Aviation security expert and the CEO of Scope Centre, Adebayo Babatunde in this interview with Chinedu Eze, said Nigeria should strengthen her intelligence and technology at the airports to ensure that airport users are adequately protected. Excerpts:
Recently, terrorists bombed Brussels airport. How can we continue to protect Nigeria’s airports to ensure that such tragedy never happens in this country?
The first thing to look at is what actually happened at Brussels airport. There was security breach, which enable the terrorists to have access to the terminal and they were able to detonate their weapons of destruction, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDS).
The second thing is to look at the efforts of the intelligent community in all of this. Situating it from the last point, you remember that some of the fellows involved in this attack had earlier been apprehended in Turkey and Turkey shared the intelligence with Belgium.
But for the failure of the local intelligence in Belgium, these people were not linked to terrorism and were let off and eventually they were able to perpetrate the act. What this tells us is that intelligence is the most potent weapon to tackle these problems.
How does it work? We are in the cyber age where if everything happens in the flash of a second and therefore terrorism has a lot to do with cybercrime. Countries are investing to counter cybercrime technology, such that the state security is able to manage and nip in the bud potential terrorism act. I listened to Euro anti-terrorism chiefs who subtly mentioned that the debt situation in Belgium could have been responsible for low investment in cyber terrorism. That was what happened.
It is very simple, if you don’t invest in the latest cyber terrorism technology and the latest counterterrorism, you cannot and you will not be able to counter this. It tells us one clear story; that we don’t focus our attention on intelligence and investment in e-technology solutions.
Having said this, it is very clear that all studies have proven that the softest target is the airport because you cannot prevent passengers from coming to the airport with their baggage. The question is, at what point do you decide to screen passengers as people and their baggage as luggage? Is it when they have entered the terminal and you now go through the formal screening process or before the terminal?
What this means also is that if you are going to decide to implement scanning solutions from the point of entry to the terminal then you have to invest. What do you invest in? You have to invest in solutions that can detect availability of IEDs and on person’s terrorism weapons.
Looking at what is going on in Nigeria and how far the security at the airports has developed, what are the things need in order to improve on what has already been done and to keep abreast and ensure that all the airports are continuously protected?
Today’s solution is that you have to look at the entire airport security architecture. Do we have adequate remedy for the level of threat that pervades the world today? Are we able to prevent situation as it happened in Brussels? Are we able to do that in Nigeria? This is because you should not forget that security breaches don’t happen everyday. It never happened in Brussels. It happens once and once it does it has maximum economic damage.
So we need to look at what we have on ground. We need to have a comprehensive risk assessment of our airport environment. If we cannot do it at the airports we start with the international airports because attack on them will have maximum effect. Terrorists look for opportunity to strike where they can get maximum effect.
So let us look at all the international airports. Then we do a very comprehensive and professional risk assessment. Let us first look at what is available so that we can look at solutions that can be proffered to all these gaps. Then we move on from there. That is what I think we should do.
Let’s look at security personnel at the airport, including aviation security from the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and the operatives from the Nigeria Air Force and the Nigeria Police. How are they going to fit into the new system? How do we prepare them in terms of skills acquisition and training?
Well, the first thing is to do what I call personal profiling because no matter what level of security technology that you have; if you have the security personnel that are likely to breach it you won’t succeed. So the first thing is to do a background check on everybody. You see what happened in Brussels? You find out that about 50 per cent of the security personnel at the airport had links to ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). When you have such, you are already sitting on a keg of gunpowder. So do we have the profile of manpower at our airports? What do we know about them?
So we need to first of all screen them professionally. Once we succeeded in doing that then we look at their training profile. The airport authority conducts certification training for security personnel, but not everybody passes. Some of them don’t pass the screening test and these people are still allowed to continue to work and screen passengers or are they dropped? You cannot have a blind man conducting scanning and screening operations. He is not going to detect any threat.
So let us weed out those that do not have the capability and capacity to do any of these operations. That will be when you will have the right people doing the job.
Looking at what the local terror group we have in Nigeria is able to do, how do you prevent the tragedy that happened at Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt where security insiders enabled the movement of a bomb into Russian airliner and killed 224 people. How do we prevent such from happening in Nigeria?
If you are familiar with aviation security operations; one of the major issues that professionals are worried about is familiarity and compromise by operators. What happens in Nigeria is quite interesting because operators sometimes allow people to pass without really screening them. Apart from that, too much familiarity and soliciting for money by the security personnel make the system porous. We need to ensure professionalism in airport security operations.
This is because if we adopt our usual know-me-I-know-you attitude it will be a problem. So to bring it to what happened in Egypt, we must ensure that our screening operation is up to date. Everybody that passes through, that goes from the landside to the airside, which is the sterile area, must pass through our screening operations. And our screening operations must be up to the test. This is because if the passenger or whoever is going to the airside, he goes through both the body scanner and the walk through scanner. Automatically there will be detection; except if somebody closes his eyes to the result.
Now, this calls for better supervision. The kind of technology available today provides opportunity for remote supervision, so that even the supervisor does not have to be on the spot but can monitor what is going on and take action quickly if there is any attempt to breach security. So this calls for new level of training; new level of investment in technology and effective screening of our airports by security operatives.
It is clear to say that five to six years ago one will not be talking about security of our airports and because of the scattered location of our airports, the security threat levels are high; the same with the security profiles of each airport, which is different from one another. So we cannot assume that the security prepared for Lagos airport will be suitable for the airport located in Maiduguri.
Through the comprehensive risk assessment you will be able to determine the potential security threat. The gaps that are necessary and the solutions you need, to close those gaps in terms of technology and access control.
What do you think government should do to prevent terror attacks and runway incursion at the airports?
Let’s first of all look at the essence of aviation security; it is for the protection of air travellers from unlawful interferences. Now there are basic structures set up to ensure that this happens. Among the structure is the structure of airport security itself, demarcation of specific areas of the airports, the land side, the airside and the perimeter, then you have the process of aircraft security, areas for screening passengers and their baggage, cabin baggage, then others like courier mails etc. then you have structure for screening merchant supplies which include in-flight and cabin supplies, food and the rest.
Of course you will also look at scanning of vehicles to the airside including those used for fuel refill for the aircraft. Most importantly you look at the staff recruitment processes to ensure that you do your full comprehensive background screening so that you don’t employ criminals and terrorists as aviation security operatives. Then you look at the standard for the scanning technology that you apply. So, all of these, put together are the basic requirement used to put in place a thorough aviation security; man and equipment. These are also covered in a particular document in the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Every country is enjoined to have its own national security conduct.
The national security programme detailed all of these as it relates to the aviation security programme, which also has a correlation with the integrated national security programme because the nation has its own national security document. So the national aviation security programme is just an integral part of the global security programme. You also have what you regard as the national quality control, which is basically the process of monitoring and ensuring compliance, which is the duty of the civil aviation authority; in our case it is the NCAA.