In the wake of deadly terrorist attacks at Zaventem Airport and Maelbeek metro station in Brussels on Tuesday that killed at least 31 people and injured about 300 others, law-enforcement agencies in Europe’s major cities are scrambling to beef up security at airports and transport hubs.
This latest horrific incident – and the revelation that the Islamist suicide bombers were known to police and yet still managed to access the airport’s departure hall — has intensified speculation that European countries will get serious about adopting tough Israeli screening methodologies long considered the world’s best practices.
Pini Schiff, a former security director at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, told the Associated Press that the attacks in Brussels point to “a colossal failure” of Belgian security and that “the chances are very low” such an attack could have happened in Israel.
Col. (Res.) Eran Lerman of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies agrees with that assessment. Although several European countries have started using Israeli security technologies, hardware alone isn’t enough, Lerman tells ISRAEL21c.
“There is an impressive body of knowledge in Israel, which is recognized internationally, on how to counter this type of incident by creating multiple rings and envelopes of security around airports,” says Lerman, former deputy chief of Israel’s National Security Council and senior IDF Military Intelligence division director.
“However, the key to successful security has to be intelligence, in the broader sense of the word. For too many years, for very good reasons, Europeans have neglected the need for effective intelligence measures.”
This is mainly due to wariness of any practices that could be seen as unfairly targeting Muslim travelers.
However, Lerman argues that profiling accomplishes the opposite result when it is applied intelligently.
“Intelligence is actually the alternative to painting all Muslims with the same brush and making racist generalizations,” he says.
“People tend to confuse anti-Muslim attitudes with effective intelligence, but if you have effective penetrating capabilities to enable you to discern what the really bad guys are doing and to foil them, then you can actually have a normal relationship with minority groups that otherwise increasingly become the target of indiscriminate suspicion.”
Lerman maintains that strong, well-financed and well-staffed intelligence services– like those in which Israelis have invested resources and public trust– are the key to preventing terror attacks as well as stopping the “poisonous politics of racist groups” in reaction to such attacks.
This will require a shift in thinking that he already perceives taking place among European policy-makers, who in the past tended to dismiss Israeli security experts’ advice to focus on identifying the enemy.
“The capacity to differentiate and monitor the activities of people you have reason to worry about requires a fairly different mindset than has prevailed for many years in much of Europe,” Lerman explains.
“Now this is changing and I think it will create more openings for intelligent dialogue between us and European security services. The Israeli defense establishment can play a role here.”
A larger problem
Amira Halperin, a researcher at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says that while European airports are now more interested in Israeli security methods, implementation is just beginning.
Formerly a London-based investigative journalist specializing in Islamist terrorism in Europe and Israel, Halperin says that passenger screenings are only part of the equation.
“In Europe the problem is larger because there are sometimes radicalized Muslims working in the airports. They have information about what happens inside and they operate [with accomplices on the outside],” she tells ISRAEL21c, speculating that the Belgian bombers could have been aided by airport insiders. “There were a few cases of this in the UK. They do employee checks on workers, but reality shows it’s not working so well.”
She echoes Lerman’s assertion that Europe needs to implement Israeli-style intelligence despite concerns about balancing security against individual rights.
“I don’t know how long it will take for Europe to make changes in legislation and policy, or if they will be able to do it. In terms of intelligence, Israel can do a lot to help the Europeans do what they have to do,” says Halperin.
Europe turns to Israeli expertise
Many Israeli companies are already quietly aiding European governments with security products. Israel’s security exports totaled $6.5 billion in 2013, according to a Ynet report in January.
Itamar Graff, a senior official at SIBAT, the international defense cooperation agency of the Israeli Defense Ministry, told Ynet: “Israeli products have already been sold to counter-terrorism agencies abroad and to foreign police forces, in Europe too. The recent events, coupled with the concerns about Islamic State fighters returning to Europe from the Middle East, will prompt the Europeans into equipping themselves. The orders won’t be coming in this week, but additional budgets will now be allocated to this end.”
Graff added, “For the Europeans, this is a new challenge; but we’ve been dealing with lone terrorists with a Kalashnikov for years, and Israel has a lot of know how when it comes to early detection and coping with a terrorist incident.”
The large Israeli company SB Shmira Ubitahon (Guarding and Security), established in 1938, has a German subsidiary, SB Europe Security and Logistics, offering services to Europe’s airports, ports, power stations and other sensitive installations.
In Israel, Shmira Ubitahon helps its clients secure airport and border crossings, IDF headquarters, defense installations, government ministries, hospitals, water infrastructure, university campuses and several major public and private companies.
“Israel is willing to help,” says Brig. Gen. (Res.) Mena Bacharach, CEO and partner in SB Europe.
Bacharach, an international expert on aviation security, testified to a US Congressional subcommittee on upgrading American procedures after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, and in the late 1980s headed a multiyear project to build a security network in Europe, the Far East and Middle East on behalf of several US-based airline carriers.
“The major problem is that European leaders did not realize that in the last five years there is a huge change. There are one million immigrants from very problematic locations entering, and they must change their attitude,” Bacharach tells ISRAEL21c.
“Israel, with all our unfortunate experience, can give them all kinds of methodologies from a professional point of view. They can take a lesson from us not to deal with the mosquitoes but with the swamp. They need to drain the swamp.”
Not just about tools
Among other Israeli companies gaining prominence in European security circles is BriefCam, whose technology enables security authorities to sift quickly through large amounts of security-camera footage — looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack — in much the same way as a search engine sifts quickly through text.
“Belgian authorities are using our product, but I can’t say more,” BriefCam CEO and President Dror Irani tells ISRAEL21c.
“We are very active in assisting government agencies in France and Belgium and in some areas of Eastern Europe with law enforcement and broad safety issues — much more in the last year or so due to an increase in their understanding of the problem and their willingness to cut bureaucratic red tape and introduce new technologies,” he says.
“The first area in the world that was aware of this need was China and then the US, and recently we’ve seen a major change in Europe in their awareness and budget and willingness to move faster.”
However, Irani stresses, “Security technology is not only about the tools. You have to put the people and the understanding behind it. Just having a system in place does not make it effective. You have to understand how to use it and how your processes are going to be changed due to the fact that you have this system.”