Thursday, 30 June 2016 09:37

Airports can protect vs. ISIS and terror by going Fez Morocco-like

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Where is the safest airport in the world?

And no, North Korea’s doesn’t count.

The safest airport I’ve ever seen is in Fez, Morocco.

It is also the world’s most boring airport, but safety and boring go together.

So do safety and small size.  Fez’s airport is tiny.  An enormous international “hub” airport like Istanbul’s Ataturk is much harder to defend from terrorists’ attacks.  But there are still lessons to be learned from Fez’s little airport.

Maybe it’s changed, but hopefully not.  After 9/11, taxis don’t drive up to the terminal.  Instead, the taxis and all vehicles head to the bottom of the hill where a group of men await you with wheelbarrows in hand.  You load your luggage into the wheelbarrow of the man with the most powerful forearms, and follow your guy as he pushes his wheelbarrow up the hill.

Because the hill is where the airport is.

And that is where the police are.

No cars and taxis allowed.  It’s totally inconvenient, but remember that the path of the 9/11 hijackers was paved in part by Boston taxi cab drivers moonlighting as Al Qaeda operatives.  And ISIS terrorists who attacked airports in Belgium and Istanbul arrived by taxi.

Outside the airport, the wheelbarrow pushers put your bags down, and the bag owners line up in a straight line that moves very slowly because here, right on the sidewalk, Moroccan police relentlessly examine your bags.   

They unzip this and unbuckle that, they pick through your undies and open boxes of chocolates and poke fingers into jars of cold cream and shake cosmetics and check lipsticks and spray perfume out of bottles and unscrew fountain pens and flip through paper pads and turn your pockets inside-out and tumble this and that and everything.  They look at your flight ticket and your passport and ask you lots of questions.

They ask you about where you are going and where you have been and why did you come to Morocco and did you meet any radical one-eyed sheiks and did you pack your own bag and were you given any presents or things to bring back to wherever you’re going.

And then, they go through YOU.

They scan and pat you down, gently but firmly.  

Only then do they let you into the airport part of the airport.

And inside the airport, there is...there is...nothing much.  One place for coffee and a modest sandwich.  Except for a handful of cleaners and aviation mechanics, few people who are not police or passengers are about.

When you get to your departure gate, the police check your bags, frisk you, and inspect all your travel documents once again.

Before the 9/11 atrocities, Fez’s airport was a commercial hive.  Coffee bars, souvenir stores, newsstands, sandwich counters– all are empty, like ghosts of business past.

Why open a delicious donut shop if terrorists will just ruin it?

Think about it.  Airports are busy hubs not just of travelers but of merchants and vendors and their suppliers and employees.  Food, coffee and liquids and t-shirts and travel-this and travel-that are all trucked in from elsewhere.  Humans are hired to load and unload goods and edibles, serve and display them, stack magazines, souvenirs and t-shirts and keep travelers fed, watered and suitably entertained.

Within this excited, busy pleasantness lies a trap wherein anyone wishing to make a problem may come.

And we have not even gotten to the baggage handlers, the plane mechanics, the safety officers, drivers, and others so essential to the airline industry yet.  All present enormous security risks in any airport, large of small.

But Fez has found a way to keep its airport tight.

Fez is an ancient base of Islam, and it is known for its religious fervor which can breed extremism.  But it is also renowned for excellent schools of Arabic, its medieval Medina, magnificent walls and blue gates, the best bread ever, and its determined and unrelenting hospitality to strangers– especially foreigners. 

Morocco has a tantalizing national cuisine that is without parallel, aromatic stews, and delicious and aromatic coffee and tea.  

But you won’t find these at Fez’s airport.

One makes decisions about security.  Activities that generate income and cash (like selling food, drink, T-shirts, magazines and last-chance souvenirs) can also decrease security.  Airports are hubs that make extraordinary amounts of money from travelers coming and going.  Tight security such as that at Fez means fewer incidents, but also less comfort for passengers and less money for investors and vendors.

ISIS has not talked about whether there are things like hot coffee, souvenir shops and t-shirts and magazine racks at airports in their spurious “Caliphate.”

But if we bear in mind the decisions and sacrifices that Fez has made to keep its little airport safe, we may never get to know.  

Last modified on Thursday, 30 June 2016 10:06
Sarah Whalen

sarahw2Sarah Whalen is a university journalism instructor, attorney and author.

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