Can U.S. Airports Prevent an Istanbul-Like Terrorist Attack?

SSI spoke with former TSA Assistant Administrator of Security Operations Mike Restovich to explain the challenges and solutions for protecting airports against such an attack.

Three terrorists brought bombs and firearms to Istanbul’s Ataturk airport on Tuesday and attacked, killing at least 42 people and injuring 239 more. And now, those around the world and in the United States are wondering what can be done to defend airports against these types of attacks.

SSI spoke with Mike Restovich, former assistant administrator of security operations at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and former special agent with the U.S. Secret Service, on this topic to better understand the challenges and solutions to help mitigate the risks of these types of attacks.

“TSA has been dealing with this vulnerability from Day 1,” Restovich said. “This is not something that’s new.”

Currently at U.S. airports, the greatest emphasis of security is at the checkpoints as passengers make their way to their gate. However, that leaves the front door and lobby vulnerable to an attack, a huge vulnerability that Restovich said TSA is aware of.

In the case of Istanbul, the airport was viewed as having more security than others because it has security checkpoints as you enter the airport. But Restovich, who has been to the Istanbul airport within the past year, said the checkpoint is merely metal detectors, which don’t help with identifying explosives. 

“It’s easily circumvented,” he said.

Furthermore, while having security checkpoints at the entrance to the airport might help people feel safer, the risk of an attack has merely been pushed out to the streets as large crowds form there as opposed to inside, Restovich said.

“Adding a checkpoint at the beginning of the airport as you enter doesn’t do anything other than extending where the lines are gonna be,” he said. “If you have lines out the door waiting to get into the airport before you ever get to the checkpoint, well then you’re vulnerable to vehicle attacks and everything. The only thing you’ve done is pushed the vulnerability out to the street.”

“That’s what ISIS is going after,” Restovich added. “There’s not a lot of things that you can do in soft targets, public areas. It’s a very tough countermeasure that you have in order to go after that.”

So what can be done? Restovich listed three countermeasures: K-9 units, Behavior Detection Officers (BDO) and Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) squads.

BDO teams were used when Restovich was with the TSA as recently as 2008. The officers walk around the parking lots and outside the airport and talk to people, looking for suspicious activity. Based on those conversations, they would use a scoring mechanism to determine if they were a threat. That score would help them decide whether or not to alert law enforcement.

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