Last week’s ‘hijacking’ of an Egypt Air domestic flight was a movie scriptwriter’s dream. An apparently lovelorn Egyptian desperate to be reunited with his ex-wife and children announces he’s wearing a suicide belt and orders the captain to change destination from Cairo to Cyprus.
Once the first gasps of horror had subsided, it became clear that this was no blood-crazed terrorist out to do maximum harm. He let most of the passengers go early on, permitted a grinning ‘Jack the Lad’ Brit and a stewardess to take photos with him and then calmly surrendered to authorities, relieved to discover his belt was a fake.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister called him an “idiot”. The President of Cyprus was accused of being sexist in response to his jokey comment, “Always there’s a woman involved”. All’s well that ends well, except the former wife was in no mood to fall sobbing into his arms. She says the years she spent with him were her blackest.
Egyptians, who always love a good self-deprecating joke, lit-up social media with hilarity. But, here’s the thing, this incident for all its weird twists and turns, is no laughing matter because it has highlighted the vulnerability of passenger planes, which no amount of metal detectors, sniffer dogs or pat downs can prevent. Any psychologically unbalanced individual could do the same and there is no flight crew that can afford to take chances with passengers’ lives even if they suspect a hoax.
Moreover, although on this occasion there was a relatively happy ending, primarily due to the way the situation was handled by Egyptian and Cypriot authorities, not to mention the Egyptian Air cabin crew, widely praised for keeping passengers calm, it could have gone terribly wrong. The aircraft could have been stormed by commandos panicking passengers and heightening the potential for death or injury.
Aviation security experts agree that there are no fail-safe guarantees in existence; there will always be the one who beats the system, but there are those who say passenger profiling could plug some of the holes. After all, it’s worked for the Israeli national carrier El Al, they say. Often pinpointed as ‘the world’s most secure airline’, it hasn’t experienced a hijacking since 1968 when El Al Flight 426 was hijacked and forced to land in Algeria.
There’s no doubt that passenger profiling based on states of mind or demeanour could be a valuable tool to weed out suspicious individuals, it remains highly controversial because it infringes upon civil liberties, comes with a large margin for error and can morph from psychological profiling to racial or religious profiling. The US denies it uses racial profiling, but first-hand accounts from Muslims and turbaned Sikhs who are regularly pulled out of airport lines for questioning belie that claim.
The question is whether profiling is effective on a cost-benefit ratio? For instance, passengers flying to Israel are subjected to pre-flight ‘interviews’ which often border on interrogations. Writing in the Telegraph, Rosemary Behan recounts her own experience. She passed muster with her answers to the usual questions – Has she been to Israel before? Did she speak Hebrew? Did she know any Israelis? What were their names? But when she admitted she had visited Jordan and was a journalist, the questioner upped the ante. By this point she felt her cheeks burning, she says.
Just when she thought she’d escaped the hot seat, she was collared again by security officers who scrutinised every item of luggage and asked whether she planned to write articles on her computer during her stay in Israel. Once on the plane, she was seated at the back “under the direct gaze of a man” she suspected of being an air marshal. And on arrival she was detained by immigration officials together with 10 other non-Israelis for 90 minutes.
Were other airlines tempted to follow suit, the outcome could be chaotic making flying an obstacle course for people of certain nationalities and faiths. Spotting suspect individuals remains more art than science.
According to the author of “Thinking like a Terrorist”, Michael German, there is no reliable ‘terrorist profile’. He gives the examples of a Belgian woman who blew herself up in Iraq, the London Underground bomber Germaine Lindsay and Shoe-bomber’Richard Reid of Jamaican descent. Reinforcing that argument is the fact that Reid succeeded in boarding an El Al flight, considered “a dummy run” prior to his failed attempt to blow-up American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami.
Whether the hapless Egyptian would have had his 15 minutes of fame if he had been psychologically profiled before he was allowed to board is moot but had he been confronted by a professional profiler, given his state of mind, he might well have cracked. Then again, a terrorist trained to deceive would be well-versed in the tricks of his trade.
In an era when the threat of terrorism is omnipresent, to profile or not to profile should be debated not only within states or airlines, but also by the people most impacted, the travelling public.
Linda S. Heard Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.