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Fort Lauderdale attack may revive debate over security screening at airport entrances

Law enforcement officers patrol the ticketing counters at the Tampa International Airport Friday, Jan. 6, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Police were on a heightened state of alert after the shooting at an airport today in Fort Lauderdale. (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press)
Law enforcement officers patrol the ticketing counters at the Tampa International Airport Friday, Jan. 6, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Police were on a heightened state of alert after the shooting at an airport today in Fort Lauderdale. (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press)
By Curtis Tate Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON – Friday’s deadly attack at Fort Lauderdale International Airport in Florida is likely to renew a debate about whether to extend security screenings to public areas of airports, including entrances and baggage claim areas.

The Fort Lauderdale suspect had a gun in his checked bag, investigators said. An additional layer of security at airport entrances could gain new support if officials find that it could have helped detect the weapon.

Russia, where suicide bombers killed 36 people at a Moscow airport in 2011, supports security screenings at airport entrances. But an organization representing airports in the United States and Canada calls that step “inappropriate” and prefers other deterrents, such as patrolling, surveillance and airport terminal design.

After attacks last year at airports in Belgium and Turkey, Russia proposed in a working paper presented to the United Nations civil aviation body that entrances at major airports be equipped with X-ray machines, metal detectors and explosives-screening devices.

“In terms of causing destruction to a large number of people, the landside area of an airport is the most attractive place to carry out a terrorist act,” the Russians wrote in their presentation to the International Civil Aviation Organization, referring to public areas of an airport outside the secure perimeter.

But the Airports Council International-North America opposes that step, arguing in its own working paper that new screening measures could create a new target for attackers at airport entrances, inconvenience passengers and stretch security.

“This may pose a new risk in that this simply moves the vulnerability while creating considerable inconvenience to passengers,” the organization wrote the U.N. body.

The Fort Lauderdale shooting occurred in the airport’s Terminal 2 baggage claim area. The suspect, Estaban Santiago, who is now in custody, allegedly shot and killed five people and wounded eight, according to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

Kevin Burke, president of the North America airports council, said in a statement that the organization “is awaiting the outcome of the active investigation before commenting further.”

The shooting came months after the deadlier airport attacks in Brussels and Istanbul, and years after the attack in Moscow:

- In March, two explosions at Zaventem International Airport in Brussels killed 17 people. A suicide bomber was responsible for one of the explosions.

- In July, a suicide bombing attack at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul killed 44 people and injured more than 200 in the airport’s international and domestic terminals.

- In January 2011, a suicide bomber struck the international arrivals area of Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, killing 36 people and wounding more than 100.

Following the Moscow attack, Russian airports introduced security checks for public areas.

The Istanbul airport attack showed their limitations, however. The attackers arrived in a taxi and opened fire on the entrance, which was equipped with X-ray machines, before setting off explosives.

Last April, the Airports Council International-Europe asked Russia to reconsider its airport security regime. Among other things, it pointed out that Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport – considered one of the world’s most secure – does not screen passengers at terminal entrances.

Rather, the Israelis use a “layered approach” combining intelligence, surveillance cameras, explosive-detection dogs, passenger profiling and behavior detection analysis.

Further, the European airports council noted, the European Commission declined to propose security checks at airport entrances following the Brussels attack.

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