Terrorism arrests at Heathrow

October 2006 Asset Management

Hours-long waits in the security line. ­Ridiculous prohibitions on what you can carry on board. The recent foiling of a major terrorist plot and the subsequent airport security changes graphically ­illustrates the difference between ­effective security and security theatre.

None of the aeroplane security measures implemented because of 9/11 - no-fly lists, secondary screening, prohibitions against pocketknives and corkscrews - had anything to do with the August arrests. And they would not have prevented the planned attacks, had the terrorists not been arrested. A national ID card would not have made a difference, either.

Instead, the arrests are a victory for old-fashioned intelligence and investigation. Details are still secret, but police in at least two countries were watching the terrorists for a long time. They followed leads, figured out who was talking to whom, and slowly pieced together both the network and the plot.

The new aeroplane security measures focus on that plot, because authorities believe they have not captured everyone involved. It is reasonable to assume that a few lone plotters, knowing their compatriots are in jail and fearing their own arrest, would try to finish the job on their own. The authorities are not being public with the details - much of the 'explosive liquid' story does not hang together - but the excessive security measures seem prudent.

But only temporarily. Banning box cutters since 9/11, or taking off our shoes since Richard Reid, has not made us any safer. And a long-term prohibition against liquid carry-on items will not make us safer, either. It is not just that there are ways around the rules, it is that focusing on tactics is a losing proposition.

It is easy to defend against what terrorists planned last time, but it is short-sighted. If we spend billions fielding liquid-analysis machines in airports and the terrorists use solid explosives, we have wasted our money. If they target shopping malls, we have wasted our money. Focusing on tactics simply forces the terrorists to make a minor modification in their plans. There are too many targets - stadia, schools, theatres, churches, the long line of densely packed people in front of airport security - and too many ways to kill people.

Security measures that attempt to guess correctly do not work, because invariably we will guess wrong. It is not security, it is security theatre: measures designed to make us feel safer but not actually safer.

Airport security is the last line of defence, and not a very good one at that. Sure, it will catch the sloppy and the stupid - and that is a good enough reason not to do away with it entirely - but it will not catch a well-planned plot. We cannot keep weapons out of prisons; we cannot possibly keep them off aeroplanes.

The goal of a terrorist is to cause terror. The arrests that took place demonstrate how real security does not focus on possible terrorist tactics, but on the terrorists themselves. It is a victory for intelligence and investigation, and a dramatic demonstration of how investments in these areas pay off.

And what can you do to help? Do not be terrorised. They terrorise more of us if they kill some of us, but the dead are beside the point. If we give in to fear, the terrorists achieve their goal even if they are arrested. If we refuse to be terrorised, then they lose - even if their attacks succeed.

Bruce Schneier is the founder and CTO of Counterpane Internet Security. [email protected], http://www.counterpane.com

To subscribe to a free monthly newsletter providing summaries, analyses, insights and commentaries on security: computer and otherwise, visit http://www.schneier.com/crypto-gram.html

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