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A Plane and a Pope, Christmas could have turned out very different

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Photos Source : AP

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, two security related incidents of great seriousness occurred. During the Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican, a woman jumped a security barrier and proceeded to pull Pope Benedict XVI to the floor. On Christmas Day, a man attempted to destroy a Northwest Airlines passenger plane as it approached Detroit International Airport. Fortunately, both incidents yielded little real harm. In the case of the attack on the Pope, Benedict himself suffered no injury (although a Cardinal did fracture his hip) and in the case of the Northwest flight, the only injury was to the attacker himself.  However, clearly, both incidents could have been much worse.

In the case of the Vatican attack, had Susanna Maiolo been armed, the Pope could have been seriously injured and potentially, even killed. As a video of the incident clearly shows, after jumping the barrier, Maiolo was able to rapidly close with the Pope before pulling him down. If Maiolo had been armed with a blade, firearm or even a blunt instrument, the result for the Pope, an 82 year-old man, could have been exceptionally dire. What is especially concerning in this case, is that Maiolo had also attempted to attack the Pope at last year's Midnight Mass, where as the LA Times notes, she wore the same highly distinctive red sweater as in this year's attack. While the Pope's protection detail is well trained, clearly after last year, Maiolo should have been prevented from accessing a position of such proximity to the Pope. Further, in the video of the latest incident, Maiolo is seen poised to jump the security barrier in the seconds before the assault actually takes place. Maiolo's clearly agitated demeanor should have alerted the Papal security detail that she posed a potential threat. Spotting potential aggressors in a crowd before they act, is a key component of any successful close protection strategy. Case in point - when you next watch President Obama 'walk the rope line', also watch how his Secret Service detail operate around him. While his head of detail will stand slightly behind him, so as to cover and evacuate the President if necessary, other agents will move to the front/rear left and right of the President, in order to spot and if necessary prevent/neutralize a looming threat. However, aside from the warranted criticism of security measures in the case in question, it is worth noting that the Pope's security detail did react extremely quickly when Maiolo jumped the barrier. In the video, simultaneous with her contact with the Pope, Maiolo is seen to be thrown to the floor by a security officer, who is then rapidly joined by other officers. While in this case, the security effort was ineffective in preventing manifestation of the threat in a physical sense, the security effort was successful in responding, neutralizing and removing the threat/threat environment after Maiolo's physical action occurred.

The second incident, the attempted destruction of a passenger plane over Detroit, was obviously of equal if not more significance than the incident at the Vatican. Mr. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed effort, to detonate an explosive device hidden on his leg, was an audacious one. While not producing the effect he intended (in actuality giving him third degree burns), it appears Abdulmatallab was successfully able to bring explosives onto a plane. The dangers of even small amounts of explosives being successfully detonated at 35,000 feet, were made clear by tests conducted during the 2006 transatlantic bomb plot. Clearly, at some level, security procedures failed badly. However, there is a broader point that can be drawn from this incident. The fact that as in the Richard Reid case, Abdulmatallab was ultimately restrained by crew and passengers, indicates the legacy of 9/11 on the psyche of western passengers in the skies. Where prior to 9/11, passengers may perhaps have taken a step back and not attempted to stop Abdulmatallab, in the post 9/11 world, when faced with a threat on a plane, a passenger's natural impulse is to immediately react. Ultimately, passengers are now convinced that when a terrorist takes action on a plane, that terrorist has the sole ambition of a suicide attack. The notion that a terrorist may attempt to hijack a plane in order to hold passengers hostage for political/monetary ransom (as in many terrorist takeover of planes in the 1960s/70s/80s), has now been rendered obsolete in most Western minds. The result of this change is that now, terrorists must not only get past security at airports and potentially Air Marshals, but also, passengers who are now highly unlikely to remain inactive during an airborne terrorist incident. This dynamic means that while both for their significant symbolic value and high target density, passenger planes continue to present a highly desirable target for terrorist attack, achieving a successful attack is now much harder for terrorist groups than before.

Although both the attack on the Pope, and the failed plane attack were unsuccessful, these incidents could have had very different outcomes. If the Pope had been assassinated on Christmas Eve and then an American passenger plane with hundreds of passengers had been destroyed over Detroit (likely killing many more people on the ground) on Christmas Day, alongside the human costs, the consequences for global security, stability and /national/international economies would have been terrible. The legacy of these incidents is one we must consider carefully. Clearly these attacks show that Intelligence and Counter-Terrorist/Police forces are right to maintain high vigilance against potential threats. However, the incidents also demand that we the public, be vigilant  to potential threats around us.

This Christmas holiday, instead of reading stories like this, very easily, we could have been reading stories like this. Christmas could have turned out very different.

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