Foiled Terror Attack Sparks Debate in Germany Legislators Argue More Security Needed, Not New Laws
Following this week's thwarted terror attack on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, officials across Europe are debating airport security standards. What, politicians and police are asking, can be done to stop the next Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a trans-Atlantic flight?
Over the Christmas holiday, Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to ignite an explosive device onboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Luckily, a combination of factors -- the explosive device did not light properly, Abdulmutallab was overpowered by passengers and cabin crew -- meant that the would-be terrorist failed. The plane, carrying around 300 passengers, landed safely and police detained the 23-year-old suspect, who will be prosecuted in the US. The aftermath of the incident has seen security services in all the countries the suspect entered asking themselves: How did he get through airport security?
"That is clearly an extremely serious incident," European Commission spokesperson Mark English told the German news agency DPA. "As soon as the investigations are complete, we will draw our own conclusions and act accordingly."
Additional Airport Security Need, Not New Laws
Meanwhile, passengers heading for German airports were warned that there could be longer waits at airports due to heightened security. A spokesperson for German flagcarrier Lufthansa in Frankfurt, home to the country's largest international airport, warned that people traveling internationally should arrive at least three hours before their secheduled flight. A spokesperson for the German federal police, which looks after security at airports, said travelers bound for the US would be given additional security scrutiny.
Wolfgang Bosbach, a member of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) who is also the chairman of the domestic affairs committee in parliament, defended the need for tougher controls on passengers and hand luggage. "Searches at the airport are not the result of hysteria about airport security -- unfortunately they are necessary," he told the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper.
But Bosbach also told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper that additional anti-terror laws were unlikely in Germany. He noted that, in recent years, plenty of gaps in security had been plugged through legislation and that tougher laws would not make any difference when it came to human failure. "This attempted attack is not a reason to change our security laws," said Bosbach.
Abdulmutallab on US List of Potential Terrorists
Meanwhile, Gisela Piltz, head of the parliamentary group of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which is the junior government coalition partner to Merkel's CDU, told the same newspaper investigators must determine how Abdulmutallab managed to pass through various security checks in both Africa and Europe before any discussion over steps to be taken could be started.
Abdulmutallab's own father warned the US Embassy in Abuja in October that his son had developed radical views and had disappeared, his name was added to an American list with 550,000 names with alleged terrorist connections. Officials said, however, that he had not been placed on the no-fly list. Meanwhile, he had also been refused re-entry to Britain earlier after trying to enter the country to study at a school border officials beleived to be bogus. In addition, Abdulmutallab also managed last week to pass through several security checks at airports with explosives strapped to his inner leg. Dutch police have now said they believe the 23-year-old must have been aided by others in his plot.
In Germany, Hans-Christian Ströbele, a senior member of the Green Party, also spoke out against tougher laws. He argued that the most important thing was to make sure that vital information be made available at the right time -- something US officials apparently failed to do in this instance.
Over at the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU that shares power in the federal government, party board member and member of European Parliament Manfred Weber called on security agencies around the world to share more information. "Calling for tighter security measures is not the be all and end all in this situation," he told the daily Die Welt. Weber said it was impermissible that "there had been meaningul signals about Abdulmutallab's background and potential for terrorist activity, but it wasn't acted upon."
'Naked Scanner' Debate Returns to Europe
What is needed now, the CDU's Bosbach said, is the development of technology and new equipment for security checks that can more easily identify potentially dangerous materials "without intruding on the privacy or personal space of passengers."
But Konrad Freiberg, head of the GdP German police union, warned that additional security wouldn't come cheaply. He said that detection technology for checmical substances must always be kept current. "Trying to create savings in this area would be grossly irresponsible," he said.
Rainer Wendt -- who heads Germany's other major police union, DPolG, told the Berliner Zeitung that security checks on passengers were "the most important interface when it came to ensuring air security" and that they must always be performed at optimal levels. The facilities currently available to the federal police are insufficient, Wendt said. "We cannot labor under the illusion that security is free," Wendt told the newspaper. "Saving money here just tears holes in our security." Wendt also warned against outsourcing airport security, arguing that the possibility that potential terrorists might be employed by outside contractors could not be ruled out.
Debate Reopens over Full Body Scanners
Wendt also went on to reject calls for the deployment of full body imaging using millimeter wave scanners, or so-called "naked scanners," which have been made in both the US and Europe. The scanners remove the requirement for passengers to be frisked because they use very high frequency radio bands to see beneath a passenger's clothing. The resulting image is basically of the naked human body. Many argue that such a scanner could have picked up the explosives which were molded to Abdulmutallab's inner thigh and which some American newspapers are already calling a "crotch bomb."
"Once Again Europe Must Discuss Body Scanners," reads a headline in the German daily Die Welt. In a non-binding vote in 2008, the European Parliament voted down a plan to introduce full body scanners at European airports. Parliamentarians noted at the time that the scanners "have a serious impact on the fundamental rights of citizens," and asked the European Commission, the EU's executive, to investigate whether those rights would be violated by the devices.
Speaking to Die Welt, Weber said. "We agree with a whole lineup of nations that there are better and more effective alternatives than full body scans." Police representative Wendt agreed, arguing that full body scanners "go too far. They infringe on human rights. And they would not be necessary if there were more security personnel."
Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, where Abdulmutallab boarded the flight to Detroit, became one of the first airports in the world to use full body scanners in mid-2007. While several American airports use full body scanners, Schiphol remains one of the only European airports to deploy the technology.
cis -- with wires