Technology would not have stopped the Ataturk Airport attack in Istanbul
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Photo credit: JHON WLJ / YouTube

Photo credit: JHON WLJ / YouTube

However, maybe some day technology can help prevent future attacks. Here are some ideas

When news broke last night of a fresh attack against civilians, this time targeting the international flights section of cosmopolitan Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, I immediately felt sadness and empathy for both the victims of the attack as well as that oh so amazing city.

At the time of writing, 41 people have been reported dead from an assault by three militants armed with Kalashnikovs and IEDs on their person. According to reports, the trio drove up to the building’s entrance and began their attack, successfully getting past the security with at least one of the attackers making his way into the terminal where he shot at travelers before detonating his deadly explosive belt.

Unfortunately what I did not feel was surprise. Perhaps it is the fact that I live in Israel, where armed guards are posted at sensitive points of ingress, and reaching a target like an airport armed to the teeth like the three attackers without having to undergo some kind of check, that I find it hard to comprehend that such an attack is possible.

But the rational person in me who has lived in less regulated societies understands that Israel’s approach to security is not, and should not, be the norm for the rest of the world. As in the case of Brussels not so long ago, these attacks are becoming a reality that we need to accept as fact.

How these dangers can be addressed is a tricky question at best and in practicality, most likely an impossibility.

Beyond setting up checkpoints for cars coming into the airport grounds — which are already in place if not properly manned — that carry out more thorough searches and better trained security forces at the entrance that can properly respond to the threat, it is unclear how this can be done.

Looking at technological solutions, like most modern airports, Ataturk has spent a lot of money on building up their security apparatus. Without being privy to their budget or security arrangements, it is fair to say that they have most likely put a fair amount of effort into cameras around the perimeter as well as inside the terminal.

There is impressive technology out there to help security teams identify and track individuals from the moment that they enter the range of view. Perhaps if the monitoring system was patched to a recognition system that can match visitors with any wanted lists and alert authorities to the threat, this is one angle where tech could help. They might already have a similar solution in place. Maybe the security team could have mounted a better defense with some warning. Who knows?

From the outside, I do not see how these technologies could have helped to prevent the attackers from entering the target and forcing their way into the hall.

Taking a step back, it is fair to say that this attack was not only a failure of the security at the airport, but of the intelligence services as well. While the identities of the attackers are yet to be released, chances are that they came from outside of Istanbul. Maybe they were from Syria or possibly somewhere from inside Turkey. In any event, the fact that they were able to set up shop in Istanbul, carry out the necessary intelligence gathering for their mission, and perform other logistical tasks without the security services catching wind marks this case as a failure.

Mistakes happen and sometimes perpetrators will slip through. The bad guys only have to be right once for tragedy to occur. But as mistakes go, this was a big one.

What is technology’s role to play?

In spite of this pessimistic view of our new reality, there is still the hope that new innovations can help limit the ability of militants to carry out attacks like this and the other mass killings of the past year.

Just to throw out a few ideas that might help somewhere down the line:

  • We could put improved ID checks at points of ingress, located far enough away from the rest of the crowd that even if there is an attack, only a few will lose their lives. These should be networked into national and international registries for suspected extremists. Perhaps matching their faces with those appearing in propaganda videos for militant groups like ISIS. Yes fake IDs are a challenge but this could still go a long way.
  • Still far from where it needs to be, there are bomb detection technologies being developed to catch a whiff of chemical compounds found in explosives.
  • Mass panic at the scene of an attack can lead to increased casualties. Technologies that can help bring order out of chaos in a crisis could go a long way in saving lives.

Accepting that we are limited in our potential to halt these horrible kinds of attacks is uncomfortable. It simply does not sit well in the gut.

In the short term, improving intelligence capabilities and increasing the security presence at the airport are the most likely steps that can be taken to have an impact. Hopefully down the line, technology will catch up and play a stronger role in keeping us safe.

Until then, my thoughts are with Istanbul and I can’t wait to come back for my next visit.

Featured image credit: JHON WLJ / YouTube

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Gabriel Avner

About Gabriel Avner

Gabriel has an unhealthy obsession with new messaging apps, social media and pretty much anything coming out of Apple. An experienced security and conflict consultant, he has written for The Diplomatic Club, the Marine War College, and covers military affairs with TLV1 radio. He mostly enjoys reading articles wherever his ADD leads him to and training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. EEED 44D4 B8F4 24BE F77E 2DEA 0243 CBD1 3F7C F4B6

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