Remembering the Lod Airport massacre

After 40 years, are there still lessons to be learned?
Monday, June 4, 2012

TEL AVIV—Forty years ago last week, three well-dressed Japanese nationals arrived at Tel Aviv's Lod Airport (now known as Ben-Gurion International Airport) on an Air France flight from Rome. It was May 30, 1972.

Few people would have paid much attention as the three men walked into the baggage-claim area and retrieved slim violin cases, but their arrival marked a turning point in the development of aviation security, the lessons of which were immediately embraced in Israel but still have not taken hold in the United States, according to the former security director of Ben-Gurion International Airport, who spoke with Security Director News on the 40th anniversary of the Lod Airport massacre.

On that day the three men, members of the Japanese Red Army, a militant communist group, had not been screened by any Israeli security personnel. They had come from Europe, which lacked security checkpoints at that time, so they traveled freely and without surveillance. In 1972, Lod Airport was an open and porous environment, which made it possible for what happened next.

The Japanese militants opened their violin cases and removed submachine guns, firing and throwing grenades indiscriminately into the crowd. The attack left 26 people dead and 80 injured. Among those killed were 17 Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico and the brother of a future president of Israel. Two of the terrorists died at the scene, while the third was arrested.

The attack was successful because in 1972 Israel didn't have an effective security program in place to protect the airport facility, Rafi Ron, security director for Ben-Gurion International Airport and the Israel Airports Authority between 1997 and 2001, told SDN. All of the security was focused on the aircraft, which had been the case since the 1968 terrorist hijacking of an El Al flight that was diverted to Algeria, Ron said. As a result, the event that would become known as the Lod Airport massacre took Israel by surprise.

"Because just like the TSA today, Israel at the time did not prioritize the airport facility security," said Ron, who was an Israeli air marshal in 1972. "The immediate lesson from that was if you want to protect the aviation system, you can't make a distinction between the flying aircraft and the airport itself. ... It's something at this point in time that the TSA doesn't realize yet."

After the attack, Ron was part of the group called in to develop a new comprehensive security plan for the airport that would incorporate lessons learned. Several layers of security were added, he said. All cars were checked on the access road as they entered airport grounds. All incoming foreign flights were isolated in a remote area of the airport to allow security teams to interview and search passengers. A security officer was placed at each door inside the airport. Some of these procedures were loosened over the years, but to this day a car or person cannot get near Ben-Gurion airport without passing through various security checkpoints.

"When you arrive at [Ben-Gurion] airport, from the moment you arrive at the vehicle security checkpoint until you board the aircraft, you've probably been under the eyes of at least a dozen security personnel, including the people that interview you during the process," Ron said.

The lack of security on the ground at U.S. airports—the ease in which a suicide bomber could blow himself up in a busy security screening line, or a bomb-laden car could pull up to the curb outside a terminal—is a glaring omission, in Ron's opinion. Central to the problem is the lack of a clear hierarchy of responsibility. "What you see here is that the airport is secured by, in many cases, a very small, inadequate police force that has very limited presence throughout the airport," he said. "The security system at the airports here is very fragmented between different agencies, some federal, some local, and there's no clear hierarchy of security responsibility at the airport, which I think is the most critical vulnerability at this time."

Ron believes the TSA should "retreat back to a regulator position" and provide master regulations and grant support to airports to enable them to execute those regulations—similar to how the Israel Airports Authority operates—rather than the TSA create and implement its own regulations. "Obviously, when you supervise or audit yourself that's not a good formula for better performance," he said. As a result, he supports some airports' desire to replace the TSA with private security companies to provide passenger screening. In fact, he "strongly believes" the private sector could do a better job, "because the TSA will re-assume its position as a regulator and would breathe down their necks to make sure that they do the right thing, and they will do the right thing because otherwise they would endanger their business," he said.

The United States absorbed very few lessons from the 1972 Lod Airport attack, or other Israeli aviation security innovations, until the attacks of 9/11. Take cockpit doors. It wasn't until after 9/11 that the United States mandated that cockpit doors be installed in all planes, a security measure that could have prevented the 9/11 terrorists from succeeding in their mission. Israel has had cockpit doors on its planes since the hijackings in the late 1960s. Establishing cockpit doors as a standard "was probably the most important decision the TSA has taken" since 9/11, Ron said. "And the most effective one, and also the cheapest one."

Another key lesson from the Lod Airport terrorist attack was that assessing a threat based on the appearance of a person was no longer viable, and that profiling based on behavior was a more accurate and efficient security measure. "[The attack] really made it obvious that actually what we are being threatened by is something that goes way beyond ethnic lines," Ron said. "In other words, not every Palestinian is automatically a suspect and not every Japanese, British or American is automatically not a suspect. Nineteen seventy-two was really the turning point in recognizing that fact."

This type of behavioral profiling also wasn't adopted in the United States until after 9/11, and even then it took several years for the TSA to adopt the idea.

After 9/11, Ron left his position as security director of Ben-Gurion International Airport and came to the United States, where he founded New Age Security Solutions. For Boston's Logan International Airport, his company developed a behavioral profiling program for the police force that secured the facility. He offered the program to the TSA in 2002, "but TSA turned it down at the time because they wanted to stick to their policy that was based on the use of technology for the purpose of identifying suspicious objects, and they completely ignored people," Ron said.

However, the TSA has retreated from the "one size fits all” approach it established in the aftermath of 9/11 and has incorporated some lessons and solutions from Israel, such as its behavioral detection program. The TSA began offering SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques) training several years ago to its behavior detection officers—"a step in the right direction, but it was far from being what it should have been," Ron said—and in August began piloting a more advanced behavior detection program at Logan, where TSA officers would pose a few questions to passengers as they checked their tickets. Ron said this type of development is a sign that the TSA is "shifting toward a risk-based approach that looks at every single passenger, and defines the level of risk of every single passenger, and adjusts the level of security processing to the level of risk," Ron said.

Ron doesn't advocate for the TSA to adopt the Israeli airport security model as is, but he does think there's more that can be learned and adopted from the Israeli experience. "I think possibly the level of threat is different here than it is in Israel, and there are other asymmetric factors here, but at the same time I think many of the lessons that were learned in Israel, many of the solutions that were developed in Israel, can be modified to the American environment," he said. "Right now this is done in a very limited way."