Analysis: Airport security challenge

Published June 10, 2014
Smoke rises after militants launched an early morning assault at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on June 9, 2014. Pakistan's security forces said on June 9 they have relaunched a military operation at Karachi airport as gunfire resumed several hours after they announced the end of a militant siege that left 24 dead.  Photo by AFP
Smoke rises after militants launched an early morning assault at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on June 9, 2014. Pakistan's security forces said on June 9 they have relaunched a military operation at Karachi airport as gunfire resumed several hours after they announced the end of a militant siege that left 24 dead. Photo by AFP

AIRPORTS are meant to be big. Going by that yardstick, Pakistan’s busiest airport has to be huge — multiple terminals, many hangars for aircraft maintenance, parking bays, oil depots, miles of tarmac and a perimeter sufficient to keep flying objects at a safe distance from nearby residential areas.

You can add the civil aviation headquarters, and the headquarters, training facilities and a parade ground of the Airport Security Force to the number of structures on the premises of Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport to fathom its expanse. While such a huge area is needed to station all the equipment, personnel and buildings required for flying and other related operations, it is also a security person’s nightmare.

How do you protect such premises and areas which additionally house sensitive national assets like planes? “By having an airport security mechanism which includes state-of-the-art equipment and technologies to avoid any unwarranted and unauthorised entry into the airport premises,” says a Karachi-based former officer of the Pakistan Air Force who has also worked with civil aviation.

When it comes to the security of airports in Pakistan, he explains, on condition of anonymity, that the focus generally is on two factors. “The first factor is preventing the hijacking of a plane and ensuring that no act of terrorism can take place inside and around the airport terminals. The second factor is a lopsided focus on personnel to secure an airport.”

He explains further: “It is almost impossible for anyone to enter a terminal or a plane with some weapon. The multiple layers of security checks ensure that anyone trying to sneak a weapon inside a terminal or a plane is caught before he can do that. Similar measures, however, are not in place for securing the perimeters of the airport, especially areas located away from the terminals.”At the most what you have is a brick and mortar wall dotted with watchtowers, he points out. “There has to be a second line of defence, possibly consisting of a ditch or barbed wire or some other kind of physical obstacle, to stop those who somehow breach the wall. But there is none.”

The former PAF officer also highlights the need for high-tech equipment, such as sensors, searchlights and closed-circuit television cameras, to guard the boundary walls of airports which, in the case of Karachi airport, run for many miles from the west to the north of the premises, finally joining the terminal areas in the east. 

“It is impossible to guard such a long boundary wall only by deploying security staff in watchtowers. Modern security equipment being used elsewhere should also complement the human resources assigned for the task so as to be able to spot any unusual activity near the wall,” he adds.

That many airports in Pakistan are located right next to heavily populated areas necessitates that “human intelligence gathering” is enhanced in the neighbourhoods close to airports. 

“There have been rocket attacks on airports in Peshawar and Islamabad in recent years from nearby residential neighbourhoods. You can only stop those if you have a strong human intelligence-gathering network in those areas to notice any extraordinary developments,” says a former police officer who has overseen intelligence operations. Besides improving general policing, he says, intelligence gathering should be one of the top-priority areas to secure those sensitive installations and premises which are located close to population centres including airports.

 “Intelligence operatives should be able to secure information about the movement and activities of anti-state elements in those neighbourhoods to raise timely alarm before those elements are able to strike,” he adds.

His advice is sound considering that the militants who attacked the naval base, not very far from where Sunday night’s attack took place, managed to enter the base from an adjacent neighbourhood. Reports suggest that this might also be the case as far as the attack on Karachi airport is concerned. If anything, it underscores the need to direct intelligence gathering to those areas where it is needed the most. That may help prevent similar attacks in the future.

The writer is the editor of the Herald magazine.

Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2014

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