Why Terrorists Attack Airports

ISIS bombs killed dozens in Belgium in the latest terror attack in Europe.EXPAND
ISIS bombs killed dozens in Belgium in the latest terror attack in Europe.
Danor Aharon/Shutterstock

One of today’s bombing attacks in Belgium occurred at a familiar location — an airport. This is not unique or surprising. Here are a few reasons why terrorists choose to strike there, and why it’s so hard to stop them.

1) They are irresistibly soft targets.
Let’s start with the basics. Like any transportation hub, airports are built to accommodate and process a lot of people. Unlike most subways and city buses, travelers arrive with large pieces of luggage. Also, the first security screens occur well after people show up — there is the entire arrival and check-in process to do before a single bag is checked. There’s little to stop someone from showing up with a bomb in a suitcase or a firearm outside at that first checkpoint. (And let’s not even mention the specter of a car bomb in the drop off/pick up zone.) With such an open layout and concentrations of potential victims, airports are tantalizing targets.

2) They make a mockery of the airport’s security theater.
Most people’s only real brushes with counter-terror security measures happen at airports. We endure the scanning machines, the pat downs, the ID checks, the removed shoes with impatience and annoyance. Shoe bombers, liquid explosives and smuggled box-cutters have made the act of boarding a flight a dehumanizing exercise. The public only accepts it in exchange for arriving alive. When a terrorist exploits the weaknesses of an airport and kills dozens, it strikes at the confidence of federal and local governments to keep us safe, in the one place they make a big show of doing so. The goal of terrorism is psychological, and airports have become the symbolic front line.

3) Concentration of foreigners ensures wider impact.
It might be crass to think of a violent attack in terms of a “return on investment,” but terror cells certainly do. They only have X amount of reliable operatives, and likely a limited supply of materials. (Recruitment and procurement are the highest-risk parts of a terrorist cell activity, thanks to informants, surveillance and paper trails of purchases.) Blowing up a subway is a statement aimed at the local authorities, but an attack against an airport immediately rises to the level of an international attack. This concept holds true in attacks against hotels, nightclubs and tourist attractions.

4) Countermeasures will be demoralizing.
Generally speaking, people don’t feel safer when they take off their shoes at an airport. In the cat and mouse games of security versus attacker, the defender always seems behind the curve. This is because they usually are reacting to something that already happened — a shoe bomber leads to different procedures, the use of liquid explosives necessitates carry-on changes, and so on. Making matters worse, the Transportation Security Administration is already facing problems with understaffing and long lines. Pushing the ring of security to encompass the waiting areas before check-in — something common in many Russian airports — will introduce even more delays, expenses and inefficiencies to an already strained system. And in response, terrorists could switch tactics and focus on other soft targets (theaters, sports venues, schools) until the invasive security becomes less intense, and the focus shifts elsewhere.

5) They take advantage of the echo of legacy attacks. 
The symbolic motives of target selection are easy to forget. But striking airports resonates among jihadists in part because of a history of headline-grabbing attacks. This is not to say that every terror group acts in solidarity — far from it — but the continuum of airport attacks amplifies each one’s psychological effect. So when ISIS-linked attackers detonate bombs in an airport, it strikes the same chords as when the Abu Nidal group shot up airports in Rome and Vienna in 1985. Of course, any attack on an airline summons up the shock and horror of the September 11, 2001, plot. Again, the psychological return on investment of an attack is increased when aviation and airports are involved.    

Dallas Observer Editor Joe Pappalardo previously covered national defense and terrorism security issues for Popular Mechanics and other publications in New York and Washington.   

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