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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)


The best terror defence is intelligence Add to ...

Since 9/11, terror and planes have been etched in the mind.

The scenes were so ghastly in their horror, the destruction so massive, the deadly daring of the attacks so unexpected that the application of terrorism to air travel produced an immense, expensive and, in some respects, overwrought response.

No one has calculated the financial cost of the additional security burdens placed on air travel, to say nothing of the inconvenience. But the amount of money and labour is huge all around the world.

In North America, we have again learned what a historical study of terror reveals: It can strike anywhere, because the intended effect of terror is designed to be significant either in the number of deaths or a particular target.

Chiheb Esseghaier of Montreal and Raed Jaser of Toronto are alleged to have been plotting to derail a Toronto-New York passenger train. It would appear that U.S. and Canadian intelligence officials, working off a tip, tracked their intentions and arrested them.

Two immigrants from Dagestan, a place most Americans could never find on a map, detonated bombs at the Boston Marathon in a horrific act of terror at a major community event that attracts runners and spectators from across the U.S. and the world.

What these attacks had in common were, of course, that they had nothing to do with aircraft. They were like the bus bombings in London, the train bombings in Madrid, the botched attempt to bomb two commuter trains in Cologne, the attacks on diplomatic compounds in Istanbul, the original attacks on the World Trade Centre that featured cars and bombs, and other incidents of terror in Russia, India, Southeast Asia and Africa that had nothing to do with planes.

Yes, there have been intended attacks on U.S.-bound aircraft that were stopped before they happened – one, of course, being the shoe bomber, another being the underwear bomber. As a result of the first incident, most air travellers in the U.S. must remove their shoes while passing through security.

The disjuncture between the security around air travel and the plethora of other undefended targets that, if attacked properly, could wreak ghastly havoc relates back to those images of 9/11. The response has been over the top, as all air travellers know, relative to the real threat posed to air travel and in relation to all the other targets already hit by terrorists – targets such as the Boston Marathon or any event that bring masses of people together.

Some countries understand the relative threat to air travel much better than Canada, where Transport Canada sets the rules and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority enforces them.

Transport Canada’s approach is “all potential risk all the time,” so 80-year-old grandmothers and five-year-old children are told to empty their pockets, remove various items of clothing and given the full scanning treatment. Moreover, in response to what the Americans did, and presumably wanted from Canada, Transport Canada subjects randomly selected passengers to full-body screenings at Canadian airports.

Other countries – Australia and Israel, to name two – are much more selective in how they assess passenger risk. Their systems, judging by results, are just as secure but based on better and more selective methods.

The vast panoply of air security, based on no risk assessment or balance of probabilities, stands in obvious contrast to the complete lack of security at countless other venues and modes of transportation across Canada that offer terrorists the possibility of inflicting horrible damage.

Politicians have bought into, perhaps even encouraged, this approach to air security, apparently fearful that, should anything happen on their watch, they’ll be blamed for negligence. But they must know that the threats go far beyond air, but that to try to apply the security used for air travel would be impossible and counterproductive.

Intelligence work in the Via Rail case prevented a tragedy; police work in Boston found the perpetrators. Intelligence, while a long way from perfection, is the best defence against terror.

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