to input information accurately, and then assess and act on it. There is also the problem of information overload — the US authorities have tens of thousands of names on their watchlists (MI5 has about 2,000 on its) making it harder to identify the real threats.
The obvious flaw of any watchlist is that the information on it has to be ordered in some sort of way: the risk rating given to individuals is only ever commensurate with the risk they pose at a particular moment. But people change over time. We don’t know yet what was actually recorded against the name of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab but it does appear he was at the lower risk end of the list; he might even have become a dormant entry. So even if information about the alleged Detroit bomber was shared, it is uncertain whether he would have been regarded as a serious threat.
The weaknesses of the watchlist system can be partially overcome by generating better intelligence — which takes time and money — along with more rigorous reassessment of the information in it and improved cross-referencing with other databases here and abroad. But a “watchlist plus” approach is only tinkering with a frail system.
The real change to aviation security must occur in the way we search travellers. The security staff who work hard to protect us need to have a sharper focus: that means profiling.
It goes without saying that all travellers and their bags must be checked. But subjecting everyone to the same degree of scrutiny means that energy and expertise that could be better directed at people who pose a real threat is being wasted.
Profiling has its weaknesses but it does ensure that our security efforts are better targeted. This more precise sifting should raise the game of security staff as they know that each search is more than just a case of going through the motions.
Passengers travelling on certain routes or paying for tickets in cash should signal a warning to the authorities. But we also have to accept that, though politically controversial, profiling by background and race is also necessary.
Profiling is already happening in all but name in the way the police exercise “stop and search” terror powers. It shouldn’t be a surprise that police officers are more likely to stop young Asian males — because terrorists operating in Britain are likely to be young Asian males. Only a small proportion of previous perpetrators have not had South Asian origins.
But because of the sensitivity surrounding this, some officers stop the most unlikely members of the public in order to conceal the fact that they are concentrating on young Asian males. I have lost count of the number of complaints I received from disgruntled MPs or pensioners who had been stopped and searched on the streets of Whitehall. This would be unnecessary if we had a more sensible, honest approach.
Some argue that profiling will be a recruiting sergeant for terrorism: but it is hard to imagine the chain of events that would lead from someone being stopped at Heathrow to him joining al-Qaeda. It is true that there is a risk that some Muslims may feel victimised, but I believe that most Muslims understand that the threat we all face requires tougher, but sensitively handled, measures.
The public had a lucky escape in Detroit on Christmas Day. The failure of this apparent terrorist will make his comrades even more determined to perpetrate an outrage. We can only hope that the authorities are resolute enough to overcome their fear of controversy to do what is necessary to protect us.
Andy Hayman, Assistant Commissioner for Special Operations at the Metropolitan Police.